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Inception

Inception is a bit reminiscent of those three level chess games that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1970's.   Inception's dream within a dream within a dream plotting is like a multi-layered chess.   I could never begin to comprehend triple-boarded version of the game.  It's to writer/director Christopher Nolan's considerable credit that Inception, in all it's mind-bending complexity, is made as comprehensible as it is.   It's even more impressive that, like a good allegory (which it's not, necessarily), each level of the story works independently on its own terms.  Somehow, through its labyrinthine 140 minutes, Inception sustains itself as that rarest of summer events:  the thought-provoking entertainment, available in a multiplex near you.  

Poor Leo DiCaprio finds himself in another ontological maze, again haunted by a lovely deceased wife.  Such was the case in Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island, with Dicaprio as the U.S. marshall investigating a disappearance on the spooky island, plagued with dreams and waking hallucinations of dead wife Michelle Williams.  With Inception, it's former wife and dream spelunker Mal (Marion Cotillard) who lurks in Cobb's (DiCaprio) subconscious and rampages through any dream in which he is invovled.   DiCaprio is better, more contained here than he was in Scorcese's excess fest.  Inception is vastly better.   Unlike the former, which answered its central question in way which only served to justify all it's directorial excess, Inception plants ideas, asks questions.   What visual flourish we see serves its story, not its director.

One is also reminded more than a little of The Matrix and its central question of bluepill (matrix) vs. redpill (reality).   Of course, it's a conundrum that goes back as far in art as Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the matter of distinguishing projections from what is real, and making your choice accordingly.  It was Cobb's wife, Mal who became lost when she began to see the world of dreams as the true reality.   The circumstances of her suicide turned Cobb into a real world fugitive.  As he travels about that real world, Mal continues to stalk him in the realm of dreams, exhorting him to join her.  We have all felt the narcotic tug of dreams, especially those involving loved ones lost or departed.  It's evocative subject matter, and one of many aspects of this film that linger after it has run its course.  One question that Inception isn't quite brave enough to ask: Who in their right mind, wouldn't give up  humdrum reality or anything else for that matter if beckoned by Marillon Cotillard?  Really.  

For all the crazy complexity, you could say that Inception, on its surface, has the trappings of a classic heist film.  But like everything about this film, even that template gets twisted, turned inside out.   Cobb is a thief, after all, an "extractor" of ideas from the unwitting subconscious minds of his victims.   The film begins with he and his partner, Athur (a solid Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to extract a secret from the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), some sort of powerful industrialist.   But Saito is always one step ahead of the pair, whether conscious or not.  But before Cobb and Arthur can flee after failing to extract information from Saito - they believe their employer's wrath may involve a termination of the most final kind - he offers them a job.  Instead of stealing ideas, he wants them to plant one in the mind of an heir (Cilliam Murphy) to a dangerously powerful energy empire.   That planting of an idea is the inception.   Having tried it once before, Cobb reluctantly agrees.   Of course, that one time was the fateful planting of the idea in Mal's mind about the true nature of reality.

This, in the dark tradition of the heist film, is the one last job before the protagonist gets himself out of the racket and back to the straight life of a family man.   Cobb is choppered away from what is presumably an Asian metropolis while a brass section blasts portentously, skyline vista and soundtrack bombast reminiscent of Nolan's Batman films.  The game is on.  

Since inception is so much more difficult, more complex than extracting an idea - to accept the idea, the subject must believe that the idea originated with him or her - the three levels of dream are required, as is the perfect team.   Central to the latter is the right dream architect.   Cobb no longer trusts himself to to create the dreamscapes in which he works, so he goes to his step-father and mentor (Michael Caine, yet another member of the excellent, international cast), who recommends one of his brightest students, Ariadne (Ellen Page, in a welcome, if not major departure from the coming of age film).  This is one bit of metaphor which Nolan allows himself, Ariadne being the young woman from Greek mythology who helped Theseus navigate the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

Cobb takes Ariadne on a subconscious tutoring session and quickly finds out that she's every bit as gifted as advertised.   In one of the film's most inspired bits of CGI-aided legerdemain, Ariadne folds one Paris street over and perpendicular to another.  We see both pedestrians and cars moving both up and down, in addition to the usual back and forth, as if the boulevards of Paris had been laid out by M.C. Escher, not Baron Haussmann.   

With the literal dream team assembled, Cobb and his mates follow their prey onto a trans-Pacific flight, manage to drug him and the triple-layered core of Inception begins to fan out.   One could explicate it's intracacies for paragraphs, if not days.   Suffice it to say that each layer is distinct, each affecting the other, from the physical well-being of each participant (Saito is shot in the first layer of the dream and only the slower pace of subsequent layers allows him to remain alive) to simple matters of gravity.  Each tier of dream also operates in its own increasingly elongated sense of time  - the deeper the layer of dream, the exponentially longer the experience.

The  is one of the most original of Nolan's conceits, and the one which is most fully realized.   It perhaps does have some basis in reality, as dreams of considerable length can seemingly occur in a brief time asleep.  But Nolan runs with that notion that would seem to resonate with everyone's experience and expands upon it, developing the idea that minutes asleep could result in days or even years in dream time, if that dream occurs deep enough in the subconscious.   Confused yet?   Well, this is an idea both discussed and demonstrated throughout Inception.   At one point, a van carrying the sleeping team runs off a bridge in the first level of the dream.  That  change in gravity as the van falls toward a river, that tip - and we are told that a tip is one of the standard ways to rouse any sleeper - changes, basically removes the gravity for everyone in the second level  of the dream.  This leaves Arthur, the only conscious member of the team in the second level, to not only haul the floating bodies of his companions to a place where they can be roused from that level of sleep (how do you tip someone when there is no gravity,? both he and the audience are made to wonder) but he also has to fight off an attacker as they dart around an elegantly muted hotel corridor removed devoid of gravity.  It's one of the film's most memorable sequences, which is saying something. 

As the action accelerates, the amount of screen time devoted to each dream level would seem to correspond to the elasticity of time on each level.   A ridiculous amount of action can be squeezed into the time it takes the van to fall from bridge to river because that brief time is expanded and expanded exponentially further in the deeper levels.    It's an elegance of construction, of proportion that only enhances the experience once you begin to consider it. 

Beyond the tipping to wake the sleepers, there is also an aural trigger to remind the team on each level that their time is running out.   A song is played through the headphones of the sleepers on the airplane (back in reality), which then echoes throughout each level of dream.  The song?   Edith Piaf's "Je Ne Regrette Rien."   It's an in-joke and then some.   Marillon Cotillard plays the ex-wife who haunts Cobb throughout his dreams; Marillon Cotillard won an Oscar for her portrayel of Piaf in the recent biopic, La Vie En Rose.   If that weren't enough, Hans Zimmer reportedly extrapolated his entire score from the song.   That blast of orchestral brass previously alluded to?  Apparently from the same song.   Lord.   One begins to realize why Nolan worked on this screenplay and project for ten years. 

That being said, all the inspired in-jokes and intricacies in the world aren't going to carry the day if the film doesn't work on the surface level, if the story doesn't manage to hold it all together and maintain our interest.   Not only does Inception work on it's surface, hard as that may be to keep track of at times, each level of the dream is like it's own distinct, very watchable film.   From the shooting and chases of the first level (including some great crashes of bodies and vehicles), to the often gravity free action in the hotel on the second level,   to the deepest dream, a James-Bond-like set piece in which the team battles security forces zooming around on snowmobiles in some sort of Arctic setting (the unwitting subject wonders why this level of his subconscious couldn't be in a warmer climate), it all somehow works.

As with Mr. Nolan's Memento, the fabric of his plot might not be completely watertight, but the whole is so mesmerizing that it's easy enough to forget the occasional leak.   Among the seeming holes here:   How is a subject gotten into a dream architecture not of his own making?   Why is it that most of the team, when  in the realm of dreams, seem able to fight with the skill of a ninja (There's certainly none of the usual dream molasses here in which one does well to simply land a punch or complete any physical act)?   And why is Cobb able to stay in the deepest level of the dream after everyone else has been jerked to consciousness?   Fortunately, the pleasing sweep of Inception, like some multi-dimensional triptych, makes it easy to overlook minor flaws or details lost among the generally well orchestrated chaos. 

The writer/director doesn't fail himself with an obvious coda to such an original story.   What we get is a lovely bit of ambiguity.  Consistent with his rich, repeating construction, it's an image we've seen before but reprised a last time with added meaning.   As this plays out, one could say that an audience isn't as emotionally invested in Cobb's attempt to reunite with his children as might have been the case.  Perhaps this is failing of DiCaprio; perhaps it's a matter of a the story, swamped by action and ideas, being slightly diluted of a simple, visercal payoff.   It's a minor qualm, given all that Nolan has provided here, given all that lingers after that last image is judiciously cut short and the screen goes black.    

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