“Memento” made it very clear that Christopher Nolan loves puzzle movies. So now that his massively successful reboot of the Batman franchise has given him carte blanche in Hollywood, he’s opted to make a puzzle movie to end all puzzle movies—the New York Times crossword puzzle movie of puzzle movies. But that’s not all: he’s also designed “Inception” to be a big action movie too, filled with spectacular set pieces and flamboyant special effects. The mixture will probably appeal to the crowd that likes to prove how smart it is by proclaiming something like “The Matrix” profound (and from a purely business standpoint it will entice many viewers back for multiple attempts to parse it all out), but actually it’s just a rather juvenile brain-teaser lacking an effective emotional core but bursting with cool visuals.
The basic premise of Nolan’s script is that it’s possible to enter people’s dreams to manipulate them in order to extract secrets the dreamers are keeping. The master of the technique of “extraction,” as the method is called, is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whom we meet in the dream of a powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). With the help of a dream-architect (who constructs the “physical” setting), Cobb has positioned Saito within a dream in which the man has put his deepest secrets in a safe that Cobb can break into with the help of his long-time aide Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But things go awry when Cobb is confronted by a mysterious woman (Marion Cotillard), who deliberately betrays him to the dreamer.
Nonetheless Saito, once woken, informs Cobb that the whole business was a test, and proposes that Cobb undertake a special—and far more difficult—mission for him: not an extraction but an inception, which involves using dream manipulation to implant an idea in a person’s mind rather than excavating one. The target is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying mogul (Pete Postlethwaite) whose conglomerate, we’re told, is poised to control global energy. The goal: to construct a scenario that will persuade Fischer to break up his daddy’s mega-corporation after his death.
But the scheme requires the construction of a dream world so labyrinthine and multi-layered that it requires a team of the highest caliber. So Cobb goes to his brilliant father-in-law (Michael Caine), a professor of some sort, to recruit a new architect, young Ariadne (Ellen Page). And he adds to the inevitable Arthur two more colleagues. One is Eames (Tom Hardy), a “forger” who can shape-shift into other characters in the dream (like Fischer’s trusted uncle Browning, played by Tom Berenger), and the other Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemical genius who can concoct sedatives strong enough to put everybody sufficiently under for the plan to work.
What follows is the constructed dream, which curiously enough resembles a Hollywood action movie, complete with kidnapping, lots of fights and gun battles, and an assault on a seemingly impregnable fortress. But there are two unexpected wrinkles. One is the revelation that Fischer has undergone special training to resist dream-control. That takes the form of a big security detail that comes after the interlopers with automatic weapons blazing. (Of course, they all turn out to be the sort of lousy shots endemic to all action movies.) The other is the reappearance of that mysterious female saboteur, who turns out to be Cobb’s deceased wife Mal, who preys on his subconscious for reasons that are a major revelation late in the picture. Cobb knows that his preoccupation with her is a danger to his work, but decided to go ahead with the inception because Saito has promised to clear his record of something that prevents his reentering the US safely and reuniting with his beloved children, who are staying with their granddad.
There are some mighty impressive visuals in “Inception”—scenes of whole city blocks collapsing in on each other, a zero-gravity fight in a corridor (although an avalanche sequence doesn’t look that great). And there’s a certain pleasure, at least in the first hour or so, in trying to keep up with all the shifts between illusion and reality and the myriad rules of dream manipulation. But after a while it all comes to seem much ado about very little. That’s because what’s supposed to be the emotional center of the story—Cobb’s relationship with his children, and particularly his wife, never takes on any resonance. That’s largely explained by a performance by Cotillard that’s so chilly and stiff that it makes her character remote and unaffecting. Even the children are kept at arm’s length, their faces hidden. It becomes increasingly difficult to care about what happens to Cobb or, indeed, how the whole business turns out.
That’s despite a Herculean effort from DiCaprio, who throws himself into the physical demands and suffers prodigiously. But just as in “Shutter Island,” the effect feels forced. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy have fun with their roles, especially when they spar verbally with one another, and Page and Watanabe are fine if unexceptional. And one can always count on Caine, a Nolan regular now, to spruce up his scenes. And of course you have to admire Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design, Brad Ricker’s art direction, editing by Lee Smith that successfully navigates among the threads of an unbelievably intricate plot, and the supple, elegant cinematography of Wally Pfister.
But in the end “Inception” is a disappointment. Its structural ingenuity is impressive, and the execution technically superlative. But in human terms it’s pretty anemic, and unlike the most powerful dreams it doesn’t stick with you.