The mind-blowing movie event of the summer arrives just in time to hold back the flow of Hollywood sputum that’s been sliming the multiplex. Inception, written and directed by the visionary Christopher Nolan, will be called many things, starting with James Bond Meets “The Matrix.” You can feel the vibe of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in it, and Nolan’s own Memento and The Dark Knight. But Inception glows with a blue-flame intensity all its own. Nolan creates a dream world that he wants us to fill with our own secrets. I can’t think of a better goal for any filmmaker. Of course, trusting the intelligence of the audience can cost Nolan at the box office. We’re so used to being treated like idiots. How to cope with a grand-scale sci-fi epic, shot in six countries at a reported cost of $160 million, that turns your head around six ways from Sunday? Dive in and drive yourself crazy, that’s how.
That’s what happens to Dom Cobb, a professional invader of the subconscious played with action-star ferocity and emotional heft by Leonardo DiCaprio. Corporations, like the one run by Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), hire Dom and his crew to get inside people’s heads. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Arthur, and Tom Hardy, as Eames, are hilarious and scary-smart as grown-up gamers playing with life and death at Dom’s command. Did you know that getting killed in a dream is the best way to wake up? They do. Ellen Page’s Ariadne is the newcomer on the team, a student who learns as she goes, just like the audience. “Whose subconscious are we in now, exactly?” she asks at one point. You may feel her pain.
Dom’s new job of head-case espionage, the one he claims will be his last, involves more than extracting info from the subconscious of Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying industrialist. It requires Dom to plant an idea into Fischer’s dreams. That’s inception, baby, and it’s a killer. The job also stirs up dangerous memories in Dom of Mal (Marion Cotillard), the wife and mother of his two children, a mystery woman (and, oh, man, can Cotillard exude seductive mystery) whom Dom literally can’t get out of his head.
I’ll say no more, except that Inception rewards the attention it demands. The visuals, shot by the gifted Wally Pfister on locations from the steaming heat of Morocco to the snow-capped Alps, are astounding. One segment, in which a freight train barrels through a traffic-clogged street, is jaw-dropping. Just as impressive is the way Nolan stays true to the rules of his own brain-teasing game. The film’s demonstration of the three levels of dreaming is certain to inspire deep-dish discourse to rival the Lost finale. But anyone who’s ever been lost in the layers of a video game will have no trouble rising to Nolan’s invigorating challenge to dig out. Dom claims that the “most resilient parasite” is “an idea.” In this wildly ingenious chess game, grandmaster Nolan plants ideas in our heads that disturb and dazzle. The result is a knockout. But be warned: Inception dreams big. How cool is that?