There are only a handful of filmmakers capable of infusing spectacle with ideas, and among those, director Christopher Nolan feels uniquely tapped into the anxieties of the day. Two separate but related millennial fears drive Nolan’s ambitious, mostly dazzling new opus Inception: We have no control over our lives, and reality as we used to understand it no longer exists—or at least has been fundamentally destabilized. Squaring the beautifully engineered puzzles of Memento and The Prestige with the chaos and anarchy brought by the Joker in The Dark Knight, Inception takes place largely in a dreamscape where thieves of the mind fend off attacks from rebellious agents that clutter the subconscious. It’s a metaphysical heist picture, staged in worlds on top of worlds like nothing since Synecdoche, New York, and executed with a minimum of hand-holding.
Without so much as a title to orient the audience, Nolan dives into the multiple realities of Leonardo DiCaprio, a master thief who’s made a business out of extracting secrets from people’s minds while they’re in a vulnerable dream state. His latest assignment offers a much greater challenge than usual: Instead of retrieving information, DiCaprio and his team are asked to plant an idea in someone’s head, which involves fooling the brain into believing it generated and nurtured the idea itself. (Hence the title.) In order to pull it off, DiCaprio recruits Ellen Page, an architect of sorts who can build dreamscapes densely layered enough for DiCaprio, his partner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a forger (Tom Hardy), and other co-conspirators to commit the ultimate in corporate sabotage. However, the ghosts in DiCaprio’s own subconscious wreak havoc on the operation.
Nolan sets up a uniquely difficult challenge for himself: In order for Inception to work, it has to reconcile the rational and predictable (represented by Page and her maze-like constructs) with dangerously fluid, irrational impulses (represented by DiCaprio and his fevered psyche). The Nolan of The Prestige and Memento is more naturally suited to the former than the latter; the vast cryptogram of Inception has a core of real emotion, but it isn’t always matched by an abundance of visual imagination. Nonetheless, the film is an imposing, prismatic achievement, and strongly resistant to an insta-reaction; when it’s over, Nolan still seems a few steps ahead of us.