A train of thought becomes an epic journey into the subconscious mind in Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio drives the narrative as the sleeping spy trained to extract secrets from dreams, but his own demons threaten to derail him when it comes to implanting an idea. It's a spellbindingly intricate story that has been playing on the mind of filmmaker Christopher Nolan for years - preceding Batman Begins and The Dark Night - feeling like a more logical progression from his early films Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002). This is much grander in scale but equally riveting in its detail.
Nolan brings some order to the chaotic world of dreams, presenting the subconscious as a multi-storey maze with deepening levels corresponding to repressed thoughts. Cobb (DiCaprio) is well-practised in the art of extracting those thoughts, but as he gets deeper inside, he seems less sure of what he's doing. That's a matter of great concern to Ariadne, the newest member of his team (Ellen Page of Juno fame) whose induction culminates in getting stabbed by the projection of Cobb's dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). She is the demon lurking in his emotional basement and the reason he cannot face his children.
The induction scenes also afford Nolan the chance to create awesome spectacles, literally bending the world around his dreamers. Ariadne must design a more familiar mindscape for Robert Fischer, the heir to an energy empire (Cillian Murphy), so as to open his mind to destroying everything his father (Pete Postlethwaite) built. Cobb's team, which also includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Ken Watanabe (as the client), end up fighting for survival as they tumble through his subconscious. Time passes at greater speed as they go deeper, getting ever closer to a state of limbo. It's a haunting, high-octane trip reminiscent of The Matrix.
A breathtaking fight scene in zero gravity conveys all of the strangeness and contained panic of a nightmare. There is a steady release of adrenalin throughout the film, but it is primarily designed to exercise the brain. What makes Cobb's story so compelling isn't the battle of wits with Fischer, but the war he is fighting against himself. He muses on the power of one seed of thought to either "define or destroy you" and that is beautifully enacted in his retrospective romance with Mal. Fischer too embarks on a fascinating journey that reveals how his father's disappointment has shaped his life and the potential it has for also changing the wider world.
All that is missing is a deeper emotional connection. DiCaprio is convincing as a husband in stunted grief, seduced by his memories, but because Mal is only a projection of his own personality their relationship feels too abstract. He is forced to share his deepest fears with Ariadne yet even she comes across as one-dimensional; merely acting as a filter for what is happening in Cobb's head. The quality of the cast is impeccable though. Even minor roles are filled by sterling talent (including Michael Caine as Cobb's mentor), which is testament to the originality and precision of Christopher Nolan. His is a mind that's definitely worth getting lost in.
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