It is, in my opinion, a rarity for a populist Hollywood film to be viewed as a measure of great filmmaking, upon which all other films should be judged, but Inception manages to achieve that, and more; it is not your regular popcorn-munching, edge-of-seat, summer blockbuster thriller.
Its premise, at first appearances, seems simple: at what point does a dream become reality? But appearances are deceptive and this complex and cerebral film allows you no get-out: it’s captivating from the very first scene. With a Rashomon-like, ever-changing perspective – both figuratively and thematically – the film makes you question: is this a dream we are watching? And if so, whose is it?
The plot is centred on Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a risk-taking, somewhat emotionally damaged, thief. But he’s not a petty criminal: Cobb is a spy for (corporate) hire, stealing secrets from people while they’re dreaming. Cobb and his associates are able to become active participants in others’ dream-state, manipulating the dreamer to obtain the information. But though these dreams are mental constructs designed by Cobb and his cohorts, there are dangerous variables that are beyond their control; one of these is Cobb’s ex-wife (Cotillard), who threatens the stability of both the dream, and of Cobb, every time she appears. When Cobb gets offered the chance to see his estranged children once again if he takes on a very risky job – an inception: planting an idea in the dreaming mind of a target – the stakes get raised even higher.
The film is a creative and technical accomplishment. The camerawork is captivating, as is the production design and special effects: watch this film on the biggest screen you can find [once again, Screenjabber must recommend viewing at your local IMAX - Ed]. A breathtaking hanging-in-mid-air fight scene surely has to be one of the best action sequences this year, not only for its technical ingenuity, but also for the impressive performance of Gordon-Levitt, who manages high-octane physical suspense in a very unique environment: it can’t be easy acting in an anti-gravity chamber, but he makes it look effortless. All the actors put in impeccable performances with notable roles by Page, Cotillard and Murphy, among others.
Hints of the psychological darkness of Jacob’s Ladder ripple throughout the film and one can’t escape the sensation of unease and discomfort as you get pulled deeper and deeper into the multi-linear mess of the narrative and also the characters’ own minds. In many ways, Inception pays homage to both Donnie Darko and writer/director Nolan’s own Memento: the surreal horror of each forcing the viewer to constantly question what’s real and what is imaginary.
But the multiple layered reality of Inception offers no easy route: just when you think you’ve got your breath back, you’re thrown again into the depths of consciousness, and you’re never quite sure what level of dream-state you’re watching – and that goes for when the film is over, too. Highly recommended.
• Zoe Margolis is the author of the award-winning blog and bestselling book Girl With A One Track Mind. Her new book, Girl With A One Track Mind: Exposed (Pan Macmillan £7.99) is out now. Zoe is also a journalist, writing about film, technology, feminism and sex. She frequently moans about all these on Twitter.