The trouble with making a movie about dreams is the same thing as the advantage to making a movie about dreams: Anything can happen. So what do you do with a literally limitless universe? In “Inception,” Christopher Nolan chooses to mostly ignore it. He takes a couple of dream elements (like flying and paradoxes) and expounds on them. But, for the most part, it’s a pretty linear heist movie set inside a dream world. He mainly focuses on the mind of his protagonist, a man plagued by guilt. It’s exciting, engaging, special effects-laden and certainly multi-layered, but “Inception” is nowhere near as dreamy as it could have been.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an Extraction Agent, typically hired to steal secrets from the subconscious minds of the rich and powerful. However, Cobb’s got his own secrets, which increasingly hinder his work productivity. Regardless, he’s the best in the business. (It’s unclear how competitive his industry is.) Mysterious circumstances keep him from reuniting with his small children, but Saito (Ken Watanabe), a powerful C.E.O., could make it all go away. That’s why Cobb agrees to take One. Last. Job. Cobb’s employer has a plan to do away with his future competition, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) who is about to inherit his dying father’s energy company. Only this time, instead of extracting an idea, Cobb must implant one. It’s called “Inception” and he’s only done it once before, with tragic results.
To carry out the mission, Cobb assembles a Pulp A-Team. Among them, his right-hand-man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an Impersonator (Tom Hardy), to play trusted figures in the subject’s life, and a chemist who can make sure that Fischer is sedated long enough to finish the job. Because he’s no longer mentally stable enough to do it himself, Cobb must also hire an architect (literally) to construct a world convincing enough to keep Fischer from suspecting that he’s been infiltrated. Cobb’s protégé is Ariadne (Ellen Page), who follows in her namesake’s footsteps, guiding Cobb through the labyrinth to prevent him from losing himself in the dream completely.
It’s a fine cast and everyone is up to the task at hand. DiCaprio fares well with the tortured brow-furrowing bit. Gordon-Levitt deftly channels a suave noir persona. Tom Hardy is every bit as charming and disarming as his character requires. Cillian Murphy’s big blues bring an ocean of sympathy to a potentially one-dimensional corporate-type. In fact, most of the supporting characters seem like fascinating individuals. Though they aren’t fleshed out on screen, one gets the impression that each of them could easily head an awesome spin-off film. I don’t know who should get more credit for that: the actors or the writer.
Speaking of writing, Nolan must have gone through a hell of a lot of cocktail napkins to outline this puppy. You’ll probably want to hit the bathroom beforehand, but it’s not a hard script to follow if you pay attention. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the rest of the team constantly explain the rules to newbie, Ariadne. Even when the narrative enters dreams-within-dreams and then dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams and deeper still, this is a story that’s been crafted and coded for mainstream audiences. It’s kind of a shame, actually. Instead of constantly upping the ante by seeing how many layers deep they could go, it would have been much more interesting to focus and expound on one dreamscape.
Anytime we’re talking dreams-on-film, it’s impossible not to think of David Lynch, the master of dream approximation. Apart from lots of slow motion (making “Inception” at least 30 minutes longer than it needs to be), floating and some M.C. Echer-esque architecture, nothing particularly weird or dream-like happens. No one does anything random or irrational. Humans often have more than one dream in a sleep cycle. How cool would it have been to witness that transition? In real dreams, nothing makes immediate sense. When you wake up, you must go back over the events, sometimes repeatedly, in order to interpret them. Often, you never fully understand what it all means. Perhaps corporate heirs do have dreams this linear and straightforward. Of course, it’s possible we’re not in Fischer’s dream at all. Even so, there’s little need to go back over “Inception.”
I can’t help but feel that with less studio pressure, Nolan could have given us a film of Lynchian proportions. It might not have been the blockbuster that “Inception” will inevitably become, but it would have been an instant indie classic. Apparently, Nolan spent 10 years writing the script. One more year might have yielded something mind-blowing. As it stands now, “Inception” is merely mind-tickling. As the Impersonator says, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, dah-ling.” I couldn’t agree more.