Reflections on a Mind Heist: Review of ‘Inception’

By Gavin Elias

There are a great deal of adjectives that could be applied to ‘Inception’. Perhaps the most pithy is ‘masterful’. Striving to construct what has been trumpeted as an ‘existential heist film’, director Christopher Nolan has crafted a richly beguiling thriller that is simply astounding in its sheer scope and depth. At a time when Hollywood seems unable to control its spastic vomiting of mindless sequels and conceptually bankrupt material, ‘Inception’ stands out as a brazenly original and stunningly cerebral blockbuster offering.

Set in a world (essentially our own) where technology exists to allow the sharing of one’s dreams and ideas in a visceral, immersive way, the film centers upon Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a troubled fugitive who conducts subconscious espionage by breaking into victims’ dreams and extracting valuable information from their sleeping minds. Asked to conduct an inception, or implantation of an idea into a mark’s mind, Cobb assembles a team of crack dream infiltrators and sets about executing a metaphysical heist of staggering complexity.

What follows is perhaps one of the most engaging and mind-bending stories captured on film; a brilliant melding of high-concept science fiction, high-octane thrills and psychological musings. Like an immense glass labyrinth, ‘Inception’ is incredibly intricate and complex, but never convoluted, each plot turn and thematic layer building with crystalline precision upon the next, until the whirling machinations take on a mechanical beauty of their own. Indeed, one of the film’s greatest assets is unarguably its fantastic depth, both thematically and plot wise. As it progresses, the plot begins to resemble a collection of Russian nesting dolls, each interconnected layer birthing yet another layer within itself, like the wisp of an idea (a key notion in the film) radiating outwards in ever increasing complexity.

As the emotional core of the movie, DiCaprio shines in his compelling portrayal of a quietly tormented individual; better yet, while his performance undoubtedly anchors the entire story in place, he never eclipses the strong supporting cast but rather complements their work. And this is essential, as ‘Inception’, like ‘The Dark Knight’, is truly an ensemble piece, composed of many roles which, just like cogs in the behemoth conceptual machinery, function as a group to propel the film’s story forward. In supporting roles, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy all provide dynamic performances, and many of the younger cast members are particularly effulgent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delights in his turn as the practical-minded ‘point-man’ of the dream team, providing not only excellent acting but perhaps the most riveting action scenes of the piece as well as much of its fleeting humour. And in a sublimely noir role, Marion Cotillard lends the film emotional heft and a sense of tangible angst as the ethereal wife who haunts Cobb’s mind and dream worlds; I found that the tragic tale of the pair’s doomed existentialist voyage lent the piece a troubled, pulsating heart that ultimately draws the viewer in, thereby firmly grounding material that might otherwise dissolve into insubstantial cerebral mist. Just as impressive is the almost shockingly fresh-faced Ellen Page who positively radiates youthful and probing intelligence as the enlisted ‘architect’ of the mind-breaking corporate mercenaries. In this role, she provides an invaluable audience surrogate, allowing the expositional world-building to occur smoothly and giving the audience an insight into Nolan’s immaculately crafted creation before our minds are buckled in and sent screaming along the dizzying conceptual roller coaster. Perhaps because of its smorgasbord of engaging, yet often subtle performances, ‘Inception’ is able to achieve a kind of quiet intimacy in the midst of the razor-edged twists of the plot and cacophonous, heart-pounding action scenes, and this only enriches to the overall quality of the film.

Some of the genius of ‘Inception’ might be perhaps gleamed by considering the film’ rich style, motifs and imagery, elements that wouldn’t appear out of place in even the most intellectual art house piece. Nolan’s richly imagined dreamscapes burst with a distinct visual splendour that befits the subject material; startling, abrupt images such as a train barrelling through a rain-swept cityscape or Paris folding over both suggest the infinite imaginative possibilities and the disjointed nature of dreams. Nolan also hits the mark in his cunning use of symbolism, both within the dreams constructed by his characters and in the film as a whole; the emotional weight the audience has ascribed to the spinning top by the end of the film, for example, demonstrates how successfully such motifs are integrated into the story. The overall effect of these elements is the impartation of that unique sensation we get when our minds screen our own private psychedelic cinematic offerings at night; those feelings of odd familiarity, heightened significance of events and bizarre symbolism, contained within a self-justifying logic, all appear in one form or another in ‘Inception’. Indeed, it is a testament to the film that, just as Nolan’s earlier ‘Memento’ cleverly mimicked the fragmented perspective of an anterograde amnesiac, ‘Inception’s self-referential structure encourages us to view the cinematic experience itself as something of a reverie: lacking a clear beginning, and boasting an ending that can only be called enigmatic, the film leaves audience members disoriented and thoughtful when the credits roll, as if they had just woken from a particularly interesting dream themselves.

Moreover, the film’s thematic depth endears it to repeat viewings, for in the mental odyssey that unfolds onscreen, one may catch echoes of existentialism, psychoanalysis and oneiric surrealism. What is most impressive though, is that one needs not have even the slightest awareness of any of these things to enjoy ‘Inception’. Taken at its most superficial level, its action scenes (these range from a stunning zero-g hallway duel to a battle royale in a mountain fortress) still entertain, its heart-racing score (more auditory ambrosia from Hans Zimmer) still enthrals and its plot twists, even as they befuddle, still astound.

It may suffice to say that Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ is a truly unique cinematic masterpiece, one that entertains and engrosses us, while offering profound (and quotable) reflections on the nature of dreams, reality and everything in between. However, it is even more than that. Like a powerful yet muddled dream, many of its secrets are not immediately appreciable – genuine reflection is required to truly unlock all it has to offer. And it is a work that rewards on nearly every level – one that respects us with its unabashed complexity even as it seduces us, sweeping up our imaginations and bearing them off on an odyssey into the subconscious. But if anything can be said about ‘Inception’, it must be that it dazzles, challenges and ultimately impacts the viewer in ways few films ever can.