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'Inception': Compelling, but too capricious to trust

July 20, 2010|By BOB GARVER / Special to The Herald-Mail

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is a film that lets you know early on that you can't trust it. The characters have conversations about dreams and we find out that the conversation was a dream. Then they wake up and explain the dream, but we find out that that's a dream. So we know that what we're watching can be undone at any time. This would be the downfall of a lesser film, but "Inception" sets the stakes high enough that you to care about its characters anyway.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, an "extractor" who invades people's dreams to steal their secrets. The way this works is that he, his partner (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), and a mark all knock themselves out while hooked up to a machine. The machine allows them to all enter the same dream where Cobb can either steal the secret or persuade the mark to give it up. Sometimes when they want to be really tricky, they go into a dream within the dream to mess with the mark's sense of reality even further. They're good at what they do, but they have the constant obstacle of Cobb's dead wife (Marion Cotillard) always showing up at some point in the dream to sabotage them.


One day an offer comes along that Cobb can't refuse. An energy giant (Ken Watanabe) wants him to plant ("incept") the idea in another energy giant (Cillian Murphy) that he should break up his company, leaving his rival to monopolize the market. In return he'll get Cobb out of trouble with a former employer (unhappy that Cobb botched an earlier mission) and the police (he's wanted for questioning in his wife's death). Cobb assembles a team, including Ellen Page as a new Architect (someone who designs the worlds where the shared dreams take place). The plot needs someone new on his team, so he can go over Shared Dreaming 101 with them and us.

The rest of the film is the unfurling of the plan, and it's here where things get really complicated. Since inception is more difficult than extraction, the team needs to go into at least three layers of dreams. This requires sedatives so strong that dying in the dream won't wake them up the way it normally does. Die in the dream, you might spend eternity stuck inside yet another dream. The mark's mind is filled with goons that want to protect their leader's secret, so the film becomes an action movie. We get a train in the middle of a busy street, an extremely slow-motion bridge fall, a shootout at a snow-covered mountain facility, and most memorably, a sequence set in a hotel where gravity first shifts severely and then disappears entirely.

The "anything goes" aspect of the plot is thrilling because it makes prediction impossible. The dream worlds themselves are among the most interesting parts of the movie, not just for all the eye-catching architecture, but because they contain impossible aspects (unending staircases, tilting and upside-down buildings, etc.). One thing did bother me though, and it sticks out as a plot hole that even dream logic can't explain. Cobb's wife can infiltrate his shared dreams, perhaps because his emotions involving her death are too strong to shut out. Cotillard's scenes are great, the film wouldn't be the same without her. That's not my complaint.My question is why don't people and memories from the other team members' lives infiltrate the dreams as well?

With reality distorted the way it is in "Inception", it is no surprise that the film's ending is ambiguous. The film's final shot at the screening I attended had people screaming at the screen.The audience cared about the film, even though they surely didn't understand much of what had preceded it. The film is well-made and its plot well-managed enough to get the audience truly involved in its outcome. If I can plant an idea in your own heads, rise to the challenge of seeing "Inception."

"Inception" is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.Its runtime is 158 minutes.

Editor's note: This review was revised to express the view presented in the movie that "Inception is more difficult than extraction."

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