A common complaint with most of today's movies is that they don't challenge the audience enough. Inception is the exception...almost to a fault. On more than one occasion, I heard feedback from moviegoers along the lines of "I liked it, but I couldn't quite figure out what was going on". That ability to impress (even while managing to somewhat alienate) translated into powerful word-of-mouth buzz, which, combined with strong reviews and repeat business derived from the gotta-see-it-again-to-suss-out-the-plot's-complexities factor, led to huge box office for the film. Many critics just downright hated it because of its labyrinthian storytelling (sprawled out over an also demanding 148 minutes), the best of which has to be Rex Reed's hilariously scathing review here.
Clearly, it's writer/director Christopher Nolan's recent strong track record at helming films that make a boatload of cash for their studio (like The Dark Knight) that convinced Warner Brothers to cough up the reported $160 million budget for such a high-risk project, which Nolan has been working on since 2002. Despite its over-ambitious narrative leanings, Inception does look quite amazing, between the numerous globe-trotting backdrops (New York City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Tangiers, London, Paris, and Calgary, subbing for the Alps) and impressive, original special effects. Nolan's dream world allows for mind-bending visuals like shapeshifting landscapes and a trippy one-on-one battle in a hotel in both inverted and zero gravity. The director insisted on keeping CGI to a minimum, leading to the building of three sets alone that were used for the hotel scenes, including one set that housed a rotating 100-foot hallway.
As much as I can sum up the multi-layered, high-concept story in one paragraph, here it is: Don Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert hired by captains of industry to infiltrate the dreams of other corporate heavyweights to steal their ideas. His team consists of long-time associate Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man skilled in the arts of deception named Eames (played by British actor Tom Hardy), a chemistry wizard (played by Dileep Rao) who oversees the placement and extraction of the team into the dream realm, and Ellen Page's character, Ariadne. She's the newest recruit, a young and gifted architecture student for Cobb to mentor who is taught how the dream-hijacking world operates (which, in turn, helps school the viewer) and who will instill her expertise to help create the layouts of the dreams. The outfit is hired by Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe's character) to slip into the dreams of one of his corporate rivals (played by Cillian Murphy) and not extract information already present, but implant an idea that will ultimately benefit Saito financially. The catch: such a feat (known as "inception") has never been successfully accomplished. If Cobb and his team can pull the job off it will also allow him to reunite with his family after a forced exile from America due to circumstances I won't disclose. Tied into that subplot are Cobb's periodic encounters with his unstable wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard in full-on femme fatale mode. Oddly, there are incredibly coincidental elements of the relationship Cobb has with his wife in this movie as there were with DiCaprio's character and his spouse in his last film from earlier this year, Shutter Island.
Good performances all-around and a surprisingly liberal use of action help to dilute the mildly abrasive effects of the movie's high-minded plot machinations, which, at one point, is balancing four concurrent stories involving a dream within a dream within another dream. Inception isn't quite as wholly original as critical and public reaction might have lead you to believe, with Nolan employing several well-worn movie ideas: the use of a team of thieves, each with their own specialty, is heist movie 101, there's Cobb's "one last big job before I retire" offer, and the scenes in the Alps are straight out of a James Bond movie. Films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Fight Club also have their fingerprints all over this one. As mentioned, many feel a second (or more) viewing is necessary to digest all that Inception has to offer. I liked it well enough, just not enough to devote another two-and-a-half hours of my life to sitting down with it again.