"Inception", simply put, is a masterpiece. Rarely does a film come along that is this bold, this original, this ambitious, this powerful. But Christopher Nolan has once again done the impossible and created a film that is not only ambitious and epic, but exceedingly intimate and compelling. The film is thrilling, smart, and features one of the most emotionally charged stories to come out of a large scale Hollywood studio in years. That Christopher Nolan was able to make a film that is at once his best film yet and his most personal, while also making it on a grand scale is something of a miracle. Those who haven't seen the film yet should not be reading my review. First of all, I am going to delve into some spoilers, but secondly, stop reading this review if you haven't see it, drop what you're doing and go see it!
In a lot of ways, "Inception" tells the story of a man with one simple driving force. He just wants to go home. He just wants to see his children again. Cobb, played with subtlety and grace by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a lot like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Not that there are any plot similarities, mind you, but Cobb desperately needs a pair of red shoes to click together. Cobb is an extractor, the best in the business, but he is also a fugitive on the run. He uses a technology called dream sharing, where he is able to infiltrate the mind of a subject and find out all their secrets.
This technology, and extractors like Cobb, have become invaluable in a world filled with corporate espionage. The process by which Cobb breaks into the subject's subconscious and steals their secrets is called extraction. However, a wealthy corporate CEO named Saito asks Cobb to perform inception, the process of planting and idea rather than stealing one, on one of his competitors. Cobb's right hand man, Arthur, insists this is impossible, that true inspiration cannot be faked.
This is one of many fascinating ideas explored in the film. Cobb then proceeds to assemble a cracker jack team of specialists to accompany him on this mission, which, as is explained soon enough, has very real stakes. I won't go much more into the plot, but more into the ideas and achievements of the film.
First and foremost, this is a monumental technical achievement. This film is everything Avatar wanted to be and so much more. That's coming from someone who loved "Avatar", despite it's flaws. But "Inception" is one of the most immersive and intimate theatre-going experiences out there. That it's not in 3D is just icing on the cake. Watch carefully when you see it, Pay attention to the effects, the sets, the stunts. Nolan has never been a fan of CGI, always adamant about using real stunts, sets, and in-camera tricks. You'd be surprised at how little of the visuals are created with CGI.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments of the film, if not the greatest one in there, was created entirely on a physical set, with no CGI added. Yes, I'm talking about the now famous zero-gravity hallway fight between Arthur and the security guards. This one moment, this five minutes of pure cinematic bliss, is executed with such fluidity, grace, and perfection that it makes the stunts and bullet-time effects of "The Matrix" look cheap and boring. But remember how jaw dropping those effects in "The Matrix" were ten years ago? Imagine how you felt watching that, and double that amazement. Your jaw will literally be hanging out of your mouth.
Curiously enough, in terms of effects, one of the most impressive feats of the film is the incredible sound design. I for one have never heard such realistic bone-crunching punches before. But the sound design is so incredibly immersive and realistic that you'll feel like things are literally wooshing past you. You can almost feel the rain on your face as it pours down in one dream sequence. Coupled with Hans Zimmer's thunderous score, which, for my money, is the best work he's done in years, the sounds of "Inception" will take your breath away.
On top of it all, the film is simply gorgeous. Never before has art direction and set design been so tied in with the plot of the film. And the film just looks absolutely stunning. Wally Pfister's cinematography, as always, is incredible, though it doesn't feel like it has the same painterly approach as his previous collaborations with Nolan. Instead, it's a hybrid of handheld photography and gorgeous slower movements.
But really, all of this is a moot point without a great story and characters to back it up. What Nolan has crafted here is his most emotionally charged film yet, and dare I say his warmest film. It's an ensemble of characters, but Cobb is front and center the emotional backbone of the story. Curiously enough, the other emotional centerpiece is Cillian Murphy as Fischer, the man Cobb must plant an idea within. Both characters are fleshed out and explored with greater depth than almost any character in film this year. Both are men consumed with guilt and deep residing issues about their pasts. Cobb wants to go home, and he can't get there if he doesn't forgive himself. There's something truly profound about watching the journey of these two men as they journey through Fischer's mind. Watching someone like Cobb come to grips with a wrathful person who isn't really his wife, but rather his own manifestation of the guilt and pain he has directed inside his psyche for years is one of the more profound and sophisticated expressions of emotion I've seen in a film in years.
It's only helped by Leonardo DiCaprio's fantastic performance. DiCaprio actually comes off as more subtle than usual here, so it's hard to say which of his two performances this year is the better. I'm leaning toward "Shutter Island", as it seems like a more fully realized performance, but Cobb is much more relatable and likable character than Teddy Daniels. The rest of the cast is all great, but there's not really a Heath Ledger this time around to really blow everyone away. Ken Watanabe is superb as always. His chemistry with DiCaprio is great, and makes for some good old fashioned male bonding. Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Tom Hardy nearly steal the show with their fantastic chemistry and occasional comic relief, coupled with cool as ice personalities they give to their characters, Levitt in particular. Ellen Page is lovely as always, and relatable as the voice of the audience. Marion Cotillard does something pretty fascinating and turns her beauty into the most frightening thing Nolan could manifest, second only to The Joker.
Really, the star of the film, however, is Christopher Nolan and his imagination. As as director, Nolan has never been better. This is his biggest accomplishment yet, make no mistake. I feel like the screenplay for "The Dark Knight" was a little more thematically resonant, but the emotional core of "Inception" is what separates it from the pack. Sharp as razors dialogue is coupled with a moving character study, capped off by one of the most emotionally charged and shocking climaxes in years. This is Nolan's finest hour, and the most intellectually stimulating, emotionally satisfying, thrilling, and altogether original film I've seen in years. It soars, it really does. Like I said at the beginning, if you've made it this far, you must have already seen the film, because if you haven't, that's what you should be doing now.