If movies are shared dreams, then Christopher Nolan is surely one of Hollywood’s most inventive dreamers, given the evidence of his commandingly clever “Inception.” Applying a vivid sense of procedural detail to a fiendishly intricate yarn set in the labyrinth of the subconscious, the writer-director has devised a heist thriller for surrealists, a Jungian’s “Rififi,” that challenges viewers to sift through multiple layers of (un)reality. As such, it’s a conceptual tour de force unlikely to rank with Batman at the B.O., though post-“Dark Knight” anticipation and Leonardo DiCaprio should still position it as one of the summer’s hottest, classiest tickets.
As a non-franchise follow-up to the enormous success of “The Dark Knight,” this long-gestating project reps something of a gamble for Warner Bros. at a time when sophisticated original entertainments are neither as common nor as bankable as they once were. Availing himself of the resources that come with a studio’s confidence, Nolan places mind-bending visual effects and a top-flight cast in service of a boldly cerebral vision that demands, and rewards, the utmost attention. Even when its ambition occasionally outstrips its execution, “Inception” tosses off more ideas and fires on more cylinders than most blockbusters would have the nerve to attempt.
Our guide to this world of high-stakes corporate espionage is Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), an “extractor” paid to invade the dreams of various titans of industry and steal their top-secret ideas. Cobb plunders the psyche with practiced skill, though he’s increasingly haunted by the memory of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has a nasty habit of showing up in his subconscious and wreaking havoc on his missions.
That’s what happens during a dream-raid on wealthy businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), who is in fact merely auditioning Cobb for a far riskier job. The target is Saito’s future rival, billionaire heir Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), and the goal is not to steal an idea but to plant one — the “inception” of the title — that will lead to the dissolution of Fischer’s empire.
In Nolan’s hands, this ingenious conceit becomes no more implausible than that of a caped crimefighter, as the writer-director grounds his flight of fancy with precise methodology and an architect’s attention to detail. Indeed, Cobb retains an actual architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), and teaches her how to mentally construct every street, building and room in the artificial world (essential if the dreamer is to be deceived) in a series of visually playful scenes whose trompe l’oeil quality brings Magritte and M.C. Escher to mind.
In classic heist-movie tradition, various brainiac specialists round out Cobb’s dream team: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his longtime organizer; Eames (“Bronson’s” Tom Hardy), a “forger” who can shapeshift at will; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who supplies the powerful sedative that pulls Fischer and Cobb’s gang into a collective stupor.
As the motley crew comes together, so does our understanding of this strange, mercurial world (which owes something to the virtual-reality dystopia of “The Matrix”) and the rules by which it operates: the consequences of dying in a dream; the nature of dream time vs. real time; and the perils of layering ever more elaborate dreams within dreams. Numerous laws and paradoxes come into play once Cobb and Co. plunge down the rabbit-hole, at which point “Inception” takes on dizzying levels of complexity as the characters navigate the chambers and antechambers of Fischer’s mind.
It’s heady, brain-tickling stuff, and like the spinning top that serves as a key plot device, it seems forever on the brink of toppling over, especially toward the end of the nearly 2 1/2-hour running time (editor Lee Smith has his hands full, at one point cutting feverishly among four parallel lines of action). The sheer outlandishness of the premise may open it up to some narrative nitpicking — why do these dreams, for instance, so closely resemble action movies? — and attentive viewers will have a grand time “aha!”-ing at certain points and poking holes in others.
But even when questions arise, one so completely senses a guiding intelligence at the helm that the effect is stimulating rather than confusing. Never one to strand the viewer in a maze, Nolan remains a few steps ahead, keeping total comprehension just out of reach but always in view; like a mechanical rabbit on a racetrack, he encourages us to keep up. As dreams go, “Inception” is exceptionally lucid, especially compared with the more free-associative nightmare logic of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” or “Inland Empire.” Those were movies to get lost in; here, it pays to stay focused.
Like Nolan’s 2001 indie breakthrough, “Memento,” the film toys with themes such as the blurry line between perception and reality, the insidious nature of ideas, and the human capacity for self-delusion; significantly, it also focuses on an antihero captive to the memory of his dead wife. Because the picture privileges the mind over the heart, Cobb’s unresolved guilt, intended as the story’s tragic center, doesn’t resonate as powerfully as it should, though the actors certainly give it their all: Cotillard is a presence both sultry and menacing, and DiCaprio anchors the film confidently, if less forcefully than he did the recent “Shutter Island” (in which he also played a widower at the mercy of dark visions).
Supporting roles are thinly written but memorably inhabited: Gordon-Levitt cuts a dashing figure; Hardy tears into his smartass supporting role with lip-smacking gusto; Watanabe brings elegance and gravity to his corporate raider; and Murphy plays the unsuspecting dreamer with poignant reserve. Page’s repartee with DiCaprio could have been sharper in places, but the appealingly plucky actress makes Ariadne an ideal stand-in for the viewer.
Shot across four continents by Nolan’s regular d.p., Wally Pfister, and outfitted by production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, “Inception” is easily the director’s most visually unbridled work; its canvas stretches from the skyscrapers of Tokyo to the bazaars of Tangiers, from an amber-lit hotel corridor to a snowy mountain compound (a setpiece that plays like an homage to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”). Pic has arresting effects and images to spare, such as the sight of Paris folding in on itself like a book or Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur performing a fight scene in zero gravity (the explanation for which is even more dazzling).
Hans Zimmer’s surging score trumpets danger and excitement with near-operatic fervor, at times suggesting the world’s most portentous foghorn, while Edith Piaf’s recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien” serves as an ironic motif (and sets up a nice inside joke with “La Vie en rose” star Cotillard).
If “Inception” is a metaphysical puzzle, it’s also a metaphorical one: It’s hard not to draw connections between Cobb’s dream-weaving and Nolan’s filmmaking — an activity devoted to constructing a simulacrum of reality, intended to seduce us, mess with our heads and leave a lasting impression. Mission accomplished.