(director/writer: Christopher Nolan; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Lee Smith; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusuf), Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer Jr.), Tom Berenger (Browning), Marion Cotillard (Mal), Pete Postlethwaite (Maurice Fischer), Michael Caine (Miles), Lukas Haas (Nash); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Emma Thomas/Christopher Nolan; Warner Bros.; 2010)

“It requires more concentration to just figure out what’s going on than most summer blockbusters do.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Enigmatic, talky, and ambitious summer blockbuster reality vs. fantasy sci-fi thriller creatively written and helmed in 2D by the 39-year-old British filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“Memento”/”Following”/”The Dark Knight”), that has a convoluted narrative that is a hard nut to fully crack on first viewing (though on its simplest level, the one most clearly understood, our amoral antihero just wants to go home again as a free man). Supposedly, Nolan took ten years to write the dense screenplay. It’s filled with stunning dreamscape visuals, a ruthless tale of corporate espionage, Freudian looks at the subconscious, and action sequences of a troubled man on a dangerous mission to recoup his life and sanity. Nolan creates a film for the masses that has a higher concept than usual for such action pictures (though still filled with plenty of chases, cliffhangers and gunfights) and it requires more concentration to just figure out what’s going on than most summer blockbusters do.

The premise expands on its one basic idea: that it’s possible to steal ideas from dreams by a process called ‘extraction’, which involves getting hooked up with wires to a specialty sedation drip and then going into a slumber in the world of the subconscious. The expansion tells us that the reversal of this process is ‘inception’, the planting of a new idea in another’s mind, which is the more challenging process.

Master mind-thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the expert in this extraction process and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is his longtime loyal assistant and all around detail man in the field, who are hired by corporations as spies. Needing another architect to create maze-like dreamscapes for a new assignment that calls for inception rather than extraction, Cobb hires young Ariadne (Ellen Page), “named for the woman in Greek mythology who helped Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth”, upon the recommendation of his mentor father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine). Cobb then hires a cocky forger (a dream world impersonator) named Eames (Tom Hardy) and the nerdy Yusaf (Dileep Rao) is hired as the chemist, who mixes the sedation formulas for the drip. The crew has been hired by a former vic, the mysterious Japanese energy corporate tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to weaken his Fischer corporate rival by having Cobb perform an inception on the just deceased founder’s son, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the scion to the empire, by having Robert, who was estranged from his imperious dad (Pete Postlethwaite), have planted in his mind that it’s in his best interest to break-up the company and make it in this world on his own. In other words,Cobb mustconstruct a dream within a dream. But Cobb has another motive for taking on this risky job besides money and challenge, where he has to fight off Robert’s persistent bodyguards and so many other obstacles, as the Japanese businessman will use his influence to clear him of his murder charge which will allow him to return home. Cobb is the guilt-ridden extractor who feels responsible for causing the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who still appears as a haunting projection in his dreams and prevents him from carrying out his recent heists. The intense and melancholy Cobb believes this mission will be his last heist job, if he can clean-up his subconscious of his psychological hangups so he can return as loving father to his two young children and thereby return from his forced exile to reality.

The film is so much sci-fi hokum of the cerebral kind, much like a rebooted “Matrix”, and is so totally into its dream logic premise that it demands you adhere to its premise or you flunk as a viewer. It moves rapidly in a strange dreamlike way that makes the viewer determine for themselves if what they are seeing is a dream or reality, as it shuffles forth from a Japanese fortress to a war zone in a Paris street that suddenly folds in on itself to a cafe shootout in Mombasa to an Arctic snowbound shootout in the mountains to a madcap chase through a rainy Los Angeles street to a shootout in a zero-gravity hotel corridorto a walk across tilted buildings (seemingly created by M.C. Escher), and there’s always the amazing labyrinth set-pieces in the subconscious.

There’s no problem in endorsing its technical and visual achievements, which are mind-bending. Nolan has the gift to bring novelty to the conventional. But the film’s drawback is that it takes most of the film to explain its dream logic, thereby the draining lecture leaves its characters emotionally bankrupt and its psychological riff is mostly mumbo jumbo pseudo science. By seemingly falling too much in love with its prismatic intellectual conceit (showing Nolan more of an illusionist than a visionary) and its over-complicated narrative being too fuzzy to decipher all its nuances in only one viewing (something many cinephiles might actually relish, as this is a film that the converted will want to see again), the film flunks in its attempt to be all that it appears to be. Though I found it a superior action pic, there just seemed to be too many teases and roadblocks in place to get to its end game–if there was actually one, in a pic whose inward trip was too pat to convey the mind’s chaotic landscape convincingly so that one can believe without qualms that Cobb could walk away alive from such a maze. Thereby the ambiguous ending of whether it’s all a dream or reality, leaves the conclusion up to you.

For a commercial film, it does far more than I expected and I applaud it for being so boldly imaginative and addressing so many questions to the intellect–something that one rarely sees in this genre.