By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; C01
"Inception," the science fiction thriller by writer-director Christopher Nolan that easily qualifies as the most highly anticipated movie of the summer, opens with a dramatic shot of huge waves breaking onto a nameless shore. And that image suggests the best way to watch a film with such a tightly coiled plot, cerebral conceits and formidable ambition. Rather than trying to game out "Inception" on first viewing, it's best to let it wash over you, and save the head-scratching and inevitable Talmudic interpretations for later.
Chances are, there will be a later: "Inception" is the kind of film that will no doubt drive scores of viewers to theaters for a second go. But the key to success in a movie as purposefully complex as this one is that you see it again not because you have to, but because you want to. "Inception" is that rare film that can be enjoyed on superficial and progressively deeper levels, a feat that uncannily mimics the mind-bending journey its protagonist takes.
That would be Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who makes his living navigating the minds of other people, sharing their dreams and stealing ideas in an elaborate psychological gambit known as "extraction." Along with his henchman Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a vaguely sinister sleep-inducing gadget, Cobb has worked mostly with businesses engaged in super-complicated corporate espionage.
But as "Inception" opens, a client named Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb for an altogether different assignment: Rather than steal an idea, he wants Cobb and Arthur to plant one in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the would-be heir to an energy conglomerate, in a process called "inception."
It's a tough job, and Cobb proceeds to assemble a crack team of dream-weavers to help him pull it off, including a wily forger named Eames (Tom Hardy), a chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and a young architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), who in addition to designing the mazelike dreamscapes much of "Inception" transpires in, acts as an essential proxy for filmgoers who are likely to find themselves utterly lost in the director's own convoluted ideas.
Nolan has always been prone to making hermetic, self-serious movies, from his 2000 breakthrough film "Memento" to "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." But he lets a little more air into "Inception," in the form of an occasional joke and an essentially popcorn-movie premise.
Indeed, "Inception" often plays like the coolest "Ocean's Eleven" installment ever made, albeit with a fewer wisecracks and a much trippier caper. Luckily, the cast strikes just the right tone for the enterprise. DiCaprio and Page bring quiet focus to roles that would have been scuttled by showboating. Hardy, who delivered as astonishing turn in last year's "Bronson," provides most of the film's welcome comic relief, needling Gordon-Levitt with deadpan economy as the heist just gets weirder.
To its credit, "Inception" plays equally well on an entirely different plane, namely the kind of twisty mind-game that suggests the work of Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation") and the "Matrix" movies. As Cobb crafts and executes his scheme, issues surface involving a beautiful woman named Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose name is pronounced "moll" and whose smoky, seductive beauty indeed suggests a classic femme fatale of yore. As with Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the extravagant backdrops and set pieces of "Inception" as often as not become metaphors for Cobb and Mal's own unreliable relationship.
And make no mistake, those set pieces are dazzling, from "Inception's" opening scenes -- shifting seamlessly from a Japanese fortress to a war zone to a Paris street that suddenly folds in on itself -- to its endgame, set within a frenetic chase through a rainy Los Angeles street, a sleek five-star hotel and a massive, snowbound mountain redoubt.
Nolan, who reportedly used as few computer effects as possible while shooting "Inception," spares no detail for a movie in which there are no accidents, even in the most irrational non sequiturs. (For all its consummate visual style, "Inception" also boasts an astute sound design: Listen for the leitmotif of a ticking stopwatch echoed by a passing bicycle and in Hans Zimmer's powerful score.)
Drawing as much inspiration from Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as he does from M.C. Escher, Nolan nonetheless manages to create a world all his own in "Inception." And that's a world that, while clearly a product of an auteur's idiosyncratic impulses, meets viewers at precisely that liminal state between dream and reality where movies work best.
Nolan exemplifies the best kind of filmmaking, unchained from the laws of time, space and even gravity, but never from the most basic rules of narrative. Even at its most tangled and paradoxical, "Inception" keeps circling back to the motivation that has driven films from "The Wizard of Oz" to "E.T.": Cobb, finally, just wants to go home.
This aim, in its simplicity, manages to make comprehensible even the most preposterous layers-upon-layers of "Inception," and gives what could easily have been a chilly, impenetrable exercise a surprisingly strong emotional core. At its most audacious and enterprising, "Inception" provides just the kind of fully imagined escapism that adventurous filmgoers wish movies aspired to more often. But it's the story's most recognizable human struggles -- to let go, forgive and move on -- that make "Inception" worth puzzling over, long after its most transporting sensations have washed away.
(148 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.