I think I fell in love with Inception right around the ten minute mark, and I never looked back. I tend not to rewatch movies a lot (there’s so many great films I haven’t seen yet, after all), but I’ve seen this one a few times. It’s a film about levels of dreaming that has quite a few levels itself, and yet it still works on the most basic surface level as a fast-paced heist/action film.
Technology exists to shape and share dreams. This is most often used for industrial espionage - it’s a rather elaborate way to steal secrets. Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are experts dream thieves, but when a scheme to steal plans from a Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes awry, they agree to try to plant an idea into the heir to an energy conglomerate’s mind – a process called Inception. They recruit a talented young architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page) to build their dream worlds, and thus set up some brilliant exposition scenes that establish the rules of the universe while showing off some spectacular visuals. Then they descend through several layers of dreams, lots of stuff goes wrong, and we get lots of action and suspenseful intercutting between the different layers.
The rules can be a bit contrived. A major aspect of the film is that you can get lost in the dream if you fail to time your awakening correctly. This adds some tension and ambiguity to a situation where no one can really die, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (I don’t see how you can dream forever if you’re asleep for a finite amount of time…no matter the time dilation). I don’t care. The movie has its rules, and it sticks to them, and it’s better than the old “if you die in a dream you die in real life" canard.
It also establishes the existential dilemma that hangs out in the background (and *spoiler* comes to the fore in the final shot). At any moment, the film can pull the rug out and declare a scene a dream, but it does this sparingly, while leaving the question open to a large extent. I know this annoyed some people, but I liked this aspect of the film, and I don’t care that much one way or another. Applying one interpretation or another makes this a whole different film. It’s an interactive experience!
For the record, I tend to prefer to think that the whole thing is a dream. The fact that the “awake” world is full of shadowy corporations, mazelike cities, happy shiny children, and people with no surnames and/or names as on the nose as Ariadne, all screams dream to me. Plus, he’s using the wrong damn totem the whole movie! But, I’ve heard convincing arguments in other directions, so I don’t get too wrapped up in it. I’m also very fond of the interpretation that the entire film is a metaphor for the filmmaking process – all of the members of the heist gang have roles analogous to the film world (Cobb director, Satoshi producer, conman Eames is the actor), and they’re putting together a production to change the way their audience thinks.
I have heard people complain as well that the characters fell flat for them. I’ll admit that it’s a challenge to create relatable characters when they spend so much time explaining the rules of the movie in long scenes of exposition…but I did anyway. I was drawn into the characters. I did care about their fates at the end. Of course, I think Cobb’s dreamed them all, so maybe I hold them to lower standards.
Nolan is one of the most skilled filmmakers working today, and he’s at the height of his powers here. This is a wonderfully constructed film that takes some high-flying effects and concepts and slips them into a heart-pounding actioner. This was my favorite film of 2010, so it’s a no-brainer for the Hugo as far as I’m concerned.