Fans of Chrisopher Nolan’s other mind-fondling films, Following and Memento, might reasonably worry he’s given in to studio pressure to explain the trick before he’s started shuffling the cards. Not only has the film’s once-mysterious tagline “Your mind is the scene of the crime” become a full-blown synopsis (Leo plays Dom Cobb, a subconscious super spy tasked with stealing secrets straight from his target’s brains), the film’s first act is almost entirely devoted to Cobb and partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) explaining the rules of shared-dream thievery to the team’s obligatory newcomer, Ariadne (Page). As the “architect” (as if The Matrix comparisons weren’t already automatic), Ariadne must design the dream world Cobb and Arthur inhabit with their mark, and if she’s not convincing, the dreamer’s subconscious will attack the intruders like white blood cells discovering a virus. An Australian Football handbook’s worth of other rules apply, and this assignment has another kicker: Rather than asking them to lift a secret, Saito (Watanabe) wants the team to plant an idea in the victim’s head.
You might think it’d be more fun to figure all these things out on your own, but you’re wrong. Nolan’s too good to waste a half-hour on pure exposition. While he’s teaching us the complex rules of the game, he’s more discreetly developing characters we’ll be emotionally invested in when shit gets unreal. Also, without all the explanation, you’d seriously have no idea what the hell is going on in the film’s second half. Even with the lessons, some of the dream world’s physics are fairly confusing, and I have a nagging feeling repeated viewings will reveal some plot holes you can walk through upright — the kind detractors claim Swiss cheese The Dark Knight, but I’m too busy jumping on my bed with a blanket tied around my neck to notice.
Inception is an exhilarating, beautiful film, with some stunning effects work and elaborate set pieces that could’ve put a Third World country through a decent college. More importantly, though, Nolan emphasizes emotions over explosions and remains one of the only mega-budget directors with the courage and clout to subvert the studio-hammered template for a $200-million film.