Review: Inception Is Exceptional

You are what you love,

and not what loves you back. -- Jenny Lewis

Inception is about many things, but most of all it deals with the two basic questions that we humans face each and every day:

1. What do we know?

2. What do we believe?

You can fit just about everything going on in your life into one of these boxes. You believe in your marriage, or an afterlife, or that all politicians are crooks. You know that you'll get off of work at 5 p.m., that if you drop something it will fall, and that a flipped quarter will end up landing on either heads or tails. But the truth, a truth that Inception exposes, is that belief and knowledge are basically the same question, with the exact same answer, because you can't really know or believe anything with 100 percent clarity. Your perception always gets directly in the way of grasping reality. Your marriage could be in shambles, the afterlife could just be a really great marketing concept, and there's got to be at least one or two decent politicians in the world. Your boss might be headed your way at this very moment to tell you to stay longer, an earthquake could shake up your personal gravity, and who knows, that quarter could very well land on its thinly-ridged side. It's a confounding place to be conscious of, which is precisely why humans so willingly apply massive amounts of rationalization, structure, and faith to an imperfect world.

Inception is a film about dreams, the manipulation of dreams, the strength of memory, the power of imagination, and that moment of pure creation we often call inspiration. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Dom Cobb, is an "extractor" -- a guy who breaks into your subconscious (while you're dreaming) to steal information. Inception comes ready-made with its own terms and special brand of reality. There are the chemists who put you under, allowing guys like Cobb access to your brain, there's the "dream sharing" aspect of the technology, there are the "forgers" who enter your consciousness disguised as someone else, there are the "projections" (akin to white blood cells) that your own mind uses to protect you from intruders. In this universe you'll need a physical "totem" with you at all times to know when you're not dreaming, and you'll need a physical "kick" to get out of the dreamworld once you're chemically under. It's an all-encompassing universe that Christopher Nolan has created, and you'll find yourself talking about it with friends for hours and days afterward.

Visually, the work is an audacious spectacle of upside-down cities and zero-gravity fights. It's, for lack of a more suitable term, completely bonkers -- maintaining multiple levels of tension across space and time. Cobb and company have a special job this time around. They need to plant an idea in a target's brain -- that's what "inception" refers to -- only they need to do it in a manner so that the idea feels organic, so that it feels like the target came up with the idea himself. They'll need to get him into a dream for starters, then from there they'll dip him into another dream. And of course, they'll head down one more level after that, for maximum depth, so that the idea is buried deep within. A dream within a dream within a dream within a staged reality within a movie beamed to your eyes and then taken back to your brain for you to mull over. Parse that and you're about 35 percent of the way to understanding what exactly is going on around here. The answer is somewhere between "who knows," "wow," and "hey, can we talk about what just happened there?" It's an affecting movie; quite a piece of art in a world of also-rans and marketing plans.

Before we go any further, a quick recap. Visually stunning, intellectually challenging, full of big concepts and themes. Let's continue along that front.

The themes broached by Inception are somehow even bigger than the film itself. Inception is a movie about redemption, relationships, death as an escape, sacrifice, the divide between reality and dreaming, codependence, loss, love, and the parasitic nature of the most powerful force on Earth: the idea. An idea can't ever be slain, an idea can travel across language and ideology. As Victor Hugo so elegantly put it:

"One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas."

Christopher Nolan has set a raft of ideas in motion here, he's thrown the kitchen sink at your intellect. He tugs at your heartstrings with Marion Cotillard, then he brings you back to a feeling of dire peril with Ellen Page's architect persona. DiCaprio hasn't ever been better. Michael Caine offers your head a few minutes of rest. Ken Watanabe sets the stage, delivers cryptic speeches, and occasionally cracks wise. The film encapsulates the action genre, engulfing it like a giant spider, before turning hungrily toward the drama category. There are gun battles, time moves at a different pace within each dream, and the tension is nothing short of diamond-cut sparkly. This is a film, a great film, the one that heralds the beginning of the end or starts the resistance against watered-down carbon-copied silly nonsense.

Most of all, Inception finds that middle ground between thinking (knowing) and feeling (believing). Nolan has delivered a love letter to our intellect and heart, and he's done it with a beautiful rendering of essential and eternal truths. We must know things. We must believe in things. And we're defined by all of it, for better or worse. This faith is at once our greatest failing, and also our greatest strength.

Inception is a lush film, full of meaning and intrigue, filled with Easter Eggs to discuss. Consider taking notes! It's Memento (messing with the linear plot structure) meets The Matrix (off-the-wall effects) meets What Dreams May Come (overwhelming sentiments of love against an otherworldly backdrop) meets Mulholland Drive (purposeful misdirection, what the hell just happened?). This isn't a movie for people who don't want to think, but it is a film for all you lovers of film.

Near the outset of the film, to test Ellen Page's architectural skills, she's asked to speedily draw a maze that takes a minute to solve. Give this a shot; it's a nice escape, but it's harder than you'd think.

I used to draw mazes, as a youngster, and I'd like to think they were pretty good efforts, but my recollection of said drawing has led me to a somewhat unsettling conclusion. You see, I would draw for hours, with many false leads and dead ends for the eventual maze-taker to follow. But in looking back, an odd fact dawned on me: when you're drawing a maze you've always got to keep one route open, the eventual answer to the riddle presented. There's only one way out, and it was the same answer at both the beginning and end of the process. All that's left is to start dragging the pencil across the paper, to couple ambition with destiny to take flight.

Grade: A+