I remember watching The Matrix when I was fourteen and thinking no other action movie would ever top it—that the bar had been set for the genre—and I was right. Hollywood churned out so many bullettime sequences and twenty-person hallway brawls over the past several years that people began complaining its sphincter was sagging loose. Sure, The Matrix was the first of its kind, but it also spawned two piss-poor sequels and a whole progeny of “sleek” choreographed action films that couldn’t hold a candle to its grittier predecessors (Die Hard!). Everyone seeking to imitate The Wachowski Brothers’ triumph missed the core of what made The Matrix so spectacular—its fully developed reality, Neo’s existential crisis through most of the film, the epic final battle with Mr. Anderson; everyone overlooked how the directors “earned” their climactic action sequences, and instead threw as many bullets and boots at the screen as humanly possible. If even The Wachowskis couldn’t recreate the magic of their first success, what hope was there for creative sci-fi action thrillers?
Enter Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After resuscitating the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight—a film widely considered the greatest comic book adaptation of all time—it should be no surprise that his newest flick would raise the bar of its own genre. You may have seen the trailers where the world rolls up like a giant blackbean burrito. You probably know Leonardo Dicaprio plays an “extractor”—someone who dives into peoples’ minds in order to steal information. You may even know the tagline:“Your mind is the scene of the crime”.
You know nothing about this movie.
It’s one of those rare bladder-torture films that doesn’t tell you where it’s going—is a ride of remembering and forgetting, escape and immersion; as the story builds in a stunning crescendo—and that’s the most appropriate term I can use—characters lose themselves in ever-wrapping layers of dream and identity, memory and creation. It’s something moviegoers have never seen before, and aren’t likely to see again. I could tell you the ending of this film right now and it wouldn’t matter a bit—Inception is entirely about the ride, as physically embodied by its intertwined settings. That said, avoid the next paragraph if you’re avoiding spoilers.
Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) is an extractor first hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) as a test of his professional abilities. After a failure and brief “retweaking” of the “dream team”, Saito asks Cobb to perform the unthinkable—implant an idea in someone’s mind without their knowledge. As it turns out, Robert Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy), the son of a deceased wealthy industrialist, recently inherited his father’s company—an energy conglomerate he plans to expand into a monopolized superpower. Saito wants Cobb to implant doubts in Fischer’s mind, hopefully leading to his abdication of the big power throne and subsequent abandonment of any crazy world domination schemes. The only problem, as we soon discover from Cobb’s accomplice Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is that “inception” is impossible; if a subject is told to believe something—in a dream or otherwise—he will always remember it as someone else’s idea, and never think of it as his own. The two nearly pass on Saito’s commission until he offers Cobb the thing he desires most—a return home, where his children live. Due to unexplained circumstances vaguely connected to Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s wife, he’s long stood exiled and expatriated from his home. Faced with this fleeting opportunity, Cobb informs his partner that Inception is possible—it’s just incredibly difficult—before agreeing to help bring down Fischer’s company. After enlisting Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the team’s new dream “Architect” (it’s exactly what it sounds like), they set off to kidnap the young industrialist and “change his mind”.
There’s a lot more to the story, but Christopher Nolan shows it better than my words could ever tell. There are few greater honors for films than becoming comparison standards; Casablanca is a one for romance, Beauty and the Beast for children’s films, and yes, Inception stands right up there rubbing shoulders with the likes of North by Northwest, The Shining, The Matrix and other psychological thriller masterpieces. The final 2/3rds of this film act as an intricately woven web of every action film motif imaginable—grimy terrorist realism, sleek assassin veneer, wartime snow battles—and they all work. The multi-layered “dream depths” of Nolan’s structure facilitates mind-bending setting variations and constructions; indeed, the gravity and physics-defying worlds of the ad campaign are all here, neatly tucked in a narrative so tightly compressed that it forces audiences to think while they’re entertained. You will constantly feel torn between keeping up with the ever-mutating narrative and the distraction of the utterly awe-inducing tipple-topple sets and mid-air battles. Taking everything into account, I imagine this is what old-timey people felt when they first saw a motion picture in any form—awe, amazement, mental stimulation—which is a testament of quality unto itself.
This film’s greatest attribute, however, is its sheer originality. For all his accomplishments with the Batman series, this is the film Christopher Nolan will forever be remembered for; other directors will tackle The Caped Crusader and may even make a better installment. But nobody will ever make another film like Inception—it’s simply too fresh, too inimitable. The narrative, structure, set design, characters, cinematography—fuck, just every single thing about this movie—are too entirely unique to imitate without coming off as a blatant ripoff. This is a new generation’s Matrix—that rare film that comes along and redefines what you expect of not only a genre, but filmmaking as a whole. If you haven’t seen this film, get away from your computer and rush—RUSH—to the theater.