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As dreamy looking as its star, but not a dream of a movie

Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

3 out of 4 stars

  • Inception
  • Directed and written by Christopher Nolan
  • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard
  • Classification: PG

The truism says that, watched in the dark on a silver screen, the movies are a public form of dreaming, and our suspended disbelief is the lever that make them real, liberating a smile or a tear, freeing us to care. But when the dream of a movie becomes a dream in a movie, when a slumbering character's subconscious is entered and the concrete world left behind, that lever doesn't work nearly as well. Our eye may be dazzled by the surreal sights, but our mind tends to shout in protest, "Stop. This is a cheat. Since the movie has abandoned even the pretense of realism, traded in for a realm where everything is possible but nothing is palpable, where even a fired gun lacks any true consequence, then I've lost any reason to believe and, with it, any motive to care. If the dreamer feels nothing, neither do I."

Succinct for once, Henry James put it more bluntly: "Tell a dream, kill a story."

Then again, ol' Henry wasn't much of a filmgoer and, I'm guessing, never saw a single flick by Christopher Nolan, a writer-director who loves nothing better than to play mind games with the audience. He did it in Memento, and again in The Prestige, and he's back at it with a big-budget vengeance in the dreamscape of Inception, a.k.a. the most hotly anticipated picture of the year and a bona fide masterpiece just waiting to be unveiled. That, at least, was the dreamy buzz. The reality? Pretty good, not bad, but brilliant it surely ain't.

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Awfully clever though - the script takes an excessive but forgivable pride in its cleverness. Apparently, it's set at some point in the future, because technology allows "extractors" to sneak into a man's dreams and steal good ideas from his teeming cranium. The obvious contrast with the present, when technology merely allows bad ideas to be tweeted endlessly and gratis from empty craniums, is unremarked upon. Anyway, Dom Cobb (all the names here have a slightly off-kilter sound) is one such extractor, a master thief in the corporate sector. Indeed, the opening frames find him (Leonardo DiCaprio in intense mode) sharing someone's sleeping visions, which, as luck would have it, bear an uncanny resemblance to an action flick - bullets fly, cars chase, at least until cold water is literally poured over the proceedings. He awakens, we're confused, but not to worry. Inducing a state of confusion, the blurring of boundaries, is Nolan's primary and ongoing goal.

The complications thicken with two quick twists from the plot: (1) Turns out that Cobb has buried his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) deep in his own dark subconscious, from which she regularly emerges, clad in a fetching black gown, to assume the role of femme fatale; and (2) Promising to expunge his criminal record, a rich businessman (Ken Watanabe) proposes that Cobb upgrade from extraction to inception, not swiping good ideas but planting bad ones, in this case in the mind of a major corporate rival (Cillian Murphy).

Well, such mental horticulture requires quite the team of gardeners - there's Ariadne the "dreamscape architect" (Ellen Page); there's Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao); there's Arthur the comic relief (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and there's Eames the macho hunk (Tom Hardy) and the dispenser of an especially precious nugget of wisdom: "You need the simplest version of the idea for it to grow organically in the mind." For the rest of this Byzantine scenario, the irony screams out: Nolan is smart enough to write that advice but, alas, not to take it.

How Byzantine does it get? By my watch, two hours and umpteen minutes worth, devoted to globe-trotting far and wide as blockbusters are wont to do, but also spent tumbling down cortical rabbit-holes into various and sundry ids. En route, some of the sights are breathtaking. That architectural Ariadne conjures up a delicious visit to Paris, where the City of Light seems to fold in on itself like a hinged jewel box, as if embracing its own beauty. On the nightmare side of the equation, a freight train rumbles down Fifth Avenue, a steel elevator opens onto a trashed hotel room, ocean waves break over listing skyscrapers. Here a Daliesque tableau, there an Escher maze - at best, the effects are truly special, our eyes truly dazzled.

But that's where the truth, and any emotional response to it, stops. The rest is a murky stream of sub-consciousness, as our dream team attaches itself to "the mark" and pulls everyone down on a three-tiered descent - yes, a dream within a dream within a dream, one in a careening white van, another in a corridor bereft of gravity, the last in a fortress of solitude atop a snow-capped mountain. In each, action abounds, although much of it just seems grafted on. Occasionally, the mania pauses for interludes of chatty exposition, including a colloquy informing us that dreamers in this particular dream world don't awaken when they die but are doomed to an eternity in limbo. Yikes. It's like watching a movie and having a catechism class break out.

I'm being harsh. There's definitely fun to be had, and suspense to be enjoyed, exactly where Nolan intends it - in navigating the neurons, trying to locate the characters (and ourselves) amidst all the complex circuitry. Of course, playing such plot-driven characters gives the actors scant room to manoeuvre. They do the little that's possible within a script that does too much, that's so visionary in its cleverness and yet so blind to the big fat problem that won't go away - you can't feel for anyone when nothing feels real. Memo to Christopher Nolan for future outings: Kill the dream, tell a story.

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