Inception Is Brilliant and Baffling

Christopher Nolan’s new film Inception has accomplished the impossible: It’ll make movie audiences stop texting and pay attention.

Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight and Memento has brought new urgency and layers to genre films, and Inception is no exception. It is easily the most complicated blockbuster Hollywood has ever released, and a large portion of the audience is likely to be baffled. In the third act, you may find yourself unable to figure out what major characters are doing or why they’re doing it.

The movie is a sort of Shutter Island times The Matrix -- a thriller for viewers who thought MIT wasn’t challenging enough. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a master thief named Cobb who, at the beginning, finds himself washed up ashore half-dead in what appears to be Japan, captured by menacing security guards who note that he has nothing on him except a pistol and a pocket-sized spinning top. Minutes later, Cobb is seen (in flashback, apparently) in business attire pitching a client (Ken Watanabe) on the importance of securing the subconscious.

Cobb is aided by an associate (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, it soon becomes clear, is actually helping him execute a con game that involves stealing secrets from the client’s dreams while the latter sleeps. Yet Cobb and his associates are also asleep during the heist, and Cobb is betrayed by a mystery woman (Marion Cotillard) who appears to be his double-crossing ex-wife but, as we will later learn, is actually dead.

I think. As in Shutter Island, the movie is a gigantic puzzle in which DiCaprio simultaneously tries to solve an exterior mystery while dealing with a sorrowful interior back story involving a wife who died under harrowing circumstances. This time the main exterior puzzle is for Cobb and his team of associates (played by, among others, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy) to figure out not how to extract information from a sleeping mark (a CEO played by Cillian Murphy) but how to plant in him the idea that he should break up his conglomerate. To do this, Cobb and Co. must create a dream world and inject the CEO into it.

Shutter Island eventually laid its cards on the table (at somewhat ponderous length); Inception never quite does, and after an hour and a half or so, at a point where you hope things start to clarify for the climax, Nolan does the opposite, constructing a dizzying series of action set pieces involving four layers of nested unreality -- a dream within a dream within a dream within still another dream -- in each of which any character may get so mind-blasted that his waking self is relegated to a purgatory of the subconscious or may kill himself or another person because this is the best way to assure “waking up,” even if waking up simply means advancing one dream-level closer to waking life.

How do all these puzzles work together? It depends on what you want from a movie. The major flaw of the average picture today is its glum predictability. Implicitly, most movies ask that you check your brain at the door and pretend to be surprised when the lovers finally get together or the bad guy is blown to bits. Not so Inception. Just sifting through the layers of fantasy and reality requires a mental workout that may exhilarate you -- or might make you simply tune out. Don’t see this movie when you’re less than fully alert. It’s cinematic advanced calculus that makes The Matrix look like first-grade arithmetic.

As promised by months of hype, Inception is a whole lot of movie, maybe more than you can handle, made to be idolized and parodied and argued over. The cliché attached to it already is “mindblowing.” Is that a good thing?

Inception may well be a landmark that nudges forward our ideas of how much dazzle and wonder can be made to fit inside a film. The superstar filmmakers of twenty or thirty years from now will, I am sure, cite it as an inspiration, the way their elders did Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde.

Yet there is another, perhaps competing idea of what a film should be -- an intense emotional bond between audience and character. Here Inception falls short -- apart from Cobb and his wife, there is no one to care about at all, any more than you care about the background of the guy who programmed your iPhone. And there is so much hocus-pocus, such a firestorm of confusion and special effects, around the two leads that you may not even find yourself attached to them either.

I’m hedging because it’s too soon to tell. Inception is too large an experience to fully receive in on one viewing, and it is for that reason, along with its technical virtuosity, that it should be compared to films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey -- which at first seemed opaque and cold but was built to mature slowly. In five years I may think Inception the pinnacle of its era -- or a flashy mess.