For those who found the visuals of Avatar arresting but the plot flimsy, your wait for a thoroughly satisfying big budget film is over. Fittingly, it comes courtesy of Christopher Nolan who was responsible for the last critically acclaimed summer blockbuster (The Dark Knight). Inception finds him positioning his camera inside dreams, using this foundation as a limitless springboard for action sequences that defy traditional rules and questions that focus their sights on the very nature of happiness and humanity.
In his review, Roger Ebert called Inception "immune to spoilers", citing that the film is not about snippets of plot or twists, but more a product of the journey it takes. Some shards of plot are planted in our subconscious early in the film, only to achieve a new context when their meaning is revealed later on. Other crumbs of plot are unsettling or unintelligible and we are forced to trust Nolan that this will all make sense. Many films revel in ambiguity, often to a fault, relying on their audience to piece together strings of plot independently without any sort of reinforcement that they are on the right track. With Inception, Nolan very nearly goes the other way with it, using the first hour of the film as a glorified tutorial session featuring Dicaprio's Cobb (the "Extractor") tutoring a new "Architect", Ariadne (Ellen Page). Dreams are tricky business, and it stands to reason that there are some rules that need to be made clear before one goes mucking around in other people's minds, but one can't help but wonder if Nolan could have taken a page out of Hitchcock's book of "show don't tell." With that being said, these training sessions lend themselves to some of the most jaw-dropping visuals of the film, speaking to the awesome power of dreams when you can control your mind.
The central conflict of Inception involves the "planting" of an idea into an unwitting victim. Cobb and his team typically do just the opposite, hijacking the subconscious to remove critical information for their clients. His team deems it impossible, but Cobb has an added incentive to make it happen; being reunited with his children. The hiring of his team to enter the dreams of a young heir seems a bit awkward as a plot piece, as does the tagging along of the client Saito (Ken Watanabe) through the adventure. Perhaps if the Inception was done to a Judge or politician with the power to help Cobb reunite with his children with the stroke of a pen, the sense of urgency would have been more realistic. I suppose it would have been harder for him to recruit a team to risk their lives if there wasn't a hefty financial incentive, but the whole set-up of the Inception seemed a bit too convenient.
Regardless of how I felt about the introduction, the final 90 minutes of the film is an incredible ride that careens from perfectly timed event to perfectly timed event, keeping you paralyzed in your seat much in the same way The Dark Knight was able to do with many of The Joker's scenes and action sequences. While the Dark Knight became bogged down in philosophy towards the end, the stakes in Inception are such that you have no time to wax poetic about what you are seeing. There are frequent cuts between different scenes all playing out simultaneously to every character to the point where the term "meta" is insufficient. Once Nolan establishes the rules of his world, you have no choice but to try and keep up, because everything will be on the final.
Nolan's dreamscapes are much like the hidden memories of Joel Barish in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind. Subconscious feelings and unrelated materials cannot be denied during sleep and frequently invade where they do not belong. In Eternal Sunshine, this led to visuals of things shrinking out of sight or merging with other memories. In Inception, Nolan employs an "architect" whose job is to make sure the dreams themselves are as vivid and realistic as possible. I'm sure people were clamoring for more trippy dream visuals, but with such a complicated plot, you're going to have to settle for crumbling buildings and anti-gravity brawls. That's not to say there is a lack of innovation here (far from it, thematically and visually).
While some of the emotional heft of the narrative threatens to shake us out of the thrilling action scenes that sandwich it, the final scenes make the subplot worthwhile and serve as one of the more fitting final frames in recent memory. So rare are the films that manage engage the viewer on this many levels, that Nolan has earned the rare distinction in Hollywood for which budget and script should be of no concern. Give him the tools he needs, and get out of the way.