Inception, First Take: No Spoilers, Lots of Reasons to Be Excited

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I saw Inception two weeks ago. I’ve been bursting at the seams to talk about it with someone, but Warner Bros. told us that we couldn’t do anything. No tweets. No Facebooking. No reviews. Nada.

Well, I’ve learned that the embargo just recently lifted. I think I’m going to see the movie a second time before I write up the full review. But before giving away any major spoilers, I thought I’d share with you precisely what I shared with my brother last night, when he asked what I thought. He told me he didn’t want me to ruin anything important, so I didn’t. I described the basic layout of the story, but having seen it, I can assure you: I’m not ruining the juicy stuff. Here’s the scoop –

The long and short of it: This movie’s brilliant. It is so unbelievably inventive and intelligent that I’m convinced a studio just gave Christopher Nolan carte blanche to do anything he wanted. Because there’s no way some studio exec read this script and then said: “Sure, take my money and go make this movie.” It’s so dense, so layered, such a hard sell that it must be a marketing nightmare. But it’s easily the most interesting, involving and memorable film I’ve seen this year. I want to see it a second time pre-opening, and a third time opening weekend; that should tell you something right there.

Mild spoilers ahead, this will NOT ruin it for you, I only discuss setup, none of the payoff:

The movie’s about dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams that eclipse reality. There seem to be two threads wrapping around one another: The new dreams Leonardo DiCaprio plunges into, and the old ones he cannot escape from.

Let’s start with the latter: He and his wife, Marion Cotillard, have long experimented with implanting themselves into prolonged dream states. Living out days and weeks inside the subconscious realm. And now, after some unexpected consequences of those experiments, she often appears in Di Caprio’s other dreams – much to his shock and dismay.

So there’s a palpable emotional theme there, of a love affair that’s turned sour in a big, big way, with a sense of invasion about it, as wife keeps tracking down her husband in the dreamscapes. I promised not to ruin anything, so let’s keep it vague: Near the end of the story, the emotional fallout of this marriage is profound.

While that husband and wife story plays out as the emotional core of this fantasy, the plot lines involve DiCaprio, sidekick Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and architect apprentice Ellen Page, all going out on that clichéd “one last mission.” Their goal: Not to use a dream to steal key information from a subject’s brain, which is their usual strategy, but to implant a new thought into someone’s mind. An idea that will then infect the subconscious and lead someone to do something they never otherwise would have done.

Their target is Cillian Murphy, and their mission involves digging deep down into Murphy’s  subconscious. Way down. To do this, they have to enter dreams within dreams, funneling down to, essentially, the inner brain where the concept of time behaves quite differently. So while I will not divulge what happens in any of these dreams, it’s the layering effect of dream upon dream that really makes this story pop. It’s quite complicated, but let me give it a try: In the present, Cillian Murphy is asleep on a plane, and DiCaprio is tunneling into Murphy’s mind. Now in this dreamscape, DiCaprio finds Murphy again – the self-construct of Murphy in his own dream –  walking through a hotel. DiCaprio then has Murphy fall asleep again, and then tunnels down yet further, into the dream’s dream. And then repeat again.

At this point, DiCaprio and Murphy, who are both asleep in the real world, are intertwined three levels deep. To extract themselves, the bottom dreamer would have to awaken, then the top dreamer, and then the real person.

So how do they escape from these dreams? That’s the great narrative device Nolan has developed out of thin air – and one I will not tell you about. Suffice it to say: He has almost created a new language and a new set of rules governing time and space. But it all builds up to one virtuoso sequence that will go down in cinematic history, where four concurrent storylines are playing out at different rates of speed. Ten seconds in one storyline is three minutes in another, 60 minutes in the third, and three years in the next. All four threads work in unison to create a sort of quadruple heist-chase sequence that lasts for a good hour of screen time.

Imagine a heist movie where the master plan takes an hour, and the actual robbery isn’t 15 minutes long but 90. It’s non-stop adrenaline, as they navigate the labyrinth of the brain.

In a way, Inception represents the culmination of all the themes Nolan has distorted in his previous movies. Most obviously, like Memento, the notion of time is fluid here. Like Insomnia, our hero’s fraying state of mind is always in question (DiCaprio is always checking whether or not he’s dreaming, terrified to think that he’s trapped in a dream world that he mistakes as reality). Like The Dark Knight, the action is intense, sprawling, and gravity-defying.

I’ve debated this point extensively with one other person who saw the movie – who said he hated the ending of the film – but I think Nolan’s final shot ranks among one of the most titillating, haunting and open-to-translation climaxes in movie history.

My one and only concern has to do with all the extensive exposition. There are so many new ground rules to set up here, that I felt the first portion of the plot drifting and dragging, as characters are relegated to dry setup and elaborate talking points. But that said, now knowing where the puzzle is ultimately going, I think all that setup is actually far more nuanced that I had initially realized.

I rarely see movies twice before writing about them, but this one’s different. It’s way different. It’s the most daring Hollywood tent pole probably since Wall-E. I went in expecting a lot, and walked out not just satisfied but energized. A little hypnotized too, truly. Here’s a movie that’s three steps ahead of your subconscious, on four different levels, at five different speeds, with six different characters. Get ready.