Leonardo DiCaprio may be prominent in "Inception's" credits, but writer-director Chris Nolan is the film's true star.
Nolan's mind-bending script and masterful direction anchor the best summer film since his 2008 masterpiece "The Dark Knight." His Inception defies and rebukes the Hollywood notion that a big-budget summer movie must be dumbed down for broad appeal.
The film doesn't coddle audiences; theater-goers are expected to keep up with the breakneck twists as quickly as they come. And by the film's gripping third act, Nolan is juggling so many simultaneous plots, one expects the movie to come crashing down to earth from the weight of it all.
It doesn't. Instead, Inception charges triumphantly forward, leaving one breathless and spellbound, and no doubt in a state of delirium over what it all means.
That question is likely to loom large for audiences the next few weeks as those who see the film try to wrap their heads around their experience. Like Nolan's masterful breakthrough, 2000's equally twisty "Memento," "Inception" begs for repeated viewings.
Equally daunting is trying to accurately explain Inception.
The film is about dreams, specifically the manipulation of them by others. The military developed this ability and used it as a training exercise for soldiers while they slept. The practice has since been co-opted by big business as a new form of corporate espionage: mind games are literally played in a rival CEO's head while he's in a drug-induced sleep.
Understanding and operating in a such an environment is dangerous, and no one is better at it than Cobb (DiCaprio).
Cobb is so good that a corporate head named Saito (Ken Watanabe) recruits him to infiltrate the dreams of a business rival's son (Cillian Murphy).
Saito wants Cobb to plant an idea in the son's head to dismantle his ailing father's worldwide conglomerate. Such a concept is called "inception," and it requires Cobb to go several layers deep into the son's dreams — in effect, a dream within a dream within a dream. Only, the deeper one goes, the more difficult it becomes to get out.
To pull off the risky plan, Cobb is assisted by his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a forger named Eames (Tom Hardy) with a gift for disguises, and "the architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose job it is to construct dreamscapes; think of it as a maze of buildings, streets, and rooms for the dreamers to run around in.
As a new recruit, Ariadne's skills amaze Cobb. Her abilities also enable her to discover the troubled soul Cobb buried deep within his subconscious.
In the real world, Cobb is wanted for the murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), which keeps him from visiting his two young children. In the dreamworld, Cobb is haunted by the memory of Mal, and, in a Freudian twist, often projects her image during a mission, causing the plans to unravel.
After learning how unstable Cobb is while in a dream state, Ariadne grows fearful of what might happen to the team while they are several dreams deep during inception.
Cobb, though, ignores Ariadne's warnings to call off the mission because Saito has the political pull to wipe clean his fugitive status.
And once he's no longer wanted, he can finally see his children again.
Like the dreams themselves, "Inception's" plot continually expands as the team drops into each new level. It's a terrific testament to Nolan how masterfully everything comes together in a wild half-hour conclusion that will bend your mind and stop your heart.
Nolan is aided by a strong cast led by an engaging DiCaprio, himself fresh from another brain twister earlier this year, Shutter Island, and Gordon-Levitt, who, after his brilliant turn as a love-struck 20-something in last summer's "(500) Days of Summer," is quickly asserting himself as star potential.
Cotillard also delivers a standout performance, while Page proves pleasant enough in her first major role in a big-budget film.
Also worthy of notice is the work of film composer Hans Zimmer. Just as he did with "The Dark Knight," Zimmer delivers a powerful, moody score that underlines and punctuates what's onscreen.
But make no mistake, this is Nolan's film all the way.
Like a young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Nolan has redefined the summer blockbuster as more than just lazy screenwriting and worn-out cliches.
This is a brainy, brawny popcorn pleaser at its best. And one not easily forgotten.
Contact Kirk Baird at: