I watched this with my dad and brother-in-law, both of whom had seen it before. They felt that they could relax into it more on this second viewing, since they weren't having to work to keep track of the story.
Me, I was calling it straightforward. I'd heard it was a brain-bender, which in fairness it is. No arguments there. However I thought it had been trying to make things easy for its audience, rather than difficult. It has simple rules and it follows them. It has an insane four-way action sequence towards the end in which time's going at different speeds, but you always know where you are thanks to Nolan's James Bond homage with criss-crossing action scenes in globetrotting locations. Personally I thought the most impressive thing about Inception wasn't its narrative and ideas, but the clarity of Nolan's vision in turning them into a movie.
Even the ideas themselves aren't that unusual if you're a horror fan. A Nightmare on Elm Street
, Dreamscape... okay, also non-horror, e.g. Brainstorm (1983). You could also draw analogies with The Matrix. What Nolan's doing that's different is building logically upon his premises, so for instance in this film a dream within a dream is merely one building block in the story.
So, what is the story? Leonardo DiCaprio... no, wait, come back! He's not just a pretty boy these days. In fact he's no longer even pretty. Anyway, DiCaprio is a thief who enters people's dreams and manipulates them. The technology's well known, with the most important skill being to do it slickly enough that the dreamer doesn't realise what you're doing. Anyway, stealing someone's most secret ideas is comparatively straightforward, while doing the opposite and implanting new ones is hard enough to be called impossible. That's inception. Guess what DiCaprio's about to be hired to do. It's a heist flick, basically.
Of course there's a twist, though. Going deep into dreams means going into the subconscious, which might take you to some messed-up places. DiCaprio hasn't told anyone else on his team, but his secret problem is a doozy.
This is a film that's working on different levels, but carefully keeping them all clear for the audience. 1. You've got the heist stuff, involving careful research of the target. (As it happens the crime's in a good cause.) 2. You've got James Bond action, with some unique dream-based features you won't have seen before and make the film worth watching just for the bubblegum factor. Towards the end, there's an extended homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service that struck me as playing out a lot like a video game. 3. You've got extreme psychological issues buried inside DiCaprio, which of course can get brought alive more literally than usual if you're a dreamwalker. 4. You've got detailed SF ideas and homages to M.C. Escher, although the film isn't trying to create a near-future world like Blade Runner or Minority Report
. Perhaps surprisingly, I never got a sense of Philip K. Dick. It's too nuts-and-bolts for that, although apparently Nolan was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges.
Each of these levels is a complete film. Each one will have a good-sized chunk of the audience who've identified that as "the real movie" and are basically focused on that. What's more, they'll have had a good time and recommended it to their friends. To date it's made 825 million gross, which is reassuring for those who like to see a film with a brain.
The cast is strong and full of Nolan favourites. The Mighty Caine makes an appearance. The obscurely creepy Cillian Murphy wears a bag on his head for the third time in a Christopher Nolan movie. Ken Watanabe gets a role especially written for him after Nolan thought he didn't get enough screentime in Batman Begins. Pete Postlethwaite appears and I didn't recognise him! There's too much action and not enough character conflict for this to come across as an actors' movie, although Leonardo DiCaprio has some heavy lifting to do (and succeeds), but that doesn't mean the cast isn't 100% solid.
I can't think of anything negative to say about this film. It's not going as apeshit as it might have done with dream logic, but there are plot reasons for that and the flipside is that Nolan's rigour with his dream rules allows for much more interestingly detailed, intricate plot and action. We've seen plenty of Alice in Wonderland horror films. This is something new. It's not as emotionally rich as The Dark Knight
, but it's got plenty going on with DiCaprio. It's both straightforward and mind-bending. It's the kind of film you're both unsurprised and pleased to see has been one of the highest-grossing of the year. Throw in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and it's been a lucrative 2010 for dreamlands.