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Their mark here is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow from Nolan's Batman Begins), the soft son of a hard man (Pete Postlethwaite) who built an energy empire sort of a BP without the spill. Now the old man is dying, and a rival tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants Cobb to infiltrate Fischer's subconscious and plant a seed that will persuade him to dissolve Dad's empire before it dominates the energy business. (And yes, that's a pretty flimsy excuse for an action-movie premise.) Cobb assembles his team: second in command Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), expert forger and impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy), potions master Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne, who will build them a world to dream in.
In essence, then, Inception is a heist movie an Ocean's Eleven in which the thieves break into the vault not to retrieve something but to put it there. Cobb and company are also a bit like the microscopic submarine squad in Fantastic Voyage (except that they're navigating the subconscious instead of the bloodstream) or the "real" characters in every virtual adventure from The Matrix to Avatar who sit passively in pods while their alternate selves spring into action.
But Inception is also a haunted-mind movie. Cobb has visions of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); he's addicted to her memory, her beauty, her love for him, and he keeps going back to her when his eyes close because, he says, "in my dreams, we're still together." Even there, though, he cannot see the faces of their two children. Nor can he see them in real life, since the authorities believe Cobb killed Mal, and if he returns to the U.S. he'll be arrested for murder. (Why the kids can't go to Europe to be with their daddy isn't explained.)
The carrot for him to take Saito's job is the "one phone call" that can clear his name. For him to sleep untroubled, he must invade Fischer's dreams. To free himself from his dead wife, he and his team have to deeply plant the idea that will free the rich young man from his dead father. But Cobb's dream mind keeps manifesting memories of Mal, who shows up to wreak havoc and put the whole team in jeopardy. "As we go deeper into Fischer," Ariadne says, "we'll also be going deeper into you" into the fatal recesses of a grieving man's memories. But Cobb has to go there, to plunge into the morass of his love and fear. "Downwards," he decides, "is the only way forwards."
DiCaprio stepped into this quicksand terrain earlier this year, in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, which was about coming to terms with, or surrendering to, the loss of a loved one. Cotillard is also filling a familiar function: as in Nine, in which she played Daniel Day-Lewis' long-suffering wife, she is the emotional core of a big-budget essay in memory and fantasy. (She also won an Oscar as Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose, so whenever Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," the theme song for Inception, is heard, one thinks of Cotillard.) But she never looked so movie-star glamorous as she does here her coiffure virtually requires that the Motion Picture Academy create an Oscar for Best Hair nor struck so plangent a chord. Mal may be toxic to Cobb, but as played by Cotillard, she's worth dying for.
Oh, wait, this is supposed to be an action thriller. Kind of. The movie has some fights that literally defy gravity up walls, on ceilings and a big car-chase scene (including a freight train plowing through city traffic) that matches the stunt work of Batman and the Joker's wild ride in The Dark Knight. But some of Inception's most enthralling effects are pure visual virtuosity, as when one half of a Paris neighborhood ascends like a drawbridge and is folded over onto the other half. The picture's main pull is not visceral but intellectual, in the style of Euro puzzle films of the past 50 years, from Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon but as Nolan told the New York Times, with "way more explosions."
Inception may or may not be a hit, but it is certainly caviar for film lovers. Even more than Nine, this is truly a movie about moviemaking. Its conversations are like story conferences (the production designer, Ariadne, consulting with the director, Cobb); it's full of what might be considered alternate scenes and outtakes and is peopled with characters who could improv and abduct the plot. Finally, its noble intent is to implant one man's vision in the mind of a vast audience.
The idea of moviegoing as communal dreaming is a century old. With Inception, viewers have a chance to see that notion get a state-of-the-art update. Take that chance: dream along with Christopher Nolan.