nyone claiming to understand everything that happens in Inception after one viewing is either lying, or Christopher Nolan. • It wouldn't be surprising if Nolan confessed a bit of confusion himself, although he wrote and directed the thing. Inception is a sensory and intellectual overload from start to finish, a brawny, brainy summer movie that may infuriate as many viewers as it enraptures. • The movie unfolds in dreams within dreams, and if that isn't befuddling enough, within other dreams as well. Nothing is real, so everything is possible. • Cityscapes can fold like flip phones, with pedestrians casually walking up 90-degree angles at the hinges. People float and fight in zero gravity, although the "vomit comet" lifting them is a van in another level of consciousness taking minutes to tumble off a bridge. Some folks die violently in order to wake up, while others live in random imaginings after dying. • Trippy stuff.
The only grounding in Nolan's film comes from other cinematic head trips, notably Leonardo DiCaprio's casting as Dom Cobb, a corporate espionage expert in "extraction" — the removal of ideas from the minds of business rivals while they're dreaming. Like DiCaprio's character in Shutter Island, Dom is a victim of repressed memories intruding on a mystery he's trying to solve, and a life he can't regain. DiCaprio is solid, but familiarly so.
Ground rules are crucial in fantasies like Inception, and Nolan lays out many right off the bat, while Dom and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) botch an extraction job. Their failure doesn't deter the businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) from hiring them for a unique and dangerous assignment. Rather than extraction, Dom and Arthur will attempt an inception — planting an idea in the mind of a rival (Cillian Murphy) to ruin his empire.
There's a lot of gobbledy-gook about unconstructed dreambases, paradox architecture, the source of genius and projected reality. Most of the exposition is gamely delivered by Ellen Page as Dom and Arthur's new partner, or recited by DiCaprio answering the questions she's asking for the rest of us. I'll give Nolan the benefit of my doubt that Inception is an airtight riddle; it's simply too dense to judge for that after one viewing.
Yet the movie does invite repeat inspection, if only for Nolan's brilliant visualization of such diabolically abstract ideas, culminating in a climactic hopscotch between three — count 'em — three levels of consciousness (so there's essentially a triple countdown clock ticking). It's a challenge and a minor chore to follow Nolan's cerebral lead, but anyone complaining that Hollywood lacks bold inspiration can shush for a while.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.