Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an agent working in the field of data acquisition and extraction. However, rather than follow the traditional routes of industrial espionage, he uses cutting-edge technology to extract this information from his targets' dreams. This can be a dangerous task, with the infiltrators at risk from the target's subconscious, but Cobb is the best in his field.
Exiled from the USA for undisclosed reasons, Cobb is desperate to return home and see his children. His latest employer claims that he can make this happen, but only if Cobb can perform the impossible: inception, placing an idea so deeply in the target's subconscious that they believe they came up with it themselves. Cobb has never managed to succeed at this before, but relishes the challenge and the reward. He assembles a team of the very best in their field to mount a reverse-heist into the unconscious of a top businessman, but can he leave his own past behind?
Inception was one of the more heavily-acclaimed movies of 2010, a complex SF thriller helmed by director-of-the-moment Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight). Its cerebral and complex premise was feared to be off-putting to casual audiences, but the film took an impressive $820 million at the box office and demonstrated that a clever film could still be a break-out hit. At least that's the narrative that's been spread around by various critics. Actually Inception's complexity is more about asking the audience to retain information and maintain a keen eye for detail. The film isn't really ambiguous (aside from a slightly cheesy final shot that screams "The End...OR IS IT?!?") and the rules of the dream-hacking and details of the heist are pretty well-laid-out by clearly-related expositionary sequences.
Like The Matrix, the film isn't as original as it first appears but melds its ideas with compelling action sequences (a fistfight in a hallway with the exterior gravity switching around is an impressive highlight) and use of CGI (Paris wrapping itself into a giant ball is a staggering visual idea, executed flawlessly). It lacks the confused cod-philosophy of The Matrix's weaker sequels though, instead focusing on the characters of Cobb (a damaged, somewhat arrogant man) and his team-members, particularly Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Saito (Ken Watanabe) and their mark, Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), well-written characters who stand out alongside the film's impressive visuals and more complex ideas.
The film's SF influences are intriguing. Previously Nolan had worked with Christopher Priest on The Prestige and Inception feels very much like a Priest novel reworked to include more explosions and machine guns. The big difference between them is that Priest loves ambiguity whilst Nolan is less interested in leaving open questions, with only the very final shot leaving the story open to further interpretations. The DNA of Philip K. Dick can also be seen in the "What is reality?" question that pops up throughout the film, not to mention the vast and imposing SF city that we encounter in the final act.
The film falters occasionally. Like The Dark Knight the film occasionally feels weighed down by maybe one or two too many subplots (though vastly less of a problem than on The Dark Knight, which sometimes loses focus as a result of this). Whilst the film has a strong emotional core with regards to Cobb's relationship with his deceased wife and his desire to be reunited with his children, in other areas the film is less emotionally engaging. In particular, the key relationship between Fisher and his father (the late Pete Postlethwaite) never really grabs hold of the imagination.
These are somewhat minor issues, however. Inception (****½) features strong performances, a clever premise and mixes entertainment with thought-provoking ideas. The film is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).