Stories within stories are a time-honored writing tradition, but one notoriously tricky to pull off, lest the narrative gets lost within its own convolutions. Likewise, stories about dreamworlds, especially when done in movies, are tricky business because their license for surreality can more easily capture the limitless SFX of a dream-vision, but not the compelling sense of reality that comes along with it. To court either writing convention is to play with matches. To tap both is like a game of Russian roulette with flamethrowers. And yet, writer-director Christopher Nolan achieves a most unlikely success with Inception, a movie so complicated it should be a screaming mess, but instead is one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed science fiction movies of the modern era.
The story takes place in a near-present where the existence of experimental technology that allows people to hack into each other’s dreams has creates a new breed of spies and thieves, who sneak into people’s minds to steal their secrets. Dominick Cobb is one such thief, a guy with secrets of his own that keep him on the run while he pulls one high-end dream-heist after another. When he is hired by Saito, a wealthy industrialist looking to implant an idea into the head of his competitor, Cobb is faced with a unique challenge: to place an idea so deeply in another’s subconscious—the point of inception—that the person can’t tell that the idea is not their own. If Cobb succeeds, Saito will erase Cobb’s criminal past. But the job is almost impossibly complicated, even by Cobb’s standards, requiring the use of new team members, and a dive so far into the realms of the subconscious that one might forget which reality they should call home. And as images of Cobb’s dead wife keep haunting him during the job, it becomes clear that nothing about this mission is going to be as easy as it seems…and none of it is easy in the first place.
Inception is simply an extremely clever movie. It presents us with a heist caper that takes place within a multi-layered dreamscape arranged like nesting dolls, a caper within a caper within a caper, and so on until we reach the furthest depths of the mind. The story’s willingness to show what happens on all of those different layers simultaneously, all while acknowledging that those stories are taking place at different rates of time is a kind of narrative acrobatics we don’t often see because it’s kind of insane to even try it. Half the enjoyment of Inception is watching it succeed where it shouldn’t.
Another thing worth mentioning is how much Inception sneaks up on you as a science fiction movie. Sure, it’s easy for scenes of intense CGI to represent how easily and dramatically reality can warp when we are dreaming. But the tech in the story that makes it possible is surprisingly low-key, and as pivotal as it is for this story, the rest of the world seems largely unchanged by it. Our dream thieves are having the world’s greatest adventures in a world that otherwise seems indistinguishable from our own. There’s a great fun in that, with a sci-fi premise that is at once both audacious and subtle. So subtle, at times, that we let it occupy that realm Arthur C. Clark once wrote of, where sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Inception is the softest of science fiction because we learn more about the mythical art of building dreamworlds than about the nuts and bolts that makes it all possible, but a tip of the hat to Christopher Nolan for such masterful misdirection that we stop asking questions about it all about five minutes in.
Also of note are the movie’s numerous and ambitious action sequences. On their own, they feel like scenes lifted from some other movie, but set in Inception’s context, we give them extra weight, as well as additional suspension of disbelief. Not that we need them—the various fights and chases and set pieces are so well done we don’t need to tell ourselves they are within a dream to work. And then, when they make it obvious that they are in a dream, things only get better from there. All of this flash and bang, however, never overpowers the weighty concepts and character drama that really drive the story. This might be a heist about an idea, but it’s a story about the pain and loss and regret that turns even the sweetest of dreams into the darkest of nightmares.
This movie trades on an extremely talented cast, tight directing, and fantastic cinematography and editing. But it’s the phenomenal writing that manages to present its audience with a plot that should be impossible to follow, and instead so totally engrosses us that we sit on the edge of our seats, wondering how it is all going to tie together. For all its many complications, Inception is a story about loose ends and how crucial it is to tie them off. And that it does, except for one, which brings us to Inception’s moment of truth: its ending.
Throughout the story, Cobb spins a little top he keeps with him. Every dream jumper like him keeps a personal totem to remind themselves that they’re just in a dream. For Cobb, when the top falls over, he knows he’s in reality. And at the very end, when his mission with Saito has finally reached its conclusion, when he has plumbed the deepest recesses of the mind and comes back from it, when he is given the greatest reward he could possibly hope for, he spins that top one more time to make sure it isn’t a dream. And as the movie spends its final seconds watching that top spin, we know that we’ll never see the outcome of Cobb’s final test. We don’t have to. Whether he’s awake or not, Cobb’s achieved his dream.