Considering what else is out there, “Inception” could have been the best movie of the summer without even trying. But it’s a Christopher Nolan movie, so of course it tries. Hard.
As the logical extension of whatever through-line might be drawn from “Memento” to “The Prestige” to “The Dark Knight,” this new film has all we’d want from Nolan: the puzzles and personal demons, the propulsive chases through big-city streets, the dorm-room philosophizing. What’s more, it has panache. Which is crucial for a science-fiction thriller about subconscious corporate espionage — that is, about people stealing ideas from other people’s dreams — wherein plot points arise from the volatile osmosis between memory and fantasy, or the deep disorientation of sudden awakeness. Nolan isn’t daunted by the perpetual moviemaking risk of belaboring the dreamlike; to the hallowed ranks of Bergman’s faceless clocks and Fellini’s smothering gridlock, he eagerly adds such novelty as a whole city block folding itself in half.
And yes, like the M.C. Escher renderings to which it necessarily alludes, “Inception” also has a way of fetishizing its own architecture, a rapture of working out its own rules. In any given direction, its staircases seem to go everywhere and nowhere. But Nolan has the professional courtesy to keep his maze of dreams from devouring itself. He has made entertainment a priority, and so “Inception” is only just as heady as a popcorn-muncher safely can be.
Leonardo DiCaprio has a standard sort of line reading now, but the thrill isn’t gone from his physical choices: intent, instinctive, not dumb. Whether twitching a heavy tremor of feeling in closeup or scampering between the cracks of buildings and edits, his movement has palpable magnitude. It goes well with the throbbing honk of Hans Zimmer’s score. Here DiCaprio makes another headlong charge into obsessive spousal grief, paralleling the tortuous path that Martin Scorsese so shrewdly cleared for him in “Shutter Island.” The morbid muse in this case is Marion Cotillard, looking radiant, sometimes menacing and not at all easy to forget. Among other abettors, DiCaprio’s dream raider has a partner in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a new recruit in Ellen Page, an adversary-cum-confederate in Ken Watanabe, and a corporate-scion mark in Cillian Murphy. The job should be short work, but he’s brought some baggage to it — and besides, time moves differently in dreams and in Nolan films.
It’s too easy to say that “Inception”‘s protracted cavorting with chronology and gravity and mortal combat will evoke “The Matrix.” I’m inclined to go deeper, risk of dream-limbo be damned, and to dare suggesting that the unlikely buoyancy of a reedy, neatly suited Gordon-Levitt, with hair slicked back and ears protuberant, suggests Fred Astaire on that ceiling in “Royal Wedding.” That such an epiphany, however flimsy, could occur in a film so full of chilly Kubrick and James Bond references, and so otherwise empty of humor, is something to be thankful for, like the last handful of popcorn left in the bag. True, Gordon-Levitt does also have a Keanu moment or two, but it is he who supplies our only chance for a real laugh here, by seizing and deadpanning a short beat of movie-grade romance before Page knows what has hit her. Short beats are the choicest, Nolan suggests, again underlining the correspondence between brevity and eternity.
“Inception” satisfies in spite of its faults by enlisting us to work around them. What a visceral kick it is to discover a movie in which willowy slow-motion actually does make up for arthritic dialogue. What a coup its demonstration of the hope that a blockbuster might still contain the stuff that dreams are made of. And after all of that, what a perfect little gesture of an ambiguous ending it has, a jaunty pushback against the certainty of summer-movie drudgery. No sequels, please.