Here's a James Bond film for the age of "millennial unreality," a quality only enhanced for Christopher Nolan's new picture by its appearance in the same year as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, another film featuring a fraught, partially repressed relationship between a character played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his wife and kids. Inception has it both ways, sending its characters around the real world and to still more exotic locales in their dreamscapes. It can't quite have it both ways, however, when Nolan must choose between making a dream film and a thriller. This is one movie that can't be accused of resorting to "dream logic." Its dreams are quite undreamlike in many ways because they must conform to the requirements of the thriller genre. Thrillers operate by strict rules that add up to a logic of their own: time limits, specific physical problems to solve, and so forth. For Inception to work, we have to accept that dreams work the way Christopher Nolan says they do, and you could argue that the artificial dreams imposed on "extraction" targets by DiCaprio's crew could well work exactly that way. As a thriller, the film works fairly well, though the crosscutting between several simultaneous dream states grows absurd eventually. The constant cutting back to a van's protracted plunge into a river is begging to be parodied, and it left me wondering why Nolan never felt it necessary to include in the crosscutting an occasional check on the actual people dozing away on their trans-Pacific flight. The crosscutting is dazzling at first but once the pattern was set the mind tends to wander a little.
There are plenty of powerful, massive images in Inception, as you'd expect. Nolan's visual imagination is weighed down less by his generic commitment to the thriller than by two cliched character conceptions. One is our old nemesis, the Audience Identification Character who is introduced into a fantastic environment so that everything can be explained to her, and us. In Inception this is the insufferable, meaningfully-named Ariadne (Ellen Page), and this is the sort of film in which no one's ever going to call her Ari. She's our AIC for expository purposes only, because otherwise she's a genius (which is why she's recruited in the first place) and also insufferably wise. She manages to suss out all the secrets DiCaprio's Cobb is keeping, and ends up lecturing him constantly on the right choices he needs to make. The other cliche is Cobb himself with all his guilty secrets. He starts out separated from his children and exiled from America, and we're given strictly rationed bits of explanation for these facts, and for why his wife (Marion Cotillard) constantly intrudes on his invented or shared dreams to sabotage his work. Cobb's personal issues overshadow the dream-espionage plot to the point that the latter becomes a Macguffin, a problem exacerbated by Nolan's teasing revelation of the rules of extraction and inception. A situation we'd been shown was no problem before (what happens when you die in a dream) suddenly becomes a big one when another element is added, but we don't know that when the element is added, only when the problem arises. You can have suspense either way, but the option Nolan chooses feels cheaper somehow.
For some viewers, the inception-plot will matter less than the question of what was "real" and what was dream. Some people will leave wondering whether the ending is real or dream. That'll be the fun of it for them, but I found myself not really caring. I don't say this to knock Inception; while a bit overlong it still worked as a thriller for the most part. But as far as I'm concerned Nolan's new film is not an advance on The Prestige or The Dark Knight. It felt cliched in ways those films weren't, and the Batman film in particular had a real tragic power missing amidst the new film's sturm und drang. Inception is a fun film with many amazing visuals that are almost worth the admission price in their own right, but Nolan is a talented enough director to have done better already.