In Dreams 

Director Christopher Nolan tops himself with the sci-fi heist flick Inception

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Opening this weekend is the second film of 2010 that stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a man oscillating between reality and illusion while coping with a past family trauma. The first, Shutter Island, was directed by Martin Scorsese and was a decent but not wholly successful atmospheric thriller. The second, Inception, is directed by Christopher Nolan and is the best large-scale Hollywood feature since, well, Nolan's last film, 2008's The Dark Knight.

I don't mean to imply that this is the passing of a torch, as I'm not sure Nolan has made or ever will make a film as essential as Scorsese landmarks like Goodfellas or Taxi Driver. But over the past decade or so, Scorsese has stood more as an example of quality than genius, making big-budget, ostensibly mainstream films that are smart, bold, and cinematic in a landscape where such things are becoming more and more rare. And Nolan now owns this turf.

And, as unlikely as it sounds, I'm not sure Nolan hasn't topped himself with Inception, which combines the scope and command of The Dark Knight, the intricacy and demand for audience attentiveness of his breakout Memento, and the richness of his underrated The Prestige. It is a profoundly impressive piece of blockbuster filmmaking.

In this sci-fi premise, DiCaprio is Cobb, a shadowy operator who specializes in "extraction" — the process of invading a subject's dreams to steal information from his or her subconscious. Early in the film, Cobb is approached about performing an "inception," an opposite procedure in which you enter someone's subconscious not to retrieve information but to insert it, essentially planting an idea in someone's mind. Those around Cobb believe inception to be unprecedented, if not impossible.

And that's as much plot as I'm going to give, because this is a film you need to see without too much foreknowledge. Inception has the bones of a classic heist flick, with its three-part structure — assembling a team, hatching a plan, carrying out a mission — but enfolds it within an emotionally grounded, thinking-man's sci-fi narrative that puts it in the company of films such as Blade Runner, Children of Men, and 12 Monkeys (though I thought more of the avant-garde inspiration for that film, La Jetée).

For a film that features a dream within a dream within a dream (at least), Inception is never indulgent, impenetrable, or tedious. Working from his own original script, Nolan has created a complex, challenging cinematic world but one that is thought through and whose rules are well communicated. But the ingenuity of the film's concept never supercedes an emotional underpinning that pays off mightily. (Let's just say that a luminous, vulnerable, dangerous Marion Cotillard plays Cobb's wife and figures prominently.)

The film's confident, clipped ending (shades of The Sopranos) is perhaps meant to deny resolution and had some at the local preview screening gasping, but in the faint closing sound of metal scraping against wood, I think Nolan achieves poetry and a solidity for which his extraordinary film had been yearning.

Opening Friday, July 16th

Multiple locations

Inception
Rated PG-13 · 148 min. · 2010
Official Site: inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine and Lukas Haas

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