July 15 2010 12:00 AM

Christopher Nolan's

INC_03509.jpgThere are movies that wash over you, like a shower. There
are movies that hit you in the face, like a blast of freezing rain. And then
there’s writer-director Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which hurls you into
the center of a whirlpool and never gives you an opportunity to find your
bearings for the next two and a half hours.

In some ways, “Inception” takes Nolan back 10 years to
“Memento,” his breakthrough mystery in which an amnesiac (Guy Pearce) tried to
piece together the circumstances surrounding the murder of his wife. “Memento”
tells its story in a circular fashion, mixing chronological sequences and
episodes in reverse order until everything eventually falls into place at the
end. “Inception” is even more ambitious: The story moves forward, sideways,
backwards, and finally splits into three separate, concurrent chains of events,
each of which is operating in its own time frame.

“Inception,” like Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” and Spike
Jonze’s “Adaptation,” is guaranteed to sprain your brain. But the payoff is
well worth the strain.

Solving the puzzle is almost beside the point: As was the
case with “Memento,” you’d probably need to construct a flow chart to ensure
every piece was in its proper place. What does come through in “Inception” is
Nolan’s fascination with the evolution of dreams. From the very beginning, the
movie hunts down the monsters within the mazes of our minds, while trying to
understand how memories and repressed grief can suddenly derail a train of

The title refers to the process of implanting an idea in a
subject’s subconscious, an endeavor that involves slipping inside a sleeping
mind and leading the victim into a world meticulously designed by a “dream
architect.” In “Inception,” a Japanese businessman known as Saito (Ken
Watanabe) hires Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to break into the brain of Robert
Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who is about to inherit his father’s sprawling
multi-national corporation. Cobb has made his reputation as an “extractor,”
someone capable of stealing valuable secrets from the minds of magnates; Saito
is challenging him to do just the opposite — to leave behind a mental souvenir
(a memento, if you will) that will inspire Fischer to break up the empire he’s
on the verge of acquiring.

INC_17157.jpgCobb puts together a talented team, starting with his
detail-oriented partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who knows his way
around a nightmare. Architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) is hired to set
up the necessary dreamscapes, Eames (Tom Hardy) handles the required disguises
and forgeries that enhance the experience, and chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao)
controls the substances that enable Cobb’s cohorts to simultaneously share the
dream state. The mission will be carried out during a 10-hour flight from Los
Angeles to Sydney.

Our fantasies often incorporate all sorts of elements we
have seen and heard, so Nolan gives himself carte-blanche to make “Inception”
an ever-changing funhouse of shifting styles and malleable moods; it’s obvious
Fischer has seen a few James Bond, “Mission: Impossible” and “Matrix” movies in
his time. There are also elegant homages to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” and “The
Shining,” as well as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the people who populate
the dream world aren’t particularly receptive to intruders).

For Cobb, the most troubling complication in the mix may be
one of his own making. He is haunted by the figure of his long-lost wife, Mal
(the marvelous Marion Cotillard), whose tortured, tremulous figure shows up
frequently in his thoughts. This is DiCaprio’s third movie in recent memory in
which he’s dealt with a disturbed and disturbing spouse (he had to contend with
the fiery temper of Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” and he confronted
Michelle Williams in “Shutter Island” while she was literally on fire). Cobb
has a slippery grasp on reality even at the best of times, and DiCaprio plays
the man’s surges of anguish beautifully. His scenes with Cotillard — whose
portrayal of Mal echoes with heartbreaking desperation — give “Inception” a
rich emotional core that’s genuinely arresting.

While Nolan’s screenplay doesn’t delve nearly as far into
the psyches of the other members of the squad, Levitt and Hardy convey an
intriguing sense of suspicious rivalry, and Page brings an appealing mix of
wisdom and wonder to Ariadne.

Instead of trying to sort out all the particulars of the
plot or check off Nolan’s references, viewers might be better off simply
surrendering to the seductive atmosphere of “Inception,” which is somehow
action-packed and deeply contemplative, suspenseful and yet soothing. Nolan has
concocted a mesmerizing mash-up of concepts and conceits that leaves viewers in
the same state Arthur finds himself in midway through the story: suspended in a
zero-gravity environment but moving with graceful assurance.