The business of dreams is tricky when it comes to cinema. Many filmmakers have tried, with varying degrees of success. I was intrigued when Christopher Nolan, director of the brilliant movies The Dark Knight and Memento, announced that his next project would be called Inception, and be a contemporary sci-fi action thriller "set within the architecture of the mind." He built up an extraordinary cast, wrote a wonderfully complex script (his first of original material since his debut movie, Following), and used his reported $160 million budget to create his world of dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams. He did these things to terrific effect, coming up with surely one of the best movies of the year, and probably the best movie of his career (only future re-watches will truly tell).
The star Nolan chose to lead us through his labyrinth was Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off the boat from his stint on the nightmarish Shutter Island. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a professional thief in this future world (we're never given a specific date), who gets hired to steal people's ideas by venturing into their dreams. He so impresses one mark that he gets hired to attempt "inception", which instead of stealing is planting an idea in someone's mind, a very powerful tool in the world of business. Although his straight-laced partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proving again that he's one of our best young actors) claims the job impossible, Cobb says it's not and takes the project. Nolan reminds us forcibly in this section of movies like Rififi (the model for "building a team for one last heist" kind of movies, of which Inception is certainly a part) and Dark City (a movie of shifting realities, both mentally and physically). Those two recently showed up in my list of favorite movies, so I found this a very good thing, since Nolan pays them respect and uses them to further his own movie, and not just steal from them.
To plant an idea, Cobb knows he must go deep into the psyche of the target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, working with Nolan a third time). And he uses his team's collective talents to achieve this, Tom Hardy's suave Eames shifting into other people inside the dreams, Ellen Page's Ariadne building the worlds they inhabit, and Dileep Rao's Yusuf making sure that everyone is sedated enough to not wake up before inception is attained. Worryingly, Cobb's ex-wife Mal (La Vie en Rose's Marion Cotillard) keeps showing up, threatening his dependability inside the dream world. In this section, Nolan references M.C. Escher, Michael Mann, and the great Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, all while creating a movie that is completely his own.
Nolan's been criticized in some corners for creating dream world's that happen too literally, as his critics opine that dreams are more fluid in reality, that there are too many rules that can't or wouldn't exist in the mind, and that Nolan's vision doesn't work abstractly enough to evoke dream states. I can understand that criticism, but since Nolan is not necessarily trying to evoke "reality", I don't see how it applies to this movie. Nolan's dream world really exists to serve as a framework for a big Hollywood action movie. Normally I'm let down by movies that have great concepts and then do nothing but devolve into action movies (The Matrix, for example, or a bit with the recent District 9), but I never felt Nolan let me down. His script stays smart, and has an emotional core in Cobb that many of his other works don't have. He can occasionally feel a bit of a cold director emotionally, and perhaps it's because of the abilities of his actors here, but I was always emotionally involved in the happenings as much as I was intellectually and viscerally engaged.
So despite being a mainstream director making big huge blockbusters, I feel that Nolan is among our most talented directors. He's been referred to as everything from "a new Kubrick" to "a talentless hack in the Michael Bay mold", but I feel his technical accomplishments married with his love of Hollywood cinema makes him feel more like a new Spielberg than anything else. He'll likely not share the "overly sentimental" criticisms that Spielberg has ridiculously endured, but he's a mainstream director making the highest quality big budget Hollywood pictures around right now. And as long as he keeps working with good crews (cinematographer Wally Pfister, working with Nolan for the sixth straight time, makes this the best looking movie he's given us yet) and great casts (I didn't even mention Tom Berenger, Ken Watanabe, and Michael Caine rounding out the cast of seven Oscar nominees), I predict that Chris Nolan will be around and giving us great movies like Inception for years to come, I'd like to see him try to top this one.