Inception seems to be doing quite well at the box office. I think it deserves to; it’s a fascinating movie and beautifully constructed. Nevertheless I’m a bit surprised that it is being so well received, for reasons I will get to below.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an industrial spy with a unique sci-fi modus operandi: he steals information from people by entering their dreams and prying the secrets from their subconscious. He is approached by an industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe) who wants him to plant an idea in a rival’s mind, making him think it is his own. This is an extremely difficult task and Cobb initially refuses, but agrees when Saito offers him the chance to be reunited with his children.
Following the standard formula of a heist movie, Cobb recruits a team of experts to help him carry out the scheme. But most of them don’t know that Cobb is bringing his own personal demons into the dream, and this could imperil them all.
I want to explain why I think it is such a great achievement to make a movie this good using a premise like this.
Allegedly, the story goes like this. Billy Wilder runs into Louis Malle, this is in the late 50’s, early 60’s. And Louis Malle had just made his most expensive film, which has cost 2 1/2 million dollars. And Billy Wilder asks him what the film is about. And Louis Malle says “Well, it’s sort of a dream within a dream.” And Billy Wilder says “You just lost 2 1/2 million dollars.”
This quote from Richard Linklater’s 2002 movie Waking Life is pretty unique: it is the only case I know of where a movie contained a line that predicted that the movie would be a box office failure. And predicted it correctly; rarely has a movie that received so much critical praise been so decisively rejected by the audience.
The basic story of a professional who enters someone else’s dreams goes back at least to Roger Zelazny’s 1965 story He Who Shapes. A number of movies have used this general idea including Dreamscape (based on the Zelazny story), The Cell, and Paprika. Other movies like Waking Life have explored similar ideas without copying the premise. All of them intrigued critics but were received coldly by audiences.
Obviously this kind of story is hard to tell successfully. Part of the problem may be that once you tell viewers that they are watching a dream they tend to lose interest, even if you insist that the protagonists can be harmed by things that happen in the dream. The very unreality of the setting makes it hard to care about the protagonists. Directors tend to get carried away with surreal special effects, and the viewers just shrug since everyone knows that anything can happen in a dream.
With Inception Christopher Nolan (who wrote and directed) manages to do it right. It makes you care about the characters and believe that they are actually in danger. It even offers up a happy ending. (Or at least it seems happy.)
Like the heist movies that it imitates, this film has a complicated plot that is challenging to follow. I would not recommend it for pre-teen viewers, not just because of the violent and tragic elements, but because they probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.
UPDATE: Those who have seen the movie (and only those who have seen the movie) should read David Kopel’s summary of the various theories and explanations for it.