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Inception

Year: 2010
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Chris Nolan
Producer: Emma Thomas/Chris Nolan
Writer: Chris Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph-Gordon Leavitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas

One shot in Inception looks shoddy. After Ariadne (Page) brings the streetscape of her dream Paris folding over on itself to form a Escher-esque world of perpendicular realities, her and Cobb (DiCaprio) walk from one 'plane' of the city to the other. There's no dialogue and the blocking puts them front and centre, and it feels like writer/director Chris Nolan just wanted to say 'check out how cool this looks!'

Nitpicky? You bet, but I had to mention it so the rest of this review didn't sound like paid advertorial. There hasn't been a movie this original, well directed, and which skirts the line between telling you a story you can absorb and making you think so successfully in a very, very long time.

Cobb is a corporate spy who steals thoughts straight out of brains – while their owners sleep – for the competitive advantage of his clients. He does so using a sophisticated machine he can hook up to more than one person, bringing them all into the same lucid dream where they can direct the action.

Enigmatic Japanese industrialist Saito (Watanabe) offers him an infinitely harder job – to plant an idea in the mind of business rival Fischer (Murphy) that will remove the only barrier to Saito competing with his company.

The process is called inception, and it's only been done once, which gives Cobb's character emotional heft through the backstory of his wife (Cottilard). She doesn't seem to be around in the real world but he dreams about her constantly, and for some reason she poses a significant danger to his work.

The only way inception can be done is to go deep (enter a dream, then enter another dream within that dream and so on) until the subject is sufficiently removed from the real world so they won't realise someone else is implanting a thought into their mind.

To show us that universe, Nolan has constructed a whole lawbook for the science of sleep, dreams and dreams within other dreams. We're familiar with some of them – such as the horrible, split-second sensation of falling that wakes us up from light sleep, and the fact that even though we often have no idea how we arrived somewhere we don't know we're dreaming.

The script also invents principles that lock the story down tight and give the structure both its backbone and the story its thrills. Time passes quicker, for example, in levels further down because of the speed of relative brain function. In the bottom level, in a heavily-guarded fortress amid a snowy mountainscape where inception will take place, the team has an hour to complete the job. The hour, they all know, will take place in the ten-second interval a handful of levels further up where a van driving off a bridge is falling toward the river.

An architect (the job Cobb brings Ariadne in to do) must mentally build the world of the dream in order to bring the subject in and at each level, someone must be left behind to 'handle' the dreamers and ensure the world remains stable according to what's happening in the next level up. It's where someone has to give aural cues by slipping headphones over the dreamer's ears, filling the world one step down with music, and it's also what gives us the incredible visuals that were so exciting in the trailer.

In the standout sequence, Cobb's partner in crime Arthur (Leavitt) manages the dream world in a plush hotel. In the next dream world up, the whole gang is asleep in the back of a van engaged in a violent car chase, and as it flips over and drives off a bridge, the world of the hotel dream suddenly finds itself similarly without gravity. Because of Nolan's desire for in-camera effects rather than flashy CGI, a whole hotel corridor was constructed and dressed, suspended in midair and manipulated by a huge gantry while Leavitt and the various goons he fights float around on wires.

It results in effects that support and advance the story instead of jumping up and down screaming 'look at me, look at me', and it matches Nolan's whole approach. There's little sci-fi imagery – no animated sequences of firing neurons or egghead describing the science involved – and everything from the colours to the moods are muted rather than garish or flashy.

We don't even learn how the communal dream device works. Like every classic Macguffin, all you need to know it what it does, not how. In real life, such a device wouldn't exist for dozens of years (if ever), but Nolan tells the story in today's world, not a Buck Rodgers-alike universe of clanking metal doorways, robotic helpers and tourists in space. It makes the whole movie – not just the understated special effects – a solid bedrock for narrative, not a showreel for what a bunch of software engineers can do.

Inception sends a message to every other filmmaker in the world – this is what discerning filmgoers who like to think but like to be entertained want to see. It's the beautiful sweet spot between the abstract work of Jarmusch or Lynch and the haggard midyear blockbusters you don't even need to watch after you've seen the trailer. We love smart and challenging, we love thrills and action, and the two need not be mutually exclusive.

The film comes about three quarters of the way to you, but asks that you make up the difference by mulling over how everything fits. In fact I suspect part of the reason it's done so well at the box office is because everyone who saw it felt the overarching story but went back to pick up the nuances and solve the mysteries that eluded them the first time around. I certainly did.

Like the premise of the film itself, you can drill down through several layers to find ever-finer details, a trick Nolan manages because every word of dialogue and every gesture counts, the script wound chokehold-tight after (apparently) years of revision from even before the time of Batman Begins.

For a filmmaker who hasn't had a career miss yet, it's easy to forget he's dealt with few original properties – after comic book adaptations and remakes this is his first one as an A lister. He did a great job with The Dark Knight and Insomnia, but he was constrained by the strictures of retelling existing mythologies. Here he has no such limits, and he busts all the boundaries but keeps a tight leash on earth-shattering ideas and makes them work for him.

With a soundtrack that's by turns soulful and grandiose – tender choral riffs followed by the rhythmic crashing of drums and blasting of horns, it's the most 'whole' film in a long time and quite possibly among the best films of the last decade.

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