By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn July 8, 2010 at 2:20AM
Nobody can deny that Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is a thinking man's blockbuster. A mind-bending epistemological sci-fi action epic that alternately recalls everything from "The Matrix," Nolan's own "Memento" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," not to mention heist movies and "Lost," the ideas zipping through this supremely high concept entertainment force you to fight the trappings of confusion. Like "Memento," active viewing is essentially the fun of it. But there are also a host of rather trite shootouts and an extreme lack of sentimentality (a problem I've had with Nolan's Batman movies as well), resulting in a remarkably advanced Hollywood product with loads of brain but only the faintest heart. I'm not complaining, exactly, but let's be clear here: "Inception" bucks any sort of lasting emotional impact in favor of brainteasers. It's awesome, sure, but also a bit cold.
In case you haven't heard yet (but, let's face it, you have) Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a psychic con man of sorts, a master of the art of "extraction" -- essentially, entering another person's mind through their dreams and stealing their ideas. A contractor hires him to embark on the risky mission of implanting the idea in the head of a rich man's heir (Cillian Murphy) to destroy his family legacy. This requires the elaborate construction of several dream layers, carefully built by a team of highly trained psychic types, including a slick Joseph Gordon Leavitt and a newbie played by Ellen Page. Despite the advanced premise, at its core "Inception" works as a swift tale of espionage, gliding along on the conviction of its intense performances and Nolan's unstoppable storytelling momentum: He zips from one scene to another, staging impossible shootouts in rooms devoid of gravity and pitting his heroes against unstoppably angry armies of their target's subconscious. Maybe I've been trained for too long to expect a few quieter moments, even though in the blockbuster mold they usually only show up in time for a boring monologue, but "Inception" sometimes loses its potential to create a fully involving experience because Nolan refuses to slow down and take a breather.
I'm being cautious here because the truth is that a lot of "Inception" is indeed quite amazingly BRILLIANT and the underlying quest -- it all comes down to DiCaprio's character needing to rid himself of an old destructive memory, get over the death of his wife and return home to his children -- contains striking poignancy. The movie functions as a revelation on its own terms and within a larger industrial context, given the generally crappy quality of the market standard. See it, think it through, see it again. It works. A wonderful motion picture experience rarely comes along on such a grand scale. Just remember not to get too comfortable, because Nolan has no apparent pity for audiences expecting breezy escapism. And that's both its masterstroke and potential Achilles' Heel.