UPDATE: I've revised this post a little since first putting it up, after an astute friend and fellow critic pointed out that, well, yes, my original kicker could be construed as a spoiler.
Well, lemme just say right off the bat that I'm awfully glad that I don't post my shit to Rotten Tomatoes.
I kid, I kid. As it happens, I did rather enjoy Christopher Nolan's Inception, but I should be quick to point out that I enjoyed it on what I took to be its own labyrinthian, gargantuan terms. I did not enjoy it as a "Kubrickean" (or "Kubrickian," as some believe it ought to be spelt) work by a "visionary" filmmaker or any other such nonsense. Yes, Nolan is a plotter and visualizer of terrific, sometimes daunting imagination, but the idea that he is up to something really heavy here is not all that supportable. Honestly, the most profound statement the picture could be seen as making is that French broads are crazy, and one ought think twice about marrying and/or having children with them. The actual brilliance of the film is not on a humanist level—those expecting Renoir will be disappointed, but if you're stupid enough to expect Renoir from this, you deserve worse than to be disappointed—but on a formal one.
This is not a film about dreaming, or about dreams. It does not attempt to put the viewer into some sort of dream world. Dreams, as anyone with half a brain watching the film will be reminded within the first ten minutes of this movie, do not possess the kind of "objective" reality that this film posits from the very beginning and posits in largely the same way with respect to events taking place in its various levels of dream existence and the "real" world, which is part of the point. Dreams also often contain some sort of erotic component, sometimes sublimated, sometimes not, and one thing that distinguishes this film is what one might call a pronounced aversion to the erotic. The business in the film about "shared dreaming"—about which we are told very little except that in this film's world it does, you know, exist—is merely a trope, one that enables Nolan to play what you might call a game of multi-dimensional narrative chess. And it is at this level that the film really engages. And that ain't nothing.
I'm reading my friend Tom Bissell's new book about video games, Extra Lives, and therein he complains bitterly about the form's addiction to "trust-shattering storytelling redundancy," and encapsulates the paradox he encountered playing one particular game in the notion that it took place in a universe that had been "designed by geniuses and written by Ed Wood, Jr." I thought a bit about storytelling redundancy as the tired particulars of Inception's set-up unfolded: the lead character, Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, is a master thief (of consciousness!) who's going on one "last job" to make a "big score"—in this case to be reunited with his children. He has to assemble an "ace team," including a forger and an architect, to make the mind-heist work. But at the same time as this standard-issue stuff is happening, Nolan is also setting up the ground rules for the world he's about to bring his audience into, like an Oulipean author laying out the constraints under which he or she is composing the coming work. In its notions about architecture and created worlds, Inception could be seen as being more about video games than dreams, because even as DiCaprio's character is explaining that in dreams "we create and perceive at the same time," as moviegoers we understand that the folded-over Paris streets and country houses in the middle of urban plazas (an image somewhat reminiscent of that at the finale of Tarkovsky's Nostalghia, and not by accident, I reckon) and all that have all been meticulously planned and executed for our entertainment and stimulation.
Once we enter the climactic dream, and the subsequent dreams within dreams, we have a deeper understanding that Nolan's not so much interested in plumbing human consciousness (as David Cronenberg was in his underrated videogame/dream movie eXistenZ) as he is in creating multiple fungible narrative playing fields that he can mutate in certain ways but not in others (even as his characters claim to be "improvising" within them). And once the playing fields are established (one is in the mode of an urban action thriller; another, more amusingly, seems to have been inspired by Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark, speaking of underrated), he performs a virtuoso juggling act with them, even as the laws of probability and physics are stretched in each one of them.
I found it quite exhilarating in large part; and then again, I'm a big fan of Ellery Queen novels. So I experienced it as a largely satisfying puzzle film, and while I was not entirely unmoved by the emotional predicament of DiCaprio's character (it's a linchpin to the solution of a particular problem, of course), I also wasn't entirely galvanized by it, either. It is, I suppose, kind of interesting that this is the second film in a row in which DiCaprio plays a man who's, in a sense, lost his family. Geez, was he really that broken up that that Giselle woman ran off to have Tom Brady's baby? Nah, bet it's just a coincidence. A rather irritating and intrusive article on Nolan that ran in the U.K.'s Sunday Times quoted an anonymous producer as calling Nolan "a cold guy who makes cold films;" as I noted elsewhere, that verdict sounds suspiciously like producer-speak for "Nolan wouldn't go to strip clubs and do rails with me." Still, there is something a trifle clinical about his treatment of the ostensible human-interest material here. It wouldn't be a stretch, in my opinion, to look at this film as a gloss on Scorsese's Shutter Island, with one particularly pivotal onscreen role in that film being filled here by the offscreen Nolan.