Inception is an exploration, too, as anybody who, on waking, has tried to recapture a dream of the night before knows. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief: he steals dreams, the kind of stuff that is seminal, the kind of stuff that hits you in deepest sleep, the kind of stuff that is game-changing. If you get hurt in the dream, you feel pain; if you die, you just wake up. Cobb has his team: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sort of point man, and an ‘architect’ named Nash (Lukas Haas) who handcrafts the look-and-feel of the dream world. As the film opens, they are in the midst of an extraction in the mind of Saito, a character played by the always riveting Ken Watanabe. But Saito is playing them for fools, and is turning their plan inside out: he wants to commission a reverse caper.
Instead of extracting information, he wants to plant an idea in the head of a dying competitor’s (Pete Postlethwaite’s) son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Cobb is wanted in America for the murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). He longs to be with his children again. Saito can get him back into the country with a single phone call. Cobb takes the assignment. He recruits Eames (Tom Hardy), someone who can ‘forge’ identities within dreams. With the help of his father (Michael Caine), Cobb also recruits a young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page). Also on the team is Yusuf (Dileep Rao) who prepares chemical compounds to alter states of consciousness. Peter Browning (Tom Berenger), young Fischer’s godfather, is likely to be an obstacle. The ensemble cast holds it together: DiCaprio has developed an intensity that makes you forget his pretty-boy beginnings. Cillian Murphy is at once vulnerable and threatening; the arrogance of great wealth is considerably dampened by his need for paternal approval. Tom Hardy’s Bondish character fits the role perfectly and Ellen Page, young, uncommonly sharp, is a stabilizer to DiCaprio’s rollercoaster edginess.
To make the ‘inception’ work, the team needs Robert Fischer to believe that the idea is his own; and to do this, they must construct several levels, one below the other, each a dream within the one before or above it, each successfully more difficult to exit. At each level, time slows exponentially. At the lowest level is a state of limbo, an indefinite existence in a dream-world. The complication is Mal who is a recurrent disruption. If there is a hinge on which the story revolves, it is this relationship, convoluted, strange, enigmatic and constantly self-referential.