Inception is a heist movie that takes place inside a shared hallucination. It's also about the technology of making movies. And that's what will make your brain explode. In a good way.
Minor thematic spoilers ahead.
Biotech dream heist
In a summer season full of sequels and adaptations, Inception is that rarest of things: A completely original film with a big budget. Written and directed by Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan, the movie is a pleasurable deviation from standard plot formulas that still possesses the fun intensity of a genre flick. It's the ultra-layered tale of information thieves commissioned to plant an idea instead of steal one. And just to mess with things even more, our thieves do all their work using a piece of unnamed biotechnology that allows them to network their brains and have shared "dreams."
Looked at as a heist story turned on its head, Inception simply rules. We've got a crack team of psychological mercenaries who are trained to enter other people's dreams and steal their most secret thoughts. Their final job (because of course it has to be a final job)? An energy magnate wants to plant a dangerous idea in his the mind of his business rival. It's inspiration as MacGuffin. Inception is a fascinating slant on a pretty old concept, and the actors - including Leonardo DiCaprio as troubled ringleader Cobb and Ellen Page as dream architect Ariadne - do a terrific job bringing these danger-loving mind hackers to life.
Toying with the timestream
One of the most remarkable parts of Inception is the way Nolan toys with your time sense. If you watched Lost, you've seen flashbacks, flashforwards, and sideways alternate-reality flashes. But you've never had to juggle them all at the same time in one story. Inception's heist involves creating dreams within dreams, which helps our hackers bore deep into their mark's subconscious mind. The trick is that each nested dream happens more slowly than the one above it: You're parsing three stories happening simultaneously, but at different timescales.
And it's a delightful, heady experience, like playing three levels of a videogame at once and succeeding. You do have to ignore a few plotholes that pock the road to this insane temporal deconstruction, but the ride will be worth it.
Ultimately Inception is a movie of ideas, not characters, even though it's about human psychology. And the idea that holds everything together is that dreams are essentially realistic. There are a few scenes where novice dream architects mess around with twisty citiscapes, but for the most part all the dreams take place in the hyperkinetic real world where all heist movies exist. Nolan's decidedly urban dreamscapes are like a sharp rejoinder to the gooey surrealism of The Lovely Bones or the perverse weirdness of David Lynch's infamous dream sequences from Twin Peaks.
Mind hacking is our main characters' job, and therefore the dreams they make are almost businesslike in their execution. Dreams aren't places where you float around inside candy-colored ships and dance with midgets. You go there to get work done, especially when your work is creating (or stealing) big ideas. In fact, as Cobb discovers, the moment your dreams get surreal and personal is when you're in the greatest danger.
Storytelling as a high-tech con
Which brings me to one of the most interesting ways to look at Inception. It's really a movie about the technology of making movies. I don't just mean the tools required to film a car floating off a bridge - I mean the way people writing and producing a film have to get together and talk about how they'll collaboratively build a believable fantasy that will manipulate somebody (their mark, or the audience) into having a psychological epiphany. In other words: How do you reverse engineer a dream experience, break it into its constituent parts, then rebuild it for personal gain?
As our mind hackers plan their heist, it's almost like we're in the writers' room as a filmmaker and her team are planning a blockbuster. We've got a business objective (to plant the idea, which will result in being paid). But you can't just jump inside some guy's mind and say, "Here's an idea!" You have to present it to him in the form of a story, an emotionally compelling story, that will cause him to feel like he's come up with the idea on his own.
Building and executing that story, from the architecture of the sets to the cast of meaningful characters, is what Inception is about. We learn how the mind hackers find a personal story that will be intensely moving for their mark. And then we see parts of that story unfolding all at once (some in slow time, some in constant time): We're watching scenes get broken down into tiny little frozen moments. It's as if we're inside the head of a director filming his movie, trying to keep the overarching narrative straight despite having to film scenes out of order, over and over, with different kinds of technology. You especially get this feeling during some of the special effects sequences, which are as much about how you stage an action scene as they are about the scenes themselves.
It's a serious intellectual high to come with Nolan on this journey, to peek inside his brain and see how he breaks down a scene. But it may leave you emotionally cold. While the movie is all about how emotional connections make up the fabric of stories - and ideas - we never truly feel for any of our characters. It's not that we can't relate to them. Both Cobb and the mark have emotional troubles that motivate them in ways that make perfect sense, but Nolan prefers to dissect emotion rather than convey it.
For comparison, consider Inception alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another movie about mind hacking and the nature of consciousness. In Eternal Sunshine, we come to feel deeply for our main characters and are genuinely upset by what the memory-manipulating technology does to their minds. But we never come close enough to any of Inception's characters to become emotionally attached to them - even though we are literally inside their subconscious minds. Maybe that's because Inception is about the mind manipulators, rather than their victims. Or maybe that's just because Nolan is brilliant at narrative form and stumbles when it comes to emotional content.
No matter how you look at it - as a new take on the heist film, as a narrative mind game, or as a metaphor for filmmaking itself - Inception will thrill you into thinking about weird new ideas. And that's what makes it great science fiction, as well as great filmmaking. If you see just one movie this summer, Inception should be it.