An idea can change the world. In Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller, big ideas are vulnerable to be stolen within a person's dreams. Powerful businessmen spend millions on setting up projections in their minds to protect them from extractors who are hired by competitors to steal secrets. But what's infinitely more difficult is to put an idea they did not think of in their mind. This is inception.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, BLOOD DIAMOND) is a skilled extractor who has been hired to steal company secrets from billionaire Saito (Ken Wantanabe, THE LAST SAMURAI). While Cobb ultimately fails, Saito is impressed with his skills and hires him to attempt an inception on the son of his rival. The mission seems impossible, but Saito promises to use his connections to allow Cobb to return to the U.S. where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
As with any good heist flick, Cobb needs to put together his team. He visits his father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine, THE DARK KNIGHT), who taught him how to maneuver inside a person's mind, looking for a skilled architect who can create believable mazes inside the dreamscape. Miles introduces him to the young, but brilliant Ariadne (Ellen Page, JUNO), who is innovative in her designs. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, BRICK) is Cobb's right-hand man, who thinks quickly in tough situations. The sarcastic Eames (Tom Hardy, BRONSON) is a master of disguise in dreams. He learns the traits of a person in the real world and then can impersonate them inside someone's subconscious. Yusuf (Dileep Rao, DRAG ME TO HELL) is a chemist who concocts a sedative strong enough for the team to take the mark, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy, BATMAN BEGINS), inside a dream inside a dream that is inside a dream.
Saito accompanies the team to ensure that the inception is completed. Fischer Jr.'s father is dying and he wants Cobb to make him believe that the patriarch wants his son to break up their company, which is poised to become the single largest energy producer, giving them as much power as a superpower country. To plant this idea, the team must get to the core of the son's relationship with his father, who was a cold SOB in real life. As part of the scheme, they use the son's close relationship with his father's top advisor Browning (Tom Berenger, TRAINING DAY) against him. Our relationships and our memories of them are the weak points in the dreamscape.
These same weaknesses affect the team members. Cobb is the most vulnerable. His dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, LA VIE EN ROSE) haunts his subconscious and pops up during his missions, wanting to pull him down into limbo, where a person can dream for decades while the body sits in a coma. Cobb's guilt and regret jeopardize the inception plan, but he keeps it from his fellow teammates, because any risk is worth getting back to his kids.
While Nolan uses the conventions of a heist thriller, there are chases and gunfights straight out of a Bond film, he wraps those conventions in ideas… about ideas. The story of Robert Fischer Jr. gets to the core of why we think the way we do. How do our experiences shape our ideas about ourselves and the world? Guilt plagues our memories and in the dream world we constantly rework those memories over and over, trying to set them right. Memories are also flawed in that they are simply projections of what we remember and are not as complex as the real experience or person. These experiences are our mental weaknesses in our dreams and in real life.
These concepts are all woven into the intricately designed world. The extractors use totems to keep them oriented in whether they are dreaming or awake. Cobb carries a top; the old totem of his wife. In the dreamscape, the physics are like an M.C. Escher drawing. In one scene Paris folds up over itself and in another architectural illusions are used to fool the dreamer's subconscious into believing the dream is as robust as the real world. When the dreamer's subconscious recognizes there are others invading the dreamscape, it sends projections of people to attack the invaders. If the dreamer drank too, it might be raining in the dream.
With all the detail, Nolan keeps us riveted. Cobb's emotional story is a perfect complement to the world of dreams. There is a moment where Adiadne enters Cobb's dream that felt so wrong in how it violates privacy. What secrets do we lock away in our subconscious that no one else knows and yet define so much of who we are? It makes one wonder if our dreams show more of the real us, and the real world us is simply an illusion.