(I'll try and avoid explicit spoilers, but some plot twists will be implicit in my review.)
Inception is Nolan's most "high concept" film yet, a mixture of crime drama, thriller, science fiction, and psychological study. The film's title refers to the feat of entering a person's mind, manipulating their dreams, and planting a new, potentially all-consuming, idea. Unfortunately for our protagonists – I'm loathe to call them heroes – inception is nigh-impossible to pull off, and its practitioners run the risk of losing themselves in their own minds.
Nolan manages to make the plot of Inception plausible, and there may rest his greatest triumph in the film. The infiltration and manufacture of dreams are, of course, utterly fantastic ideas. Yet by showing how it's done in his world – and by having his characters raise objection to the concept – he successfully coaxes the audience past their disbelief. Based off my first viewing, the rules of the dream world are internally consistent; we understand (more or less) the dream technology and its limitations. Nolan's dreams have more rules and regulations than do our dreams; there's no gap for deus ex machinae to come through.
Inception's surprisingly wide-ranging plots allows Nolan to introduce a number of themes and motifs from his earlier work. As with Memento and The Prestige, the new movie begins near the story's chronological end. The relationship between the "hero" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) seems a direct lift from Memento. One can take the central dream caper as an expanded and deepened take on the Joker's bank robbery in The Dark Knight, while the extended planning scenes bring to mind The Prestige's interest in process and preparation. Ellen Page's Ariadne has an obviously symbolic name, just Al Pacino's Dormer did in Insomnia. The ending too reminds me of earlier Nolan films; more than that I shall not say.
Ever since Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has had the reputation of being a bad director of action scenes, though I think several of The Dark Knight's sequences are brilliant. The action and chase pieces of Inception, however, suffers from poor choreography and planning. One dream sequence involves a gun fight in a crowded city, yet it's very difficult to determine who's who and who we ought be rooting for. A later sequence in a snow field has similar problems: heroes and "villains" dress so similarly as to make identification impossible. At least you could tell Batman and the Joker apart. The dream sequences don't lack for visual interest, but the most compelling dreams – folding and mirrored cities, M.C. Escher staircases, the dark heart of Cobb's subconscious – all seem to occur within the first hour of the film. With all the gunplay and explosions, there's precious little room for beauty.
While Inception has a large cast of big names, I was rather surprised at how little screen time certain actors get. Michael Caine in particular felt underused, having at most five minutes of screen time in a two hour movie; his role seems little more than a charming cameo. Though the story belongs to Cobb, Mal, and Ariadne, I was generally impressed by Nolan's efforts in fleshing out the minor characters. Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy, who held small roles in previous Nolan films, both acquit themselves well of their increased screen time.
I was hoping that I would love Inception as much as I do The Dark Knight, that the film would be a science fiction masterpiece. The new movie isn't as good as The Dark Knight, but I think it's one of Nolan's better films, and hardly a misstep for the director. It's beautiful and surprising, but the pacing and some of the extended action scenes really damage the film's impact. Inception may not the best film in Nolan's fine career, but I'm already looking forward to rewatching it.