InceptionGreen lightIt’s always tempting to look back through the haze of nostalgia and remember things to be better than they really were – the neighbourhood you used to live in, the house you grew up in, the quality and flavour of the lollies you munched on as a child – but in terms of original big budget movies from Hollywood, it doesn’t take an expert to know that things have changed and the current landscape isn’t exactly dotted with innovative ideas.

Last year six of the ten most popular movies at the Australian box office (all from Hollywood, of course) were sequels, prequels, remakes or adaptations. The year before that there were seven. The year before that, eight.

Ever since cinema began studio executives have attempted to read the palm of the movie going public in service of the almighty dollar. But these days the industry relies more than ever on simple bookmaking: it’s creativity by accountancy Hollywood style, and for the foreseeable future that – thank you Dazza Brathwaite – is the way it’s gonna be, little darlin. The cultivated cinema observer will rightly ask “why?” To be fair, they probably already know the answer.

Economics 101: if a product has sold well before it will probably sell well again. From this simple financial vantage stems the logic behind the endless conveyer belt of unoriginal productions Hollywood relies on to put bread on the table. Even then the path is far from trouble-free: MGM, reportedly on the brink of financial ruin, has had massive problems raising capital to finance productions that are virtual shoo-ins at the box office (namely The Hobbit and a new James Bond movie).

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The state of play of multiplex moviemaking has become so depressing that a big budget, massively popular movie based on an original concept is interesting simply by default (in this context it should be noted that “original” is not necessarily a proclamation of ingenuity – it’s industry speak for “not another bloody sequel or adaptation”).

Christopher Nolan’s new brainy blockbuster, Inception, is one of these, though it’s fair to say the movie looked intriguing ever since viewers were exposed to the chutzpah of its WTF? marketing materials.  A shrewd and enigmatic trailer coupled with the director’s impressive back catalogue would have put this movie on the map even if this were a year – or a decade – chocked to the gills with original ideas, which, as we’ve previously established, it ain’t.

Seasoned observers will spot the correlations between Inception and other tabs of cinematic acid such as Existenz, Dark City and The Matrix. But Nolan’s focus isn’t on perverse video games or reality simulations constructed by outside forces. Here the characters dabble in the dreamscape for business rather than for fun or saving the world, and instead of endeavouring to free themselves from the proverbial matrix they consciously plug themselves in and do their dirty work.

Inception is a gutsy SCI-FI slant on Edgar Allan Poe’s timeless “deep man, deep” question “is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

The onion-like plot, which unravels layers of universes wrapped around each other, centres on a team of mind penetrating mercenaries whose mission is to extract information from a powerful CEO by visiting and toying with his dreams. Dream worlds, you see, can be ‘physically’ designed and constructed by architects, with the details left to be filled in by the dreamer. They can’t be controlled, but they can be steered in certain directions.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a specialist in corporate espionage, adept at visiting victims in their dreams and extracting valuable secrets from their subconscious. His team, including noob architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) target the mind of powerful CEO Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), viewing his inner being as a high security institute to crack. But in this mission their task is to do what even dream engineering aficionados consider impossible: not to steal an idea but to create one. Thus the “inception” of the title.

A whiplash sharp screenplay, penned by Nolan, feels like it was written by some kind of super-programmed cyborg from Akihabara. There are twists, turns, fake-outs and universes-within-universes. A different dreamscape can be visited/loaded when a character falls asleep in their dreams. The plan is to take Fischer three layers in: make him dream, then put him asleep inside that dream so he dreams again, and so forth, getting closer and closer to the core of his subconscious, of which part is represented as an ice fortress – a commentary, perhaps, on Cillian Murphy’s cold performance style.

The multiple universes schtick means Nolan never has an excuse to let the pace take a dive, and he never does. Nolan either sends his characters further down the rabbit hole (to generally action-packed locations – natch) or returns to another layer that exists above them. On every level one of the characters must remain “awake” to take care of those in the layer/dream below, who are sleeping inside their…sleep. Don’t worry – it will all make sense. Sort of. The important thing is simply that Nolan can keep cutting between universes, mixing up the elements.

The central concept affords the director some splendid opportunities for visual chutzpah. Nolan relishes the job of mirroring the characters’ ability to design, build and toy with worlds that look just like ours but have a different and nebulous set of rules. The filmmaker gives himself a pass card for endless opportunities to toy with spatial properties. The special effects are great, and, importantly, employed in moderation. A scene in which Dom guides Ariadne around her dreamscape for the first time, introducing how the technology works as she tweaks and reconstructs objects around her, is beautifully done – and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Nolan is white hot right now, having completely a trio of outstanding thinking people’s movies (The Prestige, The Dark Knight and this). His direction mixes up the elements in Inception with style and aplomb: visually it is a treat, an earthquake powerful soundtrack cranks up the tension big time, and the acting is solid. Leonardo Di Caprio gives another frame-chewing performance and the rest of the cast – to use street talk parlance, homeboz – well, they got his back.

Inception hammers the point home that the idea behind the title is about creating a new idea, not pilfering existing ones. This concept is too good, too tempting, too fitting not to interpret as Nolan’s criticism of Hollywood during these years of rampant ideas recycling, of which he himself has played a part.

Inception will remind general audiences what it’s like to see a multiplex movie they can’t easily pigeonhole or predict. If there is a more intellectually invigorating blockbuster this year, I’ll eat my hat inside somebody else’s dream within a dream within a dream.

Inception’s Australian theatrical release date: July 22, 2010.

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