Inception posits a near-future where people with secrets can be drugged, and plugged into dream machines, so that trained dream-workers can plunder the subconscious via a shared dreaming experience. Leonardo Di Caprio (once again, an impressive performance) is hired to go one further - to plant an idea deep in the subconscious of Cillian Murphy. Most of the action takes place in nested dreams within dreams.
I am prima facie sceptical about films which are set in dream-land, or in virtual reality, or in Limbo. I am sceptical about films which are written and directed by the same person. Both suggest 'self indulgent'. And yet, sometimes, these are wonderful films or TV shows - Life on Mars, the first Matrix film. Inception is unusual in that it isn't a failure, but it isn't a total triumph (to me).
I think a film where much of the action happens in an unreal world, where there are no rules, must paradoxically be structured by a strong self-discipline of rules. I think it should also express something real about the Self. It should involve real peril to the Self. And finally, I think it should make us question the ground of being, changing the way we see the world after we have left the cinema.
How does Inception match up to those four criteria? Quite well actually, though I won't say more for fear of spoilers. The idea of 'Peril to the Self' is I think particularly well handled. There are a lot of visual references to other Nolan films, and other films about dreams and virtual reality, which is a way of using cinema-memory as a proxy for the internal referencing we do within dreams.
So why don't I think the overall film is brilliant as it might be? I think firstly because the seeming-structure of rules doesn't quite make sense, though it's a good effort. That wouldn't really matter, if it weren't for the bigger issue, which is that I don't think it quite gives the feeling of heavy dangerous reality that you get when a film touches something deep inside yourself. I am tempted to think that studio heads stepped in and watered it down. Deep deep inside the self things are not so busy, so anonymous, and so like a James Bond film. There would be a feeling of recognition, that things had always been this way, that great projections of the self were slowly moving into place like spaceships around the sun.
What is left without this is an intellectual puzzle, a thought game, which perhaps doesn't quite hang together, but plays with various familiar psychological and philosophical issues entertainingly enough. Certainly worth seeing.