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Video: ‘Inception’

Explainer: Free your mind: 5 best mind-trip movies

  • IMAGE: 'The Matrix'
    Everett Collection  /  Ronald Grant

    "Inception" is about dreams, and dreams within dreams. It's about plundering the subconscious for secrets and, perhaps, planting a few ideas there, as well.

    But writer-director Christopher Nolan has done so much more than just recreate the sensation of what happens when we fall asleep. He's built a complete and complicated world, one that constantly shakes you up and makes you work — makes you stop every once in a while to find your bearings. In a good way.

    It's the most superbly crafted mind trip, and it follows a great tradition of challenging, innovative films.

  • 'The Matrix' (1999)

    IMAGE: 'The Matrix'
    Warner Bros.

    The first one, that is, and not the inferior, back-to-back sequels. This clearly influenced Nolan, with its depiction of an alternate reality in which characters can drop in together and interact with each other — a place where the usual rules of time and space don't apply. This futuristic action thriller was just hugely cool and, in retrospect, so influential, from the "bullet time" effect to the bold, S&M-style wardrobe aesthetic. Despite drawing from various religious and mystical sources, the Wachowski Brothers truly created their own original world here.

  • 'Mulholland Dr.' (2001)

    IMAGE: 'Mulholland Drive'

    It could all be a dream. That's one way to interpret it. David Lynch will never tell you what his movie is about, of course, and that's what makes him — and his work — simultaneously intriguing and maddening. Disarming visuals, shocking imagery, cryptic proclamations — they're all there, and they require repeated viewing, and even then "Mulholland Dr." may not make sense. Here's what's certain: Naomi Watts gave a star-making performance in two different roles in this Hollywood mystery, and a haunting feeling will linger with you long afterward.

  • '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)

    IMAGE: '2001: A Space Odyssey'
    Everett Collection

    Vintage Stanley Kubrick: visually striking, mentally baffling, artistically unlike anything else. The questions it raises may never be answered, and that's part of the film's beauty. This much we know: There's a monolith, and HAL 9000 won't open the pod bay doors for Dave, but he will sing "Daisy." Still, it's duly one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made — at once enormous and intimate, balletic and even melancholy. As a bold piece of filmmaking, it's very much of its time, yet it still grabs hold of its audience just as ferociously as ever today.

  • 'Being John Malkovich' (1999)

    IMAGE: 'Being John Malkovich'

    Really, you could list any movie Charlie Kaufman's written here. Many would choose the wistful "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," with its vivid, dreamlike imagery. Others love the sprawling, existential "Synecdoche, New York." But this was Kaufman's first, and it's my favorite of his. Merely the idea of entering a portal that takes you inside Malkovich's mind is inspired in itself. It's where Kaufman and director Spike Jonze go with this concept — an absurd exploration of love and identity — that makes this movie so irresistible and strangely sweet.

  • 'Memento' (2000)

    IMAGE: 'Memento'
    Summit Entertainment

    And now we're back to Nolan again, and the movie that put him on the map. With its screenplay-in-reverse (which Nolan co-wrote with brother Jonathan), this was an early indicator of the kind of intricate, intelligent puzzle-building that would become one of Nolan's trademarks. Like "Inception," "Memento" makes you work. But watching it unfold is a thrill as Guy Pearce pieces together his past through notes and tattoos to hunt down his wife's killer. You could analyze it to death to see if it holds together (it does) or you could just go with it and enjoy having him toy with you.

Marion Cotillard, Leonardo DiCaprio
Melissa Moseley  /  AP
Leonardo DiCaprio is a thief of dreams, but his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, keeps getting in the way.
updated 7/13/2010 11:27:25 AM ET 2010-07-13T15:27:25

Driving home from a screening of "Inception" the other night, my husband said to me, "I don't know how you're going to write about this movie."

"What, you mean without giving anything away?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I don't know how you're going to explain what it's about."

Well, yes. There is that, too.

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We can begin by announcing, with great relief, that all the hype is justified. Writer-director Christopher Nolan's first film since "The Dark Knight" is a stunningly gorgeous, technically flawless symphony of images and ideas. "Memento," the mystery-in-reverse that put Nolan on the map a decade ago, looks almost quaint by comparison.

In its sheer enormity, it's every inch a blockbuster, but in the good sense of the word: with awesomeness, ambition and scope. The cinematography, production design, effects, editing, score, everything down the line — all superb. But unlike so many summer movies assigned that tag, "Inception" is no mindless thrill ride. It'll make you work, but that's part of what's so thrilling about it. With its complicated concepts about dreams within dreams, layers of consciousness and methods of manipulation, "Inception" might make you want to stop a few times just to get your bearings.

The juggernaut of Nolan's storytelling momentum, however, keeps pounding away.

Newsweek.com: Why is DiCaprio playing such angry roles?

Even from the very beginning, you may feel a bit off-balance, with Nolan jumping around in time before dropping you into the middle of a tense conversation between Leonardo DiCaprio as dream thief Dom Cobb, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his right-hand man, Arthur, and Ken Watanabe as one of their clients.

That's part of the game, though: making us question what's reality and what's a product of sleep, right alongside the characters.

That experience in itself may sound a bit familiar, and "Inception" does feature glimmers of mind-trip movies like "The Matrix," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and even a "Wizard of Oz" moment. At its core, it's actually a heist movie — the tried-and-true One Last Job, to be exact — but Nolan takes these elements and combines them in a way that is daringly, dazzlingly his own.

So ... where were we again? Ah yes, explaining what "Inception" is about.

Dream weaver
DiCaprio's Dom Cobb is an extractor, a sort of master thief who enters the mind while a person is dreaming to steal their secrets. Watanabe, as the powerful businessman Saito, hires Dom and his team for a different kind of crime: sneak into the subconscious of a competitor (Cillian Murphy) and implant an idea that will ruin his empire. In return, Saito will help Dom clear his name for a crime he didn't commit, one that's torn him from his wife and two young children and forced him to go on the run.

And so, as in any classic caper, "Inception" provides the anticipation of watching Dom assemble his crew and map out his scheme, with each person performing a specific function. While Dom is the big-picture guy, Arthur handles the details. Eames (the hugely charismatic Tom Hardy from "Bronson") is the forger — someone who can assume another identity to control the dreamer. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is the chemist whose concoction allows them all to turn on, tune in and drop out together.

In Tech & Science: The real science of dream research

Ariadne (Ellen Page, showing an appealingly low-key intelligence) is the architect, the one who builds the maze-like structure of the dream. Since she's the newcomer, she also serves as our guide in this brave new world. And her name, like that of several characters, couldn't have been a coincidence; in Greek mythology, Ariadne helps lead Theseus out of the labyrinth with a ball of red thread when he enters to slay the Minotaur. (Thanks, seventh-grade English class!)

But when they all fall asleep and dream together, both as practice and during the real deal, forces from their own subconscious states enter the picture — namely Dom's wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), someone else whose name offers a clue. Here's where DiCaprio infuses the character with vulnerability to complement his drive. Wistful memories of their relationship provide the necessary heart to balance out the intense braininess of the picture, some softness to lighten the substantial heft of the machinery.

And what a machine it is. You've seen the big set pieces countless times in the commercials: a freight train plowing through downtown traffic, DiCaprio and Page sitting calmly in a cafe surrounded by explosions, Paris folding over on top of itself, Gordon-Levitt floating through a hotel corridor. You haven't seen anything until you've seen them on the big screen. They're enormous yet intricately detailed, tactile while at the same time ... well, dreamlike.

It's all part of one of the year's best films, one that will surely get even better upon repeated viewings.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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