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Inception: A meta-magical matryoshka

This review of Inception contains light spoilers.

We've just returned from seeing Inception at the local IMAX.

Christopher Nolan has created a masterpiece of communication. A sci-fi action drama about lucid dreaming, Inception is an expertly acted, character driven tale about a man wracked with guilt and regret who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his family. While the special effects deliver in a variety of ways, the film's most satisfying feature is its self-referential plot structure. The plot itself is simple and conventional: a man who stands accused and has no prospect of exonerating himself has to find another way forward, so he assembles a motley team to pull off one last job. The pleasure in the plot structure lies not with the plot but with the structure, a meta-magical matryoshka.

Nolan proposes a nest of stories four layers deep in which the successful resolution of each layer's conflict depends on success in the next layer down. Since each layer operates on its own time scale — lower is slower — the film builds suspense by stretching the spring loaded telescope as far as it will go and then allowing it to snap back all at once. A focus on the remote becomes insight into the immediate as the audience wonders whether the force of the retraction will shatter the lens that looks out onto reality.

Michael Caine makes a cameo, but the chemistry belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and the splendid Ellen Page as sympathetic figures whose relationship is a gentle dance of developing friendship and trust. Inception is not a probing exploration of character and meaning, so most of the characters in the film lack depth and predicates. (Not by accident, the film lays a foundation for justifying thin characters and abbreviated context.) But there's enough between them– enough that resists exasperating conventions– to lend humanity to what is essentially a sci-fi contrivance in which the mise en abyme is what really matters.

Nolan's most remarkable achievement here is the clarity of the communication. Despite the complexity of the nested layers, their temporal differences, and the interconnections of plan and potential that motivate each plunge within a plunge, Nolan sustains a clarity of exposition that brings the audience along with enough understanding to appreciate the structure and texture of the journey. By giving each layer its own look and feel, and by providing dialogue that draws analogies to video games, childhood memories, and the art of M. C. Escher, Nolan renders his four-tiered Inferno intelligible and unforced.

Most admirably, Nolan does this without resorting to the pseudo-technical jargon or cheesy special effects that a less effective storyteller might have employed in a risky attempt to acquire buy-in. Instead, he launches a simpler craft and then never lets the win out of his sells. Nolan's simple exposition and clear visual differentiation make navigation a blast, if not a breeze. When the narrative unwinds, the wave is a thrill that tickles the brain. The plot contains no secrets, no twists, and no Shyamalanisms. It's not about guesses, but ingresses. The movie answers the first question it posed and then lands just where the viewer has been taught to expect and hope it will go.

The satisfaction is in the going.