BY JOE TYRRELL
Watching the new sci-fi thriller "Inception," one's greatest wish is to land the structural steel contact on director Christopher Nolan's dreams.
The movie plunges immediately into the many realities of Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, whose group provides a very particular form of industrial espionage.
Their specialty is stealing ideas from other's minds during their most vulnerable state, in dreams. That depends on the bio-tech skill to build dreams before the target subconscious gets alarmed.
When it come to dream architecture, and Cobb and Nolan have no shortage of schematics. As the movie probes his subconscious, and other's, the computer graphics team works overtime creating entire cities, some that fold at right angles.As can be expected from the talented Nolan, it's very skillful. What it isn't is very dreamy. More like long, loud and very concrete.
Some critics are hailing "Inception" as the movie that might save summer for the adult audience. Nolan's presence at the helm certainly raises hopes. He's responsible for the classic "Memento," a twisty noir look at memory loss.
More reassuring for Hollywood, Nolan also brought home two well-received Batman movies, each lugging sacks of money, with another to come.
While Nolan has screenwriting credits on all those projects, they all began with someone else's work, including his brother Jon's short story for "Memento."
"Inception," a complicated and repetitive movie, suggests Nolan might be better at casting a cool eye on the work of others and taking their best than on editing himself.
If you are looking for mindless summer fun, be warned that the people down the row are likely to walk out in confusion halfway through, proclaiming, "This sucks."
Still, there's enough complexity here, and enough eye-catching constructs early on, that it's no wonder that some poor idea-starved movie critics have greeted "Inception" as a feast.
Cobb's dream espionage job is difficult enough that his team fails in a job for Saito, an energy magnate well played by Ken Watanabe. The movie's early scenes, jumping among various dreams and perhaps reality, are viscerally exciting if not always clear.
But Saito ups the ante, challenging Cobb to achieve the theoretical grail of implanting an idea through a dream — inception.
Against the advice of his partner Arthur, the ever-reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cobb jumps at the challenge. Saito promises that with one call, he can resolve a problem that has prevented Cobb from returning to the United States.
It's something to do with Cobb's wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Make that his dead wife. Dead but still alive and kicking in Cobb's dreams.
Fortunately, Nolan's script is smart enough to find a device to explain at least some of this. Here it's Ellen Page, freed of her "Juno" wisecracking. She's brought in as the new dream architect, who could be called Ms. Exposition, because she asks questions and Cobb explains how it works.
Page's early scenes are among the best in the movie, as DiCaprio takes her on endless Escher staircases and to a Parisian café that suddenly seems unstable. This world actually is dream-like, a thin skin over the thing that motivates other inhabitants to turn and stare at them.
Unfortunately, Page catches on quickly, and the lesson ends. She also realizes that Cobb has issues with his dead wife. That is, issues besides the fact that she's still alive in his dream world.
Any excuse to get Cotillard into the movie, because she's the other thing "Inception" has going for it. As usual, this strong actress is incapable of a wrong move, even in a movie that has a lot of them.
Despite her name, Cotillard's Mal has the passionate conviction missing from DiCaprio's Cobb, who is far too confident for someone so inflexible.
In keeping with the project's budget, a reported $200 million, Cobb is able to assemble an all-star team, of actors if not dream merchants. Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas and Cillian Murphy are among those who put in appearances.
They are all professional, although some are unnecessary. For instance, Caine plays Frenchwoman Cotillard's father, teaching at the Sorbonne but still mysteriously Cockney. Perhaps that's dream logic.
"Inception" also jets around the world, to real locations that are as stimulating as anything Nolan can dream up. Perhaps succumbing to that international man of mystery vibe, "Inception" ultimately slides toward James Bond.
But it's second-string James Bond, sort of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," complete with a winter attack on some isolated fortress.
That was one thing OHMSS got right: a helicopter attack on an Alpine aerie, with gunmen sliding on ice as they shoot, the good and bad sides stylishly color-coded, the principals with their faces bare, all culminating in a fight on a hurtling toboggan, like a resort buffet of testosterone.
"Inception" slogs stolidly through snow, everyone wrapped in the same white uniforms and hoods, to reach nondescript concrete elevator landings.
That's not my dream destination.