A blockbuster with brains

An existential heist movie delivers a megaton blast of originality—and summer thrills

Ellen Page sits nestled in the middle of a large couch in a Beverly Hills hotel room, her small frame almost lost among the pillows. She looks artfully casual in a blue linen shirt, scarf, jeans and boots. Chestnut curls spill from a brown cotton cloche that masks her high forehead, and makes her face seem even more childlike than usual.

Clutching a water bottle in one hand and gesturing rapidly with the other, she’s visibly excited as she talks about Inception. When stars promote movies, it’s their duty to be excited, even when they’re not. But in this case, Page’s enthusiasm seems genuine. “Usually, I could care less if my friends see my movies or not,” says the 23-year-old Canadian actress. “In Nova Scotia, I like to leave my job behind. So when friends say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see that one,’ I don’t care.” But Inception was different: “I was just like, ‘Go see this!’ ”

Page is not alone. Inception is the most hotly anticipated movie since Avatar. It’s generating massive buzz, and after seeing it last week, I can report that the hype is justified. In a summer dominated by sequels and remakes, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus, which opens July 16, delivers a megaton blast of originality. Reminiscent of The Matrix, but more complex, it’s a unique sort of heist movie in which a team invades a man’s dreams and hijacks his subconscious. The tag line: “Your mind is the scene of the crime.”

The film is a rare hybrid of Hollywood grandeur and intellectual bravado, as if Nolan has tried to fuse his dual identities—as the provoc-auteur behind the brain-teasing puzzle of Memento (2000) and the showman who forged the heavy-metal spectacle of The Dark Knight (2008). Inception is an exception to Hollywood’s summer rule: a fresh, brainy US$200-million movie dropped into a season traditionally reserved for mindless entertainment. “Usually, when a movie is made with that budget, it’s just a business operation based on market research,” says Page. “It’s tag line first, movie second. I think people are tired of that and it’s showing. But Chris had such success with The Dark Knight, he just got money to go play.”

Page has done her own share of mindless diversion—such as playing Shadowcat in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Asked to compare that with Inception, she says, “I don’t think they can be in the same sentence. I probably shouldn’t say that. But Chris Nolan is one of the greatest directors working, especially in these kinds of films. He’s so freakin’ brilliant, and despite the vastness and the visual spectacle in his films, there’s an honest, sincere core to them.”

Two years after she scored an Oscar nomination for Juno, and risked seeing her fame peak at 21, Page has rebounded with one of the more enviable female roles ever devised for an action movie. Co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio, she’s not a love interest, a damsel in distress or an avenging bitch. As Ariadne, an architect who designs dreamscapes, she is the smartest person in the room.

That requires some explanation, and here’s where the problems start. The advance buzz around Inception has been stoked by a policy of strict secrecy surrounding the story. But last weekend, as the studio finally unveiled the movie at a Los Angeles media junket, the filmmakers faced a conundrum: how do you talk about the damn thing without shattering the mystique? Before the screening, a publicist begged journalists to refrain from gossiping about the film on the Internet and social networking sites. Fine. No one is about to spoil the ending, or the myriad plot twists. But at what point does an article like this one take the edge off the surprise just by trotting out the story’s premise?

“We’ve been keeping the specifics of the plot secret,” Nolan told me in L.A. “But what we’re encountering is that, when the premise is original, when it isn’t a franchised property or sequel, people expect they need to know everything about the movie. And that won’t work. You’ve got to come to the film fresh.”

Here’s what can safely be revealed about the story. (If you want to remain completely in the dark, skip the next two paragraphs.) Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) conducts corporate espionage by infiltrating his targets’ dreams and extracting secrets from their subconscious while they sleep. He is also an international fugitive. In a desperate bid to return home to his family in America, Cobb accepts one last assignment, from a powerful business magnate (Ken Watanabe) bent on world domination. But instead of extracting a secret, this time his job is to implant an idea—one that will persuade the heir to a rival corporation (Cillian Murphy) that he must dissolve his father’s empire.

Inception is structured like an existential heist movie. Cobb assembles a crack team of experts (principally Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Page) whose mission is to drug the heir into a deep sleep, break into his unconscious and rig his dreams. In the process, they descend through deeper and deeper levels of dreamscape—dreams within dreams. Inside those imaginary worlds, however, what happens is not so metaphysical. It’s the stuff of high-octane action movies, with enough car chases, shootouts and pyrotechnics to overstock a James Bond movie.

“What I tried to do in Inception is build on what I’d done with Memento,” says Nolan, who spent a decade refining the script. Memento’s mind-bending narrative unfolded in reverse chronological order, driven by a protagonist with no memory. “It was an unusual structure,” explains the 39-year-old British director, “but the tropes were very familiar from film noir, from crime movies: the gun in the drawer, the tied-up man in the closet. Here we tried to do the same thing with action movie tropes.”

Shot in six countries, with set pieces ranging from a weightless brawl in a hotel corridor to a gun battle on skis in Alberta, it’s as if Bond has been given a licence to break the laws of physics. “We’re taking the cinematic candy, the things we all love in Hollywood blockbusters,” says Nolan, “and giving them a reason to be there that you haven’t seen before.”

One trick Nolan has never used before is slow motion. Until now, he’d rejected it as an overworked cliché in action movies. But Inception’s pivotal conceit is that dream time is slower than real time, because the brain works faster. “That,” he says, “is an example of where we take a blockbuster device and try to give it meaning and purpose.”

Which begs the question: might there be too much meaning and purpose for a summer crowd seeking escape? At the L.A. media preview, the overwhelming consensus was positive, but many worried the movie may be too smart for the average car-crash connoisseur. It falls on Page’s character to guide the audience through the film’s conceptual maze. “She’s the newcomer to the team,” says Nolan. “She has to ask the questions.” Page’s intellectual curiosity made her ideal for the role, he adds. “Ellen just radiates intelligence. She’s not someone who’s going to accept something she’s told. And she has a massive role—it’s tough to do exposition, to be the character asking why.”

In fact, Inception’s script is so laden with exposition that it would seem to break a cardinal role of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. But Nolan insists “the heist movie is the one genre where exposition is not just allowed—it’s demanded.”

DiCaprio’s role provides emotional ballast, and he invests it with the tunnel-vision intensity that has become his signature of late. He has an obsessive love interest, albeit a dead one. Cobb’s late wife (Marion Cotillard) keeps popping up in the dreamscapes as a femme fatale threatening to derail the mission, and she lends the drama a dark undertow of intrigue. “There isn’t a lot of emotion in a heist movie,” says Nolan, explaining that it was DiCaprio who insisted emotion drive the narrative.

In L.A., DiCaprio said Inception is “like a giant therapy session,” and there are striking parallels between Cobb and the haunted soul he played in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. When I asked him about it, the actor agreed they’re “both locked in a dream world and going on some kind of cathartic journey,” but argued that “this film couldn’t have been more different in terms of its execution.”

True. While Scorsese takes a classical approach, Nolan seems intent on rewiring Hollywood’s DNA. He’s a Dr. Frankenstein trying to implant a brain in the body of a blockbuster. Some people will see Inception because they want “to think and ask questions and be moved,” says Page. But it’s also okay “to go just for bad-assed action sequences and a bag of popcorn.” At least that’s what she’s telling the folks back home in Halifax.