It must be nice to be Christopher Nolan. As a storyteller interested in telling stories in new, inventive ways, at the grandest possible scale, coming off one of the biggest commercial, blockbuster successes of all-time almost certainly gave him creative license to undertake a project of his choosing, and to be supplied with a practically infinite budget. As a fan of film in general, but especially as a fan of the cerebral kind of films that Nolan clearly has a passion for making, I consider myself extremely lucky that a confluence of events and circumstances resulted in someone with such extreme artistic ambition being put into a position where he also had limitless resources to bring a story of his choosing to life.
As is sometimes the case with storytellers who are passionate for storytelling, the storytelling itself can become the main star of the proceedings, with the substance falling by the wayside. And, to some extent, this is certainly true of Inception. But only to some extent. Though the concept, the rules, and the structure of the world do often tend to take center stage, Nolan grounds the proceedings in a solid human element. Though, given the intricacy and complexity of the narrative, there's only really room for one human's story and it's Cobb's. Which is to say that the supporting characters are largely caricatures, without any real stories of their own. I consider them victims of a highly focused personal story told in extravagant fashion. Casualties whose demise bear great fruit. Oh, secondary characters, thou hast not died in vain.
So the narrative of Inception operates on two levels: it's the story of a new kind of story and an innovative way to tell it, as well as the personal story of a singular character. And for him, though his personal story has elements of a love story, his story is really about guilt.
With all that said, even if the narrative wasn't grounded in anything emotional or 'human', I think it still would have been brilliant. Because the structure of the narrative itself explores the human mind and ways that it works. Which is not to say that there is anything particularly profound in such an exploration, only that it is highly stimulating mentally. The effect is achieved with the help from some dazzling sequences. The zero-gravity fight sequence is brilliant. Not only in conception but also in execution. A lesser director would certainly have opted for CGI to achieve something this ambitious, but Nolan went all out utilizing traditional stunt work in a room that actually, physically rotated combined with wire stunt work. Bravo.
Nolan also had some 'meta-' considerations with this script that remind us that it was he who wrote and directed Memento. In Memento you'll recall the central conceit is that the audience experiences the story in a reverse-linear structure, starting with the final events of a sequence of events, and moving backwards to the beginning. In so doing an effect is achieved where the audience experiences the film without memory of prior events, just like the protagonist in the film (who suffers from short-term memory loss) experiences life. In this film Cobb remarks that in a dream you never remember the beginning of the dream, but rather it feels as if you always remember the dream beginning at some point in the middle. Similarly Inception opens with the audience feeling as though it has been thrust into the center of an already long-running narrative. Indeed, if I had seen this movie and someone had told me it was a sequel to a film called Extraction I would certainly have no problem believing them. It feels like that.
The downside to all of this--if there is one--is that the events that happen in the 'reality' of the story--if you're able to discern what those are, despite the warnings against doing so--are fairly mundane and familiar territory for action movies. But the heart of this film is not the events of its 'reality', but a comment on the nature of reality and it's relation to memory, fantasy, the subconscious etc. If you come away from the film realizing that all that 'really' happened was a business man hired someone to find a creative way to take out a competitor, and you find yourself focusing on that fact, then it's time to return to your steady diet of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. Not that I think that only a drooler could possibly dislike the film, but rather if you dislike it for that reason then you are, necessarily, a drooler.
The film also excels in most technical aspects. The score by Hans Zimmer is phenomenal, especially the section near the end of the film, which is also the piece that plays in the theatrical trailer for the film. The acting is great all-around. Leo does an excellent job, Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his transition to serious adult actor, and Tom Hardy is smooth as heck. The special effects are excellent. CGI is relegated only to the realm where it should almost always be confined: inanimate objects. The script is phenomenal operating on multiple levels, with numerous inventive plot elements, which Nolan's direction deftly juggles on screen. The one thing I still don't really like is the way that Nolan shoots and edits certain elements of action sequences. It's very intimate, but often disjointed and somewhat difficult to follow. But that is only a minor complaint. Overall the film is exquisitely crafted.
With Inception Nolan has successfully melded the storytelling innovation and genius of Memento with the bombast and the big-budget Hollywood theatrics of The Dark Knight into something at once extremely creative and intelligent, as well as slick and entertaining. This is no small feat. Not since The Matrix has a big-budget Hollywood film combined those elements so seamlessly. While it certainly must be nice to be Christopher Nolan, it's almost just as nice being a fan of Christopher Nolan.