4 out of 5 stars

So this is what $533 million buys you. Before I get into hot water: That's not the budget of Inception, a luxurious slice of future shock that still has room for a preponderance of lovely sun showers. Rather, it's the domestic box-office gross of writer-director Christopher Nolan's previous movie, The Dark Knight. With that bruiser, Nolan, an intellectual prone to wearing trench coats, was vaulted into an echelon occupied only by James Cameron. And like Cameron, the barely-40 filmmaker has now bet the farm---all of his industry clout---on a fantasy. We may be living in the riskiest of Hollywood days.

Inception, though, is no Avatar---instead, it's the movie that many wanted Avatar to be. In a roaringly fast first hour, we're introduced to a new technology that allows for the bodily invasion of another person's dreamworld. Leonardo DiCaprio has been doing this to his female fans for years. Here, as the haunted Dom, a corporate spy, the actor might finally be shorn of that last hint of baby fat that's larded his adult roles. Dom steals secrets, the big billion-dollar ideas. He's also something of a pill, estranged from his children and a source of worry to his mentor, Miles (the purring Michael Caine, an Alfredian holdover from The Dark Knight): "Come back to reality," the elder urges.

Um, right. Nolan, who worked on his script for a decade and preserved most of its secrets, knows that nobody, least of all the audience, wants that to happen. Inception thus commits to that hoariest (if enjoyable) of conventions, the "one last job," in which Dom will do the bidding of a mysterious Japanese energy magnate (Ken Watanabe) who hopes to fend off a younger competitor (Cillian Murphy) by simply having him quit the business. Dom could plant such a notion in his head, and as the film assembles its crazy team of ultraserious geeks---like a chemist named Yusuf who makes the necessary sedatives (Dileep Rao) or a maze-building architect (Juno's Ellen Page)---you'll be reminded of such pseudoscientific larks as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. (And if you haven't seen that bit of cult wonderfulness, get cracking.)

How can it be that a bunch of people sitting around scheming nonsense can prove so compelling? Only David Fincher knows how to take a studio's money and spin it as stylishly as Nolan. First and foremost---and with breathtaking verve---out go the laws of physics. As in dreams, these cities fold in on themselves and bridges rear up like pissed-off cats. The plan has not yet begun and already, we've gotten an eyeful of slo-mo vertigo.

Yet Inception would be all guff if it didn't strive for the romantic poetry of the great subconscious fantasias, movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Chris Marker's immortal La Jete. There is a woman, lurking on the periphery of Dom's visions. She has tears in her eyes; sometimes, they hold a saboteur's glare. Mal is her name (she's played by the mighty Edith Piaf portrayer, Marion Cotillard) and we soon learn that she is Dom's wife, and dead. Are these manufactured dreamscapes a bold frontier for him, or a private hell of memory?

Suddenly, the game is on---and my advice to you would be to throw away the rule book. Has any movie so lavishly committed to its dream logic as Inception? Certainly not at the multiplex. And honestly, for all its audacity, this might not be a ringing endorsement. A train comes barreling out of nowhere (that's not a metaphor; one really does). Several unconscious characters float weightlessly in an elevator shaft. Page---who's never allowed to be funny, a mistake---gets ski-lodgey in winter whites as a snow fortress is besieged by an armed militia. In short: Help.

But how refreshing it is to be consumed by a raging ambition, not merely the whoosh of a theater's air-conditioning. Escapism is the goal of the summer season---indeed, maybe of cinema in general---and Nolan has honored that pact considerably while also asking much more of us. His latest, like his 2000 breakthrough, Memento, turns our viewership into a prickly challenge of catch-up: Even though Hans Zimmer's score blares its tubas with the ominousness of a James Bond soundtrack, this is no mere good-versus-evil shoot-'em-up.

The "kick" is what Dom calls the moment when his team is jerked awake from its mission. Nolan has made a livelihood out of crafting such kicks (in The Prestige, it was an unfortunate bird, crushed in a magic trick). Does plunging through Inception's many layers of kicks, symbology and interrupted bliss-outs bring us any closer to a higher truth? Maybe not. But oh, to have such dreams.

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