Not to sound like one of those super-cool hipsters, but I've been a Christopher Nolan fan since Memento, which I thought was the best film of 2001 and maybe the whole decade. You people who didn't start loving him until he made some Batman movies ... well, I'm better than you, is my point.
Insomnia, The Prestige, and the Batman films were all worthy followups, but it's with Inception that Nolan re-achieves artistic greatness. Like Memento, it's a fascinatingly complex story about memory, perception, and the untrustworthiness of our own minds. It's also extremely inventive and entertaining; highly intelligent but not baffling or inaccessible. Like the other great film of the summer, Toy Story 3, it wins points for trying to convey difficult, ambitious themes, and even more points for actually succeeding. Many films try to do a lot less than this and still don't meet their goals.
We learn in the first ten minutes or so that people have developed technology allowing them to get inside your subconscious mind and poke around in your dreams. Ideas can be stolen this way, so it's appealing to governments, militaries, and corporations that want to get a leg up on their competitors.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are "extractors" for a company that undoubtedly charges a great deal of money for their services. It's no easy thing, gaining access to someone when he's asleep, plugging yourself into his brain, and so forth. (Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dealing with dreams rather than memories.) And so far, you can only take a person's existing ideas. You can't plant a brand-new one, i.e., create "inception": the person's subconscious will realize it's being messed with and evict you. Inception is impossible. OR IS IT????
The capital letters and extra question marks may have clued you in to Inception's central plot line. It's a lot like a heist film, except that instead of breaking into a bank, Cobb, Arthur, and their cohorts are breaking into someone's mind. You wouldn't think this would be as dangerous as a bank job -- what's the worst that can happen when you're in a dream and nothing is real? -- but you'd be surprised. Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, and Dileep Rao play members of the team with various areas of expertise; Ken Watanabe is the client who has hired them; and Cillian Murphy is the target.
Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, lays out the rules of his world deftly. A ton of exposition is needed, yet it never feels like exposition. Things are explained plausibly, and in just enough detail for us to get it -- the last thing Nolan wants to do is over-explain himself. The information is parceled out carefully, not all at once, but not in a way that's maddening or cryptic, either. Again, I marvel at how many films with concepts far simpler than this one never make sense at all, or else only make sense because they repeat themselves clumsily.
The special effects are also noteworthy, in that they are 1) very good, and 2) related to the story. Nothing is done just to show off. (OK, maybe the low-gravity sequence, just a little. But holy crap, it's cool.) Much of the film takes place in various people's subconscious minds, and these dreamscapes are presented like real life, only weirder. The people and objects are familiar; they just behave in unusual ways. Manipulating reality like this can be more exciting than using CGI to create dragons or monsters, and it's more in line with what our real dreams are like anyway.
There is an emotional side to all of this, too. Dreams can be therapeutic, our subconscious minds helping us heal our conscious wounds. DiCaprio's character has grief issues that are at least superficially similar to those of his Shutter Island character. But the film's flaw is that it doesn't have the emotional impact that it ought to. Even though we spend a lot of time in these people's heads -- literally, almost -- there's still a certain detached coldness to it all.
Mind you, the overall excellence is more than enough to compensate for this shortcoming. It's not a deal-breaker -- not for me, not when it's surrounded by such narrative agility and thrilling set pieces and ingenious plotting. I'm eager to see it again as soon as possible. I haven't felt that way about a movie since ... well, it was only Toy Story 3, a month ago. But still!