Christopher Nolan’s follow up to the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight is not a franchise installment, a remake or a re-imagining. Inception is an original screenplay, Nolan’s first since Memento, packed with complex ideas and mind-bending storytelling, that doesn’t fit easily into any summer-friendly genre. And it’s in fabulous, glorious 2D.

For a film in which the characters spend most of their time asleep, Inception doesn’t rest for a minute. The film opens, without preamble, as Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempts to steal top secret information from the sleeping mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese businessman who is in fact testing Cobb for a far bigger job. The new target is Saito’s nearest rival Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the heir to an industrial fortune. This time, however, the mission is not to steal an idea, but to implant one. With the alien thought buried in his subconscious, the thinking goes, Fischer will dissolve his late father’s companies and clear the way for Saito’s monopoly. But the thinking goes far deeper than that.

Cobb’s closest ally is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fixer who looks after the technology, and keeps an eye on the watch. For the big job, Cobb calls up new recruits; English dandy Eames (Tom Hardy) can impersonate other people in the dream-world and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) can make a sedative that can keep the target dreaming. The last piece of the puzzle requires a specialist, so Cobb recruits psychologist Ariadne (Ellen Page) and teaches her how to mentally construct every street, building and room in the artificial world. More importantly, the newcomer serves as a sounding-board for Cobb to explain exactly how the trick, and by extension the film, works.

In short, and without spoiling the fun, when the subject is dreaming, Cobb uses his technology to draw them into another dream, where he can create yet another dream world, and so on. The genius of his invention is that time works differently, the deeper into the dream you do. A minute in the real world becomes ten minutes in the dream and, perhaps, a day in the dream within a dream. Below that, where Cobb and his team are preparing to go, time stretches on into years, maybe decades. This multi-layered set-up allows Nolan to keep three different clocks ticking at three different speeds, a device that works to heighten the tension three-fold as he cuts back and forth between worlds, between characters and between the real and the unreal.

It’s brain-freezing stuff, and like the spinning top that serves as a key plot device, Inception is always on the verge of falling over. That it never does is Nolan’s great achievement, but he didn’t arrive at it by chance. Inception is constructed like a maze, with the director acting as navigator, providing all the information required to comprehend what is going on at any given point, without ever giving the game away.

Impeccably conceived and photographed, Inception has a series of stand-out effects sequences; a Parisian street folding in on itself like a book and a dizzying zero-gravity getaway. The plausible sci-fi noir mood is the same as that found in the best work of writer Phillip K Dick, with Nolan broadening his range to pay homage to his inspirations. There’s a room that recalls Kubrick’s 2001 and a mirror effect taken from the similarly convoluted Lady From Shanghai, but also sequences that could have been taken from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and explicit visual nods to the impossible realities of artists Rene Magritte and M.C. Escher. If his references are intended to further identify Inception as a metaphysical puzzle, the film is a metaphorical one, too as Nolan shares Cobb’s ability to weave dreams, plant ideas and mess with our heads.

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