Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ an uncommonly intelligent blend of crime and fantasy

Remember when “The Matrix” came out in 1999 and its disciples treated it like a philosophy textbook? In reality, it was about as deep as those plastic turtle wading pools you can buy at Walmart. Its stinky sequels proved the emperor wore no clothes.

They should have saved their praise for “Inception,” because it’s a true mind-bender and a tour de force of imagination. Bonus: It won’t spark a clothing trend at Hot Topic.

The less you know about the puzzle film, the richer your experience, so I’ll reveal nothing beyond the barest of plot structure. Leonardo DiCaprio (“Shutter Island”) stars as Cobb, the world’s most skilled extractor. Specifically, he extracts information from others’ subconscious. He’s hired by people to enter the dreams of other people, in order to discover whatever highly secretive information they’ve locked away in their mind.

Despite being damn good at what he does, Cobb is tired of traveling the globe to play the game. He just wants to get back to his kids in America, and the opportunity presents itself when Japanese tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”) hires Cobb and his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”), for one last gig: implanting an idea into the head of a corporate rival (Cillian Murphy, “The Dark Knight”) that will benefit Saito’s coffers.

The task is too formidable for Cobb and Arthur to go it alone, so they assemble a new team, “Ocean’s Eleven”-style, for the heist in reverse, including an architect (Ellen Page, “Whip It”), a forger (Tom Hardy, “RocknRolla”) and a chemist (Dileep Rao, “Avatar”).

Much of the film takes place as members of the team navigate through one dream or another. It may sound confusing, but director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) has Cobb dole out the rules of his dreamworld as we go, rather than in one expository chunk. That way, we can be just as awed as Page’s newbie character, as storefronts explode around them like popcorn kernels, buildings crumble like sandcastles and entire cities fold upon themselves like shutting the pages of a pop-up book.

Needless to say, the effects are astounding and seamless. But those would be nothing if the story didn’t wow you equally or more. And as heady as the premise is, things get headier.

Eventually, the third act has almost as many levels as DiCaprio does vowels in his name, as dreams take place within dreams within dreams, and Nolan’s plot keeps drilling down, skillfully having action on one plane affect the action on the others.

It’s remarkable storytelling that will set your head spinning if you attempted to diagram its structure, but Nolan approaches it expertly, in such a manner that doesn’t lose his attentive, rapt audience.

Initially, the pint-sized Page appeared as if she would be miscast, but she’s not. In fact, I can’t think of a bad performance among a crowded cast that includes old pros like Lukas Haas, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite. As Cobb’s wife, Marion Cotillard (“Nine”) proves a classic Hollywood beauty, even if she’s French.

The real star, however, is Nolan. As the director, writer and producer, he’s pulled off quite a hat trick; I’d argue there’s no smarter, savvier director working today. This is the best movie I’ve seen this year so far, as close to a masterpiece as big-budget films get these days, and destined to be a classic.

Prestigious puzzlers

“Inception” isn’t director Christopher Nolan’s only puzzle film.

His second effort, 2000’s “Memento,” first brought him to moviegoers’ attention, as his tale of a man with no short-term memory (Guy Pearce) was told in reverse. Despite ending at the beginning, it packed quite a surprise.

Right after Nolan revived a superhero franchise with 2005’s “Batman Begins,” he made magic a year later with “The Prestige,” about two warring magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) whose tricks kept viewers wondering just what was and wasn’t an illusion.Rod Lott

Rod Lott

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