I don't know about you, but I hate that moment at the end of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy realizes it was all "just a dream." L. Frank Baum never copped out that way--there never really was any explanation of Oz and how there could be such a weird world you could travel to and then come back. And I hate when characters are sent to dream or fantasy worlds and they spend all their time saying, "Hey! Everything is all crazy and mixed-up here!" Of course, it is, you idiot, it's a dream world! Weren't you paying attention? (George Bailey is particularly cement-brained in It's A Wonderful Life. Can't he understand that angel?)
On the other hand, the concept that the "real" world and "dream" world could be reversed dates back at least to Calderon's Life Is A Dream in 1636, if not before. This leads to endless discussions about whether or not what we are experiencing is someone else's dream, and that if they wake up, we'll be gone.
Happily, Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) skips past all that boring nonsense and heads straight into the maze world of dreams. We're not bothered with explanations or rationalizations, so we can go straight to exploring the idea of shared, directed and lucid dreams. And Nolan has come up with a new structure for an action film. Memento is the famous backward movie. Inception is built like Russian nesting dolls, or like a 3-D chess game. Besides the delightful intricacy of the conception, you get the delicious sensation of cutting between three or four different James Bond movies at once. (And clearly, Mr. Nolan is paying tribute to the fabulous ski chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service without the terrible rear screen projection inserts that mar the earlier work.) A couple of critics of my generation thought that was confusing. They probably missed something while drinking their Ensure and yelling at the kids to get off their lawn. A 5-year-old could understand this movie. Those critics have hardening of the brain cells.
I have never enjoyed CGI as much as the sequence in which Ellen Page's character starts monkeying with the dreamscape in a number of impossible ways. When she folds two views into a pair of echoing mirrors with DeCaprio in the middle of them, I couldn't help sensing a tip of the hat to Orson Welles, who uses that image in both Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai, not to mention the foreshadowing of having multiple versions of the characters operating in parallel dreams simultaneously.
While I love seeing Ellen Page playing a superbrain--is there anyone better at that?--I was disappointed in forcing the very cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play a plodding stick-in-the-mud. And as wonderful as Marion Cotillard is, she must not get caught in the trap of playing the mysterious wife of the big American film star. She needs to get back to films which are built around her, and not devolve into an interesting European extra attraction. She's too remarkable an actor for that. And before I leave the acting (DiCaprio was OK, didn't spoil the movie, still not a very interesting actor), Tom Hardy, who has been building a decent resume, really stepped out in this film as Eames, a man who plays hard but never loses sight of the stakes, ready to avoid a loss he doesn't need to incur. I suspect he will soon become a movie star. Incidentally, is Michael Caine in the movie as anything else than a good luck charm? Did he have a larger role that was cut from the film? Or is he simply required by law to be in every film ever made?
My only serious criticism of the film is the tenuous connection between the "top" story--the effort to get a young man to reject his father's legacy without rejecting his father--and the "bottom" story--DiCaprio's effort to reconcile himself to the responsibility he feels for his wife's death. Yes, both are linked to the idea of "inception," i.e., origination of ideas. But the two stories are emotionally unconnected, which makes for an overall chilly tone for the film. It is exciting, visually stimulating, remarkably suspenseful, considering the boxes it puts itself in, but it is not moving or touching. That could be said for most of Nolan's work--lots of head, little heart.
But you could say the same for Stanley Kubrick, and his stuff isn't too bad.