'Inception' close to a sci-fi masterpiece

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Joseph Gordon Levitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio are

Joseph Gordon Levitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio are shown in a scene from "Inception." Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

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REVIEW

PLOT: A dream thief invades the subconscious of a wealthy man.

BOTTOM LINE: Audaciously entertaining and packed with ingenious ideas; the year's first must-see movie.

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard

LENGTH: 2:28

Halfway through "Inception," a heist film of thrilling, almost delirious complexity, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of dream thieves invade the mind of a wealthy industrialist (Cillian Murphy). Under a hail of real-enough bullets they make an unusual getaway: They go to sleep again, re-emerging in a swanky hotel, which of course is only a shared dream within a shared dream.

Still following? As Cobb prepares to pull this stunt a second (third?) time, dream rookie Ariadne (Ellen Page) says what's probably on your mind: "Wait - whose subconscious are we going into?"

The only person who truly knows is Christopher Nolan, the writer, director and producer of this enormously entertaining film. Whatever your questions - Why do dream bullets hurt? Can you kill yourself? How long is a dream minute? - Nolan has the answers, though they're too much fun to spoil here. And woven into the multilayered story is a subplot involving Cobb's not-quite-dead wife, movingly played by Marion Cotillard, which is nearly intricate enough for its own movie.

As with "The Dark Knight" (2008), Nolan turns the humblest of genres - in this case, a sci-fi-caper combo - into something approaching a masterpiece. "Inception" is one astounding set-piece after another: free-falling bodies, fistfights in a whirling hallway, a symbolically crumbling Arctic fortress, all strobing together in nested sequence. (Lee Smith, Nolan's longtime editor, is the movie's secret weapon.)

The characters do a lot of explaining and defining - perhaps unavoidably in a world this detailed - and the film isn't above resorting to a little computer-generated sleight-of-hand. Mostly, though, "Inception" manages to amaze by simply outsmarting, outpacing and genuinely surprising its audience. That's a treat, and one moviegoers don't experience often enough.

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It's a dream come true for director

Writer-director Christopher Nolan, who turns 40 two weeks after "Inception" premieres, said he dreamed up the idea about a decade ago, as his independent hit "Memento" was opening studio doors for him.

The British filmmaker said he has been toying with how to use dreams in movies since his teens.

"I've become, over the years, more and more interested in the creative potential of the mind and the way that every night we're able to create entire worlds," Nolan said. "The idea that you can be completely convinced while you're asleep that you're in a real situation, and you've created this room or whatever, and I've created you as a person, everything you're saying I'm putting as words in your mouth, but I feel that I'm hearing them for the first time. That, to me, suggests infinite potential for human creativity, an infinite mystery to the way the human mind works."

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Hollywood has always been known as the land of dreams, but filmmakers now have technology at their disposal to hurl audiences into worlds approaching the limitless possibilities of their unconscious projections.

"The closest film for me would probably be the first 'Star Wars' that did this for my generation," Nolan said.

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