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Dream Weavers

“Memento” meets “Mission: Impossible” in Christopher Nolan's latest.

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Deep into its dreams within dreams, the high-minded popcorn flick “Inception” stops for a beat to allow a character to ask, “Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?” Cue approving laughter from the audience, which has had some difficulty with all the expositional dialogue, freaky dream terminology and subconscious probing even if members have been especially attentive. You could argue, however, that an earlier line from the same character defines the movie even better, when she's being taught how to interact with dreams. “What happens,” she wonders, “when you start messing with the physics?”

“Inception” is also much more interested in the physics of dreaming, as in: How can a story about dreams be the biggest action movie ever? “Don't be afraid to dream a little bit bigger,” exclaims another character. “Inception” dreams so big it quickly collapses under itself.

The movie was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who combines the hauntingly dreary cinematography of his “Batman” movies with the twisting logic of “Memento” to create a movie absorbed with everything short of reality. It's about a guy named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who runs a sort of freelance enterprise of dream invasion that plays out like “The Matrix” meets “Mission: Impossible.” Cobb is hired by one of the world's most wealthy men (Ken Watanabe) to do the opposite of his normal routine: Rather than steal an idea from the brain of a rival (Cillian Murphy), he wants Cobb to put one in there, a plan assumed impossible by the experts in the movie, who seem not to have heard of advertising.

“Inception” comes at you fast and furious before, during and for about two hours after this point. If you value your sanity and would like to enjoy yourself, do not try to understand it. Despite mumbo jumbo designed to give the appearance of a thinking-person's blockbuster, it's an action movie at heart, weaving a complex premise into the usual explosions, car chases and shootouts. One of the few big releases not based on another form of media, it is being hailed as the dream movie of the summer. The reality is a little more mundane, kind of like the way dreams work in the movie.

They are literal in the extreme. When Cobb says he and his missing wife (Marion Cotillard) “washed up on the shores of our mind,” we see them on a sandy beach. When we hear “the dream is collapsing!” the roof caves in. Training in dream defense means a mental assault team, like armed white blood cells. If someone is killed the wrong way in a dream, they are trapped there, in a sort of limbo. The technical name the movie gives this state: limbo.

Hopefully you don't mind going on, because the movie is hardly through reveling in its technobabble. Cobb has a secret deep in his subconscious, we learn, so far down you can only find it in the basement of his dreams, conveniently found when you press the B in the elevator of his dream world. Those secrets his targets keep locked up in their subconscious? They're usually kept in actual dream safes. And so on.

You can take the $600 million or so raked in by “The Dark Knight” as an irrefutable argument, but Nolan really isn't that exceptional a storyteller. He cuts in such a way that obscures rather than heightens. He has such a difficult time with pacing the movie feels like a seesaw between stunts and exposition. People talk when we want to see things working, and engage in endless fisticuffs when there's no need. A climaxing mountain scene, complete with machine-gun wielding skiers, goes on interminably, Cobb's team members knocking out with one punch and killing with one shot for so long you forget why they're even there.

Some parts of the movie don't make any sense, like the way Cobb hires a star dream architect (Ellen Page) only to start from scratch with her education. Others are just weird. Overlook the overcooked and overlong story, and you may still wonder why this latest DiCaprio picture bears such a striking similarly to “Shutter Island,” which also starred DiCaprio as a guy searching through waves of paranoia for his long-lost wife and children.

Nolan and his team have dreamed big. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But there's also a case to be made for the firm grasp on reality required to create compelling fantasy. (R) 158 min.

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