Marvel at the intricacies in "Inception," a film that combines the twisty appeal of "Memento" with the cool chic of "The Dark Knight."

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Movie review 4 stars

“Wait — whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” asks a character in Christopher Nolan’s dizzyingly inventive “Inception,” and it’s a perfectly valid question — this movie’s dream-logic isn’t always easy to follow, but well worth the journey. And when’s the last time you heard someone in a movie ask that question, anyway? Just wait until later, when the same character says, “We all ride the kick back up the layers,” and it actually makes sense.

You watch “Inception” marveling at its intricacies — and at Nolan’s whip-smart, stylish filmmaking, here combining the twisty appeal of “Memento” with the cool chic of “The Dark Knight.” It’s a long movie (2 ½ hours) but doesn’t feel so, and is the rare would-be blockbuster that demands close attention and would surely reward rewatching. Are we seeing a dream, or a dream within a dream? Who’s awake? What’s happened to time, and to gravity? Is a character dead, or just waking up, the way we pop our eyes open after falling off a cliff in a dream? What happens when a character can no longer tell the difference between dream and reality? And how best to describe this fairly indescribable yet delicious movie?

“Cerebral heist flick,” I think, comes close. Leonardo DiCaprio, so glamorously lit you’d think he was in Gotham City, plays Dom Cobb, who is a master of dream extraction. In this world, trained experts can infiltrate dreams and steal information — but can they plant an idea where it didn’t exist before? That’s the challenge given to Dom by mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), and a team is assembled, like a less wisecracky “Ocean’s 11,” to attempt just that: sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page, finally leaving her deadpan Juno behind), chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao).

Woven into this plot and its varying levels of dreams is a heartbreaking story of love lost: We gradually learn what has happened to Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, so lovely you wonder how the camera can bear to turn away), why he is separated from his children, why his dreams take him to a dark place. That’s a real — and rare — strength of Nolan’s: that he can turn a lavish, special- effects-laden movie (check out the shots of the city of Paris folding in on itself like a disassembled box, or Gordon-Levitt’s impossibly graceful, gravity-free duel in a hotel hallway) into an intimate actors’ showcase. Something terrible happened between Cobb and Mal, in a cream-colored hotel suite that looks like it’s never seen sunshine, and it takes a long time before we understand what it was; it only lives in the pain in DiCaprio and Cotillard’s eyes.

I think I might have dreamed about “Inception” the night after I watched it, but I’m not entirely sure; dreams have that way of becoming fuzzy around the edges and dissolving into real life without a trace, the way shadows disappear when the light goes on. In that way, Nolan’s film isn’t like a dream at all — it stays with you, for a long time I’m guessing — but nonetheless, it’s dreamy.

Moira Macdonald:

206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com