rating: 4.5It has been two long years of waiting, but Christopher Nolan's eagerly anticipated follow-up to The Dark Knight is finally here. It is fair to say that there have been very high expectations for this next film by a director who has consistently raised the bar over the last decade, each of his films arguably more accomplished than the last. Nolan is a rare animal in that although his films are increasingly big-budget, high-octane actioners, they also attract decent reviews from critics. As a result of his track record (at the start of this year The Dark Knightwas the fourth highest grossing film of all time) he has finally been given carte blanche to write and direct something of a modern rarity: a blockbuster which is not an adaptation, not a sequel and not in 3D. The result is Inception, in many ways a conventional heist movie about a master thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) recruiting an ace team to execute the perfect final job before ostensibly returning to his family. A well worn scenario, probably most readily associated with the films of Michael Mann in recent memory and those films are surely an influence on Nolan (the opening robbery in The Dark Knightis similarly Heat influenced). However, Nolan being Nolan Inceptionis not as simple as that to pin down. The difference is that here the commodity at stake is ideas and the method of burglary is entering the world of dreams and confronting the mark's subconscious. In crass marketing man speak, I suppose it's Michael Mann meets Charlie Kaufman. Yet, whilst this original premise is much more fantastical than anything in the relatively gritty and "realistic" Batman films (or even magical world of The Prestige), Nolan approaches it with the same meticulous attention to detail and with the same desire to build an immersive and realistic world. A world where this convoluted science fiction premise can credibly exist in his audience's imagination. I will not be the first critic or indeed the last to liken this film's premise to Nolan's film-making, Nolan being (it is not too much of a stretch to argue) a creator of improbable but persuasive dreamworlds. As DiCaprio's character, Dom Cobb, says: "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." This crucial suspension of disbelief is aided, firstly, by the visceral nature of the visual effects. Aside from the now ubiquitous marketing image of the city folding in on itself, the film's action sequences are mostly performed on elaborate and specially constructed sets and in real locations rather than in front of a green screen. Filming took place in six countries and CGI, now the automatic choice for most film-makers, is used sparingly and to an imaginative end. The only time CGI should really ever be used (in theory) is to create things which otherwise couldn't exist convincingly on camera, and that is precisely the place of such effects in Inception. Secondly and most crucially, this idea - and this screenplay which is by necessity replete with exposition - is given heft by the actors involved. As previously mentioned, the film features perhaps the only remaining bankable superstar in Hollywood in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is a stunning performer of great intensity and real intelligence totally unmatched by any of his contemporaries. He gives everything to the role and serves as the emotional centre of the film, with some genuinely moving scenes played against, to my mind, the finest current actress: Marion Cotillard. Cotillard once again shows that with limited dialogue and screen time she can conjure up a really rounded performance and convey an enormous amount of emotional information with the subtlest of changes in facial expression (something she did last year with underwritten roles in Public Enemies and Nine). The rest of the cast is almost equally strong, with two Oscar nominated performers in the charismatic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and Ellen Page (Juno), for once allowed to play her age. The film also boasts an intriguing and underplayed turn from rising-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as the mercurial talent of Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy, whose character Eames is destined to become a fan favourite and is certainly the most fun. The dependable Dileep Rao is again typecast as a knowledgeable expert (following roles in Drag Me To Hell and Avatar). There are also impactful cameos from seasoned performers like Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite and Tom Berenger. As with The Prestige and the Batman films, Nolan can rely on a compelling, world class acting ensemble to provide the gravitas and the heart lacking in most effects-laden fare. Heart is certainly not something Inceptionis lacking. As well as the emotional drama of Cobb's story, there is a humanism here, also evident in Nolan's previous work. The Dark Knight made a point of depicting basic human decency in the face of adversity rather than painting man as at best inherently selfish and at worst evil. Here too this point is made in dialogue, with Cobb telling us that a positive idea takes hold of the human mind more readily than a negative one. It is also humanistic in the way that there are no real "bad guys" (if you discount the morally dubious trade of the central characters). Much like that mysterious cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, when entering a dreamthe only enemy is the one you take with you. Inceptionis a psychological thriller in a year bursting with psychological thrillers - perhaps its most obvious rival being Scorsese's Shutter Island (also starring DiCaprio) with which this story shares some themes and plot similarities. But what sets this film apart from the others most of all is the excitement Nolan generates with the large-scale action scenes. The car chases, explosions and gun battles are always thrilling, with some being like nothing you will have seen before. The excitement is heightened by the fact that quite often these set-pieces are occurring simultaneously: in dreams within dreams. Most terrific is that Nolan keeps all these plates spinning with consummate ease. A lesser director may have lost the audience in a plot with as many twists and turns as this, but Nolan ensures that we always know what we are supposed to know at any given time as he establishes the world and its characters perfectly. There are loads of neat visual touches here too. For example when a defibrillator is used outside of a dream, in the dreamworld we see a thunderstorm. Nolan also uses slow motion to great effect, because (as cool as the slow-mo shots are) the technique serves mainly to reflect the differences in perception of time between worlds, rather than simply to show off like Zack Snyder. Nolan is stylish but he is no mere stylist and Inceptionis a great marriage between form and content. Hans Zimmer's score is also a real winner here, being austere and resonant, acting like audible punctuation. As with The Dark Knight it is used sparingly. Built into the score are the stirring opening strains of Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien", which plays as a recurring motif throughout the film. However, whilst Nolan claims the song was always in the script (the earliest draft of which predates La Vie En Rose) the Cotillard/Piaf connection is a little distracting and it may perhaps have been wise to have adjusted the choice of song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66TuSJo4dZM As previously hinted at, Inceptionis rather bogged down at times with scenes of naked and convoluted exposition, such as when Cobb teaches a young initiate into his group (Page) about the rules of the game. Thanks to the actors and the entertaining nature of the concepts discussed these scenes are never bad, but they are functionary and inelegant preludes to the action which will take place later. In some cases we are told and shown and told again. The film is complicated, but not as complicated as it worries it is. It could also be said that some of the ideas are underused. For one thing the city folding stunt, so awesome in the trailer, lacks power within the context of the film, as it comes to nothing. Another example comes when Nolan sets up the idea that within a dream the dreamer's subconscious (manifested as generic people) acts like white blood cells and, after a time, begins to seek out the intruders becoming something akin to a pack of hungry zombies. This too is an underused concept, almost completely forgotten in the final third of the film. This may seem like a hypocritical closing statement for me to make about a film I have rightly heralded for its originality, but like Batman Begins, Inception for all its considerable thrills feels like an opening chapter, laying the explanatory groundwork for an even greater sequel. This is not to say that the film does not work in its own right, or even that a sequel has ever been contemplated by Nolan (and I suspect it hasn't), but just that you are left wanting to see this crew pull off another job and possibly even mess around with dreams in more outlandish ways than are shown. The possibilities are endless, though I'd hate to be the first to cry "franchise". Inception is far more than a stop gap between Batman films and (Pixar aside) is probably one of the few movies worth paying to see this summer at the multiplex (or - if you're lucky enough - the IMAX). However, whilst it is indeed very, very good, it falls just a little short of the Dark Knight-beater I hoped it would be. And I mean that as praise: I just love Batman that much. Inceptionis released by Warner Brothers on the 16th of July and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.