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Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

poster Deep in the languid, humid center of summer comes writer-director Christopher Nolan's "Inception," an eye-dazzling, intellect-revving jolt of a sci-fi heist film. It's got crumbling skyscrapers! Zero gravity! Why, it's even got Michael Caine! Unfortunately, though, it lacks a key ingredient for true movie magic, the ability to move the heart.

Here's the premise: Fugitive Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is an expert in the branch of corporate espionage known as "extraction": lifting secrets out of targets' minds while they and the spies snooze together. As if that weren't challenging enough, Cobb's current client, Saito (Watanabe), ups the ante, requesting a potentially dangerous "inception": the placing of an idea in a mark's subconscious musings. Although Cobb wavers at first, Saito's promise to make a call that can all but erase Cobb's criminal past and allow him to go home to see his young children proves too tantalizing to resist.

The case at hand involves Robert Fischer Jr. (Murphy), the heir-expectant of Saito's competitor, an energy company magnate. Saito wants Fischer to believe that breaking up his father's empire is his own original idea. Sowing Saito's self-serving seed in Fischer's head requires three levels of dream diving—a dream within a dream within a dream.

It's a Herculean task, so Cobb recruits a crack team of specialists: Ariadne (Page), a preternaturally wizened architect who designs Escher-like dreamscapes; Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), his longtime researcher; Eames (Hardy), a gifted impersonator; and Yusuf (Rao), the chemist who concocts sedatives powerful enough to plunge the team and their mark into the deepest slumber. Also popping in rather maliciously, courtesy of Cobb's tortured psyche, are "projections" of his gorgeous, deceased wife, the aptly named Mal (Marion Cotillard).

Nolan's nothing if not a disciplined writer-director (see "Memento," "The Dark Knight"), a fact that rewards attentive filmgoers with a coherent, logical story, bound in enough internal rules to cap an oil spill. But lose focus, even fleetingly, at your peril (and good luck getting those whispering pleas for seatmates' guidance heard over the soaring soundtrack).

DiCaprio's a convincing Cobb, but a more textured relationship with Ariadne could have propelled him beyond the perpetually furrowed brow/unresolved guilt plane, as well as given Ellen Page a chance to leverage her own prodigious charm. Likewise, their fellow team members turn in uniformly excellent performances, but viewers scarcely get to know them beyond their roles in the mission. So swap out some hotel-ceiling dancing or snow-machine racing for character development? Absolutely.

Given Nolan's commitment to setting up a hole-less, logical schema, it's surprising to discover his wholesale apathy for the technical aspects behind dream extraction. Team members get wired to the same turntable-sized device, then ... voilá! Ditto for the chemist's role. Intriguing vials of liquids rest on a shelf in his lab, yet their contents remain a mystery.

One reason for these gaps may be that the science of dreams isn't nearly as advanced as it's portrayed in the film. Rosalind Cartwright, an author and neurological sciences professor at Chicago's Rush University, tells Reel Science, "It has been frustrating to have to wake the sleeper to ask what was going on. Brain imaging is some help, but not much. While it does confirm some of our hunches about how dreaming differs from waking thought, it does not tell us 'what' is dreamed.

"There are interesting new studies being done," she continues, for example, recording during surgery for control of seizures. "This allows for studying the brain while awake, using depth electrodes, in which the patient responds to pictures with emotional content versus neutral content. So we are getting closer with the help of technology, but not nearly do we see the dream as if on a movie screen ... yet."

Although there are still formidable hurdles when it comes to unraveling our inner narratives, it's certainly a goal worth pursuing. Consider the vast potential real-world applications: helping doctors better understand hallucinations, posttraumatic stress disorders, and other cognitive disabilities.

Until then, we're left to dream along with "Inception," which isn't 2010's perfect summer movie. But if you're willing to forgive Nolan's shortcomings in the realm of characterization, you'll be primed to embrace this latest counter to formulaic froufrou, an amusement park loop-the-loop with enough hang time to make you think.