Who's In It: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas
The Basics: A crew of dream interlopers want to plant an idea in the brain of a dead tycoon's son--the idea to divest himself of a lot of his super-rich dad's money--so they enter his dreams to get the job done. But they don't stop at one dream; they dive deep down into a dream inside a dream inside a dream, throwing a lot of dream-hijacking rules at the audience along the way (well, actually, to your friendly stand-in, Ellen Page, who plays the team's newcomer). Not that those rules and their accompanying sci-fi jargon names and their underpinned philosophical justifications always help what you see on screen make immediate sense. It's a stern, seriouspants funhouse maze and you get to wander around in it for two-and-a-half hours, marveling at how cool it all is.
What's The Deal: Take The Matrix's commitment to techy visual achievements, those trailer moments that make you go "Whoa" all Keanu-style, then take Last Year at Marienbad's hypnotic mindbendiness and commitment to destabilizing your ability to watch a movie without stopping every few minutes to ask yourself, "Okay, where are we now? And why?" Finally, filter it through Christopher Nolan's Memento-based puzzle aesthetic and you more or less wind up with this film. In spite of the subplot (here comes a mini-spoiler) that involves DiCaprio and his mournful dreams about his dead wife, it's a movie that invests more in the game itself than in the people playing it, but that doesn't make diving into it any less exhilarating.
Two Ways To Enjoy It: There will be some audiences who connect to all the "deep" and trippy ideas about dreams versus reality and they'll watch it over and over trying to figure out all the heavy meaning. (Those people will start to annoy you soon enough, the way all those Fight Club superfans did a while back.) And you can indulge in that practice because the movie bobbleheadedly nods to that stuff every chance it gets. Or you can simply coast along on the spectacle and treat it like a colorfully spinning object to enjoy looking at. That's not only an equally valid approach but it's in keeping with the movie's attention deficit-like dream-hopping, where there'll be several different dream states happening at once, involving all the characters simultaneously, just daring you to keep up. It's not haphazard but it's intentionally, thrillingly, disorienting.
Three Performances To Watch: Marion Cotillard is anti-Mother of the Year as the bitter, confused hallucination that wants to selfishly steal her husband from his own life; Ellen Page successfully jumps ship from the SS Juno for the first time, turning off the smart-assery and opening up a sense of wonder we haven't seen from her yet; and Tom Hardy chugs along here as the coolest master of disguise ever.
What I Learned About Myself From Watching It: My own dreams--which tend to involve being chased by the bagheaded people from The Strangers or falling from an airplane or eating all the cheeseburgers in the world at once--are sadly mundane, typical and lacking in amazing production design and zero gravity wrestling matches in upside down hotels with rotating hallways. And I think it's unfair.