In the eyes of many people, especially film nerds, and especially especially my erstwhile cohort on this site, Jim, Christopher Nolan can do no wrong, and it’s hard to argue (2002’s lukewarm remake Insomnia notwithstanding): from his first appearance in the mainstream 10 years ago with Memento, he has written and directed some of the most successful films of the decade, both critically and financially. It’s thanks to him that the Batman franchise has been guided from its troubling teen years, where it got its ear pierced and started wearing some questionable plotlines, into a more rounded and grounded adult with a nice career and a responsible car and some designer suits. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Another notable aspect of Nolan’s ascendency has been the talented actors he has worked with along the way, many of whom return to work with the director on other projects. There’s an old saying that you can tell the measure of a man by the company he keeps, and it must be said that when you include Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman in your circle of friends, chances are you’re a pretty good guy to be around. It’s hard to imagine any other director getting Messrs. Caine and Oldman to sign on for not one but two (so far) ‘superhero’ movies, and it’s to his credit.

To say, then, that the recently-released Inception has a lot to live up to, is to put it mildly. Eschewing all of the big names he has worked with in the past (aside from Caine, appearing in a brief cameo), Nolan has assembled another absolute dream cast for his latest self-penned opus. Leonardo diCaprio leads as Cobb, a man with the ability to navigate peoples dreams, which ordinarily he uses to perform industrial espionage for a high fee. Joining him in this enterprise is Arthur, played by the ever-competent Joseph Gordon-Levitt (formerly of 3rd Rock from the Sun, though to think of him as a sitcom actor is to sell him very short: check out 2004’s Brick {Dir. Rian Johnson} for an excellent example of what he can do). Whilst trying to steal some secrets from the mind of Ken Watanabe’s (previously from Batman Begins) energy tycoon, Saito, he is caught but impresses enough for Saito to hire him not to extract information from a business rival, but to plant an idea in his head (the Inception of the title), a considerably more difficult exercise that requires Cobb to put together a larger team.

This starts with an ‘Architect’- someone who crafts the dreamworld that the infiltrators and the target all share, in this case promising young student Ariadne, introduced by Michael Caine (as Cobb’s inexplicably English father/university lecturer) and ably played by Ellen Page. Page is most famous for her lead role in indie sensation Juno {2007, Dir. Jason Reitman}, but in my opinion her skills were best showcased in 2005’s chilling psychological thriller, Hard Candy {Dir. David Slade, who also directed the recent Twilight: Eclipse, though the two are poles apart in terms of theme and tone}. This world has to be detailed and complex like a maze, to stop the dreamer’s subconscious ‘projections’ (the people populating the dream) rooting out the interlopers and killing them in the dream, which wakes them up in the real world. Along the way, Ariadne discovers that Cobb can no longer craft the fantastical and sometimes paradoxical dreamworlds himself, due to some pretty serious personal demons concerning his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who turns up with increasing frequency to frustrate or attack the team in the dreamscape.

In order to convince their target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, star of 28 Days Later {2002, Dir. Danny Boyle} and previously Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman Begins, 2002) the son of a large energy company boss, that he wants to break up his father’s empire after he dies, he will need to take him into a dream within a dream within another dream (just go with it), and that means two more people for the team: Dileep Rao as Yusuf, a chemist specialising in ridiculously-specific sedatives, and Tom Hardy as Eames, a man who can appear to be other people in the dreamworld.

Just as I have spent a healthy chunk of this review describing the basic premise and characters of Inception, the film itself spends most of its first hour doing the same thing. It does start to get a bit worrying that it takes so long to explain everything in such detail, but Nolan guides this introduction expertly, never letting the exposition dip into being patronising or tedious, and later on you’ll be glad they took the time to explain all the quirks of the process, especially when they start redefining or breaking all the rules they previously mentioned.

Once the team is assembled, it’s time to step up the action, drug their target on a transcontinental flight, and enter the dream state together. At each level of the dream, time passes slower, and, contrary to what they said earlier, if you die in this dream, you don’t wake up, but instead go to limbo, where decades can pass in real-world minutes. From the moment the team (including Saito, who wants to oversee the operation he’s paying so much for, and Ariadne, who is there to watch out for Mal) enter the dream, the drama and urgency build and there really isn’t any let up in the tension for the rest of the film, which is really as much as I can say about the plot without spoilers.

Let’s move on then to the visuals of Inception, which are absolutely stunning. The dreamworld involves some incredible sights; buildings folding in on each other, visual paradoxes and fantastical vistas, of which the absolute standout is a brilliant sequence in a hotel. The CGI is expertly and seamlessly handled, and of peerless quality, which really helps preserve the suspension of disbelief that they took such pains to weave in the first act.

Judging by Nolan’s pedigree, I was not expecting less than solid performances from the cast, and they do not disappoint. I personally have a difficult time thinking of Leonardo diCaprio as an adult, despite the patchy stubble he now sports in all his films to show how ‘grown up’ he is, and though pairing him alongside the similarly babyfaced Gordon-Levitt doesn’t really help with this, it’s a minor point; overall he’s a solid lead and inhabits the character of Cobb well. Gordon-Levitt carries off Arthur effortlessly, and I’m not sure if this is testament to his talents, or because it’s exactly the type of character in which he excels; smart, confident, but also subtle. Ellen Page is coming into her own as an actress, and Ariadne is the perfect stepping stone on her way to leading lady. Marion Cotillard also deserves special mention for her powerful and affecting portrayal as Cobb’s wife, Mal, whose performance sticks in the mind despite the sparsity with which her character appears.

The standout performance of Inception, though, is the fantastic Tom Hardy, who steals every single scene he’s in as the instantly likeable rogue, Eames. What we see on screen in his character is a fascinating example of what a Nolan-directed Bond film would look like (steady on Jim), with Hardy’s suave charm and effortless style taking Eames believably from comedian to conman to action hero as the film goes on. What we see here could well be the role that really launches him into Hollywood, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

With Memento, Nolan established himself not just as a director but also as a writer, and Inception is the natural evolution of his craft, both in complexity and intelligence. He has assembled a peerless cast, and though the story could be summarised as the clever offspring of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, that hardly does it justice. This is the smartest, most original screenplay you will see this year, and though sometimes it can be a little difficult to follow, the pace of the second and third acts means you are never left long enough to dwell on some of the potential plot holes to let them derail the ride. This is a film that can be hard work at times, and one that you probably need to see several times to understand, but it’s also such an exciting and smart thriller that you will want to come back to it again and again. Just maybe not straight away.