Set in the dreams of professional information thieves who are able to share and shape their dream worlds to ensnare their unwitting victims, Inception is visually and thematically evocative of The Matrix and Dark City. For me, it falls short of those films because it doesn't go far enough in exploring its dreamscapes, which should be the most interesting part of any story about creating worlds. The image of a city folding in on itself, as seen in the trailer and TV spots, is awesome, but the movie almost immediately pulls back and warns its characters against that sort of godly mischief. Ideally, the thieves' targets are not supposed to realize that they are in a dream, so the dream architects strive to create convincingly realistic worlds, which are certainly less fantastic (or horrific) than the things I usually dream.
At its core, Inception is really a heist film, however, and a pretty remarkable one. As with any good heist film, it is fun to watch the protagonists' intricate scheme come together (or unravel) through the stages of infiltration, extraction, and getaway. But the challenge that Christopher Nolan takes up with Inception goes beyond the average caper, as the scheme operates according to a set of science fiction rules that the movie entirely makes up. It necessarily walks a fine line, but the great achievement of Inception is in how far it is able to get the viewer to follow along with this fake science that doesn't always feel like the pure fiction that it is. The actual heist does not even begin until about an hour in, but by that point, I understood perfectly what a "kick" is, how time expands within a dream (and again in a dream within a dream), and how another person's subconscious is no place for tourists. Once the action got started, I scarcely raised an eyebrow through brilliantly layered sequences that probably shouldn't have made sense.
Of course, the movie does commit a few cheats, and the experience is not devoid of eye-rolling. Remember how, in The Matrix (or, heck, A Nightmare on Elm Street), dying in the dream meant dying in the real world as well, because the body could not survive without the mind? Well, Inception's characters early on rather proudly try to correct Wes Craven, explaining that death in their dreams is not doom but actually one sure way back to reality. Er, until the movie decides to change that rule with little explanation. But at least the new rule is established early in the heist.
Finally, Inception is like a non-interactive video game. That first hour is essentially a lengthy tutorial, setting the stage, introducing the characters, and establishing the fundamental mechanics. As with many video game tutorials, I grew impatient with it, retaining less and less as the words grew more numerous. I wanted to get into it already, and finally the meat of the experience arrived as three distinct maze-like (and typically senseless) levels filled with deadly hostiles, but most notably a recurring Nemesis-style stalker (or perhaps a Pyramid Head) with seemingly a vindictive grudge against the protagonists. And it all culminates in an apocalyptic final confrontation. You're even told that the fate of the world somehow depends on the heroes' success.
Dang, now I kind of want to play Inception. Well, maybe not that third stage. That snowy fortress was so 1998.