The most curious thing about Inception has been its reception. While generally positive, it's been overpraised and savaged by loud minorities, the former by those who see philosophical profundity in Deepak Chopra, the latter by those whose expectations were too high or who insist on judging the film by the wrong yardstick. This is a heist movie, not epic drama, and one should no more expect a Godfatheresque thriller than fault it for not being so. The one legitimate complaint that can be leveled is the remarkable lack of character development over its two and a half hour length. But even that's a small crime in a film whose important strengths lie elsewhere.
I won't waste much time on the plot, since I've already broken it down completely, only to reemphasize that it's not nearly as inconsistent as some believe, though Nolan does drop the ball on a couple of points. The time differential on the level two dream isn't correct, and by rights Arthur should have woken up on level one when his team of dreamers missed the first kick. As far as I can tell, everything else lines up properly. With regards to the ending, there seems no end to debate. Did Cobb wake up in reality and go home to his kids? Did he choose to stay down in limbo? Did he dream the entire mission on the plane? I favor the second option since upon reuniting with his children, they appear exactly the same as he remembers them (same clothes, posture, age, etc). It's not clear whether or not the totem tops, and Nolan was obviously leaving the matter ambiguous. Either the first or second scenario is satisfying since the mission is successful in either case, though the second has the added benefit of tragedy. The third is lame, and I rather doubt was intended to take seriously. [Edit: I now accept the first reality option, since it has been pointed out that Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB).]
Regarding the structure of dreams, Inception takes the opposite approach of What Dreams May Come, serving up clearly defined labyrinths, mazes, and landscapes which conform to the laws of physics (when things are going well), purposely designed this way by an architect (Ariadne, played by Ellen Page) so that when the subject's mind is invaded, everything will seem "normal" and not prompt defensive reactions from the subconscious. Nolan is hardly suggesting that dreams usually function this way; they are imposed this way on a victim for a specific purpose. Dramatically this works to great effect, and I love the minimalist feel to Inception's dream architecture, especially the preponderance of greys and blacks (again, opposite the blazing rainbow colors in What Dreams May Come), which go well with the gritty action sequences.
I also adore the story's premise: that the "protagonists" of the Inception team are basically on a mission to destroy a decent man (or at least his financial world), though a critic like Carson Lund is nonplussed, complaining that "the emotionality that drives this complex operation is cruel" and that "any rewards the team receives after their inevitable success are at the expense of ruining one man's personal and professional life, pounding into his head that his father never loved him and was disappointed that he tried to repeat his own path". But that's a strength of the story, not a weakness, making us pause before shelling out too much sympathy for the lead character (Di Caprio's Cobb) who is tormented by his wife's suicide, for which he was tragically responsible.
The strongest indicator of the film's success is that it's over before you know it. Even on second viewing I couldn't believe I spent two and a half hours in my seat -- it's as if that seat had been a lower level dream with the film taking up a fraction of its time. Surely that's the most fitting praise for Inception.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.