Christopher Nolan's Inception is a purposefully twisty film, a film that prides itself on its elaborate structure — a structure that exists on the meta-level of the narrative as well as constantly asserting itself within the film itself. Mirroring the film's plot about sci-fi thieves who enter people's dreams to steal (or plant) crucial bits of information, Nolan weaves through one layer of dreams/narrative after another, constantly sending his characters leaping from one false reality to another, and thrusting the audience through similarly discombobulating shifts. And yet, for all these dreams and dreams within dreams, and maybe dreams within dreams within dreams, the film telegraphs its supposedly most important revelations well ahead of time, and in the end all of its intricate structures and flashy surfaces seem designed to disguise the rather conventional story being told at its center.

Early on, after the dizzying, action-packed opening sequence, it becomes clear that Inception is at heart a heist picture. The ace dream "extractor" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are hired to do a seemingly impossible job for the businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe): to plant an idea in the head of Saito's corporate rival, Fischer (Cillian Murphy). To do so, of course, Cobb and Arthur will need to gather a team, which triggers the obligatory extended sequence in which the pair goes around gathering together their fellow conspirators, including the "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will build the dreams, and the forger Eames (Tom Hardy), who will pose in other identities within the dreams. Once this team is assembled, the dream extractors enter the mind of Fischer, enacting an elaborate plan that involves putting the businessman to "sleep" multiple times, moving from one dream to another within his sleeping mind, constructing multiple layers of reality where the various characters are sleeping, dreaming within a dream, all while their "real" bodies are sleeping on a 747 bound for Los Angeles.

The bulk of the film is taken up by this complex web of dreams within dreams, and Nolan stages it all as an unrelenting action race against time. You see, Fischer had had training to protect against extraction, which means that his subconscious is "militarized," and that means that people are constantly shooting at the heroes. And if they die in the dream, they'll go into limbo, even though under normal circumstances they'd just wake up when "killed" in a dream. And... well, there's a lot more, but that's a big part of the problem. The film is awash in complex concepts and reversals, in intricate rules and exceptions to those rules. Mostly, though, it all just plays out as a big, thudding, deafening action extravaganza, like the wildest physics-defying action sequences from The Matrix stretched out to feature-length (kind of like The Matrix's sequels, come to think of it). When the extractors arrive in a dream layer that is, for some inexplicable reason, set in a snowy wilderness with a heavily defended fortress at the center, it seems less like a movie than a video game, maybe a level of a Call of Duty shoot-em-up. That's what the various dream layers start to feel like after a while, like levels in a game — and when you get right down to it, while it's lots of fun to play a video game, no one really likes watching someone else play a video game. Nolan is playing a very big, very expensive, very complicated video game here, and it's exhausting to watch him play it through to the last level.

All of Nolan's blaring action set pieces and dream levels would perhaps be more bearable if one sensed there was something of substance to be found by navigating this maze. But, much as in The Prestige, Nolan's last attempt at a "personal" interlude in between Batman films, all of the film's narrative shenanigans don't really add up to anything in the end. It seems like a superficial attempt to dazzle with complexity for its own sake, despite a conceit that's tailor-made for such narrative pyrotechnics. Comparing Inception or The Prestige to Nolan's breakthrough second film, Memento, it's obvious that what's really missing is a deeper emotional connection to the film's structural gimmicks. The reverse-time structure of Memento, so often wrongly derided as a shallow gimmick, was actually a clever and substantial way of reflecting not only the character's short-term memory loss, but the resulting disconnect between his morality, his actions, and his reasons for those actions. Cause and effect were reversed and disassociated for that film's protagonist, and the film's structure reflected that.

Inception is lacking in that kind of depth. Nolan's love of structural puzzles seems to have consumed him, to the extent that the gimmicks now drive the film, rather than allowing the narrative structure to be defined by the story's themes and characters. Cobb is driven by his relationship with his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and their children, who he's been estranged from. His fixation on Mal and his desperation to get back to his children are his major motivating forces and, more or less, his only character traits. But there's no depth to these emotional foundations. The film slowly metes out pieces of information about Cobb's past with Mal, using this relationship as material for "twists" that are so broadly telegraphed they're never even the least bit surprising. What should be the film's emotional core winds up being used for shallow suspense, and it fails even at that. Mal is never fleshed out enough as a character to make her anything more than a plot device, despite Cotillard's best efforts to make the character interesting. That's typical of the film as a whole: the performances are fine and even effective, but the characters are largely non-entities, hurtling through the film's claptrap constructions without pausing to take a break. The characterization is so thin that it's refreshing when the actors do even something small to enliven their generally functional parts, like Ariadne's little satisfied smirk after Arthur uses a tired movie trick to steal a kiss. Any little scrap of emotion, anything that feels the least bit real, is to be cherished in a movie this empty.

Within this oft-dazzling but ultimately insubstantial film, there are powerful moments, most of them early on, when the film's grandiose dream imagery still feels relatively fresh. Too often, Nolan signifies the unlimited imaginative potential of dreams by, well, blowing lots of things up, but there's no denying that certain sequences are viscerally thrilling, like the scene where Ariadne first explores the dream world, changing its architecture around her, creating steps to walk up and using mirrors to craft whole new landscapes. Nolan doesn't move much beyond this visually, though. His film's vision of dreams is surprisingly staid and unimaginative, rooted more in other movies — the weightless kickboxing cribbed from The Matrix, the crumbling dystopian cities of countless sci-fi movies, the frenetic action movie chase scenes of James Bond or Jason Bourne — than in a real feel for dream logic or the surreal imagery of our minds. For a film about dreaming and reality, Nolan is dreaming surprisingly small, content to deliver predictable heist movie beats dressed up in a flashy surface that he presumably hopes will be mistaken for the substance missing from the film.