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Director Christopher Nolan's last film, "The Dark Knight," was such a smash hit that expectations are running high for his new movie, "Inception." It's a sci-fi thriller about an agent for hire, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose specialty is entering people's minds while they dream and extracting their secrets.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In Christopher Nolan's "Inception," Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, whose name sounds like it should evoke something a colleague suggests dummkopf, but I dont think that's the intention. Cobb's specialty is plunging into peoples' minds while they sleep and extracting corporate secrets. His new client, a business titan played by Ken Watanabe, wants Cobb not to steal an idea, but to plant one in a rival's head. That's called inception, and it's believed, even in this futuristic world, to be impossible.

Frankly, I got hung up on that. Why should inception be harder than extraction? One character explains, the subject's mind always knows the genesis of an idea, but that strikes my mind as dead wrong. I'm highly suggestible. I don't always know where my ideas come from.

But there's one thing I'm sure of: "Inception" doesn't all come from Nolan's mind. It's a clunky mix-'n'-match of other mind-bending blockbusters like "Mission: Impossible," "Fantastic Voyage," "Dreamscape," "The Matrix," with some Freud and Philip K. Dick thrown in. It's not terrible just lumbering and humorless and pretentious, with a drag of a hero.

Cobb accepts the job of planting an idea in a man named Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy, because he longs to see his two little kids in the U.S. and is forbidden to return on account of a crime to be revealed later, and the new client can make the legal problems go away.

The best part of the movie is Cobb assembling his team, among them Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the point man. Ellen Page's architecture student, Ariadne, has two functions: dream-world designer and exposition magnet. She's the newbie, so Cobb has to explain how the science works.

It takes a lot of explaining.

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Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (as Cobb) You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious.

Ms. ELLEN PAGE (Actress): (as Ariadne) How can I ever acquire enough detail to make them think that its reality?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) Well, dreams they feel real when we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize something is actually strange. Let me ask you a question. You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on.

Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) I guess, yeah.

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) So how did we end up here?

Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) Well, we just came from the...

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) Think about it, Ariadne. How did you get here? Where are you right now?

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Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) Are we dreaming?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) You're actually in the middle of the workshop, right now, see, and this is your first lesson in shared dreaming.

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EDELSTEIN: That's my favorite scene in "Inception," because it ends with the dream city exploding in puffs of debris and the anticipation of magic to come. But Nolan thinks like a mechanical engineer. Instead of creating one dream that's really evocative, he opts for very ordinary looking dreams within-dreams within-dreams.

See, in a dream, you can fall asleep and have another dream, in which you can fall asleep and have another dream except time works differently at different depths. A minute in the waking world might be 10 minutes in the dream, an hour in the dream-within-a-dream, and in the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, years.

The gimmick lets Nolan have three clocks ticking down instead of one which should be killingly suspenseful. But he's too literal-minded, too caught up in his tick-tock logistics to make a great, untethered dream movie. The tone is impersonal, the action disjointed.

There is a nice Freudian touch, a female saboteur who keeps popping up in Cobb's unconscious - his wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard. She has a great first scene, surveying her malevolent handiwork with glittering eyes. But then the Mal subplot turns grim. She's the key to what eats away at Cobb, so as the team prepares to jump into the head of Fischer, Ariadne has to play therapist. As we go deeper into Fischer, she tells Cobb, we're also going deeper into you. And I'm not sure we're going to like what we find. Dialogue like that does nothing for an actress, and it's the only kind that Ellen Page gets.

Apart from Cotillard, the cast is colorless, including DiCaprio, who's often terrific but is weighing himself down with guilt-trip roles.

Look, I, too, wanted to surrender to "Inception". But even with some amazing effects like a city that folds over on top of itself it never cuts loose the way "The Matrix" or Joseph Ruben's jolly B-movie "Dreamscape" did. If you're hoping for a thriller that will take you into another realm, well dream on.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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On the next FRESH AIR: taming the sea. Almost half of the fish we eat has been raised on farms and genetic modification of fish is increasing. We'll talk to Paul Greenberg, author of "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food."

Join us.

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