Note: Unlike a lot of the other reviews, this one assumes you've already seen Inception and know the major plot points. So if you've been as much of a "live-under-a-rock" person as I am, dust yourself off and see the film before you read any further.
Alright now. First, let's get the praise out of the way. Inception is a good way to pass a couple of your movie-watching hours, engaging enough as a big budget masala heist thriller with spadefuls of visual chutzpah. The production design and visual trickery are breathtaking at times and Hans Zimmer's score rocks. In terms of thrilling large masses of moviegoers and making tons of money the film has succeeded handsomely, while still appearing more thoughtful than its box-office competitors.
But seriously, a speculative or imaginative look at dream-scapes it is not. For that stuff, see any of Satoshi Kon's films (Paprika, Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue), which do a far better job of representing the disorientation and emotional impact of being caught in a dream world. If in fact I may say so, Inception is as anti-dream as it gets. What is it that makes our dreams special? It is that they play as our own 3D hyper-real movie loops, the emphasis being on “our own”, since individuality is what makes them special. They are designed by our mind, taking unpredictably from the flotsam of our memories, feelings and ideas. Sure, elements and themes can be common across the dreams of a population but while we are in them we see a personalized vision, which is what gives them emotional heft. The problem with the bulk of Inception's dreamscapes is that they're quite impersonal, and don't, as far as I recall, seem to reflect the personalities of any of the characters taking part in them. The “shared dream” is just a flashy theme park ride version of a heist caper, more Jeffrey Archer than Philip K Dick (to disagree with my good friend Nivedita Ravishankar). Without the layering aspect, it's arguably less imaginative than the gag in Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong where the protagonists prop up corpses at a morgue to pose as bank employees to fool the bad guys.
To fit an exploration of the human mind to the confines of the action thriller format was never going to be easy. Nolan's approach to this problem is to reduce the mind in question to that of an utter idiot. Cillian Murphy's character, the main victim, follows instructions and feels what he is told to. If he has any personality, we don't see it. There could have been some real fun to be had if his own sub-conscious (or that of ANY of the several players in the scheme) had flung in some genuine curve-balls to the dream-heist scheme. But noooo, his sub-conscious defenses (a skill of very dubious utility taught by specialists as a means of protecting your mind's secrets from dream-burglars) are a bunch of constantly spawning generic gun-toting goons, little more than speed-bumps for the “dream team”. Frankly that's a concept they should have left for the video-game tie-up.
Since in Hollywood thrillers, there must be a countdown to something or the other, Inception has this conceit where every dream (or dream within a dream) has a constant and measurable pace. So multi-tier dream constructs fabricated like Russian Matryoshka dolls can be synchronized to a single moment of awakening which, not surprisingly, reflects a typical blockbuster film climax (In this case, more than one). But how does it relate to the other plot point of this film, Cobb's wife? Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, the film suggests that they are undertaking multi-tiered dreams that at a certain level span decades. Given the kind of convoluted rules this process involves in the central heist plot, it hardly seems the stuff of husband-wife fun. Without these silly rules, the relationship aspect with the shared dream thingy would have in itself made for a great smaller budget movie. If you make it all the way to the climax of the classic Ashok Kumar film Mahal, there's something of that essence of creating a timeless love, which worked beautifully for that film. Sorry if I appear too harsh, but here it's just another MacGuffin to give our hero some guilt trip he must overcome by the film's end. Inception is not a clusterfuck of stupidity as some of its peers in the summer blockbuster category, but it's an action film with some clever duct tape to hold the explosions and CG imagery together than one with any serious speculative leanings, and you're likely to remember the wonders of its folding buildings and staircases for longer than the details of its story and characters.