phwoar, look at the angles on that oneSome characters thump awake, panting, in a snarl of sweaty sheets. Some characters open their eyes with a snap, hold the pose for a full two camera seconds, sigh. Depends what it’s been – lurid wish-fulfilment, vicious tragedy, traumatic flashback. A shortcut to backstory, a cheap bit of misdirection. Rarely surreal, no abrupt shifts of scene or familiar places in illogical shapes. High emotion. The reason dreams in films so often don’t convince isn’t that they’re unrealistic. It’s that they aren’t unrealistic enough.

No surprise, really. This is the economy of fiction, and what exists must work in service to the plot or it’s out on its ear. But, still, all these characters on all these screens who seem to spend every night staring at a slideshow of memory – after a while you start to wonder if the screenwriters have actual dreams at all.

So what’s great about Inception is that there aren’t any real dreams in it. No-one falls asleep naturally and drifts through the various stages until they cruise into the REM state and find themselves driving a car downhill in their boxers despite never having learnt how, then curled up in a treehouse library whose rabbit-warren corridors curve overhead and underfoot with 360-degree shelving, reading a red book that turns out to be the morning sun. In Inception, all sleep is drugged; all dreams are built by conscious minds. If the scenes seem suspiciously coherent, if the buildings (bar a Penrose staircase or two) are all too structurally sound, if for some reason the subconscious is supposed to be on alert against logical inconsistencies rather than gleefully piling them on top of one another – that’s okay. These are less dreams and more fictions, stories thought into the minds of their target audience by a team of great imaginations, built worlds that can’t recreate the maker’s own familiar places for fear of giving too much away.

The comparison makes itself, really.

Inception is carefully, intelligently put together, the seed of a final twist (or is it??) planted half-way through, the various layers of the story worked together with delicate art. It knows about dreams what filmmakers tend to ignore, that they are strange sideways things that we can only interpret through metaphor, even if sometimes the metaphors are so crude and obvious we feel disappointed in our own subconscious minds. It knows about creation that it’s dangerous psychic territory, that when we think we are in control of the narrative the details may be letting our secrets slip. It’s a slick piece of work, the beautiful sharp suited young fraudsters of an Ocean’s Eleven exploding through the transnational spaces of a Bond or Bourne film, street markets in Mombasa and energy markets in Japan and the US, plastic chairs and first-class plane travel (and a French extradition reference!). Fractions of the familiar world, giving nothing away.

Yet — there’s another way we give ourselves away, not by what we put in but by what we leave out. A man must go home; a father-son conflict must be resolved (not an Oedipal one – there isn’t a mother in it. Which by the way is weird); economic competition must flourish, no time to wait on antitrust laws. None of these motivations seem any more important than the next gorgeously detailed set-piece. There’s a lot of charisma but not a lot of human sympathy. Ellen Page’s Ariadne is perfect, here, her curiosity intellectual and practical and unromantic, taking her place in the group for the thrill of immaterial creation. She’s an architecture student, her professor’s favoured pupil, enchanted with the idea that any environment she imagines can take shape without the tedious business of getting it built. She thinks up a world so another mind can realise it, so yet other minds can interact with it and finally, somewhere down the chain, it will make one mind feel something and so betray itself. It’s all craft, all contrivances, the final purpose lost in a huge Heath Robinson machine.

It’s not that emotion is lacking – it’s that emotion would sap the delight from this film, would upset the delicate balance of image upon image, fantasy upon folly. Like all heist films, the joy is in watching sharp minds think their way out of the inevitable unforeseens, use every tool they know to keep their plot in motion. We’re supposed to find it sad that Inception‘s team of creators can no longer dream spontaneously, but that’s hard to do. The only real threat in the film is the loss of lucidity, the thing that cannot be explained, the dreams one cannot control.