'Inception': Christopher Nolan's Dreamy New Movie

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands, with Leonardo DiCaprio to his left, in a scene from 'Inception.' Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Leonardo DiCaprio and friends are ninjas of the subconscious, dashing through the landscape of other people's dreams, in Christopher Nolan's Inception. This endlessly fascinating swirl of a film could have come only from Nolan, who blends the cerebral twistiness of Memento (his thriller that moves backward in time) with the spectacular action of his Batman megahit, The Dark Knight. DiCaprio, as a thief-for-hire named Cobb, doesn't merely skulk around sleeping minds, pilfering strangers' secret thoughts. He and his team, complete with architect, actually construct the dream worlds they'll enter, with streets that can rise up and become walls—the city as Murphy bed—or, if things go wrong, a train roaring through city traffic. You may get a headache keeping up with the plot as Cobb tries to plant a new idea in a man's brain; stealing thoughts is simple, but adding one is a risky operation involving a dream within a dream within a dream. Even as you tick off the film's overload of references, though—a Matrix here, a James Bond there—the amazing effects and Cobb's quest carry you along.

But Nolan is the brainiest of Hollywood directors, and Inception is more than the ultimate "it was all a dream" movie. It is the most sophisticated in a year of splashy screen events about parallel worlds, in which characters enter alternate realities and return with some solution to personal and often global problems. Cobb's dangerous assignment is meant to save the world from an energy conglomerate. Avatar's hero goes to Pandora, falls for its nature-loving people, and learns to value the environment. The characters on Lost travel sideways to other times and places in what seems an attempt to escape the island, but turns out to be a way to save their own souls. Even Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland transforms Lewis Carroll's story into a journey of self-discovery fit for the 21st century. The movie's Alice is a 19-year-old who returns from Wonderland realizing she doesn't have to marry the smug gentleman her family selected; she can head out to sea and open a trade route to China instead.

These films, not radical-minded indies but among the most expensive and popular onscreen, suggest that reality is so fraught and problematic that we need to go elsewhere—out of this world or deep into our minds—to see things clearly. They evoke a Wizard of Oz parallel dimension ("You're not in Kansas anymore, you're on Pandora," the villainous colonel in Avatar warns), but their lessons are more political than "There's no place like home." Cobb is hired by a businessman (Ken Watanabe) to plant a thought in the brain of a rival (Cillian Murphy). The new idea: the rival must break up the conglomerate he is about to inherit, which is poised to control half the world's energy and become, as one character puts it, "a new superpower." A too-powerful energy company? Nolan's astute and prescient observation seems like eyes-open common sense in these BP-weary days.

As his plot mirrors world events, Nolan also gives his story an old-school human heart. Cobb's personal mission is to clear his name of a crime so he can stop racing around visually stunning locations (Paris, Tokyo, Tangiers) and return to his children in Los Angeles. The sci-fi gloss and gizmos are not the point. A machine in Inception lets its characters share dreams, and Avatar suspends humans in pod-beds while their brains inhabit Na'vi bodies, but Victorian Alice simply tumbles down a rabbit hole to the same effect: to be set loose in the free-floating land of the unconscious and come back improved. Putting on armor and slaying the Jabberwocky lets Alice return to her reality ready to claim her independence and power.

On the most superficial level, these alt-universes offer audiences the appeal of an easy fix; maybe we can dream our troubles away, just as Avatar's Jake and Lost's Locke can leave their wheelchairs behind and walk on Pandora and the island. More specifically, Avatar places its hope in science and ethics, Lost offers loosey-goosey spirituality, and Alice a familiar proto-feminism. Inception looks for solutions in the tougher realm of the unconscious. Yes, that's dizzying. Ellen Page, as the architect on Cobb's team, is saddled with thankless dialogue like "Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?" (A sure laugh line.) But the complications are also a measure of Nolan's daring and his career-long obsession with control. Memento's hero, with acute short-term memory loss, tries to hang on to fleeting thoughts; Batman tames the chaos of Gotham. Raising those stakes, the characters in Inception try to control what is by nature uncontrollable: the unconscious. It's odd that a movie about disciplining thoughts is so over-the-top undisciplined, indulging its set-piece action at the expense of coherence. But at least there are ideas at play here and in the other parallel-world films, as they capture a cultural moment.

The moment they capture most directly, though, may drift in from two years ago, when these movies were still in the works and the Obama campaign was channeling hope for change and a brighter future. These films may be reminders that, even in the face of harsh political reality, indulging our imaginations is still the best way to find fresh solutions. Or, in a more dismal and timely reading of Inception: it might take a brain transplant to solve our energy problems.