I saw an item on TV the other day, showing how there are a number of oil wells and derricks operating in the Los Angeles area, disguised inside actual office buildings. It’s a good graphic illustration that reality isn’t always all it seems. Nowhere does this apply more significantly than in the world of dreams.

Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is literally the stuff of dreams, and forms an exception to what’s become the rule in films this summer.

It’s non-derivative and highly original, that is, it’s not based on a comic book, it’s not a sequel, or a spin-off from a TV series. It’s also highly frightening, and probably the best thing I’ve seen this summer.

After I had written about a number of films that I found particularly insipid, my editor wondered how I would react to a film that I liked.

Inception is it. But when we talk about Inception, the word “like” doesn’t seem particularly appropriate, and the old adage “be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it” comes readily to mind.

Inception is a unique experience, sinister in its implications and highly imaginative. In many ways, it’s a film that’s too smart for its own good.

It’s a riveting film, and like a dream, it plays itself out on many levels. The aspect that I find most disturbing is that we consider our dreams to be, in many ways, the last bastions of our own personal reality.

They are uniquely ours, fashioned out of our own individual consciousness, and we find the thought that they can be fashioned and manipulated by others for sinister purposes highly disturbing, even terrifying.

Inception sheds some light on perennial questions about the dream-state: What happens if you die in a dream? Why are dreams so hard to remember, especially their beginning?

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, who works with a team of mercenary dream manipulators. Their work involves mutual sharing of dreams and infiltration for the purpose of changing an individual’s subjective reality.

In this case, the technique is not used by intelligence agencies, but more for the purposes of corporate-controlled industrial espionage. The object is to convince the heir of an industrial empire inherited from his father to break up the multinational conglomerate it controls, so that it is no longer a threat to its rivals.

The methodology involved is fairly complex, and involves an awareness of the multi-layered structure of the dream world and the use of powerful sedatives to induce the dream-state.

Cobb is no longer able to build this structure, because his subconscious mind is still preoccupied with the untimely death of his wife, and this interferes somehow with his ability to maintain objectivity in the dream-state, to put it simply.

He enlists the aid of Ariadne, a young architecture student played by Canadian Ellen Page, seen most notably in Juno, for which she garnered an Oscar nomination. I suspect there may also be a couple of Oscar candidates for Inception, particularly DiCaprio and Page, and possibly Marion Cotillard, last seen in the Edith Piaf biography La Vie En Rose, who plays Cobb’s wife.

British director Christopher Nolan, who brought us The Dark Knight , is also responsible for the screenplay of Inception, which reputedly took him 10 years to complete.

Encouragingly, Inception is doing well at the box office, soaring to No. 1 and clearing almost $63 million on its opening weekend. The film represents a gamble for Warner Brothers, and hopefully its success will give the studios the message that the movie-going public is ready for more thought-provoking stories told well.

Its special effects are very well done, and are integral to the development of the plot, rather than a substitute for it.

The film is not without its flaws, however. Its score is loud, portentous and intrusive, sometimes obscuring significant pieces of dialogue. At two and a half hours, it’s a long film, and its very structure — deliberately imitative of the dream state — can make it hard to follow at times.

There are whole sequences, such as the anticlimactic one, shot in Alberta, and highly reminiscent of the 1965 war movie The Heroes of Telemark, that in my opinion could have been eliminated entirely.

It’s often hard to distinguish which segments of the film are dream, and which are reality. But that’s probably the whole point.

Still, Inception is a memorable film, well worth seeing. In fact, it’s worth a second viewing, to help unravel its multi-layered and complex plot.

Inception plays at 6:45 and 9:40 p.m. at the Qwanlin Cinema, and is rated PG for violence.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.