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Inception tosses around showy scenes of upside-down cities, cars driving vertically, and fights in zero gravity. Its most impressive achievement, however, may be this: In its nearly two and a half hours, the sci-fi mindbender spouts only a few lines of gibberish. And your eyes will stay glued even as question marks fill your thought bubble.

Christopher Nolan‘s mesmerizing if not quite as great follow-up to The Dark Knight took the director eight years to write—-his first original script since his debut, 1998’s Following—-and the tuning is fine. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, an expert in stealing secrets from people’s subconscious while they’re dreaming. A mistake from his past, though, has not only compromised his skill, it’s kept the globetrotter from returning to the States and his family. But one final, dangerous job may redeem him…

Except for the heartstring-tug supplied by Cobb’s history, the whys and whats of the story are not as integral to the film’s success as the hows. But here they are: Cobb and his team—-played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy—-are tasked by a nefarious type (Ken Watanabe) not to lift but implant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer Jr.(Cillian Murphy), heir to a generic empire. The technique, known as inception, is thought to be impossible. Cobb insists that it’s not. Besides, his new boss’ promise to wipe his slate clean is too good to pass up.

Nolan’s concept is as irresistible as its execution. As the characters talk about building dreamscapes, maneuvering within them, how to know what is real and what’s not, etc., it may be a lot of exposition, but it’s too fascinating—-and even logical—-to feel cumbersome. And the look and tone of the film is familiar but apt. Hans Zimmer‘s brilliant score is deep and thunderous, matching Wally Phister‘s richly colored, aerial-shot-heavy cinematography and feeling of perpetual night. There’s a creepiness here, too, supplied not only by every dream world’s odd sights and pliable time but also by an unexpected, unhinged villain who haunts Cobb and, in turn, everyone else.

If you recognize these traits, you’ll understand the film’s biggest weakness: Inception may leave you wanting to see it again, but it makes you want to rewatch The Dark Knight more. And that, really, isn’t much of a weakness at all.