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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - What's wrong with this picture? The summer season's biggest buzz movie has no robots, no vampires, no aliens, no toys, or no comic book characters in iron suits.
And it's not even in 3D!
But what "Inception," which debuts in theaters on Friday, does have is Leonardo DiCaprio, "Dark Knight" director Chris Nolan and enough sharp thinking to sink the Titanic.
The big-budget, sci-fi film about a team of freelance dream thieves headed by DiCaprio's Dom Cobb is no frothy teen dream populated by women in little clothing, men baring their six-pack abs, or robots bashing the pixels out of each other.
Instead, Nolan, who also wrote and produced "Inception," plunges the audience into the murky and often disturbing depths of the subconscious mind, where anything goes but nothing is quite what it seems.
In one harrowing scene, Cobb's wife (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) commits suicide in front of him! Or, is it all in Cobb's deranged mind?
"I've always been fascinated with dreams, and with memory and perception, and I set out to explore those areas more in this film," said Nolan, who first tackled such provocative themes in his low-budget thriller, "Memento."
Cobb is a thief, skilled in extracting valuable secrets from within people's subconscious during their dreams. His rare ability has made him a coveted player in the world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive.
He takes one last job from a powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe) and to help, Cobb forms a group of dream thieves, including two played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page.
But this last job calls for planting an idea -- instead of stealing one -- in the mind of a rival businessman's son, and the thieves' plan soon unravels with dangerous consequences.
Well-known for his visual flair in films like "Batman Begins" and "Dark Knight", Nolan pulled out all the stops on "Inception" to bring his dreamscape to life.
He deployed what he called "bizarre rigs" and "bizarre sorts of torture devices," especially in several weightless scenes with Gordon-Levitt, to manipulate time and space and audiences' perceptions of reality.
"I wanted to keep audiences guessing about exactly what's going on," Nolan said.
And he's not kidding.
Early reviews have, for the most part, been positive, yet few critics seem able to fully explain the movie.
"Obviously this story structure was extremely ambitious in the fact that, simultaneously, you had four different states of the human subconscious that represented different dream-states, and each one affected the other," DiCaprio told a recent gathering of reporters.
The star called "Inception," "a multi-layered almost at times existential high-action, high-drama, surreal film."
So far during Hollywood's summer season, it has been sequels including "Toy Story 3," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and "Iron Man 2" selling the bulk of tickets, alongside family films such as "The Karate Kid" and "Despicable Me." In short, it has been business as usual.
But "Inception," which has been shrouded in secrecy, is an adult-oriented film with adult-minded themes -- albeit wrapped in explosions, car chases and dazzling visual effects.
Typically those types of adult-themed movies hit theaters in the fall, after kids have gone back to school. Yet Nolan doesn't seem too worried about bringing out his unusual movie at an unusual time for Hollywood.
"I really believe audiences like to be challenged, and yes, there's a lot of stuff going on," he said. "But you don't have to get it all to enjoy it. You can just enjoy the ride without analyzing all the layers."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte