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Few filmmakers possess both the ambition and the chops to completely discard the screenplay-by-numbers formulas that dominate big-screen storytelling.

Ever since his memorable 2000 film “Memento,” director Christopher Nolan has shown a willingness to risk losing a portion of the audience for a more cerebral payoff to those who stick with his wildly inventive stories. The reality-bending film “Inception” is certainly no banal outlier in the director’s filmography. Refreshing in its use of special-effects technology to serve the story, “Inception” moves briskly through its layered worlds and lengthy running time, though it stops just short of provoking deep thought.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a master thief in a world where the technology exists for him to enter people’s dreams and extract valuable information from their subconscious thoughts. Such mind-twisting expertise, however, comes with some baggage, and he struggles to get a grip on his own subconscious — a difficulty that threatens to implode every mission he undertakes.

The thief’s latest assignment is far more difficult than merely stealing secrets from people while they lie in vulnerable dream-states. He must implant an idea deep within the mark’s subconscious, so that when he awakes, the victim will believe this idea is his own, and that subsequent actions are of his own choosing. The mark is the heir (Cillian Murphy) to a massive energy conglomerate, and the task is to implant the desire to break up his dying father’s monopoly. What unfolds is a complicated layering of world upon world as Mr. DiCaprio and his team set out to commit a daring feat of metaphysical corporate espionage.

“Inception” is difficult to follow at times, but the muddling of reality and the subconscious is the point. It nails the intensity of dreams that seem to have neither beginning nor end, and drops us into the familiar subconscious creation of a world where the dreamer opposes everyone else. Who hasn’t dreamt of being chased by a swarm of faceless, heavily-armed assailants for reasons unclear?

Mr. Nolan grounds the story with the familiar action-movie assemblage of a team of experts, here a forger, a scientist, a cool-headed partner and others. The director, who also wrote the screenplay, uses these characters mostly for expository dialogue that helps the audience navigate the complex narrative.

Though “Inception” is thoroughly engaging, once the end credits roll, there remains a slight sense of regret for an opportunity lost. Perhaps the filmmaker’s excellent reputation, combined with the possibility of social commentary offered by the metaphysical choice between dreams and reality builds up lofty expectations. While Charlie Kaufman’s philosophical scripts for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich” provoke thought long after the films end, “Inception” is self-contained. It is more like a challenging jig-saw puzzle: satisfying until the final piece is in place, then quickly forgotten.

2hrs 28min. Rated PG-13 for violence.