A surreal science fiction conception called "Inception" earns an "A+" for its imagination and imagery. But it doesn't entirely live up to the extraordinary anticipation that has surrounded this latest dystopian fantasy from progressive Hollywood studio auteur Christopher Nolan.

If you go "Inception" 3 out of 5 stars Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt Director: Christopher Nolan Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout. Running Time: 148 minutes

The writer-director behind such revisionist genre thrillers as "Dark Knight" and "Memento" has invented another of his intentionally disorienting and anxiety-ridden worlds. This time, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the tortured protagonist subjected to Nolan's epic vision and psychic catharsis. As a professional "extractor," DiCaprio's Cobb is able to travel inside the dreams of targeted businessmen in order to steal their hidden and potentially profitable secrets. But he is about to embark on a much more dangerous job with high personal stakes.

If Cobb and his team (Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can evade a dreaded mental "limbo" and implant a crucial idea into the subconscious of young tycoon Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy) through his dreams, they will satisfy a powerful client. That client (Ken Watanabe) will then pull strings so that the fugitive Cobb can finally be reunited with his small children and purge the recurring "projections" of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). She died under mysterious circumstances, and her presence relentlessly haunts Cobb's dream travels.

It's an astounding premise and, sometimes, an inscrutable one. Phantasmagorical special effects combined with exotic locations yield huge scale, reality-skewing set pieces. In the action-packed but often confusing last hour, they illustrate the three or four simultaneous dimensions of Fischer's dreams.

As the climax builds, a maddeningly invasive musical score (by renowned composer Hans Zimmer) pounds at the audience. Meanwhile, we are trying to appreciate the wild visuals and concentrate enough to understand where we are in the narrative. A general sense of ever-quickening chaos overshadows character on a human level; it's hard for a viewer to feel the emotional payoff after being put in a motion-sickened stupor. The actors' performances are either deadpan or grimacing, with little variation. The secondary characters are hollow as written.

And yet, "Inception" never fails to challenge its audience. In an era when blockbusters tend to exist as lowest-common-denominator vapidity, this ambitious puzzle of a movie tries to do more than just amuse. It offers a memorable, almost physically disturbing experience. And in the way that the first "Matrix" film and the "Lost" television series did, it is sure to inspire many people into cult devotion.