Christopher Nolan’s latest techno-thriller offers a visual feast but lacks the substance and depth of the films that made his name.

Since Christopher Nolan’s last film The Dark Knight went stratospheric back in 2008 with its gritty retelling of the Batman story complete with standout final performance from Heath Ledger, the media have built him up as having something of a Midas touch.

Thus it comes as no surprise that his latest offering opens on the back of unprecedented hyperbole (mostly emanating from cyberspace) – the expectation being that Inception will do for the action blockbuster what Avatar has done for animated features.

The short description is that Inception is a heist movie and one that, going purely on the basis of story, is quite conventional. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a mercenary whose unique speciality is the ability to steal information directly from a person’s mind.

He does this by creating an artificial dream world in which he and his potential target interact while they are both unconscious.

The technology that allows him to do this is never really explained but we are told it comes “from the military” and seems to consist of some drugs, an iron lung in a briefcase, and intravenous tubes. But wait; there is a twist. Due to some dark past experience Cobb is no longer able to design these kind of dream spaces as his own unconscious projections take on a life of their own and sabotage his work.

So when he is offered the chance to end his life as a mercenary and return to his estranged children he enlists Ellen Page’s character Ariadne (nice touch for the Greek mythology buffs) to design a highly complex labyrinth of a dream able to bewitch Robert Fischer, Jr (Cillian Murphy) – heir to a huge business corporation. Along with a motley crew of dream navigators Cobb sets about trying to plant a powerful idea into Fischer’s subconscious thus fulfilling his agreement to his business rival Mr Saito (Ken Watanabe). Putting ideas into a person’s head is apparently a whole different kettle of fish to stealing them – that’s the point, you see.

If all this makes you worry about being bamboozled by endless Freudian jargon and Salvador Dali-style strangeness fear not; as despite the boundless imaginative potential of spending two and a half hours in someone’s mind, the scenarios the film sets up are oddly familiar. Down the rabbit hole we find ourselves navigating New York streets, a hotel lobby and..gasp!..a car chase. Even right down in the deepest level of the subconscious mind we find not the Freudian primal father but a decaying version of Manhattan.

So, while the sophisticated editing together of three separate action sequences that are happening at the same time but at different speeds and at different levels of the dream is clever stuff, the truth is that taken in themselves the scenes don’t give us anything that hasn’t already been seen in the Matrix or the last couple of James Bond films. The whole feel of the film is that of being inside the mind of a particularly dull insurance salesman. Albeit one with a penchant for √âdith Piaf.

Catharsis is one of the film’s themes, and the cathartic moment for Cobb is suspended in an ambiguous ending the audience would have seen coming an hour before. It all adds to the unavoidable conclusion that while the action sequences are masterpieces of editing and adrenalin-filled drama, the film as a whole is thoroughly shallow.

Actors of the calibre of Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are left working with next to nothing of back story or character development, but nevertheless put in admirable performances. DiCaprio seems to replicate his performance from the recent Shutter Island and now appears to be doing squinchy-faced angst by numbers.

The viewer may wonder whether the concept of a multi-layered unconscious world, of dreams within dreams that the film plays on throughout is a symptom (unconscious or otherwise) giving away the fact of the films severe lack of substance. We are offered an homogenous dog-eat-dog world of corporate self-interest where doing favours for one rich man to get one up on another rich man may guarantee you a place in Babylon, or at least have your rich friends get you through immigration.

Inception lacks all of the ethical meat and emotional depth that allowed The Dark Knight to break out from the superhero movie stereotype. Nolan has sadly failed to do the same for the action thriller. You will almost certainly come out of the cinema feeling entertained, but like a dream the feeling will be short-lived.