(Note: The post below is certified spoiler free. Not that you'd understand what the hell I was talking about anyway if you haven't seen the film)
Let's talk about the genre first: simulated reality. I admit I'm a bit partial to it. It seems to be hit and miss with the critics. The Matrix and The Truman Show were very well received, but others like The Island, Vanilla Sky, and Lost Highway were panned. And there are some noted problems with some simulated reality films: they're pretentious and overly complicated with no real insights, have inconclusive endings, and make use of deus ex machina. Inception is guilty of these, but 84% of the critics love it. Why? The plot is so dense that it loses the audience from time to time, but it's so entertaining that repeated viewings to fill in some of the missing pieces don't seem like a chore. Even if the viewer completely tunes out, it is still good enough on its own as a big, loud action movie.
For this project to work, Christopher Nolan had quite a challenge. For a science fiction film to be believable, it must create itself a set of rules and never deviate from them. However, for a psychological thriller (especially one involving dreams,) there can be no rules; the possibilities must be limitless. It walks a very fine line between creating a world of unreality, and needing the audience to buy into it. It doesn't CGI you to death (which was part of Avatar's problem) and uses just enough to make its point.
I picked up two symbols in the film that warrant discussion: chess, and mazes. The chess references are easy to spot at first glance: Robert Fischer, Jr., is of course a reference to the chess Grandmaster Bobby J. Fischer, and Ariadne picks a pawn as her "totem." The maze references are a little less subtle. The characters need to create maze-spaces in their subject's dreams so new thoughts can slip in unperceived. It's curious that the logo to Christopher Nolan's production company, Syncopy, resembles a maze, as does the logo for Legendary Pictures, the film's other studio. Then, I recalled in Greek mythology about the Labyrinth. Theseus was guided through the maze by Ariadne (Ellen Page's character's name) who provided him with a skein of thread so he could find his way out again. In logic, Ariadne's thread refers to a method of solving a problem with multiple apparent means of proceeding. Ariadne's thread is heavily used by Artificial Intelligence in game-playing situations, notably chess programs.
The choice of the song "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" is an interesting choice for a couple of reasons: Marion Cotillard, who played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose was also in this film, and it's ironic because DiCaprio's character is filled with guilt and regret. It's the reason he's such a head-case. Some of the lyrics to the song, loosely translated, include "I am not concerned with the past, with my memories I set fire to my pains and pleasures, I don't need them anymore."
So, what's the verdict? I think it will pick up nominations for art direction, cinematography, visual effects, sound editing, and sound mixing. If it picks up a nomination for film editing (and it should…making those time-bending scenes line up must have been a holy nightmare) then it will also snag director and picture nominations to go with it. And if it were up to me, Marion Cotillard for supporting actress.
And if all else fails, know that Armond White hated it. Therefore, it has to be good.