There was a surprise for WonderCon attendees who made it all the way through the Warner Bros panel Saturday – Christopher Nolan himself took the stage to introduce an extended trailer from his upcoming film Inception.

The clip and the Q&A session afterwards seem to have unlocked the most basic mysteries about the plot of Nolan’s secretive new film. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an Extractor – someone who sneaks into the dreams of others and steals ideas from their subconsciousness. It’s the ultimate corporate spying. Leo’s not just any Extractor, though – he’s the best there is, and he’s so good that he teaches other people how to guard their subconsciousness from other Extractors. That seems to be what he’s doing with the very wealthy Ken Watanabe… with ‘seems’ being the operative word. Inception isn’t just a science fiction movie about going into other people’s dreams (there also seems to be an element of constructing dreams), it’s also a heist film. From what little I could gather from the trailer, it looks like Watanabe might be a classic mark, setting himself to have his ideas stolen by Leo and his gang. And over the course of the movie it looks like Leo puts together a whole team; the extended trailer showed him hiring Ellen Page, apparently still a student, and saying that he needed a forger.

It also showed action – a chase through what appeared to be a Morrocan street, a taxi cab shoot out, and a snowy mountain scene that included skiing, automatic weapons, bunkers and rappelling down an icy cliff face. But the action felt like it was taking a backseat to something that interests Nolan much more – the form and function of dreams.

At the Q&A after the footage screened, Nolan said that he was shooting the dreams very gritty, realistic and quasi-documentary in feeling. The point for him is that dreams feel real to us as dreamers, and so they must feel real to us as audiences as well. He’s eschewing trippy stuff in favor of psychologically-oriented surrealism. One scene in the trailer had Leo running between two buildings that are slowly coming together, trapping him. What I was reminded of was the real but odd dreamworld of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It was interesting seeing Nolan in one of his very few convention appearances, as he has a very cold demeanor while taking questions. This is WonderCon, so the people coming up to the mic where all but shaking with excitement, and quick to tell him how much The Dark Knight meant to them. One guy told Nolan he was the guy’s favorite director ever; Nolan took it with a tight smile and a nod of his head. Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas, was sitting next to Nolan, beaming at each compliment.

That distance is what has put me off from many of Nolan’s movies but what makes this look to be his most promising since Memento. Inception is literally about ideas, and Nolan works best when he’s engaging concepts over emotions. In fact Inception, with its combination of massive set pieces and cerebral meditations on dreams as not just mechanisms for understanding the world but also possibly as the source of ideas in the first place, feels like the perfect Nolan film. During the Q&A Nolan made the obligatory nod towards Star Wars as a film that influenced him as a filmmaker, but he made it clear that he’s a child of Ridley Scott, not George Lucas. Blade Runner is his movie; other directors he talked about were Kubrick and Malick – all guys whose aesthetic choices can sometimes be more powerful than their emotional ones. Inception looks like it fits well with the works of those directors (well, maybe not quite Malick). 

The other aspect of Inception that intrigues me from a Nolan perspective is the fact that it’s a heist movie. If Nolan was working with his brother, Jonathan, I’d be convinced that the film was going to be clockwork tight as a good heist movie must; after all, they’re the duo who brought us Memento. But this is Nolan’s first solo screenwriting credit since his debut feature, Following, way back in 1998. Which of the brothers was really responsible for the way that movie clicks together on future viewings? The conventional wisdom is that Jonathan wrote the original story, Memento Mori, that inspired the film, written by Christopher. If that’s the case, Inception could be brilliantly put together, as Memento remains Nolan’s best and smartest film to date. If not, it would be The Prestige, a diverting but ultimately cheap story without resonance or reason to exist past a first viewing.

I suspect it’s more like Memento. Watching the footage and listening to Nolan talk I found myself getting more and more excited about the possibilities of this film. The locations alone – six countries – will be enough to make Inception worth watching. Nolan shot on a mix of 35mm and 65mm (he thinks 65, short of IMAX, is the best film stock available), which will only enhance the visuals. And there are a number of fine actors looking very good in many well-shot scenes.

But what really makes Inception feel special is the fact that Nolan’s still excited about it. Well into post-production, after spending years trying to get it off the ground, Nolan’s chilly demeanor cracked when he got on the subject of dreams. He’s into the subject, and talked with enthusiasm especially about lucid dreaming – that form of dreaming where you can maintain control of what’s going around you. I think Nolan’s looking to depict dreams in ways that we haven’t seen before, and that he’s going to be doing it seriously.

What will all of that mean without a compelling emotional story? Everything I saw at WonderCon looked amazing, and everything Nolan talked about intrigued me intellectually, but there wasn’t even a hint of anything that would move me emotionally. We learned that Marion Cotillard is playing a character who could be categorized as ‘twisted,’ but will that matter beyond plot points? I think Inception could be a remarkable film, but unless it has a strong emotional center it won’t be a great one.