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Inception

Imagine that you’re sitting at your couch, watching some movie or a TV show. You’re watching plot twists, great tension and character development. A whole world is opening itself up to you and you’re having a great time. The show ends, you get up for a snack, and at some point between the couch and the fridge, the thought finally hits you: “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense.”

This phenomenon is commonly known as “Fridge Logic” and it adequately sums up my experience with Inception. The movie had dazzling visuals, a marvelous cast, a phenomenal score and brilliant writing with a labyrinthine plot, all of which covered up the film’s numerous flaws almost beyond recognition.

Let’s start with the premise: The army has invented a suitcase-sized machine that allows for shared dreaming (for better training exercises, you see). Leo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man under exile from America for allegedly killing his own wife. He’s also a thief who abuses the dream-sharing technology to steal peoples’ ideas by infiltrating their dreams. This is called “extraction,” and it’s apparently so common that VIPs pay for training to strengthen their subconscious minds against it. But at the movie’s start, Cobb is hired not to steal an idea, but to plant one. This is called an “inception.” In return, Cobb’s employer will get him home with a clean record.

Now, you might be wondering who hires Cobb to do this and why. I honestly don’t know. I know that the employer is some guy named Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, but I have no idea who he is or what makes him so powerful that he could erase a murder charge with a twenty-minute phone call. If there was an explanation, I imagine it was somewhere in the opening minutes of the movie, back when I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

As to why, I know that Cilian Murphy plays Robert Fischer, the heir to some kind of international conglomerate. I know that Saito wants Fischer to dissolve his father’s company — hence the inception — but I do not know why. There’s an explanation in there — something about Fischer’s company becoming a new superpower — but it’s extremely rushed and these motivations ultimately play close to no role in the proceedings. Considering that this heist is the movie’s centerpiece, you’d think that such ill-defined stakes would be a big fucking problem. And you’d be right, though you likely wouldn’t realize it until you’re heading for the fridge.

See, to make sure that the inception works, Cobb and his team strip down the planted idea to its most basic emotional core: Fisher’s relationship with his dad. Fischer’s story is about finding his place as his father’s heir and Cobb’s story is about coming home to his kids and making peace with his wife’s death. In fact, it’s obvious that these are the two stories Nolan was set on telling, given that the movie spends absolutely zero time on Fischer’s company in the job’s aftermath. Fortunately, Fischer and Cobb are both given such great personal stakes as well as such extraordinary performances from Murphy and DiCaprio that the more global stakes really aren’t missed. Not at the time, anyway.

A lot of what makes this movie work is in the mechanics of shared dreaming. As the inception must be placed very deeply in Fischer’s subconscious to work, the heist is done in layers: Three dreams, each one taking place within the one before and all of them going simultaneously. Fortunately, the three dreams are very easy to keep track of as they’re all very notably different. It also helps that the rules and procedures for how the dream world works are very clearly laid out, mostly as a tutorial for Ariadne, Cobb’s new protege played by Ellen Page. Overall, the movie does a very good job of keeping the mechanics straight.

…Until the fourth layer. Yes, something happens in the movie that takes our characters into a dream within a dream within a dream within a DREAM. There’s a lot of complex stuff to keep track of before that point, but this is where the movie really gets crushed under its own weight. Ariadne explains it somehow and it serves as a wonderful step in her development from audience proxy to a proactive dream-traveling expert in her own right. On the other hand, her explanation is rushed and it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that time goes faster at an exponential rate with each layer. I can believe that an hour in the first layer would equal five minutes in real-time (the brain is that much more active during REM, you see), but I just can’t understand why the second layer would be so much faster than that or why the third layer would be so much faster than that. On the other hand, Christopher Nolan uses this time difference to really ramp up the tension and also to make some amazing variations on the classic “ticking clock” screenwriting device.

Then there’s the subplot between Cobb and his wife. Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, does an amazing job as the demonic presence that continues to haunt Cobb in the dream world. Meanwhile, DiCaprio acts beautifully off of her, somehow playing crazy and tortured without making Cobb feel like Teddy Daniels warmed over. The subplot is beautifully paced and wonderfully edited, with writing that uses set-ups and payoffs masterfully. This makes it all the more disheartening that the subplot’s resolution is total bullshit.

The bottom line is that this movie is the work of a cinematic grandmaster. Every actor is phenomenal. The writing employs exposition, set-ups, payoffs, ticking clocks and major setbacks in ways that are totally genius. The score is wonderful, the editing is amazing, the effects are gorgeous and the very concept of dreaming is used in new and dazzling ways. This movie is so superlative in covering and distracting from its flaws that it hurts all the more to see them.

In that way, I guess Inception really is like an amazing dream: It’s nowhere near as amazing when you wake up. Fortunately, unlike most good dreams, I have the option of revisiting Inception and have every intention of doing so.

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