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,
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
…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.