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I hadn’t paid much attention to Inception before it hit the theater. It had something to do with dream-reality, and Eileene wanted to see it; everything else could wait until I saw it for myself. So I missed out on the critical navel-gazing and hand-wringing about whether audiences would stand for a “challenging” movie—that is, anything more advanced than fart jokes, titties, and explosions for one demographic and zany romance for another.

Then we saw the movie, and I liked it, mostly, so I read a bit more about it. That’s when I learned that critics had seen it, too, and liked it, mostly, and decided nobody else would. They were wrong.

Audiences saw the movie, too, and liked it, lots. So does this mean general audiences will stand for a “challenging” movie? Well, yes and no. Yes, audiences will stand for this, but no, it doesn’t mean they’re into high art. The problem is that Inception is not a “challenging” movie, full of intellectual rigor and passionate depth and explorations of deep philosophical truths.

The basic premise is science fiction: Leonardo DiCaprio is a dream-spy who exploits new dream-sharing technology to kidnap industrialists and steal their secrets in their dreams. Now he’s taking one last job, to plant an idea rather than steal one. Common wisdom holds that it can’t be done, and the attempt alone is insanely dangerous, but DiCaprio knows he can pull it off…if only he can keep his own subconscious from sabotaging the operation. Okay, fair enough. Implausible, yes, but no moreso than science fiction needs to be 99% of the time, and not downright silly. This basic premise becomes increasingly silly, however, every time we learn something new about this new dream technology. To take one example: time often seems to pass quickly in dreams, right? Because your dreams gloss over details as they jump from scene to scene. In Inception, this is plotted to a rigid ratio in the neighborhood of 200:1, so an hour’s dreaming affords DiCaprio a week of spy games in the dream. And if you’re dreaming you’re dreaming, then time is 40,000 times as fast! Wow! And if you’re dreaming that you’re dreaming that you’re dreaming that you’re dreaming, that’s over a billion times as fast as reality, so you’ll die of old age before you wake up. But that’s okay, because if you die in a dream you wake up, and besides, dreams within dreams within dreams are so unstable that it can’t be done; instead you wind up in super-hyper-double-dutch dreamland, which is also where you go if you die while you’re dreaming after taking special drugs for the mission unless you dream you really die, which means you die for real, and SHDDD is nothing but primal chaos from which no one can ever escape unless they’re starring in this movie.

Still with us? Yeah. As science fiction, that is, as entertaining but plausible speculation about natural law, it’s something of a failure. It doesn’t make a lick of sense unless… oh my god. Unless (gasp!) the entire movie is a dream! Which, being the king of all narrative cop-outs, would sabotage to the the film’s intellectual chops. Inevitably, the script deliberately leaves the question dangling, doubling down on the narrative cop-outs.

Exploring the duality of dream and reality, however, really is the focus of the film. There’s some personal drama that remains flat and clinical, a functional hook for keeping the characters involved beyond the point where sensible people would back out. There’s also some perfunctory philosophy about perception and reality, and man’s inhumanity to himself, and the frailty of human will, but none of it is any deeper than the science fiction, and most closely resembles the philosophy offered in The Matrix.

That doesn’t mean the film is a failure! I liked it, and I’m Mister Fussy-Pants about movies, especially when it comes to science fiction. It does a consistently good job of explaining complex, albeit ridiculous, material without becoming boring. It pulls off the interlacing of multiple action sequences without a hiccup. It’s got an all-star cast that lives up to its separate reputations, from DiCaprio as leading man to Michael Caine in a bit part. And it’s full of great moments, if you’re willing to play along. Ellen Page building a bridge from reflections in a mirror corridor: neat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt navigating a hotel in freefall: awesome. The James-Bondian assault on an Alpine fortress, with goons shooting machine guns from snowmobiles: hilarious. It’s full of beautiful people plunging into a grand adventure on a premise that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s got guns and explosions and hesitant kisses and undying love, although it’s short on fart jokes.

In short, Inception is a summer blockbuster, and a good one. It’s precisely the kind of thing critics believe—accurately or superciliously or both—is the only thing a trogloditic general public will watch. There’s no mystery as to whether people will like it, or, now that the movie has proven a success, why they should.

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