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First I should say, it's a bit of a shame I didn't get a chance to see this in a theater, but it's not that big a deal, really. I mean, the special effects are cool, I suppose, but the main point of the movie is the mind-bending. However, the "complicated" part of the movie was probably the easiest part of it for me to follow. I normally have trouble with the simpler things, like recognizing characters, remembering names, understanding some of the simpler plot points. But what's important here is the Big Concept, which I found engaging enough. And I do appreciate an attempt to inject some actual intelligence into movies.
Anyway, it starts out with a couple of guys, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who are dealing with a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). We soon learn that they're inside his dream, and trying to extract some information from him using this... invasive dream-sharing technology. Or whatever. Their mission fails because of interference from Cobb's deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), as well as the fact that Saito knew he was dreaming. I was never entirely clear on what exactly was going on at this point, because... Cobb was trying to convince him to hire him to train him to defend himself against the very thing he was doing, but then it seemed like Saito was testing Cobb for something else he wanted to hire him for, though I'm not sure how he could have been intentionally testing him if Cobb had been hired by a rival corporation. Whatever, it's not important. It introduces us to the concept of the extraction technology, as well as putting Cobb in a position to be hired by Saito, which sets up the main story of the movie.
And the job Saito wants to hire Cobb and his team for is "inception," which is the opposite of extraction, basically. They'd enter someone's dream, but instead of stealing information, they'd implant an idea in the subject's subconscious. The person whose dream they're supposed to infiltrate is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a businessman who's on his deathbed. Saito wants Robert to dissolve his father's company, which basically has a monopoly on... energy production, or whatever. Again, the specifics aren't really that important. The important thing is that inception is supposed to be impossible. Actually, it's just really tricky, because it depends upon the subject believing that the idea was his in the first place, which means Cobb's team has to plan a way to plant a very subtle seed of an idea, very deep in Fischer's subconscious. Now, at the start of the movie we see that Cobb and Arthur were using a dream within a dream on Saito, but the plan they come up with for Fischer involves a dream within a dream within a dream, insinuating emotions regarding his father at each different level, which should add up to his deciding to do what they want him to do. (But a problem I have with the multiple dream layers is that the point is made that the brain works faster while asleep than while awake, so that an hour experienced in a dream only takes five minutes in reality, and each level of dreaming is exponentially faster, so that 10 hours in reality would be like 10 years in the third-level dream. Or something. But we eventually see all three dream levels happening simultaneously, and they seem to be happening at the same pace, except at one point in the first-level dream when a van falls from a bridge, it falls very slowly compared to what's happening in the deeper dream levels. But not as exponentially slowly as one might expect; none of the dream levels seemed to take more than an hour, let alone weeks, months, or years. The whole point of the time differential seems to be to explain... a couple of key points of the plot which I don't want to spoil, but aside from those points it seems like the writers completely ignored the concept.)
Anyway. Cobb actually knows inception is possible, because he did it once himself, though that's part of one of the plot points I'm refraining from spoiling. He doesn't want to even try Saito's job, until Saito promises him he can get criminal charges against him dropped, which is something that has been preventing Cobb from returning to the United States. He just wants to get back there to see his children, who he keeps seeing vague memories of whenever he's inside someone's dream. That's something else I need to mention: the dreamer provides "projections," which are people conjured up by the subconscious to populate the dreams. And when someone like Cobb is inside a dream, these projections will eventually attack the invader. And they can be trained to be very good at attacking the invader, which is what Cobb was initially offering to do for Saito, as a ruse for his true mission of extraction. However, Cobb's been projecting his own memories into other people's dreams, as much as he tries not to. There's... a tragic secret about his late wife's death that he's been trying to avoid, so naturally it eats away at his own subconscious. He's been accused of murdering her, which is why he can't go home, but the truth is... well, more complicated, and a pretty big part of everything that's going on in the movie.
Of course, I'm giving away a lot of stuff too early. First, I should have mentioned the team he assembles, in addition to Arthur. The main one is Ariadne (E. Page), who becomes the Architect of the dreams that they program for Fischer. There's... just a lot of stuff about all that goes into the missions that I don't feel the need to try to explain, but essentially, someone has to create the world that everyone will be entering. And it's not supposed to be based on actual memories of real places, because otherwise those infiltrating dreams could have too much trouble discerning dreams from reality. They also each have to carry a small "totem" that only they know the weight of, or whatever, so that they can be sure... whether they're in their own dream or someone else's. I guess. Actually, that's another point that seems a bit confusing to me, because Cobb is always carrying his late wife's totem, whether he's in his own dream or someone else's. But anyway... there are a couple of other people Cobb recruits for his team, including a forger named Eames (Tom Hardy), who can make himself look like other people within dreams; and Yusuf, a chemist who provides the team with a powerful sedative which will sedate both Fischer and the team deeply enough that they can stay asleep, and the dreams remain stable, for three dream-levels. Saito also goes into the dream. As does Ariadne, even though the architect normally wouldn't... but she thinks someone needs to be there who knows what Cobb is going through, after she intruded on one of his private dreams filled with his own memories of Mal and their kids and thereby learns a bit of what he's trying to hide. (She becomes sort of the heart of the movie, I felt, and continues to learn more about Cobb's past throughout the mission.)
Anyway. Things go wrong pretty quickly after they enter the first level of Fischer's dream, because it turns out that he'd been trained to subconsciously protect himself against such things (which they weren't expecting), so his projections immediately target the intruders. They end up making an escape in the back of a van, from which they enter the second dream level, in a hotel, where Cobb convinces Fischer that he (Cobb) is in fact one of Fischer's own projections, designed to protect him from people who are infiltrating his dream. They then go into the third dream level... and I should mention that it's actually kind of complicated, who's dreaming what. I mean, with everyone in all the dreams, it's hard to keep track of who the dreamer is, but I don't know that it really matters that much. Except that they tricked Fischer into thinking the third level was actually the dream of his godfather, Peter Browning, who was Fischer's father's lawyer, or something. I guess. Naturally, Fischer thought this was only the second dream level, having been unaware that the first level was a dream. And I guess the third level was actually Fischer's dream, so he was helping the team break into his own mind while believing he was helping them break into Browning's. Anyway, stuff going on in each level continued to affect each deeper level, and things continue to go wrong. And at one point, Fischer gets thrust into "limbo," which is a fourth level (in this case, though I guess it could be a second level, under other circumstances). Cobb and Ariadne must enter limbo to find Fischer, even though a projection of Mal will be there, and try to get Cobb to stay. And due to a potentially fatal wound Saito had received in the first level, he'll end up in limbo, as well.
So, yeah, it's all crazy complicated, but as I said, the complicated stuff was the simplest for me to follow. Meanwhile, with a movie like this, you have to question from the very start whether we really know if anything is reality. Eventually, things end up right where they started, more or less... but then, everyone wakes up, the mission is completed successfully, and everything seems to work out... but of course, we're left without any definite answer about the underlying question of whether or not Cobb was dreaming the whole thing. Which... is as it should be. Best to let each viewer to decide for themself what to believe, or whether they even want to form any definite opinion. Anyway... it was a fun and interesting movie, I guess. Pretty cool. I don't think that I was quite as into it as some critics might have been, but it was definitely good. Cobb's whole problem was pretty well designed to drive the plot and explain his motivations, and I liked Ariadne, but most of the characters were just sort of okay. And like I said, the science didn't always follow its own rules, but it was still neat. And that's all I can say, I guess.