For some reason, I do the vast majority of my contemplative thinking in the morning. I will often wake up, have some random thought in my head, and then completely delve into the idea while taking a shower. I don’t know if it has to do with the rising sun or the way I massage my scalp with shampoo, but when I wake up, my brain is as mossy as a Northern California forest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long. By the time I’ve had some cereal and headed to class, my mind is basically blank, and it stays that the way the rest of the day. It’s hard to explain.
Anyways, I woke up recently thinking about the movie Inception, and found myself contemplating the fact that it was probably the defining movie of 2010. It wasn’t necessarily my favorite movie or the best movie of the year, or even the best acted or written movie. But it was good (it was recently nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars), and despite all the other good and great movies that came out in the 12-month period, I still found myself identifying Inception as the year’s defining film, and yet at the same time, trying to discover why this was.
This led directly to me thinking about the movie The Hangover, and how it was probably the defining movie of the year before. And just like Inception, it wasn’t necessarily the best movie or favorite movie of the year, but the essential one, the film that people seemed to identify with the most, talk about the most, and will recall the most when discussing entertainment of that particular period. But what made The Hangover so endearing? It was funny, but there were a lot of funny movies; there are always a lot of funny movies.
I determined the thing people probably enjoyed the most about the film was the fact that, on some level, they could relate to it. Maybe they had experienced a crazy trip to Vegas. Maybe they had woken up after a big night of partying and couldn’t remember anything that happened. Maybe they just knew someone that had a similar experience, or just wanted to go on a trip to Vegas with their friends. The movie seemed so relatable because, in many ways, it was believable. Now yes, the details that actually occurred in the movie were pretty ridiculous, but they weren’t outside the realm of possibility. They were simply implausible. And maybe that’s why people enjoyed it so much. It was realistic enough to relate to, but incredible enough for people to envy and wish it would happen to them. They could live vicariously through the movie. It was implausible, but not impossible.
Movies and entertainment can play to our emotions and satisfactions in this way: by making the plot believable enough that we can relate, but at the same time interesting enough that we will probably never experience something like it, we are automatically drawn to it. The Hangover is the perfect example. Having a wild night partying and then not remembering it is believable. Having that night involve Vegas, Mike Tyson, and a crazy Asian dude is just insane and implausible enough to make us jealous.
I was skeptical of this theory at first, before I suddenly realized how many other movies this theory actually worked with. Consider the movie Wedding Crashers – another hilarious movie that people loved and still continue quoting to this day. But what made people so invested and able to relate to the movie was the fact that it was a ridiculous premise, but not so ridiculous that it was unrealistic. The idea of crashing weddings to sleep with girls is something that would obviously appeal to male viewers, despite the fact that most guys could never pull it off. Again, it was implausible, but not impossible.
This concept of living vicariously through these types of movies goes further than comedies, too. For instance, I doubt there has ever been a heist movie that the majority of male viewers didn’t enjoy. If the film involves schemes, a huge robbery, and maybe some high-speed chases and shoot-outs, there is about a 95% chance guys are going to like it. Ocean’s 11…Heat…The Town…Inside Man…all movies involving heists, and all great films. I mean, I watch Gone in 60 Seconds every time it’s on TV, despite the fact that it is really just a mediocre movie at best. But it’s that relatability that draws me in – the fact that every guy would love to get together with his buddies, come up with some elaborate plan, and then come away with a score of cash or stolen cars or whatever. The chances of it ever happening may be extremely, extremely slim, but it certainly isn’t impossible. And that’s what makes it unique.
The same thing goes for scary movies. The horror films that tend to be the scariest are the ones that are most realistic. Think about it: two of scarier horror films from the past 15 years are Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, both of which were shot in a realistic, documentary-esque style, and both of which had semi-believable plots (especially for horror films). That’s not a coincidence. The somewhat realistic storyline makes them more relatable, which in turns makes it that much scarier.
However, the most astonishing thing that I gathered from this in-depth conversation (with myself), was a possible explanation to the appeal of romantic comedies. I have never been able to understand why women were so smitten with Rom-Coms, until – possibly – now. They are all essentially the same movie: they are incredibly predictable, they paint these stupid, unrealistic pictures of how men act, and they create these ideal relationships that most women will never find, only to leave them disappointed.
But, if you look at “chick flicks” through the lens of the “implausible-but-not-impossible” concept, they actually make sense. What girls love about romantic comedies is that they present this idea of the perfect man, a guy that is ridiculously good looking, while at the same time funny, sensitive, and treats his lady like a princess. To women, it isn’t stupid or predictable – it’s ideal. Romantic comedies are basically heist movies for girls. And girls have to live vicariously through these movies, because they know how unlikely it is that something similar would actually happen to them…although it could happen. It’s implausible, but not impossible.
So how does Inception fit into all of this? Well, at first you would think that it doesn’t. Inception can’t fit into this theory because the plot of the movie is pretty unbelievable – the suggestion that you can plant ideas into someone’s head through a dream, or even construct a dream altogether. The whole “implausible” proposal doesn’t really come into play, because “impossible” seems more fitting. Unless…
What if Inception actually did take place in a dream? The major question of the movie – the big twist ending – concerned the concept of what was real and what was a dream. The ending suggests that it was entirely possible that the whole film took place in a dream setting; and if it did, then the idea of “impossible” gets completely thrown out the window. If everything was a dream, then technically, everything could be possible.
My whole idea for people identifying with movies is that they find some way in which it relates or appeals to their own lives – in which it retains a certain amount of reality. We’re interested because it probably wouldn’t happen to us, but we identify with it because of the possibility that it could happen to us. What makes Inception distinctive, though, is that the element of reality is thrown out the window in order for the premise to remain possible. Inception is unique because we can still live vicariously through the film, only now, it’s in the form of a dream instead of reality.
When we see movies that have crazy and unbelievable premises or plots, we genrally find it harder to identify with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie isn’t great or that we don’t enjoy it as much; it just makes it more difficult to relate to. We often find ourselves asking questions like “What if this were real?” or “What if this were possible?”. But with Inception, we don’t have to ask those questions, because it isn’t supposed to be real. We can accept the film as believable or possible because it’s taking place in a dream, just as something similar could be taking place in our own dreams.
Part of the reason why Inception is so captivating is the allure that dreams offer. As humans, we are intrigued by dreams because of the mystery and infinite capabilities that they present. The idea of multiple dream stages, creating dreams, or planting ideas in dreams isn’t ridiculous if it all takes place within our dreams. We may not understand it or be aware of it or remember it when we wake up, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In fact, it actually prevents us from saying that it couldn’t happen. We could never know for sure. It’s implausible, but not impossible.
We identify with and relate to movies that push the boundaries of plausibility, and yet still retain realistic qualities. And while most movies become impossible because they are so unrealistic, Inception being unrealistic is actually what makes it possible. Pretty crazy, huh?
The other day, as I finished my bowl of Cap’n Crunch and left my apartment to head for class, I came to the realization (among the other things I’ve already stated) that Inception was the defining movie of 2010, and it achieved that status by becoming the most uniquely “implausible-yet-not-impossible” movie in years. Instead of challenging our perception of reality, it challenged our perception of un-reality, but in an approach that still allowed us to identify with the film. That’s what it made it so essential, both to the cinematic realm, and to each individual viewer as well.
Or maybe it’s a terrible theory. I mean, it came to me right after I woke up, so who’s to say that the idea wasn’t planted into my brain, deep inside one of my dreams? It could happen.
Implausible? Yeah. But impossible?
Thanks for reading