It’s nigh blasphemous to run a TV/Film blog and not have a post about Inception. At least it feels that way. The cerebral blockbuster, which ended the year as the fifth-highest grossing film of 2010, made the leap from “big movie” to required viewing; you had to see it just to be in on the discussion. And what a wide-ranging and ridiculous conversation it was (and, hopefully, continues to be, fingers crossed). While everyone was talking, no one could quite agree on exactly what they had seen; conversations were led around corners and into dead ends like the puzzling sets and set-ups from the film. But the fact that people were talking at all is a wondrous event on its own.
For whatever reason, we Americans think more highly of a story’s end than its journey, and we’re especially sore when it comes to open-ended climaxes. Take the ending of the Sopranos (which, if you’ve been catatonic for the last few years, was left open to interpretation). Watching it with my mom, I saw the entire range of emotions that went on throughout the country. She went through confusion (“did the cable go out?”) to derision (“THAT was IT?!”) to anger (“I’m going on the internet boards and I’m going to tell them that that was awful!”) to resignation (“I can’t sign on this internet thing”) to some sort of gradual coming to terms (“I understand what they did. I still think it’s stupid.”) There are people who won’t even recommend a show like The Sopranos or Lost because the ending didn’t live up to what they believed it should be, somehow deciding that the last hour wipes away the value of the previous hundred.
Christopher Nolan is really doing the Lord’s work here. He creates a big time action film that is predicated on the precious notions of the brain. For all of the big effects shots, the world tumbling, the twisting hotel room fights, the film eventually comes down to one top and two choices: it falls, or it doesn’t. That might be the reason why this sort of ending was easier to stomach. There aren’t a million possibilities here. He’s in a dream or he isn’t. The fun comes when you try to explain your version of the story as you and your friend use the same plot points to strengthen your diametrically opposed outcomes. Nolan packed this film with so much thought and threw on top of it so much action and fun that it’s impossible to resist. He made a big, consumer-driven, fan-friendly film that will live on long past its summer expiration date. That’s really his most noble work of all of this: the fact that this movie even exists.
While it’s nice to talk about the movie at large, it’s not really an Inception discussion without supplying my version of this “find your own adventure” film, now is it? The rest of this post will be dedicated to my belief that this film is a critique on how we watch movies, what we’ve grown to accept, and how we will always dream in the language of film.
Of all the genres of film, the one that can continually get away with the most crimes against logic are action films. This is partially by design. We don’t go to see an action film because it has an enthralling, MacBeth-like story of treachery and wordplay. We go to see cool shit blow up and blow up gooood. Every now and then there’s an action flick that throws us a bone and gives us a story to grasp on to (The Bourne Ultimatum), characters who actually develop (Terminator 2), or the rare combination of an incredible story that’s punctuated by incredible action (the once-in-a-lifetime Seven Samurai). Most of the time, though, action films are like Commando. And that’s not a terrible thing; I love Commando! But I love it for what it is: completely mindless, stupid, ridiculous action that involves people getting killed in incredibly ridiculous ways at the feet of the greatest human ever created that wasn’t the son of God.
Our collective expectations for these types of movies skew more towards Commando than Seven Samurai. A move like Transformers II is, by any measure, a terrible film. Its plot starts an hour and a half into the film, it’s bloated, scenes go nowhere, the logic is all over the place, they expect you to care just because it’s a movie and give you no real provocation to actually care…but there was enough big CGI battles and enough patented Michael Bay Explostions ™ to be a huge money maker. In the end, the majority of people watch these films as an escape from everything–including logic–just to see the hero win out in the end, no matter how improbably.
Inception takes this idea and runs with it in a very unique and wonderful way. The film is essentially a critique on the way that action movies are made and, most importantly, the way that we accept information in an action film. We are libel to coast on the fuzzy logic as long as we’re entertained. The irony of Inception is that most of the faults that people have with it (how quickly things move forward, the insistence on setting up so many “rules” that dreams apparently live by, how it feels like a generic heist movie) is actually its greatest strength. More importantly, it’s the point.
The entire film is a dream that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is still stuck in. When his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) drops from their hotel suite onto the ground, she is brought back into the real world. Unseen throughout this film, she sits by her husband, asleep, unable to shake him from the allure of this dream, from the starring role in his own heist film. The ability for people to jump into someone’s dreams are real, a basis from an unseen world that is never tackled in this actual film. Everything you see on screen is the constructed movie that Cobb makes in his head based on other movies that he has seen.
Inception is a film that is completely built around Cobb. In your own dreams, you’re not some schlub who is relegated tot he background. You’re the person who wins, who loses, who fails, or who watches others succeed. No matter what, you’re always the focal point of your own dreams, the epicenter of the world your mind creates. The same is true in this film. When characters have questions about how things work, Cobb answers them, in a medium-close-up or close-up, looking like a hero. When his team needs a plan, he’s the one who sets it up, and when the plan goes awry, it’s Cobb who rights the ship. Everything flows through him and everyone autmoatically looks to him.
In this dream, Cobb is the head of a team like the head of a team in an action movie: he’s flawless. Cobb can run through Saito’s lair, silently killing henchmen, catching his bullet casings, then catching the falling bodies. This happens three times. He can escape scores of faceless hordes who just can’t shoot him, no matter how close they are (and how supposedly well-trained). He is “the best extractor in the world” and, just to top it all off, he’s the only person who can run inception. His timing is always impeccable: notice how he gets the first bath tub kick just in time to save his team from Saito (Ken Wanatabe). Notice how he always kills the bad guys with one shot but we never see the bullet. This powers are normal to us in this environment, but aren’t they a bit…suspect?
This dovetails nicely into the overall convenience of the movie and its construction through editing. This film does not move on what one would consider a linear path. Technically, our “present” begins with an old Saito and a very tired and hungry Cobb eating some oatmeal or something. This gives way to a movie-long flashback that starts exactly where the two characters start now, but they revert immediately back to their first meeting, in this same space, as younger men. But I don’t think that “flashback” ever actually occurs. The only way to actually express how time moves properly in this film is to follow the edits. The pace is relentless and it only gains momentum the further down we drop in Cobb’s conscious, resulting in more and more jump cuts. Therefore, like a dream itself, everything molds together, irrespective of a set “plot” or time. Scenes flow in and out of each other at a staggering pace. The unimportant bits are left on the cutting room floor of Cobb’s mind.
For example, the logic in the scene after he and his team leave Saito on the train is in-congruent in an actual reality. We see Cobb sitting around in a hotel room (?), spinning his totem
pole top, with seemingly not a care in the world (other than his own reality, I guess). The top spins. A second after he’s satisfied with the result, the phone immediately rings with his kids. How did they get his number? Where is he? Is he allowed to call home to his kids if he’s being tracked as a murderer? Doesn’t that seem like a boneheaded move? He talks to the kids in a very exposition-based way. We get to learn a bit (thanks, Nolan).
As soon as his mother-in-law hangs the phone up for the kid, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Arthur, and they resume making a hasty getaway, even though there was no real anticipation in Cobb before Arthur entered. Of course, as Cobb leaves on his way to Buenos Aires (because that’s where bad-ass movie heroes would wing to when they’re in a tough spot) he mentions that they have “to disappear.” Then why were you just lazing around in this incredibly swanky space?
When they are both taken hostage by Saito, they have to lose their architect, because every heist movie needs one early sacrifice to add a new member to the team. As Saito describes the inception job, Cobb says he wants out. The helicopter immediately lands and he just hops out, even though the sprawling wide shot of the helicopter and surrounding buildings didn’t offer a landing pad for such a quick exit. It’s at this time that Saito gives Cobb the motivation to take his “one last, crazy, dangerous job” where “the stakes couldn’t be higher” by telling him that he can exonerate him with one simple phone call. Who could you even call to make that happen? The attorney general? The President? I don’t think fascist dictators have that kind of swift authority.
Cobb and Arthur discuss the possibilities offered by this plan and agree that Cobb is the best person to ever do anything and it’s a-ok to take this case. They land in Paris seconds after the conversation ends and Cobb glances out the window. As soon as he looks down at “Paris” he is not only grounded, but he’s already entering the college where his father-in-law works, who just so happens to be in a barren lecture hall doing work at the exact time that Cobb wanders in to the room. Luckily this nondescript Parisian college features British professors and American students and a mysterious back room where Extraction 101 is taught (as Michael Caine’s character taught Cobb “everything he knows”). Wouldn’t you know it, not only does this man have a student better than Cobb, she’s directly outside the door, coming down the steps in the college, and runs right into Cobb and her professor at the exact time they need her to! For a man with such bad luck he’s on quite the streak.
It’s not that none of this is explained, and it’s not that everything here is essentially non-pertinent in a two-and-a-half-hour-long film. It’s the fact that details like this are aggressively not brought up, because they don’t matter. In a dream, you don’t sit around packing suits in a luggage, you’re too busy doing crazy stuff like riding a unicorn into a sun made of Cheese-its. The small, ordinary details are set aside for the large, sweeping ones. Similarly, with the way that the action unfolds with cut after cut after cut, it’s made to give you the impression that all of this follows directly after the other. Even though it seems a bit off, given the dream logic here, it’s hard to accept this as any other way but as one long, continuous dream that makes up its own logic as we move forward.
Ah, the logic. There are a few rules that Cobb painstakingly throws down to show what makes up a dream and what doesn’t. When he teaches his new architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) the rules on the power of the subconscious, it’s effectively Nolan saying “HINT HINT” to the audience. One of the first is that you don’t remember how you got into a dream, you are just are suddenly there. Cobb asks Ariadne to recount how they got to the cafe in Paris where they are sitting presently, and she can’t for the life of her figure it out. Well, neither can the audience, cause it never happened (remember – nothing happens between the cuts). This is true for the bits presented above: he’s in Tokyo…then Paris…then Mumbassa…all without much in the way of the how. And, just for the sticklers out there, all of these things happen in what he calls his “reality.”
If the person who is dreaming gets to be self-aware, then the people inside the dream space will figure it out, first by staring at the subject and, if they continue to get too close, by physically attacking them. We see it curiously pop up with Cobb throughout the film. As Cobb talks to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) at the bar and starts to unravel that they’re living in a dream, no one looks directly at Fischer. The background actors all turn and stare at Cobb, which indicates that this is all his dream. In scenes with Mal involved, notice the face on his right-hand man, Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He stares directly at Cobb with an increasingly worried look.
Then there is this shot, when Ariadne remakes a bridge from, essentially, one of Cobb’s memories. He begins to question what’s going on, keying off this shot by saying, “this has nothing to do with me!” His subconscious turns on him, going after Ariadne because she was starting to help him unravel that none of this was real. More to the point, notice the eye line from where these people are staring. I read somewhere that Ellen Page is a tiny girl (3’4″ or so) so there’s no way they’re looking at her. They’re staring down Cobb. He knows too much.
The people inside of a dream are merely the visions of whatever the dreamer thinks these people are. The best example of this law in action is when Robert Fischer confronts his godfather, Peter Browning (that’s Tom Berenger?!?). The assembled team hopes that Robert accepts whatever prompt he was given by Eames (Tom Hardy) when he was wearing his Browning suit. In order to find that out, they have to see what demeanor and thoughts Robert gives this Browning facsimile. If he takes on the attitude that they have planted, then congratulations, they’ve successfully tricked him.
If we are to expand on that, then everyone on Cobb’s team is there as a reflection of Cobb on top of the duality that these are characters filling the necessary roles in a heist film. Arthur is his trusted confident, the second-best extractor (which is hammered down by Eames’ description) who always looks out for Cobb and never truly calls him out when he’s wrong (even when Arthur knows that he is). Naturally, Arthur feuds with the slicker, more risky Eames, because isn’t that what they would do? There aren’t that many differences in personality between the two, but Eames always has it out for him (until the end, when they can mutually agree that the other did a bang-up job). Ariadne is the newcomer who constantly calls out Cobb when he’s doing something that can jeopardize the crew, which is usually what the woman does. She is also, in some way, responsible for Cobb going back into his memories elevator, allowing himself a mechanism to relive all those times with Mal.
Ah, Mal. The crucial piece in all of this. If everything that occurs is controlled by Cobb’s mind, and all the characters are the interpretations of what he wants and/or needs these people to be, then Mal is the personification of his unconscious mind and that tricky idea that “none of this is real.” It picks the perfect vehicle. She is the most tempting of all the devices that his brain could use. But, if you were living out the life that Cobb is, if you were the star of your own movie over and over and over again, wouldn’t you want to stay as well? That’s why Mal is employed to constantly fowl up play time and try to smack some sense into him.
She isn’t the only personification of doubt that creeps in to this picture. The most obvious is the use of the train that flies through the beginning of the car chase in the first level of the inception project. Cobb sees this tear through the streets, knocking out the front of the car he’s riding in, blaming the architect who swears she didn’t lay down train tracks in the middle of the street. She didn’t need to. It’s his subconscious reminding him that nothing here is real, like, here’s a train that isn’t on tracks just barreling through your “reality” that’s similar to the one you and your wife used to fall back another level. When they first meet the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a creepy little man walks up to Cobb and says, “the dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” Cobb immediately changes the subject and the follow does the same. It’s reminiscent of earlier when Ariadne began to question the morality of extraction, but the film jumpcuts to another question, with her and Cobb on a different street in Paris, as if a record skipped. There is no explanation. Cobb doesn’t need to give one.
Cobb controls his entire universe. This is why he can set down rules (don’t use memories, don’t use real places) and then break them at his leisure. If he thinks too hard about memories, he’ll notice the fine details that are missing between the bridge he remembers and the bridge that exists (even if it’s in a dream under Ariadne’s construction). But he will feel free to return to those memories when he feels lonely or when he longs to return to those circumstances. To him, if all of it is real, then in this dream space, his memories are real. If Cobb wants hordes of “security” members to get in his way to reek havoc but be so inept that they can’t shoot Arthur with five shots when they’re literally six steps away from him, then there they are. An opportune chance to make it feel like there is danger when they are nothing more than fodder (Saito getting shot is the exception, but doesn’t the man who holds the key to everything and is ill-equipped to go on this kind of mission have to get fatally wounded?) is needed to show that there is some sense of “danger” or “mounting conflict.” This lack of logic gets exacerbated the deeper we go in this dream scape. When Cobb and company hijack the cab, they tell the cab driver to “walk away” and he vanishes from all the wide shots. In order to knock out Fischer, they drop the sedative from an eye dropper onto the top of his burlap head sack (Nolan loves making Cillian Murphy hide his face in fabric – wonder if he’s insulted by now) and magically he passes right out. That really is one hell of a sedative.
The entire siege of the snow control tower (straight out of N64’s Goldeneye) is straight-up ridiculous. They collectively start out miles away from the compound, then, when needed, Cobb and Ariadne tell Eames that he has to get to the control room as fast as possible. He simply falls off his snow mobile and enters, even though they make it seem like he’s miles away and needs to hurry. And, wouldn’t you know it, at that same time that he enters the room, he greets Cobb and Ariadne who jog their way in as well! Why was it so imperative to get him in the room when thge two can show up at the exact same time? Because, as I was taught in film school, it’s better to get all your characters in the room. The kicker (literally and figuratively) comes when they decide after a minute of Fischer being lifeless that they can shock him back to life as the rest of the kicks, four layers of dreams in all, work flawlessly to pull nearly everyone back. It’s beyond coincidental; it’s fated by the hand of the creator.
The only time that this logic gets fuzzy is when Mal reappears deep in the dream. Suddenly her tune changes. She questions everything that has been going on up above: the generic giant company that can make miracles come true with a simple phone call, the entire mission itself, etc. But in a change of heart, she doesn’t implore Cobb to wake up and come back to her and their children. This Mal, this deep-down Mal, asks of him to stay with her, down here, forever. The alluring figure of Mal now personifies Cobb’s willingness to never awaken from the dream.
And here comes the tragedy: Cobb gets it about 80% right. He shows some sense of self-awareness with Mal; how she’s only a shade of the woman he knew, the woman he loved, that she doesn’t exist. He owns up to the fact that everything in this dream space down here is a lie. A tempting lie, but a lie none the less. He cannot stay with her because he has to move past her. She took the wrong choice (whether or not it was his fault, I’d rather not get into) and now he must persevere without her. He finds Saito and is able to miraculously wake up just as the pilot on the flight lets them know that they will land in Los Angeles in twenty minutes. He’s able to return to the United States thanks to a single phone call that, again, takes place twenty minutes before he lands (man, Homeland Security’s computers update quickly!). He reunites first with his father-in-law who just so happens to be in the States awaiting his arrival, and runs into the kids at nearly the same age as when he left them. Cobb was so close to getting out of this dream. So, so close.
Then, there’s the spinning totem. It’s funny, the only rule that Cobb does not throw down in this world is that of the totem. That exposition is left for Arthur to give to Ariadne. If Cobb is the sole constructor of this world, then the rule of the totem, as it wasn’t given by Cobb himself, should be tossed out, yes? Even further toppling the edict is the fact that Cobb first touched his wife’s totem in the dream world, buried in the house she grew up in. If the whole point is that only one person is allowed to touch the totem and it was, therefore, the only thing that kept you aware of what plane of reality you were in, then this is already flawed. Further, where the hell is his totem? If he uses hers and he touches hers first in the dream world…then it doesn’t really matter whether the top spins or doesn’t.
But that’s a battle I’m not going to take up in the final paragraph. The top spins, and it will spin for as long as Cobb keeps willing it to. For now, he seems happy. He finally gets to see his children, gets exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit, and is able to find some peace. And that’s good for him. But all I can think about is the image of Mal, sitting desperately aside her husband, waiting for him to come out of the coma as their kids slowly grow up behind her. Guess that’s why we buy into the dream instead of the reality.
This colorful Christmas-themed banner was created by Matt Lubchansky. Read his excellent web comic The Adam! and follow him on twitter, if you’d be so kind. You can click the image above to see the rest of the films in the series.