Inception

[You can now download this review as a podcast hereSee also my article on the Christopher Nolan Batman films; and a more detailed discussion of photography and memory in Memento.]

[Towards the end, this review of Christopher Nolan's Inception will contain some spoilers, but until that point, I think it's safe to read, unless you want to watch it with no foreknowledge. I'll let you know before the spoilers begin. These are some half-formed responses to a first viewing, and I'd welcome dialogue and comments about the film. Forgive any errors or markers of haste that have crept into the text.]

Christopher Nolan continues to indulge his abiding preoccupation with mental states as narrative frameworks (Following, Memento, Insomnia) with Inception. The story plays out in a series of nested dreamscapes. Leonardo DiCaprio (fulfilling his contractual obligation to keep a determined furrow in his brow at all times to show how seriously he takes this acting thing) is Dom Cobb, whose job it is to enter people’s dreams and “extract” secrets from their subconscious minds. Desperate to get back to his estranged family, he decides to take on one last job to clear his name on charges for a crime he swears he didn’t commit – instead of extracting information, this new mission demands an “inception”; with his crack team of dream explorers, Cobb will plant an idea in a subject’s head.

 Read on...

Nolan doesn’t extend his explorations of disordered subjectivities to the formal fabric of the films – the miracle of Memento was that it conveyed its protagonist’s memory-loss through a single device (the reversal of the narrative sequence) that explained the placement of each scene and unlocked the narrative intricacies that were unavailable even to the narrator. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell criticised Nolan for throwing away a radical opportunity for experiment by reordering the story but maintaining a wholly lucid story arc that reimposed order and convention on what might have been a more disruptive reformatting of the tenacious narrative template of the classic detective drama (although I remember Bordwell doing it without recourse to a sentence as convoluted as that one). But Nolan has a gift for making tough intelligent material into clear-minded entertainment, with little sense of stultifying compromise. Memento drew viewers in to (skip to the next paragraph immediately if you haven’t seen it and don’t want a major spoiler) the world of a man on a heroic quest to find his wife’s murderer, but ends with the viewer in the uncomfortable position of having sympathised with a man who is probably a serial murderer, a deluded killing machine who doesn’t even recognise himself as such. The terror of that situation comes from having more knowledge than the main character, despite having seen nothing that he has not experienced himself. Nolan seems endlessly fixated on the contingency of experience, the imperfection of memory, vision and interpretation. Memento wasn’t just a depiction of a deteriorating mind, but a thesis on the power of narrative to trick us into believing terrible things and allowing us to accept them as natural. Yet that interest in the fallibility of the senses in making safe sense of surroundings does not carry over into the visual make-up of the films, which are vivid, pin-sharp depictions of psychic opacity. The same goes for Inception, which never infests its aesthetic with the weirdness of dreamscapes. Instead of hallucinogenic morphing, non sequiturs, flying, misted spaces and trouserless school plays where I haven’t learned my lines (am I giving too much away about my own dreamworlds there?), Nolan lodges his film in environments as concrete as any film. That is, pretty concrete, in that most physical laws are fixed and consistent, but still “filmic”, in that they are prone to manipulation and reconfiguration. I’m going to suggest that Inception actualises the well-worn metaphor of cinema as a kind of dreaming (or dreaming as a kind of cinema) and takes it seriously: we experience it like any other film. Dialogue scenes are shot in a shot/reverse shot sequence that makes it all seem comfortingly conventional. There are chases, shootouts and fights that carry out psychological processes in the syntax of action films. Is this all a ploy to create further confusion between layers of reality (there is little difference between how they operate physically), or a sly reminder of how ephemerally dreamlike cinema is, even if we don’t usually think of it in that way?

As I said, it’s grounded in some of the conventions of genre. This is a science fiction film, and it would ordinarily be expected that a film driven by an idea, a possibility (the infiltration of dreams, a cybercultural analogy if ever there was one) would spend time setting up a world shaped by the existence of that concept. How, you might ask and expect to be told, does a world in which undercover operatives in the pay of corporations can enter our minds and steal stuff look and behave? How has the political and cultural landscape been affected? We get none of this broader picture (perhaps with good reason, but spoilers will have to wait until the end of the review…), and the film drops us into the action as if it has already started without us. That, we are told, is how dreams start. There is no starting point in a dream, we just find ourselves involved in an ongoing series of events, though our dreaming selves somehow have a sense of what is going on. It comes on like Last Year at Marienbad with guns, skipping from one set-up to the next and delaying the pullback to an explanatory frame for as long as possible. Once the perameters of the dreamworld have been explained, the second half of the film becomes a breakneck rush through the heist itself, which occupies the remainder of the film.

Here are the good points: the cast are uniformly powerful and committed, never mugging or pointing to the potential stretches of logic that the plot contrivances have to be contorted through. Sometimes they look awfully young, like an undergraduate review with a swollen budget, but maybe I”m just at that age where actors start looking like teenagers. Ouch. The plot is chewily dense without ever stepping into mystifying messes, and it’s a pleasure to visit a blockbuster movie that doesn’t treat you like a complete imbecile. The forward rush of the chase keeps a great momentum, and its linearity provides a persuasive throughline that is so strong that Nolan can manage to make a multi-strand narrative seem like one big action scene. And that’s where the problems begin. The central ideas of this film are so delicious that we probably didn’t need quite so much shooting and running and chasing to spice it up. The Bond-style snow battle was especially tiresome, even though it was juxtaposed with an utterly dazzling gravity-free punch up in a hotel corridor. For the most part, the film wisely refuses to milk its best ideas (we’d love to see more vertical streets, Escher stairs and wall-walking, but Nolan keeps such moments brief and tantalising memories), so why we had to have quite so much of the white stuff is anybody’s guess. In other bad news, Morocco is forced into its usual role as stunt double to cities (in this case Mombasa) that are less accommodating to film crews. What this means in practice is that we get a chase through streets that are meant to be in Kenya (but look just like Morocco), in which our heroes get to knock the locals out of the way as they stand around looking baffled, passive and wishing they spoke English. There’s no place for this sort of exotic projection in a film at this level.

But these are minor quibbles. As with Memento, Nolan manages the impressive feat of keeping the audience challenged, puzzled even, without falling into a fug of incomprehension. Even though it mostly unfolds across many different dimensions of consciousness in different time-frames, the time-pressured espionage structure makes it a wholly lucid dream. Any complications or ambiguities, questions about the status of the reality or otherwise of what you’re seeing are themselves inceptions perpetrated on the viewer. You may find yourself forming certain judgements about the plot without realising what made you question something. Of course, you might also go the opposite way and conclude that this is all utter nonsense – why go to all that technologised trouble to plant an idea in someone’s head? Why not just persuade, negotiate, coerce or otherwise to business with the subject in the real world? Why do we need to snatch secrets from someone’s unconscious mind, when surveillance, spying and burglary used to be good enough ways to get deeply personal information out of our bins, desks and inboxes? One of the nicest things I can say about Inception is that I didn’t ponder its nonsense until afterwards. Which leads me to the spoiler section. I hope you’ve enjoyed this review so far, but if you haven’t seen Inception, and you plan to, and you don’t want to know about the ending, you mustn’t follow me beyond this point. Leave now. Here, go and look at some pictures.

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW AFTER THE NEXT IMAGE. ONLY CONTINUE READING IF YOU WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF THE FILM. YOU CAN ALSO SCROLL STRAIGHT DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE TO SEE SOME LINKS TO OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT INCEPTION.

I’d love to hear about what you made of the ending of Inception, because I suspect there are an ever-expanding number of interpretations currently cluttering up cyberspace. This is not because it needed “solving”. It actually resolved everything very nicely, concluding the mission, explaining the protagonist’s emotional dilemma, reuniting him with his kids and presumably settling a big score in the business world. Don’t you just love closure?

Maybe it’s not that simple. It’s a film about dreams and reality, so there must be some kind of rug-from-under-you twist about how what you’ve just seen never really happened, or it was all in somebody’s mind. Maybe that’s why DiCaprio bounced from Shutter Island to this – maybe he only plays deluded protagonists with lost wives these days? Sure, the little spinning top is a maddening, open-ended hint that poses a question it doesn’t want to definitively answer, but aside from that you can take the film at face value and consider it all neatly wrapped up. But as mentioned above, it all starts to get a bit more complex under inspection, and new interpretations present themselves.

Did everything appear as we saw it until the last scene, when Ariadne apparently “improvises” and helps Cobb escape from the basement of his subconscious? Or did she create a closed loop that has kept him trapped in his own personal limbo, in which the cycle of the plot plays over and over again? Or, was the Fisher inception a red herring, and the whole plot actually about the team’s attempt to rescue Cobb from limbo, or just from his grief – i.e. was Ariadne actually brought in to carry out an inception on Cobb, making him think the whole thing was his idea, and planting the idea that he needs to escape from the memory of his dead wife? This interpretation makes a lot of sense to me. Ariadne (who in Greek mythology helped Theseus escape the labyrinth) is brought in, perhaps by Miles (Michael Caine) to get Cobb to come back to his children; she seems particularly interested in Cobb’s past, and unnaturally adept at and accepting of the whole extraction process. It is she who persuades Cobb of the unhealthiness of that relationship, and in introducing her to the dreaming mind, Cobb gets to explain his relationship, to see how it was constructed. When he finally accepts that his wife is a projection, not a real entity lodged in his unconscious, he is able to let go, but isn’t it odd how calmly and easily he gives this speech, as if entranced or prompted to do so? This either demonstrates that Ariadne has “incepted” him, or it might show that Cobb is still dreaming, has always been dreaming, and will dream all the way through the conclusion – in reality, he never gets back to his kids, but at least stays in a limbo that lets him fantasise that he does. As I was writing this I wondered if the whole film is Christopher Nolan’s dream, a projection of his self in film form. It is formed out of echoes and memories of other movies, some of them his, some of them those of his actors. It would explain why he and Leonardo DiCaprio have started sharing suits and haircuts, and why an Edith Piaf song is being used as a wake-up call in a film that stars Marion Cotillard, who portrayed her so successfully in La Vie en Rose. I’m sure as I ponder Inception a bit more, other ideas will occur, as if planted there covertly. It’s a rare treat when a Hollywood movie can live on in the mind like that. All in the mind…

Extra Observations:

  • The beach which serves as such a crucial location for Cobb and his wife is noteworthy. Beaches are liminal spaces, the threshold between land and sea. This is where people reach the limits of a journey, the border of a space, signifying the edges of their selves. La Dolce Vita and Les 400 Coups (referenced at the end of Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen) are just two well known films that finish on the beach as a spatial boundary representing the place of indeterminate existential crisis. Are other locations similarly resonant?
  • I wonder how much Nolan has planted ideas as rewards for repeat viewings, and how many of the interpretations we find are our own inventions. But Nolan can’t lose: if it’s accidental, then it reflects back onto the film’s motif of ideas planted in such a way that the dreamer imagines they are his own. This is a film that rewrites itself in the viewer’s mind after the fact – isn’t that how all movies work in some sense? We watch them for a few hours of our lives, but most of their existence is spent as a fading, partial memory.
  • I keep finding Kubrick comparisons in online discussions of Nolan and Inception. Surely Nolan is far too interested in dialogue, plot and crowd pleasing for the links to stick. There were moments when I was reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that may be because that film follows me everywhere. The zero-gravity hotel has obvious resonances with scenes of Dave Bowman floating through the empty spacecraft, and Cobb’s meeting with Ken Watanabe as an old man in a sparse dining room undoubtedly chimes with Bowman’s meeting with himself at the end of 2001.  Is this a simple graphic homage, or does the comparison unlock a new interpretation of the scene (i.e. are all these figures projections of Cobb’s subconscious)?
  • Most critics have been very generous with their praise for the film. It mostly seems deserved – there is so much good will towards Nolan and this particular set of actors that the film suffers little in the way of negative analysis. Its flaws are overlooked. The upshot of this is that the most insightful articles, those which reveal the film afresh to those who were beguiled by it, have come from those who thought much less of it. The criticisms are mostly levelled at Nolan’s cold, pristine handling of the material, and it’s not difficult to see their point. It makes concrete architectural spaces of our dreams, which are more often fluid, vapourous and changeable (if I may mix my metaphors).

Read More:

[See also my article on the Christopher Nolan Batman films; and a more detailed discussion of photography and memory in Memento.]

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26 thoughts on “Inception

  1. This is an excellent review, Dan. Loved the paragraph on “the fallibility of the senses”.
    I liked the film too, although I have problems with its cynical ending and its talking-heads-explaining-the-plot approach.

  2. Thankyou, JAFB. Glad you liked it. I think next week I’ll post a list of post-viewing observations in a separate post with all spoilers (and warnings) so I don’t have to clutter this one up with my post-match rethinks. I’d like to think and talk more about that ending, but wouldn’t want to make this a no-go zone until more people have had chance to see it. I’d be interested in why you thought it was cynical. Open-ended, maybe, in a way that seemed obligatory rather than hard-won, but its cynicism depends largely on what your interpretation is of the reality of what you’ve seen. Yes, there was a lot of exposition, which means that what might have been oneiric comes out procedural, but I guess Nolan had to make a choice – should he suspend all logic and go all-out dreamy, or make everything rules-based and concrete. I’m glad he stuck to one or the other, in any case.

    • Dan. Looking forward to the second article.

      ** SPOILERS

      My problem with the ending was that it tries to choose the film’s cleverness over the its heart. I really expect Nolan’s films to be more about what the narrative structure/convoluted premise does to the inner lives of his characters and his audience’s perception of them than the possibilities of the premise itself.

      With that “Goosebumps” sort of ending in Inception, he almost goes to the extent of suggesting that real relationships are never possible in our world (I’m assuming here that the film, apart from being a comment on escapist cinema, is also an allegory about our digital world – the internet mostly – where a false identity seems more real than the real one). I believe Cobb deserves to be with his kids and not overruled by one extra, authoritative line in the writer’s script. It betrays an indifference, at best, and a hatred, at worst, on Nolan’s part towards his characters.

      ** SPOILERS END

      Cheers!

      • That makes sense, JAFB. I agree that the digital world allegory is available to us if we want it – it’s certainly of a piece with other explorations of “virtual” consciousness in popular culture. How you think Nolan has treated his characters depends on what you make of the ending, and whether or not you think Cobb is still dreaming. But you can’t definitively resolve that question, not just because Nolan wants to mess with you, but because it’s part of the theme of unreliable narration, the impossibility of certainty when relying on our senses. It could be a cry for human contact, a yearning after real emotional connection in a world that makes it difficult, but the beauty of it is that it is open to interpretations. Memento might have seemed similarly cynical if we were invited to loathe its protagonist at the end, but instead we are asked to find him pitiable, his fate inevitable (we’ve already seen it).

        I read one interpretation of Inception that said that it doesn’t matter about the ending, because in some sense, Cobb is with his kids, real or not. That’s patently nonsense, because though he might be with his kids in dreams. They’re not with him. Cobb recognises that the wife of his dreams is not really her, but can he do the same for his children? I still don’t know.

      • I didn’t post a second article in the end – I wrote other stuff and got snowed under a bit. Plus, I think the blogosphere has overtaken me on Inception talk (so many theories!), but I’ve added a few “Extra Observations” at the end of the post now. Maybe more later, but not enough to justify a separate post…

      • That’s OK, Dan. You make some very fine points there. The third one is especially revealing. Is this some a hotel where time as a linear parameter has collapsed? That might explain easily why Watanabe is much older (which is sort of already explained by the fact that Watanabe dies earlier).

        Good stuff, Dan.

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  4. Holy moly. Well you just made me appreciate this a whole lot more – I’d picked up on Ariadne’s name and skill but yes I’d not connected those with the concept of the potential closed loop or inception on Cobb. Feel like a total amateur now!

    Enjoyed the film anyway, and thanks for the review!

    • Thanks, Andy, you’re welcome. For each possible interpretation I spotted, I missed dozens more. I thought at first it was an either/or ending, but there are actually many different directions it could go.

  5. “Everyone’s so concerned about whether the top falls or not, but no one seems to care that Leo walked away without caring. The moment he sees their face, he can walk away. That’s testimony to the fact that he’s gained that faith.”

    Well, that’s because the difference is crucial! He’s either with his kids or not, and this quotation seems to suggest that it all hinges on his perception of events. But if he’s dreaming, then he’s NOT with his kids and they are orphaned. There’s a big difference. Oh, I think I said that above…

    Thanks for the interview, J.D. It’s interesting that everyone is trying to get a definitive answer one way or the other about that ending, when surely the point is that it preserves the ambiguity that we all face over the reliability of our senses. It’s a Schrodinger’s cat situation – we can never know whether Cobb is awake or dreaming, because the box is closed i.e. the film is over and has no ongoing reality once it cuts to black, which may in itself compound the theory of it being about film as dream.

  6. Sorry, Dan, for reposting a comment from The Film Dr, but I find it strange that no one ever mentions this so maybe it will give you some food for thought. Looking forward to your further musings on the film.

    All of Nolan’s films so far (the Batmans less than the others, but that is only because they give him more of a framework) have been about people deluding themselves and keeping illusions alive in order to keep a purpose to their lives.

    I remember it cropping up in “Following” although I don’t remember what it was, it’s perfectly clear in “Memento”, when the main character sabotages his own system so he can keep searching for a killer; in “Insomnia”, the Al Pacino character would rather believe that he killed his partner accidentally because it gives him a better incentive to go after the alleged murderer; in “The Prestige”, one of the two magicians is willing to kill himself night after night only to keep up the illusion of the perfect magic trick; Batman also knows that he needs the Joker to stay Batman, he keeps evil alive so he can never find his peace.

    With this in mind, I find it very probable that Cobb also simply *wants to believe* he’s back in the real world at the end of the film, whether it’s true or not, when it’s very probable that it’s not. He simply cannot stand the idea that the thing he has been working for so long could be a fake.

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  10. It’s always great to read a post by someone who actually knows what he is talking about. Btw, personally I enjoyed Inception because of the recreational atmosphere and not mind-bogglingly intricate plot. This movie can be made complex in it’s aftermath…as you mentioned, Nolan invites people to think in the end of the movie and to create alternative endings if they wish so. Hanz Zimmer’s track that is played in the end is called “Time”. If that’s related to the movie I would assume that Cobb is definitely not dead because he mind still exists in time. Apart from pure sci-fi like The Matrix where the realities are bounded by obvious limitations, Inception proposes a bit more psychological view on reality which is great.
    Thanks for this review! :)

    • Thanks for all your kind comments, D. I’m glad you like the site, and I hope you’ll come back often. If you’re interested in the music of Inception, you might also like to read about Hans Zimmer’s use of the Edith Piaf song for the whole thing:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/29/inception-soundtrack-edith-piaf

      I never used to like Hans Zimmer at all, but he seems to be getting more interesting, and while some didn’t like the thunderous Inception music, I thought it made those dreamscapes seem really vast and overwhelming.

      • Gee, thanks for the link! Now I need to listen to the soundtrack again!
        Thanks for the info.
        About Zimmer…I like his works in Gladiator (the battle) and from Inception I like “Time” but entirely I don’t listen to his works. Btw, why don’t you like his works? It’s the first time I hear someone NOT liking Zimmer)) Could you share why, it’s thats ok?
        Just want to mention that if I would have to pick up my favorite OSTs the first ones that come to mind are – The Matrix, The Scent of a Woman and Forest Gump.

      • I’ve just never been struck by a Zimmer score, and his Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean scores are pretty derivative of each other (though I was once vilified on another message board for suggesting as much). He’s become more interesting lately, and he’s still a cut above the likes of James Horner/Newton Howard. The Inception score was vulgar enough to get my attention, and by that I mean it was so forceful and insistent that it was difficult to ignore – it didn’t just accompany the pictures, like his earlier work tended to do.

  11. I’m really interested in the totem, especially Cobb’s, as a symbol of reality/non-reality. Relatively early in the film, we are told that the totem needs to be a specific item – a memento with a certain feel, a certain weight instantly recognisable in the real world – but also one that is entirely personal. Indeed, the idea of touching someone else’s totem is thought to remove its significance and render the totem useless. How then does Cobb keep a hold of reality when looking to someone else’s – his wife’s – totem? Cobb’s sense of reality is so intermixed with that of his wife’s that he believes her personal reality, symbolised in the spinning top, can keep him grounded to his own reality throughout the film. Is Cobb’s final speech to his wife a tad hypocritical when considering that by holding on to her totem right to the end of the film, he is accepting her reality/unreality contradiction as his own?

    • Thanks, Shell – I was a bit confused by that myself. I’d need to see it again to answer with any certainty, because having read a bunch of other reviews, it’s clear that everyone has slightly different recollections of the finer points. What we do know is that he never gets to use the totem – on both occasions where he spins it, he is interrupted, so he never gets to see whether or not it falls. This would add weight to the interpretation that he is dreaming all along, and is actually using the totem to assist in his denial. And is it significant that all the totems we see are toys/game pieces?

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  13. Interesting post with interesting points; particularly the development of Ariadne’s role as the real heroine of the movie; it could be said that Cobb doesn’t actually do much, and what little he does is detrimental to everybody’s safety. (I have just discovered your blog and it’s a treasure trove, thank you very much.)

    “Inception” is one of those films that bifurcates in your mind, not as much as Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths perhaps but more than enough to keep you profitably occupied whenever you think of it. My favourite version of it is the one where not only there are absolutely no dreams taking place, but dreaming has for all means and purposes been wiped out. These are carefully constructed mental environments – videogame levels, traps, it works the same – designed to enable corporate espionage. (Which is stated explicitly – Nolan to me always seems more interested in the exposition than in the action. I am not putting him down; on the contrary, this is to me one of the marks of his originality.) They *need* therefore to be somewhat anodyne, slick but unremarkable, reassuringly unimaginative. It’s the world of corporate identities and the blander kind of advertising. They won’t work as safe environments for inception otherwise. Significantly, the one major display of exuberance, Paris folding itself up, is Ariadne showing off, and she gets immediately berated for it. The wild imagination of dreams a liability to the business being done. And this channeling of imagination, over time, affects the “dream” architects, who even when furnishing their own private dream landscapes, prefer the generic (Cobb’s and Mal’s parades of post-International Style buildings which are more uniform than Tativille itself). Viewed so, “Inception” could be (on top of all the other things it is) a heartbreaking tale of the power of dreams being neutered by business demands. This would also help explain some of the action-by-numbers sequences, including the overlong snowbound 007 homage: when people whose imaginations have been tamed dream of adventure, they think in action clichés – bigger, longer, noisier, and not a lot in the end. (Arthur is the only one to show some panache, by architecting an action sequence that is really a spy-movie twist on Fred Astaire’s “You’re all the world to me” sequence from “Royal Wedding”.)

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