Was Inception a grand deception?

I saw Inception on the opening weekend, and found it thoroughly engaging and intelligent. It seemed like there was an open ended ending but the rest was simple enough. It almost seemed like a film that there was no need to review, it was taut, action packed, twisted, but dreaming in a dream about a dream sort of thing is not something I thought I could write a lot about. I had been keeping my head in the sand and avoiding Inception reviews, but now as I caught them I saw furious debate. Critics loved it, hated it, loved other critics who loved it, hated other critics who loved it and so on and so forth. The theories came pouring out of the woodwork and blew my “OK I know what was going on” smugness out of the water. UNLESS one believes that the complexities are being generated by the viewers, and they do not match the maker’s intentions.

These theories ranged from mapping Jungian archetypes on to each character:

And in watching Inception, I think I definitely saw something of Jungian archetypes in all of the characters who interact with Leonardo DiCaprio’s, Dom Cobb, in the movie. So much so, in fact, that I actually think ::Spoiler alert:: that the entire film might actually just be Dom Cobb’s dream and that all of the main characters in it were just different segments of himself that had to concoct an elaborate mission just so he could reach some level of catharsis within himself.

to using the laws of Physics to negate the basic premise of entering someone’s dreams:

Couldn’t this whole thing be a dream? The entire film – from minute one to the end? Is Christopher Nolan just screwing with us?
The most obvious evidence for me is pure physics. You can’t actually go into people’s dreams. That’s not physically possible. So aren’t we already in the realm of a la la land – a dream-based fantasy concept? The kind of thing we would come up with … in our dreams?

Cobb (diCaprio) is being pulled two ways – his now dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard – Mal is never expanded for us, and Mal lingers as a malevolent force throughout the film!) wants to pull him further into their dream so they can grow old together, while Saito (Ken Watanabe) keeps reminding him that he should not become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone! In the final scene Cobb is told by Saito to take a leap of faith, come back so they can be young together, and Saito reaches for the pistol. Does this signify that he kills them both and thus ends the dream? Will the slight teetering of the top in the end lead to its ultimate tipping over? We are never to find that out as the film fades to black. Is Cobb back int the real world with his children, or is he still wandering around in limbo? This is probably best summed up by Bilge Ebiri THUS:

So, is Cobb being pulled back to reality by this thought, or is he being prodded further into his dream? That depends, perhaps, on how you view the very end of the film: At this point, Cobb seems to be finally freed of his regret and of his memory of Mal, and has been reunited with his children. The final shot seems to indicate that he may be still dreaming (because his totem keeps spinning). If so, then he has either lost himself in Limbo entirely, or Mal was right all along, and his world was always a dream.

But whether he’s still dreaming may ultimately be irrelevant: The important thing is that Cobb has been freed of his demons, and can now be reunited with what to him appear to be his real children — be they a projection or reality. Or, as the old man in Mombassa puts it, referring to the opium den of dreamers in Yusuf’s basement: “They come here to be woken up. Their dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”

Just when I thought I had read all the interpretations came this doozy of a piece titled “Dissecting ‘Inception’: Six Interpretations and Five Plot Holes”

It went thus:

Interpretation 1: All of Inception is a dream.
Interpretation 2: Everything after Cobb’s sedation test is a dream.
Interpretation 3: Saito is the architect, pulls a Mr. Charles on Cobb.
Interpretation 4: Ariadne is the architect/Cobb’s therapist.
Interpretation 5: We do see reality during the film, but Cobb is still in a dream at the end of the film.
Interpretation 6: We do see reality during the film and Cobb is in reality at the end of the film.

I will leave you to seek out this piece for explanations attached to each interpretation, and the plot holes!

I saw diagrams on levels of dreams, and who was doing the dreaming – an Inception cheat sheet of sorts!

Lost in all these interpretations of the layers within layers in Inception were a few pieces on other cinematic content of the film. Are we emotionally attached to Cobb? Do we care if he gets to see his children or not? He seems to love Mal but what about Mal? Does she care for him, or is she simply some evil force that resides within Cobb? The brilliantly shot hallway fight scene had people tumbling about as they got a punch in here or there, battled to open doors, and fight off their opponents! Here is what MTV Movie blog has to say about this brilliant sequence:

“It would’ve been different if he had put me in front of a green screen and said, ‘Pretend you’re floating. Pretend you’re off-balance.’ Instead he put me in the middle of this set that spun around 360 degrees where he hung me on wires or put me on this see-saw contraption,” Gordon-Levitt continued. “So all of those moments where it looks like I’m off-balance, that’s because I was off-balance, doing my best to keep my balance and fight this guy while the floor would be becoming the wall and the wall and ceiling would be becoming the floor.”

Director of Photography Wally Pfister echoed the actor’s words in an interview last week. The scene demanded a 500-person crew and took three weeks to capture. A series of hallway sets were built in a World War I-era air force hangar: a horizontal one that rotated 360 degrees, a vertical one that allowed actors to wear wires and another in which the actors were strapped to trolleys, erased during the post-production process.

“When I was reading those rotating hallway scenes, I was blown away and also scratching my head,” Pfister said. “We begin with a camera that’s not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you’re rotating with the set. It creates this bizarre, strange movement. It’s an exhausting process for the actors. Having rotated on that set myself, it’s really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air.”

The three week process involved painstaking work on small moments, shots that last only two or three seconds apiece when you see them in the finished movie. “We kept coming back to it,” Pfister continued. “We’d shoot out a part of a sequence and then the riggers would have to adjust something. We’d duck out and shoot something else and come back a few hours later and shoot more. The whole thing was spread out over about three weeks. You’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The orchestrated “falls” to get people out of the dreams within dreams, the adrenaline rush fights alternating with some fine emotional drama, the crumbling periphery of the dreamscapes, the almost Escher-like elevations, and above all a story that required all of one’s brain to be fully engaged, made Inception one of the finest summer blockbusters in a long time! As I awaken from this deep dream of unease, I say “Chris Nolan, may your tribe increase!!”


Just when you thought everything to be said about Inception had already been said, out comes this gem discussing the essential tug-of war between the creative soul of a director like Nolan and the demands of a “gets the asses in the seats” hugely mounted action film:

Thread. The way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus. Ariadne.

Such a blunt segue does a good job of showing how crude Ariadne’s character feels. Most movies at least make an attempt at subtlety. Mr. Warren in Brazil works in a rabbit warren. Mr. Kurtzman is very short. To me, unsubtlety from someone I kind of trust, like Nolan, is a sign saying ‘Hey look, there’s a door here that opens up another layer of this thing I’m trying to do.’

Ariadne as a character is purely an expositional mirror. She is as ignorant as the audience about the technical details of Inception, and her on-screen education is therefore an acceptable way of wising up the audience to what is going on. The utility of these characters is why so many movies follow novices and initiates (Men in Black, Transformers N+1, LA Confidential, etc.) and why nearly every plot-driven movie has ignorant supporting characters, usually women (every Indiana Jones movie, The Three Days of the Condor, the Dan Brown movies, the John Grisham movies, etc.)

To me, the red flag raised by the unsublety of her character’s name is confirmed by Ariadne’s totem: a chess pawn. In the deliberately stripped-down, unembellished and bland world Nolan’s chosen, characters are what they do for the movie. Why? Because them’s the rules of the breezy, action-movie matrix.

I think Nolan is fascinated by the physicality of action movies, and in just the same way he’s into the physicality of making movies. Recall his famous distaste for computer-generated gewgaws in the Batman movies, or the mechanical devices made for The Prestige. But Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, JJ Abrams and Bruckheimer himself for that matter probably share his fascination. What sets Nolan apart is the ability to admire a form, but at the same time have the desire and ability to transcend it (Hitchcock, Cronenberg, the Coens, Kubrick and possibly Rian Johnson.) The lock-step precision with which an action movie is supposed to unfold really is a pretty brilliant setting for, and foil to, a personal parable. To go even further, the fact that the audience is watching several layers on the screen, while hopefully several layers of meaning are being elaborated inside their own heads is just delicious. It probably belabors the point to say Nolan is doing to the genre what his characters are tasked with doing to Cillian Murphy’s Fischer, inserting an alien idea that blooms into a self-defeating course of action. A homily to self-expression and individuality, curled up inside the sulcus of a big-money action film about snookering a man into believing he is acting as himself.

Finally, for me, Marion Cotillard’s Mal is one of the most bite-your-own-teeth things in the movie. On the one hand, I see her as the representation of the backward-facing barb in Nolan that refuses to let him churn out ass-in-seat flock, in exactly the same way Mal at every turn attempts to foil the movie’s heist. In this way, Mal represents Nolan’s responsibility to himself to be resolutely an individual in the face of the homogenizing requirements of making action movies.

On the other hand, Mal seems to represent the bottomless dread that creeps around the basement of every creative person. In the film, Mal inhabits the bilgiest level of creation. She is everything totemic, powerful and terrifying about the female capacity to create. Unrestrained, termite-queen production. Taken this way, she (or is that ‘She’?) comes to represent the place from which creativity springs, but also the holy terror creative people reserve for that level of themselves: the irrational, directionless energy they have to harness to their own individuality. The top that spins and spins and spins.

Wonderful wonderful piece!


One Response

  1. Found this cool Inception infographic – whose dream was it anyway?

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