This review is a spoiler-ridden, indepth analysis of what I believe the film must be about. My reviews generally contain spoilers as they are typically intended to be consumed after viewing a film, but I make the distinction here because this film is still in theaters and is heavily dependent upon interpretations and surprises. Not only does this review have many explicit spoilers for Inception, it also has quite a few spoilers for the other movies in Nolan's oeuvre. Consider yourself forewarned.
Christopher Nolan, whose filmography has been a winning streak of clever, thought-provoking, exhilarating films (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight), has made a career of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Since his first low-budget feature film Following in 1998, which exploited the audience's and the characters' lack of knowledge about each character and their circumstances and relationships while pretending to offer the protagonist and the audience intimate insight into the characters' lives, Nolan has had a penchant for fooling viewers into a false sense of security of understanding. What seemed like a fairly straightforward (though inversely told) revenge tragedy about a man seeking justice for his wife's senseless murder in Memento in fact revealed a man ultimately uninterested in justice and morality, seeking merely a worthwhile reason to keep living a worthless life. Insomnia negotiates a shadowy terrain of truths and lies and how each can be used for both good and evil during the investigation of a murder trial where both the culprit and the lawman can be destroyed by a full accounting of the truth, and The Prestige is a mind-bending magic trick, replete with disguises and distractions, about a dedicated magician (Hugh Jackman) who willingly sacrifices his soul for the benefit of his art. At the conclusion of The Dark Knight, the most heroic men in town (Batman, Jim Gordon) conclude that what society needs more than the truth is a truth that sounds good, a truth that will inspire goodness in everyone and help them to make it through the day, even if that truth is an outright fiction. Framing Batman for Harvey Dent's nihilistic revenge crimes, Batman and Gordon successfully imbue the once noble, once handsome freedom fighter with all the heroism that he ultimately failed to possess while simultaneously the butler Alfred keeps Batman's spirit alive by destroying evidence that the love of his life--his reason for living--did not in fact love him anymore.
If Nolan has proven one thing throughout his writing and directing career, it's that he loves a good deception, even if it's a self-deception capable of destroying the humanity and ultimate virtue of an otherwise likable protagonist. All of Nolan's characters, even the smallest bit players, live and breathe with vibrant realness, with believable motivation and interesting quirks (think of Tom Wilkinson's "like a dog" speech in Batman Begins, or Cillian Murphy in the same film, or Michael Caine in The Prestige, the hotel desk clerk in Memento, Robin Williams in Insomnia, or Eric Roberts as the seedy mafioso in The Dark Knight--these were all minor characters who left an impression, who seemed too real to be contained in the confines of the film). He's never lost himself in his plots, even incredibly labyrinthine ones like The Prestige, and he's always had a knack for a skin-tingling reveal (think of the moment when Harvey Dent reveals to Rachel--and to us--that his decisive coin is only one-sided; that he never almost snapped and killed a suspect, but that justice was always on his side... and consider how this important, character-defining revelation comes immediately before one of the most engaging and breathtaking action sequences ever filmed, in which this redeemed man's life is put in dire jeopardy). Nolan is an expert writer, a compelling philosopher, a skillful editor, and a talented storyteller. Even in aspects of filmmaking such as set design--consider the permanently sunlit Nightmute in Insomnia or his dirty Art Deco Gotham in Batman Begins--Nolan is an unquestioned master.
So why, on its surface, does Inception seem like such a lackluster film? Consider the plot. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of Miles Cobb (Michael Caine), an esteemed academic who pioneered a technology that allows multiple people to enter and control the dreams of others. This technology is primarily used by the military for lifelike tactical training sessions, but a handful of artists and criminals also utilize its innovative concepts. Miles Cobb teaches his son everything he knows about the architecture of dreamspace, but this knowledge ultimately proves unprofitable in the real world, so Dom exploits the technology's criminal capabilities: entering the dreams of targets with top secret information in order to unknowingly extract that insider knowledge from their deepest subconscious. It's the corporate spying of the future, and to pull it off, Dom uses a team of skilled professionals, including architects, who build the perplexing dream worlds in which the targets and their subconscious projections (violent, uncontrollable humanoid characters who at any moment can interfere with the extractors' plans or alert the dreamer that he is dreaming) get lost; forgers, chameleons who can convincingly mimic persons from the real world within the dreamspace; and lookouts who guard the sleeping bodies during the dreaming process. The lookout, in addition to keeping the bodies safe from outside interference, is also responsible for administering "kicks," physical cues that awaken the dreamers. Proper timing of the kicks is important both to allow the awoken extractors a chance to make a getaway before the target awakens and to insure that the extractors do not get stuck in the various levels of their dreams.
In the course of his criminal escapades, Dom meets and marries Mal (Marion Cotillard), a sweet, beautiful French woman who is also a skilled extractor. They have two children: Philippa and James. One day they decide to do some recreational experimentation with the dream technology. They enter Mal's dream, then they enter dreams within dreams, and then they enter limbo, "unconstructed dream space," the place where people go when they die in dreams but fail to wake up. (Dying in a dream, it's pointed out early on in the film, typically causes the dreamer to snap awake--but not always.) Within limbo, they build dream homes, skyscrapers, cathedrals, shorelines. They create their perfect version of the universe, and Mal convinces herself that it is reality. Dom, wishing to return to the real world, manages to convince her that their surroundings are a fiction, and after nearly fifty years in limbo (dream time is longer than time in reality, and dream within dream within dream time is exponentially longer), they lie their heads on a train track and commit suicide, finally waking from their long, complicated dream excursion.
Mal, however, becomes convinced that even after awaking she is still in a dream, so she contrives a suicide designed to ensure that Dom will follow her into the final reality. Throwing up legal obstacles that will guarantee a horrible future for Dom if he doesn't enter a suicide pact with her, Mal leaps from a hotel room window and plunges to her death. Dom does not follow, and he is charged with her murder. He flees the country, leaving the kids behind, and spends the next two years desperately searching for a way to be reunited with them. When a powerful Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), offers Dom an opportunity to fix all his mistakes and return to his home and his kids, he leaps at the idea. The task: rather than extract information, he must implant in the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), a corporate heir, that the young man will dissolve his dying father's monopolistic empire. With this mission, known as inception rather than extraction, successfully completed, Saito will make a phone call that will fix everything.
Dom assembles a team that includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a level-headed thinker; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant young architect; Eames (Tom Hardy), a suave forger; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who has developed a powerful sedative for accomplishing previously unreached depths of dream invasion; and Saito, who tags along in order to ensure the mission is successful. Using Yusuf's powerful drug, they sedate Fischer on a first-class transoceanic flight in an airplane secretly owned by Saito. They enter a dream within a dream within a dream, ultimately--and accidentally--plunging into limbo, and with the help of Ariadne's mazes, Arthur's swift action, Dom's thinking, and Eames's ability to impersonate Fischer's loving godfather, they successfully convince Fischer that rather than inherit his father's empire and his unhappy world, he should make a new life for himself and dissolve the family company. In the process, Dom makes amends with a subconscious projection of his dead wife--a violent, crazed phantom he has never been able to let go of.
The inception succeeds with only minor hitches. Saito makes the phone call. Dom enters through customs, and arriving home to Los Angeles for the first time in two years, he reunites with his children, finally seeing the faces he's longed to see. The movie ends.
That's a fair enough movie on the surface--an action-packed heist in a fantastic world guided by strange but consistent rules. A man overcomes his grief and his feelings of guilt surrounding his dead wife. He lets go of the idea that he can ever be with her or fix the fact that she committed suicide, and he moves on into the less-than-perfect yet wholly real world of reality. He chooses life over lies. Not bad, but if this is all the movie has to offer, than it's not a very good movie.
Consider the characters. Whereas Nolan usually crafts such interesting, complex, and convincing characters, the supporting cast in Inception is incredibly flat. Arthur, who has one of the largest roles in the film, is little more than a well-dressed body with a handsome face. He has no back story. How and when did he decide to become a dream thief? What is his motivation for joining in this final criminal caper? Is it merely money? Money is never even mentioned as a payment for success; only the phone call is offered as the reward. Consider Eames, a stereotypical exotic conman, or Saito, a run-of-the-mill "powerful businessman" type who can make all-important phone calls and who has the world wrapped around his finger yet has no emotional motivation and essentially no background. Ariadne is Miles Cobb's star pupil, and Miles Cobb is one of the biggest names in the dream business. Presumably he teaches sleep studies or something along those lines, yet prior to meeting Dom, Ariadne has never even heard of dream invasion. What is this American girl learning at this French school from this British teacher? Actual architecture? Spanish literature? Why does she decide to join these criminals in their dangerous task? What is she as a person beyond a mere means for Nolan to reveal some exposition to the audience? Mal is a psychotic, psychobabeling phantom, but then she's not a real person, so that's acceptable. Aside from Dom, the only character with an inch of depth is Fischer, the young heir tortured by conflicted feelings about his aloof father.
Christopher Nolan spent ten years working on Inception, and works such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were supposedly done only as preparation for this film. Can a man with a perfect batting average, who turns a stepping stone (TDK) into a masterpiece, really misfire so badly with his batting average? Did he really not bother to make any of his characters complex?
Or consider the editing, done by Lee Smith, who also edited Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. He was nominated for an Oscar for the last film, and he was also nominated for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He's a good editor. Editors typically work in conjunction with their directors. So why is the pacing of Inception so muddled? Dom arrives in France from Japan (?) to speak to his father and pick up Ariadne. The next moment he's in Mombasa, Kenya, trying to convince Eames to join his team. They're caught by some spurned business associates, however, and Dom is chased through the labyrinthine city streets while angry pedestrians scowl at him. He tries to hide in a cafe, but the waiter and all the coffeehouse patrons yell at him in undecipherable Swahili (?), so he flees through an impossibly narrow alleyway, only to discover Saito in a town car waiting for him. Saito, who has apparently been following him, saves him from being caught. Cut, and they're in... well, I don't know. Maybe they're still in Mombasa. Maybe they're in Mumbai, India. Maybe they're in Ancient Mystical Asia. They meet Yusuf, a chemist who sells drugs in colorful, nineteenth-century glass vials and who runs an underground sleeping den peopled with bearded Confucians. And then, bam, they're in, I think, Australia, ready to pull off the heist on the plane to California, where Miles Cobb, who was just living and working in France, is somehow there ready to meet Dom as he disembarks, but who didn't bother to bring the kids with him to meet their daddy at the airport.
A lot of confusion. A lot of contradictions. A lot of complicated questions that--while they can easily be resolved and answered--would never have to be asked if the film were simply good.
Or consider the scene in which Mal kills herself at the hotel. Dom enters the room after she has already been there for some time. The place is a mess. Going to the window, Dom looks out and sees her across the way, sitting in an opposing window, ready to jump. Judging from the lighting behind her, that window appears to be part of the same room, meaning that the hotel room they have is a vast, horseshoe-shaped suite that wraps around some sort of small courtyard. Dom leans outside of the opposing window in order to talk to her face to face. You would think he would run through the room to her window in order to pull her back in, but he doesn't. Maybe she's actually rented some separate room and it's not possible for him to reach her, but if she's done that then that'll be a clue against her in her attempt to set him up for her murder. Anyway, they have their tragic talk, she dies, and later he realizes that she filed a letter with a lawyer explaining that he had threatened to kill her and that she had visited three psychiatrists (three!) in order to declare herself sane (what?). In other words, he's screwed. A mysterious, bald man with a nightmare face silently hands him a plane ticket in his living room the next day, and he flees the country. For some reason, though, he can't take his kids with him or arrange for his father to bring them to him. They have to remain in the United States, cared for by a grandmother who is never seen.
Does all of this sound real... or does it seem like a dream? You know how in a dream you can be talking to someone face to face--because that's what you talk to, someone's face--even though it doesn't seem logical that you would be oriented to talk directly to that face if real physical conditions and limitations applied? One can make any number of excuses to explain why Dom is facing Mal when she leaps from their hotel room, but isn't the simplest explanation that he's dreaming, and that talking directly to her face made the most emotional sense at the moment of dreaming?
The whole film is a dream. I stand by that theory. I think the only way to justify the film and the only way to reconcile its seemingly shabby filmmaking with Nolan's genius is to accept that the whole film is a complex, distracting, layered dream. At no point--except maybe in brief glimpses and memories--do we see the actual reality of the film, which consists of a Dom of unspecified age and circumstance either lying in a deep sleep or else in a coma. Maybe his father was based to some degree on a truth from that reality, and maybe Mal was too--but I think the majority of the characters are complete contrivances, which would explain their simplicity. That would also make sense of the film's incoherency.
I think Dom and Mal--in the reality that we pretty much never actually see--were married and grew old together. Dom tells Mal that they grew old together but that she doesn't remember it, and we see a very quick glimpse of an old married couple walking down a street hand in hand. One could assume that this is them at the end of their fifty years in limbo, yet at the end of their fifty years, when they lay their heads on the train tracks, they are as young as they were at the beginning of limbo. They did not physically age in their limbo. So what is this image, which is treated with a degree of authenticity, if not a glimpse of a level of reality we know nothing about? I think that's the truth of the film. I think Mal died. I think Dom, in his grief, entered limbo by himself and, in addition to creating cathedrals and buildings and seaside cliffs, he recreated Mal. He brought her back to life, like Orpheus diving into the underworld to reclaim Eurydice. Orpheus was forbidden from casting his eye on his dead wife until after they had resurfaced, but the temptation was too great. He saw her shade, and she plunged back into Hades, never to be seen again.
Dom goes into limbo and creates his wife, but he can never forget how simple she is in comparison to who his real wife was. She is merely a shade, less complex, less perfect, less imperfect. She is one-dimensional, his creation. Loving her is mere masturbation. Cobb says he plants an inception on Mal--that they will kill themselves and wake up in reality--and he does this by screwing with her totem. But the inception is really committed against himself, an act of self-deception designed to convince him that after dying they will return to a "reality" in which they both exist. This "reality," the reality of the film that I described above, is actually a deeper limbo. But it, too, loses its hold. He forgets that she's fake, but she--as part of his aggressive subconscious--remembers that she's not real and tries to tell him the truth. She kills herself--in a way his mind is trying to save itself from insanity, killing off a false idea--and it's during the suicide that the kids become an important part of his life. He almost seems to invent them at that very moment, using them as a plea for her to stay alive. The kids, offspring of a nonexistent mother, are equally unreal. The film, with its vast distractions and subplots and layers, is a maze designed make Dom completely forget what reality was and surrender completely to the idea that he is in reality, a reality which he manufactured.
Inception works by reducing an idea to its essence, a tiny kernel of resonant, positive emotion. These kernels build upon each other through repetition. First they tell Fischer that his father had an idea about dissolving the business. Then they tell Fischer that he should make something for himself. Then they tell Fischer that his father didn't want him disappearing in his footsteps. With enough repetition, Fischer buys the idea.
Chronologically, the film repeats a line about taking a "leap of faith." Dom, the originator of the line, first tells Mal to make a leap of faith--to believe that they will awaken in reality--when they lie on the train tracks. Mal then tells Dom to take a leap of faith as she kills herself. And finally Saito tells Dom to take a leap of faith--that he is capable of making of phone call that will reunite him with his kids. This final time seals the deal--guaranteeing the inception of the idea that Dom has real kids he can return to.
What's the key clue here? What's the device that fools the audience as well as Dom? The totem. A totem is an object that helps a dream expert to assess his reality. A totem should function in a way that is consistent and yet inconsistent with natural expectation. Arthur has a loaded die that always lands on one side, whereas a normal die would land on all six sides evenly and randomly. Ariadne creates a chess piece that has its center of gravity removed so that instead of sliding like a normal chess piece when pushed, it always topples to one side. Saito has a rug in his apartment that looks like shag and yet is made of synthetic vinyl, thus making it feel completely different. All these totems seemingly betray physics, but they do so in a consistently possible way.
What's the effectiveness of this kind of device? Does it distinguish between A and B, where A is reality and B is a dream? No. It distinguishes between C and D, where C is either 1) reality or 2) a dream created by the dreamer and D is a dream created by another architect. In scenario D, the loaded die would not fall on the correct side (though if the architect knew that the dreamer had a die and were clever enough to assume that the die was loaded, she would have a one in six chance of getting it right, so even then that particular totem is not foolproof). The dreamer would instantly know, it's assumed, he was in a dream world created by some manipulative architect. For example, the crew tries to fool Saito but fails to realize that his rug is synthetic. He touches his rug to his face, knows that the world is not right, and realizes that he is dreaming. In scenario C1 (reality) the loaded die will always land on one side because that's what it physically has to do. In scenario C2 (the dreamer's dream), the die will presumably land on the one side because the dreamer knows that it's a loaded die and knows to make it land that way. (Whether or not that's foolproof is up for debate.)
What is Dom's totem? Well, we don't know. He relies on Mal's totem, which is itself a mistake since part of the effectiveness of a totem is the assurance that you're the only person who has intimate knowledge of it.
So what is Mal's totem? A top. A small metal top. How does it behave differently from the laws of physics? It doesn't! Dom's is the only totem that is expected to behave normally. Supposedly, in a dream the top will spin forever and in reality the top will (like any normal top) eventually stop spinning and topple over. Why? A top naturally falls over. Anyone seeing a top expects it to fall over. If I am an architect trying to deceive Dom, I need merely to create a world with tops that fall down. If I am Dom having a dream that I don't know is a dream, then I will know to make the top fall down. And in reality, the top will of course fall down. When will the top not fall down? When Dom is in a dream and knows that he is in a dream (a frequent occasion). Dom's totem distinguishes between X and Y, where X is a situation in which Dom is in control (a dream he knows is a dream) and Y is all other situations (reality, another person's dream, his own dream that he's being fooled by...). What's the importance of that?
Well, it's important because Dom doesn't seem to realize that. Somewhere along the line he's managed to convince himself that his totem distinguishes between A and B, reality and fantasy. And getting himself to believe that--by planting that spinning top in "Mal's" safe in limbo--he takes the first step in blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. Because he believes it without ever questioning it, the audience readily swallows that conceit. At the end of the film, right before he reunites with his kids, he spins the top. The camera focuses on this top as it spins and spins. It starts to wobble, but before it begins to topple, the film ends and the credits roll. We never see the top fall at the end, which is Nolan's hint to us that we're in a dream. But we know that the top is about to fall, which simply means that Dom has bought into his "reality." As we know, we needn't be in reality for the top to fall, especially when almost every other person in the film knows about the top and many of them have even examined it closely.
But what's even more important about this top? It's that Dom doesn't care. He leaves before he even has a chance to check whether or not it will fall. He sees the faces of his children at the end of the film and at that point nothing else matters. Whether or not he is in reality does not matter to him. He just wants his kids.
And it also doesn't matter whether my interpretation is right or whether the film really is right on the surface level. The intelligence of the film is that it can equally support either claim, and also some interpretations I don't even know about. Viewers who like the film on its surface level--who thought the characters were complex enough, who enjoyed the action sequences, who were touched by the happy ending--are perfectly entitled to enjoy the movie on that level, and they have plenty to support them. Viewers who needed more than that--viewers like me--have enough evidence to support deeper, darker theories. Like a dream, the film is open to endless, equally supportable interpretations. I think it's funny how angrily divergent these two groups are. Some people who insist that the film depicts a reality are truly offended by the idea that the movie might not depict any tangible reality. If we don't have anything firm to grasp onto, then isn't the whole movie meaningless? Dileep Rao in an interview compared people with theories like mine to people who believe that the September 11 attacks were committed by the US government. Do these people forget that the entire film is a work of fiction? Does not having a tangible reality make it less fictional? Is Last Year at Marienbad a terrorist act whereas Mulholland Dr. is merely a threat?
Knowing that there is a Dom Cobb somewhere in the film's world who is alive and capable of all of these dreams, emotions, manipulations, and regrets is enough of a tangible reality for me, and it makes for a better film than one with an unacceptable happy ending, a mishmash of a plot, an ensemble cast with zero characterization, and fairly stale action sequences (in large part because there are no interesting characters to root for and because there is nothing tangible at stake, except some unrealistic phone call). Does Inception need a happy ending when Memento ends with a man deciding to continue on a path of killing people for the wrong reason? The only thing that keeps Shelby alive is his quest to find the man who murdered his wife and mete out revenge. When he realizes that he murdered his own wife and that he's already killed several fake murderers in his quest, yet has forgotten all of it, he decides to continue deluding himself. He doesn't want justice after all; he just wants a reason to live. The people of Gotham, Batman decides, don't need truth and reality, then need likable heroes. In The Prestige, Hugh Jackman allows himself to become part of a horrifying science experiment in order to entertain others and secure his legacy as a magician; but he's no longer a magician playing games, he's a sacrifice repeatedly killing himself.
I didn't enjoy Inception much when I first exited the theater, for all those reasons I criticized its reality, but reconsidering it through the lens of my interpretation, my esteem for it has grown in my mind. Is it an emotional movie? No, though the scenes with Fischer and the closing scenes with Mal and Dom are somewhat touching. Is it a thrilling movie? No, because there's never a strong sense that anything happening on screen really matters. Is it visually appealing? I suppose, though it lacks the cinematographic flair, surreal visuals, and tonal qualities that most dream movies possess. Jeffrey Kurland's spiffy costumes and Hans Zimmer's intense score are both wonderful, but that's the only unequivocal praise I can offer this film.
Is the film smart? Is it a clever Rorschach test and a complex puzzle? Maybe. Or maybe I'm just giving one of my favorite living directors too much credit.
d/w: Christopher Nolan
(Leonardo DiCaprio, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon Levitt)