so… by now, everyone and their dog has already seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception (my poodle was not a fan, as her small but adorably fluffy dog brain doesn’t really allow her to form the complex thoughts required to enjoy even an ill-conceived Christopher Nolan film such as The Dark Knight), and has an opinion of both its value and its meaning. but not everyone and their dog has a blog through which to share said opinion (my poodle only has a twitter account). unfortunately for us all, i have both. so here’s my take on this whole shebang... it's not a review so much as my own reading of the film. having said that, i implore you only to read on if you’ve seen it. and if you haven’t seen Inception… see Inception.
so, perhaps it was chud’s devin faraci who most eloquently presented the reading that Inception is all a dream, and that “reality” - such as it is - is never visited in the film. i share this approach for the most part, but with the benefit of seeing the film after reading his piece, i think i’ve found some of the hard-ish supporting evidence his piece omitted, and in turn arrived at an understanding that deviates from his theory in one major way. so read the following with faraci’s piece in mind… as i begin with the assumption that the entire film is not “reality,” and that i find that the film’s editing, shot selection (that whole Mombassa sequence is so telling… the tail is a projection, and check out the top-down shot… a maze of streets that look remarkably similar to ariadne’s designs) and characterizations support that argument.
so… yes, the entire film is a dream. but it’s not. it’s not a dream like you dream or i dream - it’s a dream like an extractor dreams. this is a key distinction. faraci and others posit that this is simply a random firing of neurons that the brain (a.k.a. the camera or chris nolan) is hurrying to whip into coherence, but i find that inherently dissatisfying, as cobb’s journey is too immaculately precise and self-serving (his need to let go so perfectly fills the cracks of the Fisher mission)… too constructed… too much the result of a guiding hand (a screenwriter or… an architect) to be random. i understand that nolan is presenting dreams as he understands them rather than as they are physiologically, but the ironies and conveniences of cobb’s descent (cobb’s epiphany in limbo has the exact same staged feeling as fisher’s engineered breakthrough) transgress any sort of suspension of disbelief… i mean, they do for me, and i write a blog called “the ecstatic truth,” so i’m not exactly the type who mines imdb for continuity errors. i just feel that this reading makes the film a hell of a lot more interesting. faraci posits that the film gets tremendous milage from the notion that what happens in a dream is just as valid and significant as what happens in real life, but shouldn’t that hold doubly true if the dreamer has a tragic personal and professional history that confirms that idea? cobb - for all intents and purposes - lost his wife down in a dream, and thus the film begins with the implicit understanding that dream-space is a place of tremendous consequence… that its unreal qualities are precisely the cause of its real world consequences… cobb knows this, and his team knows it too.
so i’ll bring in a somewhat common notion that the entire film is the process by which Cobb is being incepted with the idea that he has to let go. my spin on the matter is that he is the company’s best architect, and he can no longer create dreams because the wraith of his ex-wife subverts and destroys anything he designs. thus, they risk life and psyche to plumb his mind and free him from his dead love. of course, given cobb’s familiarity with the extraction process, his mind would be nearly impenetrable… dude does this for a living. so what’s the only solution? the only way to prevent cobb from understanding that he’s in a dream? to use his knowledge as the cornerstone of their operation and to have him inadvertently incept himself while ostensibly attempting to incept someone else. so to finish the thought left hanging by the previous paragraph, if cobb’s woes can only be corrected by plunging him into a deep SHARED dream, doesn’t that compliment Devin’s initial analogy and take it a compelling step further? a movie that is a dream is no less “real” than any other projected moving image, and either interpretation supports that claim. however, if cobb is someone who ALREADY KNOWS THAT as a result of his profession but is STILL BAMBOOZLED by the compelling nature and careful construction of the illusions presented to him… he becomes that much more like any experienced moviegoer, who enters the cinema armed with the knowledge that they’ve asked to be entreated into fantasy - that they’ve exchanged $13 - $20 for a rapid-fire succession of lies.
so yeah… below i flesh out my approach a bit, but understand that although i believe that there is relatively hard evidence as to the idea that the entire film is a dream, the circumstances of that dream are unprovable. i happen to find a certain credence in my understanding, and - more importantly - believe that this interpretation best rounds the film’s edges… this is how my (sub)conscious most contentedly fills out the nooks and crannies left untended by nolan’s framework. so while this treads perilously close to fan fiction, methinks that Inception’s insistence that we all collectively fill its holes with our own logic is the closest the film ever cleaves to dreams as they exist in the real world.
the moment they get on the plane, Cobb’s crew performs an enormous mr. charles on their fearless leader. but the trick is that they’re already a dream deeper than cobb thinks… which of course mirrors Fisher’s understanding when he’s told he’s in a dream on the 2nd level… and the two characters have a parallel journey from there on down. because of their thorough understanding of cobb’s psychological state, the architect of THE MOVIE is able to make subversive use of his totem. while i’d argue that it doesn’t matter whether or not the top falls in the final shot so much as that cobb is free to walk away from it, i’d also argue that it doesn’t matter if it falls because the object’s physics have been determined by an unseen designer… much like the rug in saito’s bathroom, the top’s properties are at the discretion of another mind, and those properties can change at will depending on the dream level.
in my reading of the film, i’d suggest that cobb can’t meet anyone in his dream that he knows in real life… thus meaning that ariadne is a construct of some kind, which would help to explain her flatly curious nature. the rest of the crew are his co-workers, and saito is probably also saito in reality… a guy who needs cobb fixed so that cobb can perform a major job for him.
now… the beginning of the film. its order. the beginning of the film is NOT limbo. think of Inception like the Prestige… think of the hats and michael caine’s narration. classic bit of misdirection. there are many differences between the limbo in the beginning of the film and how it’s presented in the idea… the delivery of the dialogue and the positioning of the actors… all slightly different. we see the film in chronological order. the “limbo” in the beginning is simply the design of the dream… the tease of the prestige… the key to eventually convincing cobb of the veracity of his predicament when he’s trapped in limbo with cobb at the end. it’s a trail of breadcrumbs. it’s a failsafe so that neither forgets that they’re in limbo. it’s why when cobb and saito are ostensibly having this conversation for the first time in the warehouse in the first of fisher’s dreams that it seems as if they’re parroting a half-remembered conversation back at one another… as if they’ve remembered their cues.
so back to the beginning. the architecture of the dream changes and suddenly everyone is young. but the setting couldn’t be any more familiar to cobb… he’s on a job, and there’s Mal… as could be expected at this point. but who says Mal is his projection? maybe she’s there just to CONVINCE Cobb that she is her projection… because if she’s there, it’s the most incontrovertible evidence that he is on a job and that she is interfering. maybe this is really the mr. charles… proving to Cobb that he’s in a dream but telling him that that’s okay because it’s not his dream - it’s work. from that point on he’s in the very capable hands of arthur and eames and the rest… all playing their part in the deception / inception.
it’s not a provable theory… but if my choices are either this or that it’s a random dream / he’s in an insane asylum (gag) or whatever else… this is the most compelling interpretation for me, and the one that best reinforces the themes that many of us can all agree the film is exploring. i’m never one to give chris nolan more credit than he’s due, but methinks that if this film is to be celebrated for its failings (i think of the limp James Bond sequence), then its manifold success… the rope it may even inadvertantly give the audience to go all Christian Metz and fittingly arrive at their own very real conclusions… should not be overlooked.
and… okay, i’m getting tired, now. there’s a lot more to explore, and i need you and / or a 3rd viewing to do it at the moment. sorry. cop out. devin gets paid for this, i don’t, so… when i gotta cut and run uptown, this is what you get.
p.s. good movie. very good movie. hopefully another step for nolan and not his final destination… so sad that he has to waste another 2 years in the prime of his career on another fucking batman movie. so no matter your interpretation, Inception is a tragedy of time lost. nolan - when freed from the constraints of gotham city - makes great hedge mazes and then invites the viewer to play the role of minotaur, and it’s seldom been this much fun.
p.p.s. how good is hans zimmer’s “Time?”