Where This Meets That
Each of Christopher Nolan’s films wrestle with some notion of identity. In his breakthrough 2000 film Memento, Nolan’s anti-hero obsessively seeks to identify his wife’s killer to exact revenge, even without fully understanding his own identity. Nolan compounds the puzzle of identity in his magician-based morality tale The Prestige, by using masterful sleight of hand techniques to transform the film itself into a trick for the audience.
Nolan’s latest film, Inception, continues this legacy. My analysis below assumes that you’ve seen it already. Roger Ebert describes Inception as “a movie immune to spoilers,” but I still recommend that you not read this until you’ve seen it. If nothing else, my review might scare you away from seeing this must-see movie.
Inception is Nolan’s most ambitious film yet and boasts the tagline, “Your mind is the scene of the crime.” My second viewing confirmed (for me) that this tagline is not simply a catchy line teasing the film’s basic idea but instead speaks directly to your mind, as the viewer. Through sleight of hand techniques reminiscent of The Prestige, Nolan commits a crime in the viewer’s mind, or at least a clever ruse. Because we see the story through the eyes of Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), our focus is drawn to the inception he is perpetrating on Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his struggle with guilt over his wife Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) death; we are blinded to the real inception that being perpetrated, the one being performed on Cobb.
From the time we meet him as a castaway in the opening scene, Cobb is lost. He is a skilled extractor (idea thief), but he is a lost soul, exiled from everything he loves: his children, his wife, and his home. Even his expert grip on dream manipulation is slipping because of the emotional baggage he bears from believing himself responsible for Mal’s suicide.
Not much makes sense in Cobb’s life, and Nolan’s crafting of the plot prevents the viewer from realizing how little sense so much of it makes. Put another way, many aspects of the film make sense in the context of the moment but fall apart when the film ends and the dream collapses. For example, Cobb’s sentence for allegedly murdering Mal is . . . exile? Also strange is how Cobb appears all over the world but never appears to travel, except on the plane ride that is directly critical to his mission.
He is chased and shot at frequently, but in the settings that are portrayed as his baseline reality, such as the scene in Mombasa, the motives of his pursuers are unclear and their aim conveniently awful. Further, Nolan makes expert use of the deux ex machina plot device, such as when Saito inexplicably shows up to rescue Cobb in the alleyway in Mombasa. As a rule, a filmmaker uses this device as a form of “cheating,” taking the audience to the edge of hopelessness, only to introduce some wildly unrealistic path to salvation at the last minute (see the original War of the Worlds, 24, or Toy Story 3 for great examples); however, in Inception Nolan uses it as a clue to reveal that nothing in the film is real, as demonstrated by the Saito example above.
Important details required to sell elements as “real” in the film universe are glossed over, such as a lack of explanation for how the dream-sharing device works and why random people (i.e., the boy on the train or the flight attendant) are able to operate it. Cobb explains these types of occurrences only in the context of dreams, noting that, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
There are many prisms through which Inception can be viewed. Many viewers accept and enjoy the film at face value, that there is a depicted baseline reality for Cobb and that the time-lapse between the different dream layers truly is predictable in the film’s universe. In contrast, many critical reviewers of the film have held this “face value” plot as a ho-hum tragic flaw with the film. As one reviewer puts it, “[Inception is] the most arid and depressing depiction of the dream state I’ve ever encountered. There are no surreal images or nonsense dialogue, no illogical shifts of scene . . ..”
And yet there are. City streets explode like popcorn and fold upon themselves like rugs; a locomotive barrels through rush hour traffic; certain lines are repeated at different moments in the film by different characters or in different contexts. In short, Inception is possibly the most Escherian film ever made.
I will agree that there is a fairly clear order to the depicted dream states, and there is cohesion in the mission across those dreams. The film is, after all, depicting expert lucid dreamers focused on a single stated mission. Considering that, however, even their neatly calculated itineraries get thrown off track by several unplanned occurrences.
In other words, just because the film states that it’s all supposed to work a certain way doesn’t mean it actually does. That the film plays on our trust of its organization, even under a “dream” premise, is a large part of its genius, but where its organization falls apart is where the real story takes place.
Enter Ariadne, played by Ellen Page. Her name comes from Greek mythology where she helps a heroic Theseus to slaughter the Minotaur then escape the beast’s intricate labyrinth to freedom. Similarly, Ariadne in Inception helps Cobb come to grips with his buried guilt and regain his freedom to navigate through the labyrinth of his dreams to hold his children again.
Miles, Cobb’s father-in-law and mentor (Michael Caine), first introduces Ariadne to Cobb after pleading with him to “come back to reality.” She is Miles’ star architecture student, whom he boasts is even better than Cobb was. As Cobb trains her, he notes that he’s never seen anyone pick up dream manipulation faster than she. During one early training session, she flanks him with massive, mirrored doors that she sets to reflect against each other into infinity with Cobb in the middle. Cobb is visibly unsettled by what he sees, namely himself reflected in countless illusory realities. Nolan employs a subtle wrinkle in this scene by not including Ariadne in any of the reflections, despite her position between the two mirrors with Cobb. Here Ariadne is clearly in control and places the emphasis squarely on Cobb, instead of where the film makes us believe it is, on Ariadne the student.
From there, she attaches to Cobb like a conscience, growing as a director for him over the course of the film. In fact, Ariadne takes such an interest in Cobb’s underlying issues that we should be more curious as to her real role. She aptly tells him at one point, “As we go deeper into Fischer, we are also going deeper into you.” And there, Ariadne saves the core mission and also facilitates Cobb’s ultimate metanoia.
As in Memento, where Nolan’s structure allows the audience to share Leonard Shelby’s confusion, Inception ties us to Cobb’s confusion. His attention is so focused on the red herring of his own mission and his obsessive guilt over Mal’s death that he fails to detect the inception on himself. Because of this, we can see only the various “tools of the trade” that Cobb’s team uses to accomplish the inception on Fischer, such as shape-shifting (called forgery) and emotional manipulation, as used to leverage the strained Fischer father-son relationship. Thus, we can never be sure what level of manipulation is being waged on Cobb, though presumably these tools are, at a minimum.
For example, it’s perfectly feasible that Saito is a forgery, a device to manipulate Cobb toward his own inception. Saito knows quite a lot about dream manipulation, as demonstrated by the way he lures Cobb into the mission via a “dream-audition” that Cobb himself fails to detect. By notable contrast, while Cobb is fooled by the real purpose of his attempted extraction on Saito, Saito is keenly able to detect when Cobb has imposed an intricate dream world on him.
While Saito is depicted to only be Cobb’s client, he takes an unexpectedly active role in the mission by rescuing Cobb from his shoot-out in Mombasa, single-handedly overriding Fischer’s usual mode of travel when he must travel to his father’s funeral, and, finally, bearing the wound that descends him to limbo and forces Cobb to follow. The latter example, in tandem with Ariadne’s influence, takes Cobb deep enough into his own subconscious to allow him to resolve his emotional exile from Mal and thus return to his children.
So, the obvious question in the end is, who is behind the inception on Cobb? Is it Miles, Cobb’s father-in-law who tries to talk sense into him in the “real world”? He is identified as the mastermind behind Cobb’s approach to dream manipulation, and he also wants his grandchildren to have their father back. Neither Saito nor Ariadne would appear to have any motivation to see Cobb come “back to the light,” despite their key roles in bringing him back, which suggests that either or both of them could be forgeries.
The case could also be made that Mal is behind it. As stated above, we share Cobb’s perspective; it’s not 100% clear that he is correct even that Mal is truly dead or that he knows what reality is anymore. His projected Mal points to this when she interrogates Cobb during their final conversation, saying, “No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces. The way the projections persecute the dreamer. Admit it. You don’t believe in one reality any more.” This hearkens back to Cobb’s dismay with Ariadne’s mirrors; which reflection is actually real for Cobb? How can he be absolutely certain?
Mission accomplished, he awakens back on the plane, everyone’s satisfied with a job well done. Most importantly, Fischer, seems quite introspective with some new thought. Saito promptly makes the one phone call that will release Cobb from his exile. Cobb makes it through Customs with no problem and exits the terminal to see Miles, cheerfully and inexplicably waiting for him. Here, Nolan uses a seamless jump cut that makes it seems as though the two leave the terminal and walk directly into the memory of Cobb’s last time seeing his kids. He spins the totem to gauge whether it was a dream or not, and upon seeing his kids faces again, he ceases to care.
The film leaves us wondering, but Cobb has made peace and has forgotten to care. As Mal had accused him, he no longer believes in one reality, so he must make the best reality his own.
As I watched Inception the second time around, I kept thinking that it is one of the most perfect movies I’ve ever seen. It is intelligent and clever, a puzzle that rejects passive viewing. It is genuine art as film in that there is no clear cut, correct interpretation.
I’ve tried my best here to keep things focused on my case for the stated inception being a cover for a more subtle inception that represents a great deception for the audience. I’ve only scratched the surface on notable elements of the film. When I watched The Prestige, I was totally suckered by Nolan’s tricky structuring. In Memento, he keeps telling us to “Remember Sammy Jankis,” and ultimately Jankis’s story was the story. I think Nolan is doing the same thing with Inception, and I can’t wait for my third viewing!