This post will be in two parts — the first part will be a spoiler-free review, the second an essay of in-depth thoughts and reactions based on a complete, spoiler-laden perspective on the film. Be warned.
Previews and trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Inception have been atmospheric, vague, and beautiful. Marketing copy and later trailers give a vague sketch of the plot outline: DiCaprio is the leader of a group of corporate espionage experts who are tasked to implant an idea inside someone’s dreams.
From the preview materials, the formula seemed to be as such:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind + The Matrix + Dark City. Which had me well-sold right there. The actual result is a science fiction heist movie and psychological thriller, which is even better. I’m a fan of Nolan’s work, especially Memento, The Prestige, and his Batman films.
DiCaprio plays Cobb, a world-class extractor (a thief who goes into people’s dreams and steals their secrets), is part of a crew of dream thieves that include Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, showing good action hero chops), Nash (Lukas Haas) and then later Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusef (Dileep Rao), assembling a dream-team (pun-tastic!) to pull off an Inception. Where extraction involves taking information from a dream, Inception is the process of putting an idea into someone’s dream in such a way that the subject thinks the notion is their own — the idea becomes a meme, replicating itself in their subconscious and then filtering back into their conscious thoughts — Inception, while difficult, can make a change substantial enough that it re-defines a person’s life. High stakes? Check.
The film is visually brilliant (the coolest thing for me was the spinning room, which I hear tell was a practical effect with a full rotating set — major awesome), with shifting and crumbling dreamscapes, unrelenting and powerful music from Hans Zimmer, and nuanced performances from the impressive cast.
This is the kind of movie that you need to see unspoiled, then go outside the theatre with your friends and discuss for two hours. And I love those kinds of movies. Inception is my vote for best movie of 2010 (so far).
And now, the spoiler-tastic bits:
That ending. Wow. There’s a wobble of the top, but the scene cuts before you can see if it’s going to fall, and then there’s the Kick of the music and you wonder “wait, was the whole movie a dream?”
There’s a lot of ways to react to the ending, and for me, it’s another example of an open-to-interpretations ending that I like (there are many of those that I don’t like).
My current pet theory is that the whole film’s narrative was a job by Mal to pull Cobb out of the dream layer she escaped when she committed ‘suicide’ — Cobb was held back by his guilt, so she needed to go back into his dreams and concoct a story capable of convincing him to forgive himself for the Inception he did to her when they were in Limbo.
It’s not hard then to re-interpret Ariadne (as in Ariadne, the Minoan princess who provides the hero Theseus with the artifact/anchor that helps him find his way back out of the maze, yeah.) as Mal pulling the same style of forgery in which Eames specialized. Which is amusing since Mal (Cobb’s subconscious version of her at least) is also the Minotaur for his dream-Labyrinth, constantly hunting him. Mal as Ariadne then explains why she’s so insistent on pushing Cobb into his issues, why she cares so much about what’s going on with his dream-Mal (how weird would it be to watch your spouse’s subconscious construct of yourself?). Ariadne was a talented Architect, which wouldn’t be hard for Mal to do, considering the training she and Cobb shared. Following that logic, up to the entire Inception group (including Murphy’s character) can be seen as part of Mal’s team, all working to create a maze and puzzle intricate enough to challenge Cobb sufficiently to generate the catharsis that could pull him out of the dream that he couldn’t accept as a dream. It’s a fantastic long con and I loved watching it unfold even before I came to this reading.
Either Fischer’s family reconciliation was a part of the con (echoing Cobb’s own issues with his father-in-law in their argument about Cobb becoming his own man using the skills he learned) or it was Fischer pulling the group into his issues like Ariadne said Cobb was pulling them into his.
Arthur then can either be a projection of Cobb’s subconscious (a Super-Projection?), his Superego (explaining the anal-retentiveness and seeming lack of emotion), or another one of Mal’s crew, possibly including Mal’s father (the Michael Caine character).
The ending is open-ended, and with the wobble of the top, we can choose to view the end as the real world, that Cobb has forgiven himself and re-connected with his children and can move on. Or we can see the whole film narrative as a con designed to prep Cobb for the last Kick to bring him back to Mal and the real world. And either way, the movie (for me) is emotionally satisfying. If the Inception con was part of Mal’s plan, then the film could even invite a sequel, where Mal and Co. have to go back in to bring Cobb out (if he doesn’t notice the top and/or their Kick doesn’t work).
The fact that there’s a big musical Kick in the credits is a fun meta-narrative nod, gesturing at the fact that watching a movie is not unlike plunging into a dream, and that the credits then are the Kick that brings us back into our own worlds.
My perception filter was totally off-kilter for a couple hours after the movie, further testament to its emotional/psychological impact. If Nolan doesn’t get an original screenplay Oscar nomination, I will punch the world.