Me, After Watching Inception
As an oblique tribute to the bravura final hour of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (we’re off to a pretentious start, aren’t we), this review will unfold across three separate planes of consciousness. First, we’ll take a brief look at the film for those of you who have not seen and it and want to stay as in the dark about the movie as possible (me on Friday). Then I’ll go a little more in-depth but avoid giving away anything major. Finally, there’ll be a section for you to read after you’ve seen the movie. So, with that in mind, let’s take a heavy sedative, plug into some kind of weird briefcase, and get going.
ALMOST TOTALLY SPOILER-FREE
In short, Inception is worth seeing. It is sophisticated and smart but not alienatingly so. The film draws you into a world that is both completely foreign yet totally immersive and it does so slowly and piece by piece. Inception won’t hold your hand, but it knows how strange it is and the vast majority of the running time is devoted to somehow explaining new elements of its world. This makes sense since, even for the characters, what they’re doing is somewhat new and very experimental. Even leaving aside the eye-popping special effects, it is a ridiculously fun movie to watch and puzzle out. And yet I’m concerned that the puzzle is all there is to Inception. It is a brainy movie, to be sure, but Nolan’s cold, logical distance is especially pronounced here and it may not serve the material. And yet, I go back and forth on it, since the world is so imaginative and the filmmaking is so assured, that I’m not even 100 percent sure I missed that emotional connection. Either way, Inception is a film that deserves your time and money as soon as possible. Now, I’m going to talk about the movie in less vague terms, but there still won’t be any major spoilers.
SOME SPOILERS BUT NOTHING MAJOR
Inception is really a high-concept heist film set within the architecture of the mind. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a thief who breaks into people’s minds when they’re asleep and then steals their secrets. However, he is haunted by past tragedy and wanted for an (at first) undisclosed crime that prevents him from going home and seeing his children. A very powerful man (Ken Watanabe) offers him a chance at a clean record and a trip home in exchange for one last heist. But instead of stealing an idea, DiCaprio and his team (including Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) must go deep into the mind of their mark to plant an idea: a process called inception.
Nolan wisely keeps the film grounded in the tropes and structure of the heist film, which means no matter how weird the science fiction gets you still have some idea of what’s going on. But he also methodically takes his time in explaining the rules and concepts of entering and manipulating dreams. On the one hand, this should be totally inert storytelling; literally 65-70% of the movie is exposition. And yet, it works for two reasons. First, Nolan provides candy-coating for all the exposition with some truly mind-blowing visuals. If you’ve seen the previews, you know we’re talking about matter exploding, city blocks folding on top of each other, and crumbling cityscapes. But also, this is just a fascinating world to explore and the ideas he’s playing with are so cool that it is just fascinating to see how they work. The movie knows its audience is smart, but it also wants us to understand what’s going on, so it is willing to take its time to make sure we understand what we need to know.
But the heist structure and general braininess is also emotionally isolating. Except for DiCaprio, everyone is playing archetypes, which doesn’t leave them with a lot of room for creating individuals. DiCaprio’s relationship with his dead wife, played by Marion Cotillard, is meant to provide that but except for the first scene, where Cotillard is playing more of a film noir femme fatale type character, their scenes together never totally work. The end should have been more impactful than it was, but I’m not sure if it was a weakness of the characters, the writing, or myself. Maybe there’s just so much other stuff going on that is so amazing that those scenes slowed me down too much.
Also, for a film set almost entirely in the subconscious, there are an awful lot of rules and order. This is the most common complaint about the film: that the dreams don’t feel very dreamlike. I definitely saw that in the snow-base setting that comes up at the end, but it also sort of makes sense since I think part of what the team is trying to do is impose some sort of order onto something as chaotic as dreaming. One of the ideas Nolan is playing with here is the mental border between reason and emotion and whether it is possible to keep them separate or turn one against the other.
On a pure filmmaking level, Inception is pretty astounding, nowhere more so than its showy last hour, which is essentially one long, sustained cross-cutting sequence that mixes in a Roger Moore-era Bond-esque assault on a base, a car chase, and a zero-gravity fight all of which make perfect sense. As a storyteller, Nolan avoids any sort of “gotcha!” twist that would cheapen the film. There are many layers to the story and the film peels them all back in a way that is consistently surprising, but doesn’t require cheating or cheap twist-making. But ultimately I’m not sure if I totally understand what Nolan is trying to do here. My concern is that I do because if that is the case then Inception doesn’t really add up to much more than a thoroughly entertaining puzzle; a pleasure to solve but lacking the depth of ideas or humanity of Memento, The Prestige, or The Dark Knight.
But either way, I’d like to go a little further into the puzzle, so at this point, if you haven’t seen Inception, put down this article and save the rest for after the movie. Or better yet, close off this page, go see Inception immediately, and then return again later, thus increasing our page views. We blogger types take what we can get.
TOTAL, MOVIE RUINING SPOILERS FOLLOW. ABANDON HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE
Seriously, if you haven’t seen Inception, stop reading right now.
All right, so there’s a few things I want to talk about in a little more detail. First of all, the physics of the kick. To wake up from the dreams, they need to be dropped, and the further down they go the more they need to be simultaneously dropped. So why doesn’t Joseph Gordon Levitt wake up when the van hits the barrier? Shouldn’t that have been the kick for him? Or would he also have had to drop in the dream, because that doesn’t make a lot of sense either (in the first scene, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio fell into water, then in the dream the room filled with water, and then he woke up). Since it was Gordon-Levitt’s dream, when the van hit the barrier why didn’t he feel like he was falling and then wake up?
Also, of all the awesome imagery, the one that still haunts me is the image of the top spinning and spinning in the safe (when DiCaprio explains what he did to Cotillard). That image, more than any of the more directly emotional stuff before or after it, is the climax of the film. That’s the moment where we understand what he did to her and he is so haunted. And sure there’s voiceover, but its really unnecessary, because just seeing the top spinning in the safe is enough. But the reason it is enough is because we understand its meaning thanks to the fact that the movie has done such a good job of explaining to us, piece-by-piece. Separated from the context of the movie, that shot means nothing. However, after learning about inception, extraction, dreamers, architects, and limbo, that shot is moving and poignant and sad and kind of mindblowing.
What about the very ending? It felt very rushed, didn’t it? By speeding through everyone waking up on the plane and Leo getting back to his kids, it definitely felt to me like an ending that was happy enough to satisfy people looking for a happy ending, but with enough wrong to undercut that idea. At least, that’s what I thought until we got to that killer last shot. In addition to calling back to the top spinning in the safe (and the other top spinning scenes too, but especially the one that’s all about planting the idea of whether or not our world is real) he ends it by cutting to black before we find out whether it toppled or not (although, that said, he could have kept that shot going for an hour and cut to black and it would still be possible for it to topple, right?). My guess: that by shooting themselves (instead of falling and activating the kick), Leo and Ken Watanabe send themselves down into a further dream level, one where they can each build their own happy ending. Either way, one of the greatest extra-cinematic moments ever was sitting in a crowded theater on opening weekend and hearing everyone around me groan or yell “no” or somehow viscerally react to the last shot.
I think that reaction is exactly right; the most satisfying ending is the ambiguous one. Because Inception is really about how elusive and unknowable the concept of reality is. In the end, no one can know for sure that their reality is “real,” totem or no. What matters about the last 15 minutes (or the whole thing for that matter) isn’t figuring out a theory about what was real (although that is fun). What matters is that we don’t know and we can never know. What about the fact the kids haven’t aged? What about the fact that DiCaprio is chased around by men in suits through a very dreamlike landscape in what was supposed to be the real world? How can we ever know what is real? More than making a heist film, a dream film, or a sci-fi film, Nolan has made a film that breaks into your mind and plants a simple idea: how can you ever know that your world is real. It is a film of ideas and ambition, and it can be enjoyed as a simple thrill ride or a more philosophical, thought-provoking work.
Jonah’s Score: 77
Michael’s Score: 94
TUIW Grade: A