On Inception

Inception is a really good film involving dreams, allegories, like a wildly ingenious chess game. The ending is particularly of relevance as according to Screen Rant‘s article, “Inception Ending Explained“:

There are a ton of theories being tossed around the Internet about the ending of Inception, the two biggest debates being whether Cobb was still in a dream or did he in fact return to his children in the “real world.”

The ending of Inception is meant to leave you thinking and questioning the nature of reality. The important question is not “Is Cobb still dreaming?” – What is important is the fact that the character of Cobb goes from being a guy who is obsessed with “knowing what’s real” to ultimately being a person who stops questioning and accepts what makes him truly happy as what’s real.

But people want more concrete answers than that, so here you go:

After two viewings I can tell you that from the moment that Cobb and Saito (seem to) wake up from limbo, Nolan very purposefully shifts the film into an ambiguous state that leaves it somewhat open to the viewer’s perception and interpretation of that perception – two big themes of the movie, coincidentally enough.

From the moment Cobb and Saito wake, there is no more dialogue between the characters and few shots or images that would concretely explain or prove one interpretation. Is Cobb still dreaming and his team and family (and maybe Saito) are all projections? Or is it the job completed, everyone is back in reality and everything is happily ever after? There are a few pieces of “evidence” that we can certainly address:

  • Was Saito truly powerful enough to make one phone call and end Cobb’s problems or was that just Cobb in limbo projecting his subconscious wish to go home? You can argue logistics all you want, but if it’s said that Saito is a powerful and wealthy man (he bought a whole airline on a whim), then there’s reason enough to infer that he could bend the legal system for Cobb. Rich powerful people bend laws all the time.
  • Is there something up with that immigration agent or is he just an immigration agent?After two viewings, the conclusion should be that the immigration guy is just a guy. If he’s staring at Cobb, it’s because his job is to look people over and scrutinize them. Would you want immigration letting people through without face-to-face scrutiny?
  • Did Cobb’s father (Michael Caine) arrange to meet him at the airport or is he there because he’s Cobb’s projection? At this point we’re reading way too much into things. There is a phone on the plane, so Cobb could’ve easily arranged for pickup. This was also an intricate plan they were hatching, so arranging for airport pickup would probably be on the to-do list.
  • In early dream scenes Cobb is wearing a wedding band that doesn’t appear in the “real world” scenes or the end scenes in the airport – does that mean the ending is “reality?” Details like that are certainly strong evidence that there is a real world and that Cobb does live in it at times – such as when he isn’t wearing a wedding band.
  • Does the fact that Cobb uses Mal’s totem mean it doesn’t work as a totem and therefore he never knows if he’s in reality or not? Again, we’re reading a little too deep into things. The only people who know the weight and feel of that totem are Mal and Cobb, and since Mal is dead, Cobb is the only one left who knows the totem’s tactile details. So yes, he could certainly use it as a measure of reality, the totem was not “ruined” by him using it.
  • At the end, Cobb’s kids seem to be the same age and are seemingly wearing the same clothes as they were in his memory of them – is it “proof” he’s still dreaming? As carefully documented by our own Vic Holtreman, at the end of the film Cobb’s kids are wearing similar outfits to the ones he remembers, but their shoes are different. As for their ages: if you check IMDB, there are actually two set of actors credited with playing Cobb’s kids. The daughter, Phillipa, is credited as being both 3 and 5 years old, while the son, James, is credited as being both 20 months and 3 years old. This suggests that while it might be subtle, there is a difference between the kids in Cobb’s memories and the kids Cobb comes home to. That would suggest the homecoming is in fact “reality.” But feel free to debate that.
  • Will the spinning top keep spinning or was it about to fall over just before Nolan cut to black? Sorry, we will never know for sure, although it does start to wobble and it is never shown doing that in the dream world. Each of us will take away a guess – kind of the point of that final shot.

At the beginning of the film, after the first job Cobb’s team tries to pull on Saito, we see Cobb sitting in his hotel room alone, spinning the top and watching it intently, gun in hand. This is a guy who is ready to blow his brains out if the top keeps spinning, in order to “wake himself up.” That’s how obsessed and paranoid he’s become.

Throughout the film, Cobb continues to obsess about spinning the top and verifying reality – however, at the end of movie, he spins the top and walks away from it before he can verify if it stops spinning or not. His kids come running in and Cobb couldn’t care less about about the top or “true reality” or extraction/inception anymore. He just wants to be with his children, in whatever place he can be with them. That emotional connection and desire is “reality” enough for him.

In the end, Cobb walking away from the top is a statement in itself that also completes the arc of his character. In a way, the movie is its own maze designed to plant a simple little idea in the viewer’s mind: “reality” is a relative concept.

UPDATE: Christopher Nolan himself has endorsed our interpretation of Inception‘s ending.

According to Roger Ebert:

It’s said that Christopher Nolan spent ten years writing his screenplay for “Inception.” That must have involved prodigious concentration, like playing blindfold chess while walking a tight-wire. The film’s hero tests a young architect by challenging her to create a maze, and Nolan tests us with his own dazzling maze. We have to trust him that he can lead us through, because much of the time we’re lost and disoriented. Nolan must have rewritten this story time and again, finding that every change had a ripple effect down through the whole fabric.

The story can either be told in a few sentences, or not told at all. Here is a movie immune to spoilers: If you knew how it ended, that would tell you nothing unless you knew how it got there. And telling you how it got there would produce bafflement. The movie is all about process, about fighting our way through enveloping sheets of reality and dream, reality within dreams, dreams without reality. It’s a breathtaking juggling act, and Nolan may have considered his “Memento” (2000) a warm-up; he apparently started this screenplay while filming that one. It was the story of a man with short-term memory loss, and the story was told backwards.

Like the hero of that film, the viewer of “Inception” is adrift in time and experience. We can never even be quite sure what the relationship between dream time and real time is. The hero explains that you can never remember the beginning of a dream, and that dreams that seem to cover hours may only last a short time. Yes, but you don’t know that when you’re dreaming. And what if you’re inside another man’s dream? How does your dream time synch with his? What do you really know?

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a corporate raider of the highest order. He infiltrates the minds of other men to steal their ideas. Now he is hired by a powerful billionaire to do the opposite: To introduce an idea into a rival’s mind, and do it so well he believes it is his own. This has never been done before; our minds are as alert to foreign ideas as our immune system is to pathogens. The rich man, named Saito (Ken Watanabe), makes him an offer he can’t refuse, an offer that would end Cobb’s forced exile from home and family.

Cobb assembles a team, and here the movie relies on the well-established procedures of all heist movies. We meet the people he will need to work with: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his longtime associate; Eames (Tom Hardy), a master at deception; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a master chemist. And there is a new recruit, Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant young architect who is a prodigy at creating spaces. Cobb also goes to touch base with his father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine), who knows what he does and how he does it. These days Michael Caine need only appear on a screen and we assume he’s wiser than any of the other characters. It’s a gift.

But wait. Why does Cobb need an architect to create spaces in dreams? He explains to her. Dreams have a shifting architecture, as we all know; where we seem to be has a way of shifting. Cobb’s assignment is the “inception” (or birth, or wellspring) of a new idea in the mind of another young billionaire, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s empire. Saito wants him to initiate ideas that will lead to the surrender of his rival’s corporation. Cobb needs Ariadne to create a deceptive maze-space in Fischer’s dreams so that (I think) new thoughts can slip in unperceived. Is it a coincidence that Ariadne is named for the woman in Greek mythology who helped Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth?

Cobb tutors Ariadne on the world of dream infiltration, the art of controlling dreams and navigating them. Nolan uses this as a device for tutoring us as well. And also as the occasion for some of the movie’s astonishing special effects, which seemed senseless in the trailer but now fit right in. The most impressive to me takes place (or seems to) in Paris, where the city literally rolls back on itself like a roll of linoleum tile.

Protecting Fischer are any number of gun-wielding bodyguards, who may be working like the mental equivalent of antibodies; they seem alternatively real and figurative, but whichever they are, they lead to a great many gunfights, chase scenes and explosions, which is the way movies depict conflict these days. So skilled is Nolan that he actually got me involved in one of his chases, when I thought I was relatively immune to scenes that have become so standard. That was because I cared about who was chasing and being chased.

If you’ve seen any advertising at all for the film, you know that its architecture has a way of disregarding gravity. Buildings tilt. Streets coil. Characters float. This is all explained in the narrative. The movie is a perplexing labyrinth without a simple through-line, and is sure to inspire truly endless analysis on the web.

Nolan helps us with an emotional thread. The reason Cobb is motivated to risk the dangers of inception is because of grief and guilt involving his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), and their two children. More I will not (in a way, cannot) say. Cotillard beautifully embodies the wife in an idealized way. Whether we are seeing Cobb’s memories or his dreams is difficult to say–even, literally, in the last shot. But she makes Mal function as an emotional magnet, and the love between the two provides an emotional constant in Cobb’s world, which is otherwise ceaselessly shifting.

“Inception” works for the viewer, in a way, like the world itself worked for Leonard, the hero of “Memento.” We are always in the Now. We have made some notes while getting Here, but we are not quite sure where Here is. Yet matters of life, death and the heart are involved–oh, and those multi-national corporations, of course. And Nolan doesn’t pause before using well-crafted scenes from spycraft or espionage, including a clever scheme on board a 747 (even explaining why it must be a 747).

The movies often seem to come from the recycling bin these days: Sequels, remakes, franchises. “Inception” does a difficult thing. It is wholly original, cut from new cloth, and yet structured with action movie basics so it feels like it makes more sense than (quite possibly) it does. I thought there was a hole in “Memento:” How does a man with short-term memory loss remember he has short-term memory loss? Maybe there’s a hole in “Inception” too, but I can’t find it. Christopher Nolan reinvented “Batman.” This time he isn’t reinventing anything. Yet few directors will attempt to recycle “Inception.” I think when Nolan left the labyrinth, he threw away the map.

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3 thoughts on “On Inception

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