I agree and disagree with Scott; were Inception properly a movie interested in answering “is it a dream within a dream?”, or even a film that tried to get us to guess, I would agree that it fails. But I thought the movie succeeded, though it was good, but not great. There will be spoilers after the jump, though nothing I think that would rob one’s enjoyment of the film. Nor will there be a defense of Nolan himself after the jump; it would not surprise me that the man’s intentions could be defended, but the only other work of his I’ve seen is the Batman reboot, which was notable mostly for Heath Ledger’s performance, the disappearing pencil trick, and Batman flipping the truck.
What can I say? I enjoyed it, and as a curmudgeon-in-training, I have a low tolerance for entertainment that purports to be about something big and philosophical but is really about the authors putting in random crap/polar bears and hoping that the fans will work it into their mythology and think that it’s deep, so I trust my instinct when I think there is something clever in a film.
Imagine that you’re a writer, in 2010, who wants to write about dreams and reality. You have a problem. Everyone with half a brain who sees the trailer, or reads a review, thinks “I bet this turns out to be a question about whether or not the main character is dreaming.” Blame everything, but blame The Sixth Sense most. Thinking that you can pull this over on an audience is like expecting that you can make a movie with a mustachio’d grand vizier and have it be a surprise when the man has an evil plot to steal the kingdom from the young heir, or have the cops arrest a suspect in minute 9 of Law and Order, and expect the viewers to be shocked when in minute 22 someone else is the criminal. We’ve outgrown that.
About fifteen minutes into Inception, we discover that it is indeed possible to have a dream within a dream. It is not a subtle hint. Nolan hangs a lantern studded with halogen LEDs on it. At this point, I was thinking, if we get to the end, and Cobb’s [DiCaprio] story ends in a dream, I will be mildly annoyed, unless Batman shows up and flips a truck.
The rest of the film doesn’t develop in a way that should convince us that wondering “is Cobb in a dream or reality?” is the point of the film. There isn’t an obvious visual contrast between the dreamworlds and the real world that someone could use to trick us into thinking that a dream was real; the characters have totems so they know what is the real world, but they’re not generally concerned that they haven’t returned, with one exception; and one theme in many critical reviews is that the dreamworlds aren’t as weird as one might expect, especially the lower levels where you’d think the id would cry out for more than a PG-13 rating. If we were meant to follow a mystery into the thicket of the mind, we’ve been left few breadcrumbs.
I found this mystery overwhelmed by what I think is the central theme: how much does it matter if Cobb is in a dream or not? We’re prejudiced by lots of films of this type to think that of course it matters. It’s good to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Within this film, there is an argument for that: Cobb’s sin lead to his wife being unable to distinguish reality from the dreamworld, and he is haunted by her, the projection of his guilt. There’s also an argument for the opposite position:
- The sleeping souls in the bowels of the shop, who are dreaming in order to feel alive (“who can say” whether their lives are worth it, because it depends on the dream);
- Cobb’s conversation with his wife, the projection of his subconscious, in which he forgives himself for her death in part because he can tell her that while he can’t stay here with her because she isn’t real, he fulfilled his engagement promise because they did grow old together, in the dreamworld;
- The inception itself, the giving of the germ of an idea to someone who wouldn’t have had it otherwise, who will nurture it so it flowers into an idea of their own, which is taken as possible to achieve and arguably good, as their mark comes out their scheme believing because of his dreams that his father loved him and wanted him to be his own man. (Would you take that away from him? This is a heist film without a villain.) That is going to become his reality now, and it’s not going to matter that he was the victim of the triple banana split of heist films.
The film plays around with the assumptions that an audience brings to a story about a dream within a dream. We’re supposed to root for reality. We’re supposed to find out what happens. Instead, we’re left with a deliberately ambiguous shot. We don’t know if the top that spins forever only in dreamland falls over. But that’s beside the point. Cobb doesn’t look. He spins it to check that he isn’t being fooled, but once he sees the faces of his children, he no longer cares. So why do we? Because reality is important? Or because we know that dream within a dream stories are supposed to be solved?
I find comparisons of this film to the Matrix to be lazy. Yes, they have the distinction between a real world and a manipulable fantasy world in common, and also there is fighting that uses some of the visual language that is common to films post-Matrix. But the motivating idea of the Matrix was that it really mattered that the Matrix wasn’t real. Better to wear raggedy clothes and eat snot gruel in reality than enjoy strip steak in the Matrix! It’s not clear whether Cobb finishes in reality or in his subconscious, but it’s also not clear how much it matters to him.
I don’t think the film is perfect. It’s very hard to care about the fates of most of the characters, including Cobb, and it would be better if any point in the 2.5 hours had created an emotional connection. We need to be rooting for the top to fall. I usually like Ellen Page, but she is the Mary Sue of Basil Expositions in this film, and her lines clunked. It also wasn’t clear why, in the second act, the dreamworlds were immediately at the command of the Architect, who would do cool tricks like fold Paris on itself, yet once the heist started, the dreamworlds looked like action sets.
I did think, however, that it was more clever than many thought.