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First Thoughts on Inception

31 July, 2010

[SPOILERS for Inception in this post. Besides, it won’t make sense if you haven’t seen the film.]

A few minutes ago, I finished watching Inception for the second time in as many days. I’m not one for rewatching films at the cinema, but this film, like most of Christopher Nolan’s work, almost demands it of me. Inception is a film that engaged my imagination, a film whose ideas took hold in my mind, a film that dares to tell a story with no holds barred. In this dreary year for English-language cinema, Inception reminded me of why I came to love this medium of storytelling in the first place. I have no qualms in calling Inception a masterpiece. A perfect combination of spectacle and intelligence, it is bursting with imagination and layered, complex storytelling that maintains a simple core. I don’t know yet if it is my favourite Nolan film, but at the very least it is on par with Memento and The Dark Knight.

Ideas, Imagination and Originality

Inception is a highly original film. These days, any film that’s not a based on an existing property can make a claim to that phrase, but Inception is more than just that. Its ideas are fresh and bold; we’re seeing things in this film shown to us in ways that we’ve never seen before. But to say that the concepts of Inception sprung forth newborn from Christopher Nolan’s mind would be a laughable claim. The concepts of dreamscapes, literalizations of one’s subconscious and the cathartic navigation of labyrinths are all concepts that have been explored before. On a more superficial level, Inception‘s framing of its plot is essentially that of a standard heist film – complete with the “one last job” impetus and the gathering of a crew of individuals each skilled in a different field – only here, the heist takes place in the mind, and rather than stealing something, our crew is planting something.

What makes Inception original is its imagination. The film doesn’t deny its inspirations through artistic self-indulgence – after all, all stories are influenced by other stories that came before them. This film is powered not by individual concepts, but like all great storytelling, at its core is a story; a story developed and explored with an abundance of imagination. From their central ideas, Nolan & Co spawn a world of inventive imagery and plot, magnificently exploiting the vast range of technique that the medium of cinema offers.

The honed craftsmanship in this film also gives it an additional layer of freshness. We’ve seen zero-gravity fight sequences before, some of them fairly similar to the one here, but those scenes in Inception set themselves apart out of sheer artistry and workmanship. Nolan’s vision coupled with Wally Pfister’s intuitive cinematography set to the powerful, pulsating rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score give the scene (and the film as a whole) a grand scope that expands from and develops out of its core, the story.

Dimensions of Time and Space

There are layers upon layers in this film, both literally and figuratively. On a plot and structure level, the world of Inception is ingenious in the way it creates tension and suspense. Compounding time as our characters go deeper and deeper into their minds, Nolan deftly manages to keep the chronology in check, giving a sense of urgency to the proceedings of the plot while still allowing the central emotional journey of the film time to grow.

The film strictly follows the rules it has set up for itself, but if the simple constructs that Ariadne learns from Cobb and Arthur turned out to the basis of the entire film, it would definitely not have the impact that it does. What does death mean in a world where you just wake up when it happens? In one swift move, Nolan solves that problem by creating complications during the “heist” itself. The natural, growing complexities of the job allow not only for more exploration of Cobb’s psyche and the film’s various themes, but they’re a simple, ingenious way to create tension. The rules that we’re told in the first hour of the film help us understand and formulate the world of the film, but based on them alone the main act of the film would play out merely like a game.

Cobb’s Journey

What makes Cobb’s emotional journey in this film more compelling than it may seem on the surface is the simple fact that his character isn’t just represented in Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. With the exception of two brief flashbacks, the character of Mal is a projection of Cobb’s subconscious throughout the film. The spinning top that Cobb keeps checking is Mal’s totem, not his, so why would he use it? Cobb believes on a deep level in the possibility that the Mal who he sees as a projection of his subconscious is real. The spinning top falls to show that he is in reality, but what if Mal actually was still real? Then the totem wouldn’t work, because she would know the intricacies of the totem. If reality was a dream and Mal was still real, then the totem could very well fall. The top convinces Cobb that he is in reality, but it also keeps alive the hope that there is a reality where Mal is real.

When Mal keeps sabotaging the mission, it shows that on some level, Cobb doesn’t want the mission to work. When she draws him into limbo, it’s because part of himself wants to go there. Remember that limbo is the unconstructed dreamscape of all those sharing it. When Fischer slips into limbo, it’s not because Mal takes him there. Mal only enters limbo when Cobb enters limbo. When Cobb enters limbo, the world he has constructed is there, falling apart, because it is only half of what he constructed with his wife when he was first there. The fact that Mal is hiding Fischer means that Cobb is hiding Fischer. His subconscious doesn’t want Fischer to leave, because it doesn’t want the mission to succeed. Part of Cobb, the part that is wrapped in guilt, wants him to stay in limbo, where he can construct his own reality, one in which Mal is alive, and he didn’t give her the seed of the idea that killed her. When Cobb faces Mal once and for all, Cobb is facing his guilt – literally. When Cobb winds up on the shore of the world created from the unconscious of Saito, there’s an implication that the world he created in limbo is gone. The world where he could lose himself is gone, because he finally faces the guilt that kept bringing Mal back. As Mal leaves, so does his limbo, leaving him to wind up on the shore of Saito’s limbo.

Puzzles, Mazes and Storytelling

It is tempting to treat Inception as one very elaborate puzzle, a maze for the audience to figure out. But I feel that to make the film into that would be to undermine its powerful storytelling. Ultimately, Inception ends with a fascinating meditation what reality is and what it means. Our characters escape from limbo into reality always through the help of another person who is real. Cobb draws himself and Mal out the first time by giving her a negative emotion. But the inception he gave her takes root in her and ultimately destroys her. Ariadne draws herself and Fischer out before either of them have a chance to create their own world in limbo. Cobb himself causes his limbo to fade away, but where was the inception of the idea that allowed him to do so? Ariadne drew him out of his compulsion to trap himself in a world where Mal is real – she entered his unconscious uninvited, and she accompanied him throughout the mission, reminding him of the difference between true reality and the seductive power of the alternate reality that our minds can create. For it is only the Other that can bring the Self into reality; without the Other, reality has no meaning for the Self. And thus it is that Cobb faces Saito as an old man, and they remind themselves that they are each an Other to the other’s Self. And through that, they bring themselves back into reality.

Is Cobb still in limbo when he finally meets his children? Perhaps. Perhaps him winding up on that shore and facing Saito was a construct of his own mind in order to create a reality which mirrored his own, one without Mal but with the impetus of his existence, his children. The final shot lingers on the top as it spins and spins – it looks like it’s about to falter, but we don’t find out. Cobb isn’t looking at the top anymore, though, we are. To Cobb it doesn’t matter anymore. Throughout the film, he is obsessed with convincing himself he is in reality, refusing to accept that his failure to face his own demons and guilt refuses to let him truly live in reality. When he sees his children’s faces, when he experiences love once more and is truly aware of others in his world rather than just himself, Cobb knows that he is in reality. He doesn’t need the top anymore. To me, it seems clear that Cobb is in reality.

Will the top ever stop spinning? Well, in the end, it doesn’t matter.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin permalink
    12 November, 2010 9:46 pm

    Great article- Memento was for many years one of my favorite films without realising it was the same Christopher Nolan.

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