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More Thoughts on Inception

7 August, 2010

See my first thoughts on Inception here.

I don’t remember the last time I kept wanting to go back to see a film at the cinema this many times. Every ticket I buy for Inception is worth the price, though. And the box office returns, while they’re not as high as I would hope, are very encouraging. As Inception ticks closer and closer to a worldwide gross of US$400 million, it’s clear that there is a significant portion of the mainstream cinema-going audience that enjoy intelligent cinema. I highly doubt that films like Synecdoche, New York or A Serious Man will ever be mainstream. Yes, there is a place for independent cinema, but that doesn’t mean that mainstream cinema has to be patronising. In a year of shoddy remakes, poor sequels, and story-less effects-driven extravaganzas, Inception stands as an all-too-rare reminder that films don’t need to insult the intelligence of their audience to be successful. Let’s remind studios of that. Go see Inception at the cinema, and then go see it again. Take this from someone who has seen it three times and counting – it’s worth it.

[Once again, SPOILERS for Inception follow]

A Brilliant Architect

Creating a world as rich as the one in Inception is always hard to do without forced exposition. While the loose structure of a heist film does allow for a lot of exposition to take place, that is not where the film’s sense of completeness comes from. Rather, it constantly hints towards ideas that will become relevant later in the film through seemingly offhand comments by characters and minor plot points, allowing the viewer to get accustomed with the rules and nuances of the world before they come into play.

One of the delights of watching this film over and over again is to realise just how well plotted it really is. To say that the writing is taut does not do the brilliance of Nolan’s script justice. Not a single line is wasted here – and I don’t mean that as hyperbole. Literally every single line of dialogue in this film is imperative to advancing the plot, developing the characters or exploring the story and its themes.

Take the scene in the third level of the dream where Cobb is systematically taking out the guards that surround the ice fortress. A shocked Ariadne asks whether Cobb is destroying parts of Fischer’s subconscious, and Cobb reassures her that only the projections are being attacked, that the elements of the subconscious creating them remains unaffected. This happens in a matter of seconds, and our attention is more focused on the urgency of the crew’s attempt to get into the fortress than this brief exchange. A few scenes later, Cobb is facing Mal in limbo as he urges Ariadne to take herself and Fischer out of limbo. While doing that, Ariadne unexpectedly shoots Mal. This arrangement of moments is a masterstroke on three levels. The first is in how it informs the audience. While the shooting does have momentary shock value, the audience has just moments ago learned that this wouldn’t destroy her – so the fact that Cobb still has to face Mal doesn’t strike us as a continuity issue with the plot. Second, it allows the story to continue moving forward at a breakneck pace – Ariadne knows shooting Mal won’t destroy any part of Cobb’s subconscious, so she does it without hesitation, giving Cobb a jolt and forcing him to face the events in front of him. We know exactly what the consequences of her action are, s0 the story doesn’t need to slow down and lose its momentum for the sake of exposition. The third level on which it works is the most brilliant of the lot – the fact that Mal doesn’t die from the gunshot reminds Cobb (as well as the audience) that she isn’t real. We are finally in the world that Cobb’s projection of Mal insists is the real world; if she were right and Cobb was dreaming all along in what we thought was the real world, then that gunshot would have killed her. The set-up and execution of this happens so quickly that you’d miss it in the blink of an eye.

Moments like these are riddled throughout the film, and they are created with such subtlety that it took me repeat viewings to notice a lot of them. Even after you’ve noticed them, the unmitigated craft with which they are made makes them a delight to watch. (Another one of these moments that I love is when the crew is planning on how to do the job, and Cobb asserts that “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” There is a wonderfully tragic layer to this sentiment that pierced through me when I noticed it.) On both plot and story levels, Nolan’s writing is seamless. Despite its structural complexity and subtlety, it is brutally straightforward in its execution – this film plays by its own rules, and it makes those rules very clear to us. Every scene is meaningful, every plot development is crucial; Inception‘s plot is fully self-contained.

From the tiniest seed, it spreads like a virus …

Like all great sci-fi masterpieces, the ideas contained in Inception‘s story are bursting at its seams. Its plot might be tightly self-contained, but that doesn’t mean it has to follow that route thematically – indeed, the firm foundation of the plot makes it easier for the film to explore a plethora of different ideas. At the heart of the story is Cobb’s journey and his struggle with guilt and regret, which I talked about extensively in my previous post. Alongside this, we have the story of Fischer and his relationship with his father. These are our main storylines, running side by side, feeding off each other, but sprinkled throughout Inception are the seeds of various other ideas – the ethics of dream-sharing, the value placed on truth, and the need for privacy exercised in our mental faculties are a few that I found particularly interesting.

One idea that is explored quietly but in a manner integral to the central plot is the seductiveness of the dream world. Time and time again, we see people being seduced by the world of lucid dreaming – Cobb and Mal before her death, Ariadne as she experiences the rush of creation, the recurring visitors under Yusuf’s chemist shop. When Ariadne storms out after her first encounter with Mal, Cobb assures Arthur that she’ll be back, that reality won’t be enough for her anymore. She is absorbed by the thrill and joy of pure creation, as are all the members of the team, to some extent. This seductive power reflects the temptation of living within one’s own imagination. Digging deeper, down to the nature of limbo, it also reflects the temptation of living in a world where, for all intents and purposes, one is god; a world where life has meaning because we can make it have that meaning, a world where we are more than just one among billions searching for purpose among chaos. A tempting proposition for most, to be sure, but especially so for Cobb, a man who lives a life defined by regret and guilt. In a world entirely of his own making, Cobb is understandably convinced that he can escape those feelings. No wonder his subconscious wants him to stay in limbo so badly.

Much like the ideas of Inception, many of its characters are only hinted at, but they end up being incredibly defined. Much of this can be chalked up to the acting; the entire cast does a fantastic job of defining themselves very clearly regardless of their amount of dialogue or screen-time. Masterful performances make even the characters who are little more than plot devices entertaining to watch. Little moments like when Eames tries to knock Arthur over in his chair or when Ariadne reacts to Arthur’s sneakily procured kiss go a long way to defining their characters’ personalities. We get hints every now and then as to the who these people are, and those hints compound subtly into something more. By the time Arthur tells Eames that he will “lead them on a merry chase”, we are sensitive enough to the nuances of those two characters to appreciate the moment (this sensitivity obviously compounds on repeat viewings, when our attention is devoted less to the mysteries of the plot); we only ever got the slightest of ideas as to who these characters are, but from those tiniest seeds, ideas spread to define whole characters.

Let’s take a deeper look at some of our characters. The dynamic between Eames and Arthur is a particularly fascinating one. As Eames tells Cobb in Mombassa, he finds that Arthur lacks a certain flair. Whereas Eames plays to the fancies of his irrationality, Arthur acts strictly within the parameters that he sets for himself. A lesser film would easily turn these characters into caricatures; a traditional dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysius. But true to the complexity of people, Eames and Arthur each possess both Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics – it’s just that they choose to manifest them differently. Both of them possess extraordinary imaginations that reflect their personality. Eames is wilder, he can imagine himself into other people, or he can imagine himself a bigger gun. Arthur, on the other hand, thinks more rationally, which lets him navigate paradoxes and excel in zero-gravity fights – watch those fights scenes carefully; Arthur doesn’t succeed just because he’s good at fighting, he succeeds because the rational basis of his imagination helps him understand the gravity shifts around him, giving him the ease with which he gains control in that environment.

We see that dynamic paralleled somewhat between Cobb and Ariadne, taken to more extreme levels. Ariadne thinks rationally and mathematically; while it would be easy to characterise her as lacking imagination, Nolan deftly stays away from creating unrealistic exaggerations of personality types for his characters. The first couple of times Cobb tests Ariadne, she creates typical mazes that he solves with ease. Frustrated, she shows her true potential by thinking outside the box (in an amusingly semi-literal fashion). Constructing the world of a dreamscape for the first time, she acts innovativtely – by recognising the laws of physics, she bends them; by focusing on the wonders of the natural world, she creates in opposition to it. This is her anchor to reality; her barrier against seduction. Cobb, on the other hand, increasingly succumbs to creation based on pure emotion, something which he tries to prevent by not letting himself design dreams for the job. He is slowly losing his anchor to reality, which is reflected in his use of Mal’s totem, an issue I discussed at length in my previous post. It is fitting that Ariadne is the one who clearly sees Cobb’s growing surrender to temptation and helps to draw him out of it.

Non, je ne regrette rien

“Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?”, Saito asks Cobb. Little does he realise that Cobb is already filling up to the brim with regret, and it’s destroying him. Consider the sequence in which Ariadne enters Cobb’s personal dream uninvited. “You don’t understand,” he tells her, “these are moments that I regret. They’re memories that I have to change.” Cobb is racked with guilt, plagued by regret at his actions that eventually led to Mal’s demise.

The problem with inception, as Arthur is quick to point out when Saito first proposes the job, is that the mind needs to think that the idea came from within itself. “We all yearn for reconciliation”, Cobb observes at one point in the film. Fischer needs reconciliation of his relationship with his father if he is going to accept the idea Saito wants him to. The idea comes not from himself, but Fischer has to create the seed of it himself if he is to truly accept it. Similarly, Ariadne guides Cobb back to reality, but he must seek reconciliation by facing himself. When Ariadne first learns of how Mal died, she flat out tells Cobb to face his guilt. Later on, she shoots Mal, reminding Cobb of what is real and what is not, giving him that anchor which is he rapidly losing. But Mal leaves only when Cobb himself faces his guilt, when Cobb himself decides to let his regrets go.

Let’s take a look at the quote again. “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” – Cobb and Saito repeat it to each other as they encounter each other in limbo. Note that the concepts of regretfulness and dying alone are tied together repeatedly in the film. Cobb’s regrets and guilt make him draw deeper and deeper into himself, trying to fix those cause of those feelings within his mind, which is what makes limbo so tempting for him. But read that quote again. They say it to each other when they are in limbo. Superficially, limbo seems like the world in which you can shed all your regret. And yet Saito has become that old man filled with regret, waiting to die alone. In a world of pure creation, Saito still retains regret from his existence in reality. Alone, the mind cannot deceive itself; folding into its own unconscious, it has to live with its regret. Cobb was falling headfirst into that state, trapping all his regret within his mind, allowing it to manifest as Mal, allowing it to deceive him and tempt him to succumb into limbo. Cobb has to shed his regret, and he could not do that alone, as we’ve previously discussed. Once Cobb moves beyond being that man filled with regret, he is able to help Saito, being the Other who draws Saito out from that very same state.

In other words, to lose yourself in your mind, to your own demons, is to live with regret forever. To escape those demons rather than facing them, falling prey to the seduction of limbo, is to become an old man filled with regret, waiting to die alone.

A Leap of Faith

“You keep telling yourself what you know, but what do you believe? What do you feel?” Mal asks Cobb. Cobb continuously claims throughout the film that he has a grasp on reality, and to a certain extent, it’s true – he knows what’s real on a purely rational level. But his guilt and regret won’t let him truly believe it.

There are several times in the film when Cobb is asked to take a leap of faith. Let’s look at them chronologically. First, Mal asks Cobb to take a leap of faith as she jumps off the ledge from the hotel, plunging to her death. Cobb, at this point firmly entrenched in his convictions of reality, is unable to follow her. This is where his guilt begins, manifesting the idea in his mind that his faith would have been rewarded if he had followed her. Second, Saito asks Cobb to take a leap of faith and a believe that Saito can clear all of the charges against Cobb. In desperation, Cobb agrees. In the third and most crucial instance, in Saito and Cobb’s exchange in limbo, they remind themselves of that pact to take a leap of faith. They both find themselves able to do so now; not only do they know from memory that their faith will be rewarded, they believe that it will be, each because of the other.

When Cobb returns home, he finally believes in the reality that he knows to be true. The spinning top doesn’t matter. The faces of his children do, because he has finally reached a point where he accepts reality, he has found his anchor back to it, with help from outside himself and reconciliation borne from within himself.

Welcome Home, Mr. Cobb

The first time I watched Inception, my eyes were welling up as Cobb saw the faces of his children. As someone who very rarely cries at films, this was a pretty big endorsement of the film in and of itself. But it was more than just that. Each time I’ve seen Inception, I have been overwhelmed with emotion as it ended. This has become a deeply personal film for me, but I also do this to try and explain the merits that I see in this film to others in the hope that I will provide new and interesting perspectives to them. By explaining my thoughts on it, I don’t seek to deconstruct its cohesiveness and remove that personal connection. Rather, I do this to explore the film better in my own way. This film astounds me on many levels, the most intense of which connects to me on a very deep, emotional level.

And that is why I love this film. To me, Inception is art at its finest.

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