I liked Inception so much because it is a film that made me think. It really got under my skin, made me question everything about the movie -- in a good way -- and about movie-making, dreams, and life in general.
I will be discussing a lot of those questions in this post, so it goes without saying that you shouldn't read this if you have not seen the film. If you don't mind spoilers and rambling movie discussions, continue reading after the jump!
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What is Inception about?
Inception blends different motifs and themes from Sci-Fi, noir, Hitchcock, and even James Bond. Oh, and there's some Matrix-esque scenes thrown in for good measure, too. But the premise is unlike anything I've ever seen in a film before:
Dom Cobb is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible-inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.Dreams have always interested me, so I loved the premise. The fact that lucid dreaming -- when the dreamer is aware that he/she is dreaming -- plays a big role in Inception was of particular interest to me because I had a lucid dream once, at Ricky's house, and it scared the crap out of me (but that's a blog post for another day). Perhaps because of this, I was able to buy the idea that these people could actually invade someone else's dream and not just invade it, but plant an idea there and make it seem as if the dreamer himself had created it. But another big reason why I was able to believe this concept is due in big part to screenwriter/director, Christopher Nolan. You might know him for his earlier films: Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Prestige. Inception reminds me a little bit of Memento and The Prestige, in its talkiness and philosophical musings, though it has great action scenes that are reminiscent of his Batman films, too.
What makes Nolan's films great and ultimately so thought-provoking is how well he develops his characters. Cobb, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the hero of the film, and in many ways, he's a tragic hero. It's testament to DiCaprio's talent as an actor that he is able to deliver such pathos and weight to this role without it seeming heavy-handed.
Rounding out the cast is Cobb's team: his "point man," Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom I lurved in 500 Days of Summer), his "forger," Eames (Tom Hardy), his "chemist," Yusuf (Dileep Rao), his "architect," Ariadne (Ellen Paige), and the man who hired him to do the job, Saito (Ken Watanabe). His team helps him create three layers of dreams that will help hide the evidence of his inception, and as the characters navigate the different dreams within dreams, they find themselves battling the subconscious selves that populate the dreamer's dreams (you still with me?).
As Cobb attempts to invade the mind of his target, Robert Fischer, and plant the required idea, his own subconscious invades the layers, and given his troubled state, his subconscious provides a hell of a fight for the team. It comes in the form of bodyguards, assassins, even a train at one point. But the most haunting form that dogs them -- and the most menacing -- is that of Cobb's deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose very presence in the movie is a strange combination of tenderness and cruelty. She is the physical embodiment of Cobb's guilt over her death -- she committed suicide because she no longer believed reality was the real world and believed that by killing herself, she could return to a state of true consciousness and reunite with their children again. You see, Mal and Cobb experimented with lucid dreaming, even going so far as to recreate an entire dream world together in which they lived for 50 years (in dream time, which was more like a few days in reality). Cobb feels especially guilty over Mal's death because he first attempted inception with her, when he had to invade Mal's mind when she stopped believing that their dream world wasn't real. By planting this idea, he was able to convince Mal to wake up again with him, but the trouble was that she woke up with the doubt still lingering in her mind. She tries to convince Cobb to jump off the ledge with her (literally), even going so far as to plant fake evidence so as to make it look that he killed her should he not jump with her. But in the end, she jumps without him, and he winds up having to leave the country and his children behind because he is wanted in suspicion of her death. The big reason why Cobb takes on Saito's job is because he promised he could bring Cobb back home, no strings attached.
In the world of Inception, when you die in dreams, you wake up. So when characters are killed in the film -- mostly by Mal -- they jolt back into consciousness. Something else that wakes dreamers is what is called "the kick," that is, literally having your seat kicked out from under you and being unseated. It is only by "killing" Mal in the dreamworld, and thereby his guilt, not to mention successfully performing inception on Robert Fischer, that Cobb is able to return to reality and rejoin his children, whom he hasn't seen in some time (the film doesn't give the exact length of time, it can be anywhere from months to years).
One last thing about the film, something I really liked, was the gimmick of the "totem," which is a device the characters use, sort of like a talisman, to help them know when they're dreaming and when they're not. It's as if the totem's physicality -- its weight and gravity -- allows them to accept reality. That I can remember, we only see two totems in the film -- Cobb's, which is a little spinning top that used to belong to Mal, and the one that Ariadne creates, a gold chess piece. Cobb's totem is particularly cool because if it keeps spinning, Cobb knows he's still dreaming, because the laws of gravity don't have to be followed in dreams. The film has great fun with gravity and physics in general, and this leads to some amazing shots, particularly the scene in the hallway of a hotel with Arthur.
Edit: I forgot one of the totems in the movie! One of them is a loaded die, which belonged (I think...) to Arthur.
And that's it in (a very large) nutshell. I know I left a ton of stuff out, but I think I hit all the important points.
"What's the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it." - Cobb
What's in a name?
The names in Inception can sometimes seem a little heavy-handed, but I find them interesting nevertheless. Arthur, as Cobb's right hand man, brings to mind the Arthur of legend, the hero who must undertake his journey into a strange, often unfriendly world, just as Arthur must do in Inception. Ariadne is a little more obvious -- she is named after the Ariadne of Greek mythology, the princess who aids Theseus in both exiting a devious labyrinth and defeating the Minotaur. Ariadne's job as an "architect" in Inception is like a cool take on this, as she has to create "mazes" inside the different layers of dreams in order for Fischer not to become suspicious and think his dreamworld is not real (in the dream, that is). Of course, there's Robert Fischer's name, which is kind of a double pun, as it recalls the chess prodigy of the same name and reminds the viewer that Cobb's team is fishing for truths inside the heads of others, including Fischer's. Lastly, there's Cobb's deceased wife, Mal. I kept hearing "Moll" when I saw the film, and it was only by reading the credits that I realized her name was Mal, as in the Latin for "evil" or "bad." Just as her presence in the film often borders on the evil -- perhaps a suggestion on Nolan's part that guilt is bad and should be done away with.
"You're waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You can't be sure where it will take you. But it doesn't matter - because we'll be together."- Mal
Questions: you got 'em, I got 'em, we ALL got 'em.
Okay, so the biggest question I have at the end of the movie is what's real and what's not. Is Cobb's "reality" real -- or are Arthur, Ariadne, and the rest of his team just constructs of his imagination? His "reality" is certainly strange and dreamlike in and of itself -- he is being chased by anonymous bad guys, much like the subconscious selves that populate dreams and chase invaders.
His memory of the last time he saw his children outside the window before he left the states, as they sat outside playing on the lawn, haunts him both in reality and in dreams. He is troubled by the fact that he never got to see their faces one last time, and he longs to go back to the memory and change it so that he can see them again. At the end of the film, we are led to believe that Cobb successfully performed the inception and is granted admittance back into America, and he arrives home to find his children playing on the lawn and gets to see their faces again as they turn to greet them. He places the totem on a table, perhaps to convince himself that he is awake, and leaves it turning as he moves toward his children.
But two things about that last shot make this seeming "reality" seem as unstable as the world of the film's dreams -- Cobb's children are wearing the same clothes from his memory and the film ends before we can see whether or not his totem stops spinning. I could swear it was slowing down just as the movie cuts to the credits, but we aren't given a clear answer. This makes me wonder if the entire movie was a multi-layered dream of Cobb's. I want to believe that it wasn't all a dream -- that he got to return home, like he wanted, and be with his children. As some keen-eyed reviewers have already pointed out, there are two different actors playing the role of the son and daughter in the listing for Inception's page on IMDB, both of different ages. This can just mean that Nolan wanted to leave that clue behind to let us know that Cobb was in fact reunited with his children, or it could simply be a case of Nolan having to hire different children to play the roles because of the laws that don't allow children to stay on set for very long hours.
Trying to figure out this film is like trying to figure out a strange dream. But I don't mind not knowing. That's part of what makes this film so amazing -- every time you peel away a layer and answer another question, you find five more questions waiting for you.
"Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." -Cobb
Reading IMDB's page on Inception, along with several reviews of the film, was invaluable in helping me answer many of my questions, not to mention bring up even more questions I hadn't even thought of! If you'd like to continue reading and discussing Inception, check out Cleolinda's post and the MTV Movies Blog post. Oh, and check out the trailer below -- it has some of my favorite scenes in it. :)
Have you seen Inception? What are your thoughts/questions on the film? Let me know in the comments below!