Inception (2010) First Impressions: A dream within a film within a dream


Edit: You’re probably better off reading Grant’s excellent review of Inception than this rambly mind dump. Proceed at your own peril — this is a wordy post.

Taking a break from my month of animation posts, here is a semi-review of Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Inception.

Before you read on, I should warn you that this post is spoiler-heavy, and even if it wasn’t, there’s not much intelligent discussion that can be had about Inception until you’ve seen the film. Also, I’ve deliberately not rated the film out of four stars, simply because Inception is so dense that I couldn’t cut to its core enough to fairly evaluate it. Though I loved it, I need to see it again before I can decide whether the film is a masterpiece or simply a convoluted ruse. (The truth is probably somewhere in between.)

Now that I’ve had a day to process my first viewing of it, after the jump are a few takes I had on the film, from the plotting to the subtext, and more.

Inception as a maze of dreams

The title card of Inception has each letter formed from a maze, an image both ironic — because the characters never enter a literal maze (despite some early teases) — and appropriate — because Inception is a labyrinth of storytelling.

My biggest complaint from my first (of likely many) viewings of Inception is voiced quite nicely by Ellen Page partly through the film: “Wait… who’s subconscious are we going into?” A large conceit of the film is that we, as viewers, are never really able to tell what is reality, what is a dream, what is a dream within a dream, what is a dream within a dream within a… and so on. This works as a possibility for clever cinematic deceptions, but also presents the risk of viewer’s not being able to ground themselves in any concrete reality.

The heist-like portion of the film that makes up the bulk of the screen time does its best to lay it out specifically how the dream layers are connected to each other. But just as I felt like I had a handle on truth vs. dream fiction, Nolan introduced another variable, a sort of hyper-dream called “limbo” that turns out to be a key to understanding both Leo DiCaprio’s character and the team’s escape from the “inception” mission.

But the part that’s left unexplained is the “reality.” We assume the world in which we witness Cobb assemble a team and plan the inception is “real” before the ending, but the intentionally ambiguous conclusion ends the film on a question mark instead of a period that would have been, in many regards, more satisfying.

Nolan leaving the totem spinning in the final shot is itself a tease and promise of joys to be discovered through repeated viewing. Not since The Prestige — another Nolan film — have I so immediately desired to return to the film to try and unravel its mysteries. You could dismiss the ending as shamelessly cheesy — or even criticize the fact that it implores repeat viewing as a crass tactic to suck viewers into giving Hollywood even more of their hard-earned dollars — but the film is so fine-tuned and delicately constructed that it’s earned.

Among the pros of having such a complex machine of a film is that it will be rewatched by fanboys (including myself) for eternity as they try to decipher every line, every facial expression, every frame to discover the truth of Inception’s world. Among the cons are that it requires rules, rules, and more rules. And then there are exceptions to those rules, but there are occasionally exceptions to the exceptions.

With so many rules set up and dying to be broken, I suspect there will never be a definitive answer to what happened, just as viewers will never be able to fully to piece together what happened in The Usual Suspects. There’s always the possibility that we’re witnessing some unknown or merely hinted at exception to the rules already set up. Any amount of the film could be simply a ruse, a trick of Cobb’s imagination, and the film gleefully plants that ideas in our brain with that final shot.

Inception as a metafilm

Attempting to answer — or at least dismiss as unanswerable — the questions of reality will be my focus for my second viewing, but there are several other layers and wrinkles to Inception, as befitting a film of such concentrated story and direction.

As I watched it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Inception was one of those “metafilms” I sometimes read about; in other words, it’s a movie metaphorically about the movies. Its notions — of shared dreaming, of clipped and altered reality, of the contradictions of imagination, and of a team of architects and planners and directors — parallel the creation of a movie and the communal joy of experiencing it together in a dark movie theater.

Just as characters in a dream can never tell you how they literally got from one place to another, so movie viewers never see every transition from one scene to another. We just know that we’re there, and we know approximately where we came from, but we don’t question the specifics such as what route through a city or whether the traffic was bad.

To take this comparison one step further, Page can be seen as something like a conduit between the film and the audience or — to use a term prevalent in the film — a projection of the viewers’ curiosities. She, in general, asks the things we want to know and suggests to us concerns we should have for the characters around her. She’s like an actor but slightly more removed from the entire process.

DiCaprio’s Cobb would then represent some combination of the director and the screenwriters. Page’s Ariadne plunges the depth of Cobb’s subconscious in an attempt to wring out his true meaning. What secrets does he hide behind the show he gives us? She almost figures it all out in the same way the viewers of Inception figure out much of the film by the ending, but never quite all of it.

It’s also crossed my mind that she constructs the final “reality” for Cobb as he sees his children’s faces and returns home. Perhaps the suggestion of the film then is that acclaim and viewer admiration are what provide lifelong joy for filmmakers, even if there’s a certain artificiality and distance in this kind of satisfaction.

To put it another way: Filmmakers look to alter our perception of reality, but because that’s something fully internal to each viewer, these filmmakers can never reap the rewards of this. The best filmmakers can do is read reviews or talk to viewers, which gives them nothing more than a hint that they’re accomplishing their creative goals. Cobb is the filmmaker — he’s never quite sure if his work is something real or just a dream-like apparition. Ariadne is the viewer — she tries to sort it all out and construct something comprehensible from it.

Inception as a meditation on family, loss, and mortality

It’s important that many of the key relationships that drive the film are parent-child relationships. There’s Cobb and his kids, Cobb and his step-father, and Robert Fischer, Sr. and Robert Fischer, Jr. It’s also important that the relationship at the very heart of the film as well as the relationship that sets up the film’s overall framework — Cobb and Mal, and Fischer, Sr. and Fischer Jr., respectively — are complicated, bittersweet relationships recently cut off by death.

That sets the film up as one heavily driven by powerful emotion and relationships. The protagonist, Cobb, is constantly battling the demons of guilt and grief that came from a death that he may or may not be responsible for. It’s clear from the beginning that his pinings for Mal are a curse and a blessing; he never wants to forget the one that he loved with all of his heart, but clinging to the past is preventing him from moving forward with his life.

In another way, he’s lost his kids. He can’t even see their faces in his memories, in part because it makes him feel more guilty and in part because he knows his memory of them wouldn’t do justice their beauty. Even when he sees his kids, there’s a feeling that it’s simply a projection of sorts, that he can never regain his ideal version of being a dad.

By the end of the film, we see Cobb  slowly come to grips with the fact that he can’t cling and trap his wife forever in his memory and his guilt. It’s subtly suggested that he’s contemplating suicide all the time, to escape from the agonies of loss rather than cope with them.

The unfolding of Cobb’s delusion and obsession with the past are particularly poignant because they’re literalized — he repeatedly enters his own subconscious and deals with his most troubling demons, over and over and over.

There’s also a sharp contrast between Cobb and Ariadne; the former has gone through the whole spectra of pain and passion, the latter is young and naive. As both the structure of dream-sharing and the burden on Cobb’s soul are gradually revealed to Ariadne, it allows the film to connect with a younger audience. It’s almost as if Cobb provides a snapshot to Ariadne of what older generations can’t explain in words to younger ones: that time, in various ways, alters and amplifies and numbs feelings as we experience them when we’re raw and guileless.

Because of the film’s pretensions of logically and thoroughly outlining the rules of its universe — then continuously challenging them — this emotional core at times feels diluted or trapped behind a shell of exposition. That’s why Inception, while a tapestry certainly worth revisiting, failed to move me the way Toy Story 3 did. Toy Story 3 had such undiluted yet earned sentiment in its final act that it brought me on the verge of tears, where Inception’s caused more head-scratching than tear-jerking.

Still, Inception is certainly a film built around something. There are real characters here with real stakes, and even when it occasionally feels a bit lost in the shuffle, it’s never forced or tacked on. It’s at the very core of the film.

Inception as a summer blockbuster

As deeply as I attempted to read it, Inception also operates functionally, even exceptionally, as a thrilling summer blockbuster. It’s enjoyable on a basic level, with laughs and gasps and set pieces of astonishing scope and realization.

The centerpiece of the film’s action, and one that deserves to go in every classic action highlight reel (along with the “get down!” scene from Terminator 2 and shootout from The Matrix), is the rotating gravity fight scene with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s just awesome to watch the framing of the fight constantly shift, and the combatants seamlessly adapt to the change.

Inception was clearly conceived as a brain-first flick, but for such a movie, it will often strike you as sight-first. The settings are massive, diverse, and stunning, from a snowy mountain to a decayed utopia to the streets of a crowded city (which happens to include a freight train).

Certainly, among the millions of viewers this weekend and in the future, there will be many who turn off their brains and love it for its thrills and gunfights. I’m not actually opposed to this mindset – I think Warner Bros and Nolan have been careful to make this a crowd pleaser as much as a geek pleaser, so it’s not like a viewing of the film as sheer fun is any less legitimate than looking at Terminator 2 or The Matrix — also blockbusters with philosophical bents, though to a lesser extent — in the same lens, and that’s surely one reason those films have remained popular through the years.

That’s why I’m confident Inception will pass the test of time quite strongly, even after one viewing. To invoke a cliche, it has its cake and eats it too. It’s indulgent fun if you want it to be. It’s also mind-achingly brainy if you want it to be that, too. The fact that it’s both makes it a grand success, even as plot holes and  contradictions are inevitably discovered in its complex structure.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

One thought on “Inception (2010) First Impressions: A dream within a film within a dream

  1. His kids are never projected into reality. Mal is never projected into reality. None of the strange elements of the dream world actually occur in reality. Not that this is the chief contradiction to the dream movie theory, it’s quite a big one.

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