If you haven’t seen Inception yet, two things: One, don’t read this. It’ll ruin the whole movie.
Two: Why not?
I’m posting this in honor of my youngest brother, Logan, who turns 18 today, because we share a like passion for great movies.
Inception was one such movie.
Happy birthday, lil' bro.
This is the review I’ve been working on for the past five days. I know, I really should have been doing other things with my time. Like, you know, living life. But whatever. It was fun.
Dom Cobb’s wife, Mal, sat on a ledge across from a room that she supposedly just wrecked. That one infernal scene messed up my mind. Messed up this movie. Started this whole thing. That’s why I have a headache now. But, I think, it also led me to figure out this crazy movie.
This movie’s not about Cobb. It’s not about dreams.
This movie is about Christopher Nolan.
This movie is about movies.
From beginning to end, Inception is Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) dream. When I look at the movie as a whole, this is the only theory that holds up. Fortunately, when I do some research, look at some background of the film’s creation, the theory works.
Even the dreams are part of the dream. He’s never been trained to extract information from others’ dreams. He’s not running from some ruthless corporation. He’s just somewhere, probably at home, lying in bed, asleep.
Not that he doesn’t know. He does. At least, some part of him does. He tries telling himself. First, and constantly, there’s Mal.* She asks him how real he thinks his world is. How real are the faceless thugs are chasing him.
* (It should be noted that Mal is, in fact, his wife. That is, a subconscious version of her, as the movie states. This works quite well. She’s his better half. She’s the side of him that knows better. That wants to help him. More on that later.)
Cobb tries again with his father-in-law (Michael Caine). Directly, he tries telling himself to wake up. To return to reality.
He fails. He keeps dreaming.
Walls close in. Look at the chase scene after he meets with Earmes, the Aussie. Cobb runs down an alley. Like when anxiety rises in dreams, those walls squeeze tighter. He barely makes it through.
Then, like after wriggling free, after surviving, we find ourselves somewhere open, somewhere in relief, in our dreams.
Enter Ken Watanabe, who conveniently – all too conveniently – awaits in a car when Cobb emerges from the alley.
Then there is *that scene* -- that one where my own mind got stuck – the one in Cobb’s dreamland “real world,” wherein Mal kills herself. She’s on that ledge, across the street from the suite they rented.
The suite that she supposedly just wrecked. Logically, we could assume that she destroyed the place, made it all the way downstairs, across the street, and up to the other room in time to greet Cobb but somehow while also avoiding being seen by him. But we’re given no reason to believe this.
Or, maybe she’s just really good at jumping across streets from ten stories up.
Seems, too, that were there a woman white perched on a ledge, engaged in debate with her husband, someone would have noticed. Someone would have been a witness. A witness that could have exonerated Cobb, thereby eradicating any need for all the chaos that non-murder supposedly created. Again, we can assume she just got lucky. In a weird way. But throughout the movie, throughout the plot, Nolan rarely demands that we assume anything. To do so in such a crucial scene would be lazy. Why put her across the street at all?
No, this is all part of Cobb’s grand dream. Her sitting on a ledge across the street is his better half trying once again to convince him that, Hey, this isn’t real, because if it were, I wouldn’t be sitting over here. So jump with me, and wake up.
But she jumps alone.
Now I know—there’s the issue of this top, Cobb’s totem.
Rather, these totems were also constructs of Cobb’s dreams. Another way he’d convinced his mind that what he was living was life, not dream. Same as the dream-sharing machine. What was that? And why was it never explained? It seems that Cobb, as we all do with our dreams, supplies his own details as he goes along.
Fret not. This ruins not the beauty of the movie. In fact, it makes it more beautiful. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Some theories are pointing to Cobb’s wedding ring as his “real” totem. But that falls apart. He wouldn’t freak out and grab his totem, his top, if the real totem was his ring. Maybe the ring is our totem. But I don’t think so. I think we need no totem. The ring’s appearing and vanishing too reflects Cobb’s belief in this dream as his reality.
I wanted that ending to be real life. I was waiting, longing even, to see Cobb see his children’s faces, to reunite with his babies. There’s something heroic, something sensational, something exhilarating, about a man fighting demon after demon, in dreams and in life, to be back with his children.
But it was a dream. He finds his children exactly as how he’s seen them in all his dreams, which was his last memory of them. They are wearing the same clothes. The top was going to fall, and he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but these things don’t matter because he created them all in his dream. His dreams are what he wanted. His dreams are what he needed. But they were dreams, and dreams only.
What It’s About
At first, viewing the film through this lens left me feeling robbed in a way. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, making a story all a dream. If it’s not real, then it doesn’t matter, I thought.
But then I realized that was a lie.
The point is the experience. The catharsis.
And that’s why this movie is about what it’s about. Nolan. Movies.
A few weeks ago, Leonardo DiCaprio compared Inception to a movie called 8 ½. I haven’t seen 8 ½. According to the Internet, it’s by a well-known Italian director named Fellini.
And it’s about an Italian director.
8 ½ is widely believed to be autobiographical for Fellini. Makes sense. It’s about an Italian director fighting a creative block to make a movie. It’s a movie about making a movie.
How It’s About What It’s About
Not long ago, I read somewhere that Leo based his character of Dom Cobb off, guess who, Christopher Nolan. When you look at the rest of the character around him, it becomes even clearer. Well, I don’t want to say “clear” as in, I’ve solved this mystery, because I don’t think there’s any knowing for sure. But it becomes much more….workable.
Even Nolan said, “There are a lot of striking similarities (between making a movie and what his characters do in Inception). When, for instance, the team is out on the street they’ve created, surveying it, that’s really identical to what we do on tech scouts before we shoot.”
The dream is a movie, so Cobb’s the director. Arthur, the researcher and organizer of sleeping locations, is a producer. Ariadne – Ellen Page – the architect is the screenwriter. Eames the “forger” – or, actor; or, one who becomes someone else – drives the dream, the movie, along. Yusuf is the tech guy. I know very little about moviemaking’s technical side, but I can imagine it takes a small army of tech-savvy folks to actually make a movie happen.
Saito finances the film but doesn’t actually know what’s entirely going on with it. He’s the tourist who paid for the tour; the viewer who paid for the movie’s production.
Fischer, or whoever they’ve marked in the dream, is swept along with it. He is the movie’s audience.
This is what makes Inception brilliant.
Why It’s About What It’s About
When something unnatural comes into the dream, the dreamer’s subconscious reacts. It’s alerted. It threatens to wreck the dream.
Movies, like dreams, hinge on similar suspensions of disbelief. Bad movies, like in dreams we know are dreams, are movies we fail to experience. Anything can ruin it. Bad acting. Bad writing. Bad special effects. Once something makes you aware that what you are watching is a movie, it is no longer an experience. It’s just something on screen that, usually, you’re ready to end. You are ripped from the movie, the same way something unnatural in a dream like these would rip the mark from its consciousness.
Or, maybe Fischer’s not the audience. Maybe he’s the character that a movie moves. But this theory is more complicated, and my head is starting to hurt, so I’m stopping that one right here.
Because the point is that the breakthrough Fischer – whether as the audience or the character – has in the ski complex is real. His father’s not really there. The pinwheel was never really by his father’s side. But what Fischer feels is real. Just like in dreams. Just like in movies. Great dreams are remembered because of how they moved us. Great movies are great movies because of how we feel after.
When I was younger, and first saw The Rookie, I had grand ambitions and hopes to make it as a Major League baseball player. When Dennis Quaid emerges from the bullpen as a 38-year-old relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and jogs out onto the field and into the lights and in front of all the people, I weep. Because I felt what I wanted to feel. And because I was alone, and nobody could judge me for crying at a baseball movie.
This applies to the character of Cobb, too. He, like Fischer, has lost something. Someone. His wife. Great storytellers – like Nolan – explore their issues through fiction – dreams, like Cobb. What Fischer is experiencing is what Cobb is experiencing. The only difference is the relationship.
It seems Nolan has created Cobb, through whom he explores his movies, and Cobb has created dreams, through which he explores his pain.
That’s the first sentence I typed when I started this whole thing. That’s where this headache began.
I won’t lie—at first, I was almost angry. What a cop-out, I thought. A movie that’s all a dream? That’s worse than how Lost ended. Which was pretty awful.
But it’s not. Those two hours of my life haven’t been wasted – though maybe the last however many I’ve spent writing this thing – because the movie was a dream. No more than if my dreams are dreams. It’s great because it works, because it wasn’t a cheap gimmick or a lazy plot twist. It works because it’s symbolic of movies. They’re all fake, movies. But how they impact us is real. How they move us is real. Same goes for television. And music. And books. And magazines. And art as a whole.
That’s why I love movies and books and music and art.
To borrow from the Wachowski brothers, in V for Vendetta: Writers – and moviemakers, and all artists – use lies to tell the truth. In this case, it’s been a movie that’s given us -- or at least, me -- a new way of viewing movies. Or at least, a new respect for the good ones.
Bonus material: Check out how similar the Dark Night and Inception posters were. (Both directed by Nolan.)