On the plus side, it has a number of things going for it. Like Dante, this is the type of story in which form is content. It’s rare to have a story where plot, characters, and setting are so tightly integrated.
The plot has a concentric structure, like boxes within boxes–which mirrors the dreamscape. And this, in turn, generates parallel action between different dreamscapes, with alternating scenes between what’s happening in one dreamscape and another. That also makes it more interesting than the average film.
The emotional center of the film involves the ill-fated romance between Cobb and his late wife. They had a whole life together in “limbo,” where, as godlike “architects,” they made a vast, detailed world for themselves. Where they even had virtual children.
But Cobb became dissatisfied with the unreality of it. Wanted to wake up, and take his wife with him. The only way to wake up in a lucid dream is to kill yourself in the dream. He planted that idea in her mind. But having killed herself in the dream world, she later killed herself in the real world, which she mistook for the dream world.
At least that’s what happened from Cobb’s viewpoint. But that’s one of the ambiguities of the film. Whose viewpoint is real: Mal’s–or Cobb’s?
Maybe Cobb is deluded and Mal is right. At the end of the story, why do his kids look just the same in the “real world” as they did in “limbo”? And can one phone call from Saito really make the authorities drop the murder charges? Or is that wishful thinking on Cobb’s part–because Cobb is still trapped inside a dream?
There are some other nice touches, like falling from a great height to make yourself wake up. I myself have sometimes used that technique when I wanted to wake up from a dream I didn’t like.
Likewise, the use of “totems” to distinguish the dream from reality. In some of my lucid dreams I see a lunar eclipse. Somehow that signals to me that I’m dreaming. That’s the symbolic trigger.
The film raises the perennial question of how we distinguish between appearance and reality. If a dream is a mental construct, there’s a sense in which our waking state is no less a mental construct. We perceive a world outside ourselves. Yet all that we immediately perceive are mental depictions of the external world. My felt experience of the solid, tangible, world is a mental phenomenon. The apparently objective, 3D world I perceive is, to that extent, a psychological projection. It’s all happening on the inside.
Both the waking state and the dream state make use of sensory input. When dreaming, remembered input. When awake, live input.
Yes, there’s an underlying reality which produces, and thereby grounds the dream state as well as the waking state alike. But I lack direct access to the underlying reality in either state. External stimuli feed into the mind, but what the mind actually perceives is simulated stimuli. A reconstructed reality.
There’s a sense in which the waking world occupies public time and space. Essentially the same for everyone. That’s our common point of reference.
Yet even that is somewhat deceptive. Although we are in the public world, and not vice versa, the public world as observers individually perceive it is still a private, intransmissible experience.
So what is the real world really like? Short of divine revelation, there’s no way to tell.
And the blurring of appearance and reality is exacerbated by the story, for there one is not merely dealing with dreams, but designer dreams–where the perception of reality is systematically and deliberately manipulated. That makes it all the more difficult, if not impossible, to know where fantasy ends and reality begins. Everything is artificial. Even the “totem” may be a plant.
However, the film suffers from a number of flaws:
The relationship between Mal and Cobb is unequal, for DiCaprio lacks the expressive range of the actress who plays his wife. So there’s a basic mismatch. DiCaprio can’t adequately reciprocate her pathos or passion.
Moreover, Mal plays the role of the avenging fury. And that makes her less sympathetic.
Furthermore, we are told, at least from Cobb’s viewpoint, that Mal is just a psychological projection. Cobb’s imaginative memory of Mal. But if that’s true, then Cobb is only talking to himself.
On the other hand, this is one of the studied ambiguities of the film. After all, we never get to see where Cobb comes into the dream.
The world they create for themselves is oddly imposing and impersonal. It resembles an expanded, somewhat futuristic vision of Manhattan. But why would a couple create a sprawling, towering but utterly deserted metropolis to live in? It’s not very imaginative, and it’s not very domestic. Huge, empty, lonely, sterile, and dull. Miles of depopulated streets and skyscrapers, isolating and dwarfing our couple.
The dreamscapes are causally interconnected. When the van is in freefall, that creates a zero-gravity environment in another dreamscape. But why would one simulated environment impact another simulated environment?
By the same token, the different dreamscapes are synchronized. By why would the passage of time in one dreamscape track the passage of time in another dreamscape? Wouldn’t each dreamscape be fairly self-contained?
There’s a scene early in the film of a city replicating itself, then folding in on itself. At that point I thought the film would resemble a 3D version of something from M. C. Escher’s optical illusions. What hell would be like if hell were designed by Escher rather than Dante.
But unfortunately, that promising premise went largely unrealized. There’s a bit of surreal action in the film, but for the most part the dreamscapes aren’t very dreamy. I was hoping for a cross between M. C. Escher and Salvador Dali. But what we get instead is largely and pretty quotidian.
And I don’t know why that is. Perhaps Nolan felt the dreamscape had to be realistic to trick Fischer into thinking this was real. If so, that misses the paradox of dreaming. However bizarre, however unrealistic, a dream seems real to the dreamer.
Although Cobb’s team are lucid dreamers, Fischer is not. So there’s no obvious reason why Nolan failed to take advantage of the CGI to create a more dreamlike setting, in time and space. Instead, we get several action sequences that seem to walk straight out of the James Bond franchise. It’s kind of a letdown.
For that matter, I think the whole corporate espionage subplot was expendable. It would be more interesting to explore the life that Mal and Cobb made for themselves in “limbo.”
No doubt the film merits repeated viewing. But it’s one of those films where I say to myself, If I were the director, I’d do this instead of that.