Friday, December 17, 2010


I finally got around to seeing Inception. It’s one of those “thinking man’s” SF flicks. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the film as many reviewers. I think it’s better at raising questions than answering questions. And some of the ideas are more intriguing than the execution.

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. 


  1. The genius of Nolan doing it this way is that he can always say, "All the flaws you found are proof that Cobb was dreaming the whole time, so they're there on purpose!"

    But WAS Cobb dreaming the whole time?

    He wrote it ambiguous enough he can play both sides.

    For the record, my opinion watching the film was that it was supposed to be "real" and not a dream. But I had a chance to read the script, and the script really seems to me like Nolan intended it all to be a dream. The biggest difference is in the movie, when Cobb enters the hotel room where Mal is, he steps on a glass and finds the top. In the script, however, the top is actually spinning at that point.

    And for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, um, well, uh... *SPOILER ALERT*. :-P

  2. If you want a movie with more abstract/surreal dreamscapes, check out "The Fall" by Tarsem Singh. The story is (depending on who you ask) a bit more flimsy than Inception, but it definitely delivers on the imagery.

  3. My favorite "dream" movie is one without the complexities and confusions that plague Inception (though this is not to say that it doesn't have its own!), David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. (I admit that in calling it a "dream movie" I am offering an interpretation that may be disputed.)

  4. Nolan has been exploring man's capacity to delude himself into the conviction that what he says or does must be the right thing against all possible external evidence in each of his films. Even in his Batman films he takes this idea as far as he is willing to go without transforming Batman into an outright villain. For a character like Batman Nolan can still mostly get away with this.

    I take the story to be entirely about Cobb's own capacity for delusion. One of my friends really works to avoid this conclusion but he admits he likes movies where there are clear good guys and bad guys. He hated District 9 for the same reason I loved it, that we are shown a character for whom "redemption" is not because they choose the right path but because it is forced upon them. Might be the difference between a FourSquare attender and a Presbyterian. ;-)

    I think the reason the top wasn't spinning at that point was because it was still evident that that was a dream state. Along the way it has been established that Cobb isn't able to dream now except from things he remembers and he had done a lot of work building dream-worlds from memory. If this isn't a big clue that Cobb has become a completely reflexive mind unable to connect to the outside then a viewer wants a happy ending Nolan is not necessarily giving us.

    Most Western films that attempt to deal with the implications of dreams, reality, and epistlemology are unfortunately content to just pose the question of how we can know. I give Nolan a lot of credit for skipping that and considering the ethical implications of that question. The central plot revelation is that Cobb will eventually admit that how he used the distinction is what makes him culpable for his wife's death. USUALLY how Western film-makers approach the question of illusion and morality is to go teh eXistenZ route a la Cronenberg and give themselves a free pass on the issue of whether or not it even matters what you do in a dream since it's not real.

  5. Christopher Nolan revived my hope that good movie making can still be done...and I won't let Steve ruin this movie for me ;)

    After watching it a second time, I did find some plot holes...pretty significant ones. I can't remember what, so I think I'll have to go watch it again.

  6. Craig French,

    I ended up watching it 5 times in the theater. The last few times just to test various theories about the script.

    Ultimately, I think the only holes are if you accept that the world presented is supposed to be "real." If it's all a dream, then the spinning top was never an accurate indicator of the dream state (which means it's irrelevant whether it falls or not at the very end of the movie), and all the stuff that seems so out of place is no longer relevant. On the other hand, it means Cobb's lost in a delusion forever, because *he* doesn't care enough to watch if he's in the real world or not himself.

    Again, I think Nolan intentionally made it ambiguous as he shot the film, so he could play both sides. Because, in the end, *THAT* is the idea he's implanted in the mind of the audience. Would anyone even question whether the whole thing was a dream if he hadn't had the final shot of the top? Nope. He implanted that idea by what he chose to show and what he chose to hide :-)

    It's not a perfect movie, but I enjoyed it and will buy it when I get paid. I'll still put it in my top 10.

  7. If it's in your top 10, what are the other 9?

  8. I have a fairly random variety of movies that I like. They alternate depending on the mood I'm in as to which one actually takes the # 1 spot, although it's usually "We Were Soldiers." But my current top 10 would be (in no particular order after # 1):

    We Were Soldiers
    The Dark Knight
    To End All Wars
    The Four Feathers
    Fight Club
    Lucky Number Sleven
    Amazing Grace

    But even as I write that, there's so many other movies that could occasionally jump in that list. Like, I see over on the shelf the movie Glory--in which I think Denzel Washington did some of his best acting ever. Beside that are two other great Civil War movies, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The Exorcist is up there too--although I disagree that it's really the scariest movie of all time (but then, the closest I've ever been to being scared by a movie was Schindler's List*, and then only because of the truth of how brutal the Nazis were). There's also the Sixth Sense, That Thing You Do, As Good as it Gets, A Few Good Men, This is Spinal Tap, Kill Bill (both volumes), Inglorious Basterds, The Incredibles, and Tombstone. Any one of those has the potential, depending on how I feel, to knock off some of the movies lower on my top ten list.

    *Schindler's List is *not* on my list of favorite movies, BTW.

  9. FWIW, I'm a big fan of Nolan's Memento. Although I think Dark Knight is his best film.

  10. "So what is the real world really like? Short of divine revelation, there’s no way to tell."

    I was just explaining this to a friend the other day.

    I saw Inception three times in IMAX and I give Nolan full marks for interesting film making on a huge scale.

    Interesting review, Steve.