Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy
*This review contains spoilers*
Inception is the latest film written and directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento and The Dark Knight fame. Reportedly, this film has been ten years in the making. For a high-budget summer blockbuster release, it is uncommonly complex and requires utmost concentration on the viewer’s behalf to keep up.
The film tells the tale of a man named Dominic Cobb who is a hired gun that performs corporate espionage by entering a subject’s dreams and stealing secrets from their subconscious. As Inception begins, he is recruited by a businessman named Saito to perform his biggest challenge yet: to convince the son of a terminally ill corporate mogul to disband his father’s empire when he inherits it. This challenge is so great that Cobb must recruit a group of specialists, Oceans Eleven style, to help him with the dreamscaping (sort of like landscaping) required to plant the idea into the mind of the target.
Each specialist has a unique trait. There’s a forger who can mimic the identities of people in the dream, an architect who can create spaces convincingly within the dream and a chemist who can create sufficient sedatives necessary to build a multi-layered dream. It’s a summer blockbuster film so eventually one of these guys also ends up functioning as a demolitions expert.
The team decide that to plant the necessary idea into the target’s head, they must construct a dreamscape that has three layers of depth and perform something called inception to convince the target to disband the corporate empire. Since getting lost in a dream is an occupational hazard, the team are encouraged to take a unique token with them called a ‘totem’ to help keep track of when they are dreaming and when they are in reality. This becomes important later in the story.
If I was feeling uncharitable, I’d say that this is less of a film and simply a Rube Goldberg machine with special effects. Cobb is the film’s protagonist and we do not learn anything about him other than that he has a wife who has passed away and he is driven to re-unite with his children. This is the film’s Macguffin to drive Cobb from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ by the end of the film. The rest of the cast function as narrators that verbalize to the audience what is happening throughout the film. You don’t learn anything about any of them at all. Such is the film’s structural complexity, Inception‘s dialogue consists almost entirely of a bunch of people running around explaining a logic puzzle. Since this would be boring by itself, its punctuated with lots of stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other.
This is perhaps the most useful diagram I’ve found on the Internet to explain what happens:
At this point, I had been successfully following the film’s mazelike structure to get to its conclusion when Cobb is reunited with his children. However, the kicker is the film’s parting shot which shows Cobb’s wife’s totem, a perpetually spinning top. We establish earlier in the film that if the top spins forever, Cobb is still dreaming. If it stops spinning, then he is in reality. In this shot the top appears to be buckle a couple of times and then we fade to black.
I haven’t felt this way about a film since Mulholland Drive. By adding that final moment of ambiguity, Nolan has turned the film on its head. Lets say that Cobb is still dreaming. If so, then where is he? Is he still in limbo? Because the implication in the earlier scene is that he and an elderly Saito kill themselves to ‘kick’ back to reality. Unless this means that Cobb or someone else has been an unreliable narrator in explaining the rules. We assume what everyone says to explain the rules of the film should be taken as gospel. What if they are wrong? If they are, then what does this mean for the rest of the film?
Conversely, what if the top is about to stop spinning and Cobb is in reality? Then it becomes an unnecessary addition to the final scene. A red herring. Is that all it is?
It was about this point that my brain exploded.
Then I think about my own experience watching the film. If my gut feeling was that the film is mostly a labyrinthian logic puzzle yet by the end of the film I don’t ‘get’ the puzzle’s solution then have I really got anything out of the film at all? I’m convinced that Inception‘s conclusion can be understood without any ambiguity and I’m just not getting my head around it. I think I’d have a far greater measure of satisfaction if I felt certain that I understood the meaning of that final shot.
I think I might need to go back and watch it again.