Through the Maze
Meaning is where you make it.
There’s something ironic about criticizing all the interpretations of this movie for asserting themselves as the One True Interpretation and then presenting a new one and claiming it is more accurate, especially when that interpretation concludes that the meaning of the movie is what the viewers make of it, thus validating everyone’s take of Inception, be it wrong or right.
Nice Article. Well put and written, but I can’t agree with the author’s fondness for the film itself.
There are three movies that jump straight to mind, from dozens of others, that propose the material of “Inception”. The recent ‘Knight and Day” and the fabled “Vertigo” and the underrated “The Jacket”.
IMO, these movies are all much better than “Inception”.
“Knight and Day” is a dazzling romanitic comedy about a man who is dead for the entire film. In an early scene, the hero plays a video game, a shooter no less, which declares in garrish lettering “you are dead”. We later learn the hero is “officially dead” to allow him to operate as a super-agent. The hero could very well be alive, but the movie tells us otherwise, and thus becomes the extistential metamorphosis of a man confronting his inevitable annihilation. There is great depth in “K&D”, and it is also fun and very funny.
“The Jacket” is just like “Knight and Day”, but pitched instead as a tragic spiritual love story with time travel elements. Total score, touching and healing and brimming with hope and forgiveness for all. Fantastic music by Brian Eno.
In the opening scene"Vertigo”, Scottie is in a no win situation. He must fall to his death. Hitchcock doesn’t miss a beat, so smooth his technique, that in the next scene with Scotty and Midge, we quickly forget that Scottie could not survive his former situation. When Scottie says “...I saw that man falling and I wanted to reach out to him…’ he refers to himself. The title of the source material is a giveaway. “D’entres de morts” means “between deaths” In “Vertigo”, these deaths are both Scottie’s. He falls, off scene, from the grain gutter. Later, n his confrontation w/ death he dreams he falls into the grave. Finally, the closing image of the film shows Scottie in the same bodily position as from his dream of the grave. He has fallen to his death at last.
“Inception” fails where these films succeed because the image of death/dream imagery is too close to the surface of the film itself. It is pretty obvious that Nolan wants the viewer to directly connect with the possibility the film entire is “only a dream” and that by extension, reality at large is “only a dream”. Thus the movie comes off like an over-produced philosophy of solipsim, where the films I mention, and tons of other goodies actually encourage the audience to get lost in a real story where love, torment and metamorphoses matter, even if it is but a dream.
I have to say, this is an interesting essay. Unlike the other commenters here, I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Nolan - a man who graduated with an Eng Lit degree from University College certainly has a great deal of background in these concepts. It isn’t unlikely he molded Inception to incorporate the ideas here. I don’t believe for one minute this film is too “literal” and AO Scott is missing the point of dream worlds if he feels this one doesn’t have enough imagination - he contradicts himself in his assertion that Nolan’s dreamscape isn’t “right”—how can someone’s dreamscape be right?
Nonetheless, the controversy of this film is fascinating - people either love it or hate it - and everyone has an idea of how to interpret it. At least it made people feel something.
I love the ambiguity; to me it asserts the possibility of multiple states of reality.
Another twist- Everyone assumes we have descended from the top- what if there is an L(-1) and (L-2) and ...?
But the philosophical “effects” also get exploited - the audience seemingly has to be constantly reminded that they are watching a “deep” and “meaningful” movie that “genius” Nolan spent over ten years to make and to convince the “studio system” to let him do it…
I agree with Artislav Mel that the movie is so desperate to tell the viewer that “it could all be a dream” that the ending is just the logical - and thereby totally unimaginatve - consequence. Yes, I say, this is a DEEP movie, I get it. And yes, there are thinly veiled Lynchean clues within the movie for the fans: Cobb wears a wedding ring when he is dreaming (wait - so it isn’t all a dream? Is the absence of the ring is real totem? Are his kids’ faces his totem?)
If this movie really wanted to be as multi-layered and bold (=going beyond L2-second-guessing) as this article claims it is then why does it feed so much on the classic binary yes/no- question? How come that all the other relevant questions are apparently non-existent?
For instance: Cobb seems to be damaged by feelings of regret and grief but in no way by having spent +50 years in the limbo (and some more on top of that on his search for Saito) within a few minutes of real time. Mal was deeply damaged whereas Cobb doesn’t even seem to have changed that much. I could imagine that his psyche would be rather “old”, “wrung out”, “desperate”. We see only his immediate pain but no long term effects (except for freight trains and murderous wife-memories). For a perfect counterexample see the Star Trek:TNG episode “The inner light”.
Another one: Ariadne, as the newbie she is, could start questioning the moral status of what they are doing. She seems to be the only one concerned about what is wrong with Cobb - but she doesn’t do anything about it. Yes, yes we see the problem with Mal and Cobb. Still, everybody seems perfectly ok to manipulate Fischer (wait - it’s for his own good, he had daddy-issues!), yet, none of the extractors is actually portrayed as the kind of smooth criminals they need to be to pull those jobs off (Cobb’s father-in-law even sends his college graduates to Cobb as interns or something (wait - it’s for the sake of his grandchildren who need their father)).
And the last and biggest one: Where is the threat?
In a movie that has so much action an wild chases and “killings”, we are always reminded that none of it matters. Time is irrelevant (the dreadfully repetetive van-jumps-bridge scenes), also is death by bullets. Only the Limbo is dangerous. Apparently not too dangerous to get +90 years old (like Saito) in it, though. The unformed subconscious has none of the nightmarish shadow quality the Freud and Jung-read viewer would expect it to have. It is more like a giant playground. But even the depressingly horrible situation of being alone with your own mind and memories in a giant playground is not there. Again, we have to be told that your brain turns to scrambled eggs in the limbo. We never see it, let alone that we might feel/experience it or actually care about. All the visuals and all the philosophical stunts don’t help this movie’s neglect of the first rule of writing:
show - don’t tell.
Very nice Article - thank you. I just discovered your website and I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.
However, I don’t think Inception deserves that much credit. Since we are talking Postmodernism here, I don’t care if or if not Nolan is this kind of extremeley well-read director to compose the story of the movie along the lines of jungean psychology and phenomenology: it’s the death of the author, so the movie stands for itself.
And in that respect, the story ultimately fails for me. The first misconception is that the audience is above all interested in whether it was all a dream or not. Wrong. The most important question for the audience is: Does the story work?
The movie might be entertaining on a superficial level of visuals: explosions, chases, great photography. And it might be entertaining from the very abstract perspective your article chooses. Ironically, it does not work on the intermediate level of simple storytelling. Who is the main character? Cobb, you say. But at the beginning (and in the trailer) it looks more like Ariadne ist going to be the main character - like in a growing-up story. Then, the perspective changes to Yusuf and Arthur (as you showed in your Article: their problems/motivations are central to the diffenent dream levels) to finally (?) focus on Fischer. But the whole time, the character-duo Saito and Cobb remain latent and towards the end they become the main characters (again).
One could of course call it a “plural” way of storytelling but I would object that we learn in fact too little about any of the characters - even about Cobb - to have real non-flat protagonists. But the signs were so good at the beginning: You had Miles as Cobb’s Mentor/father-in-law and Ariadne. Plenty of material on how Cobb became the “best extractor there is” and how Miles obviously came to believe/forgive Cobb for the loss of his own daughter - all this past experience could have been nicely intertwined with scenes of Ariadne’s training etc.
But with this movie, we have a story that radically focuses on the present (since time has no meaning whatsoever within dreams, esp. the limbo) which results in characters almost without a backstory.
Ironically, the two levels on which the movie works (visuals/mindfuck) fight each other and the rudimentary story: All the gunfights, explosions and whatnot have - as the movie establishes - no consequence for the people involved. The only moment when I actually felt something for anyone in this movie was when Mal jumped. There was some Romeo-and-Juliet-like drama involved there. But for the rest of the movie: Even the limbo doesn’t seem like such a great threat at all. And from a psychological standpoint (which is what you vote for, if I understand correctly): Those dreams are far too consistent and neat/sterile to really let the viewer connect them to his own experience with dreaming. Everything about “how dreams seem real as long as we are in them” has to be told via spoken text but is never actually shown. There is no kind of real “wake up” moment - everyone knows what’s going on all the time and is immediately oriented etc (except for Saito and Cobb waking up in the plane at the end).
So now - the director thinks - we need a real story in this movie. And this is where the exploitation begins, this is the real flaw of the movie. Of course the visuals are exploited - which is standard procedure for a mainstream studio movie. The result is pure boredom: freight trains shooting through Manhattan sidewalks? Fights in zero gravity? “Projections” with MGs? - Yawn. Whatever. Those old people in Mulholland Drive or the guy behind the Diner - they felt like dreamlike /nightmarish figures and have a profound effect on the viewer without any visual tricks.
Make of it what you will:
The time it takes for Cobb’s totem to fall down first spin = 18.20s
The time it takes for Cobb’s totem to fall down second spin = 20.58s
The time Cobb’s totem is spinning before movie abruptly ends = 46.77s
The final spin may have been shot with some slow-motion sequences, but is nevertheless a considerably longer spin.
A remarkably brilliant analysis of an incredibly enjoyable and powerful film
That is fine, but you are missing one thing. The whole movie was actually about his team getting him out of the dream because it was indeed COBB who was stuck. He gives clues throughout the whole movie. You can’t tell the person they are trapped, for one. Secondly, he says quite a few times you cannot use another persons totem or bad things will happen. The top was his wife’s totem. So basically it was his team had to set up a scenario to make Cobb believe he was indeed rescuing someone else to ease him out of it. Just look at their faces in the plane…they CLEARLY look at him differently, almost with a I know something you do not know that does not exist in any other scene in the film. Saito had to play his part to the “T” - even when Cobb came out of it. All of this is foreshadowed with Cobb’s explanation of how the inception works!!!
As a side note, how did he go visit his father, he was not allowed on U.S. soil *the school*. He clearly says he cannot go back there yet, but he goes visits his father??? This was obviously architecturally put in there.
Nested loop. Recursion. Programmers and engineers should be familiar with this.
the “kick” is where a recursion ends, and execution reverts to the outer loop.
sorry kinda out of touch with code writing. May have been wrong on some of the terms.
I would have believed if you have said it is written by christopher nolan
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