Thoughts on Inception

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on July 22, 2010). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

Prairie and I went to see Inception last week, and as I tweeted afterwards, I ended up really enjoying it, while Prairie didn’t like it as much. As she’s not as much of a sci-fi buff as I am, and has a lower tolerance for violence, that’s not a very surprising result.

As good as it is, I don’t find Inception to be a perfect film. Some of the things that bothered Prairie bothered me as well as I was watching it. Interestingly, some of these very things end up making more sense — or, at the very least, become less troubling — when viewed in the light of one of the more interesting interpretations of the film.

As Inception is still in its opening weeks, I’m going to go ahead and put the rest of my ramblings under the cut, for those who’d prefer to avoid spoilers…

When viewed solely as a sci-fi heist film, there are definite elements of Inception that don’t work very well, and key among them is the lack of involvement for the audience in the characters or the motivation for the heist. This is probably the single biggest flaw, and is the one that Prairie mentioned as the biggest reason she was never entirely invested in the story: most of the characters just really aren’t that interesting. They’re not strong enough characters for the audience to really care about their final fates. While the story is interesting, and the effects and action sequences are well executed and enjoyable to watch, neither Prairie or I had much emotional investment in Cobb or any of the rest of his crew to really care about their final fate, aside from wanting to wrap up the stories.

Secondly, it’s difficult to really care about whether Cobb and his crew succeed in pulling off their heist when the primary motivating factor — beyond Cobb’s desire to return home to his children, which is somewhat handicapped by our lack of investment in Cobb himself — is whether one or another corporation will end up with control over the world’s energy resources. This isn’t some plucky band of rebels fighting for freedom or against tyranny, or any other scenario that would get the audience to care about whether or not they succeed. Instead, it’s a group of mercenaries hired out to influence a corporate business transaction. In an environment where the greed of big business in the energy industry has just created one of the biggest and most devastating environmental accidents in American history, it’s more than a little difficult to care one whit about whether the heist allows one company to take over the assets of another company or not.

However — and this is where I’m finding Inception to be more interesting the more I read other people’s analyses — if you step back to view the film not as the sci-fi heist caper it appears to be on the surface, and to read it as a metaphor for the filmmaking experience, particularly that of director Christopher Nolan, these concerns start to fall by the wayside. Viewed through this lens, these issues aren’t issues at all.

I’m going to pull some sections from two excellent articles about Inception that explore this theme in far more depth than I’m capable of.

First, C.H.U.D.’s Devin Faraci argues that everything in Inception is a dream, and that’s necessary for the underlying theme to be successful.

I believe that Inception is a dream to the point where even the dream-sharing stuff is a dream. Dom Cobb isn’t an extractor. He can’t go into other people’s dreams. He isn’t on the run from the Cobol Corporation. At one point he tells himself this, through the voice of Mal, who is a projection of his own subconscious. She asks him how real he thinks his world is, where he’s being chased across the globe by faceless corporate goons.

She asks him that in a scene that we all know is a dream, but Inception lets us in on this elsewhere. Michael Caine’s character implores Cobb to return to reality, to wake up. During the chase in Mombasa, Cobb tries to escape down an alleyway, and the two buildings between which he’s running begin closing in on him – a classic anxiety dream moment. When he finally pulls himself free he finds Ken Watanabe’s character waiting for him, against all logic. Except dream logic.

Much is made in the film about totems, items unique to dreamers that can be used to tell when someone is actually awake or asleep. Cobb’s totem is a top, which spins endlessly when he’s asleep, and the fact that the top stops spinning at many points in the film is claimed by some to be evidence that Cobb is awake during those scenes. The problem here is that the top wasn’t always Cobb’s totem – he got it from his wife, who killed herself because she believed that they were still living in a dream. There’s more than a slim chance that she’s right – note that when Cobb remembers her suicide she is, bizarrely, sitting on a ledge opposite the room they rented. You could do the logical gymnastics required to claim that Mal simply rented another room across the alleyway, but the more realistic notion here is that it’s a dream, with the gap between the two lovers being a metaphorical one made literal. When Mal jumps she leaves behind the top, and if she was right about the world being a dream, the fact that it spins or doesn’t spin is meaningless. It’s a dream construct anyway. There’s no way to use the top as a proof of reality.

I noticed the walls closing in during Cobb’s run down the alleyway, but it was the bit with Cobb and Mal talking across a gap that really stuck out to me during the movie, and had me doubting the reality of that sequence, even though it’s presented as something that happened in the “real world.”

Faraci goes on to map the world of Inception to the world of Hollywood and filmmaking.

The heist team quite neatly maps to major players in a film production. Cobb is the director while Arthur, the guy who does the research and who sets up the places to sleep, is the producer. Ariadne, the dream architect, is the screenwriter – she creates the world that will be entered. Eames is the actor (this is so obvious that the character sits at an old fashioned mirrored vanity, the type which stage actors would use). Yusuf is the technical guy; remember, the Oscar come from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it requires a good number of technically minded people to get a movie off the ground. […]

That leaves two key figures. Saito is the money guy, the big corporate suit who fancies himself a part of the game. And Fischer, the mark, is the audience. Cobb, as a director, takes Fischer through an engaging, stimulating and exciting journey, one that leads him to an understanding about himself. Cobb is the big time movie director (or rather the best version of that – certainly not a Michael Bay) who brings the action, who brings the spectacle, but who also brings the meaning and the humanity and the emotion.

The movies-as-dreams aspect is part of why Inception keeps the dreams so grounded. In the film it’s explained that playing with the dream too much alerts the dreamer to the falseness around him; this is just another version of the suspension of disbelief upon which all films hinge. As soon as the audience is pulled out of the movie by some element – an implausible scene, a ludicrous line, a poor performance – it’s possible that the cinematic dream spell is broken completely, and they’re lost.

But what of Cobb’s wife, Mal? Faraci touches on this, but her role was solidified for me in Maria Bustillos’ response to Faraci’s analysis, where she expand’s upon Farici’s definition of Mal as muse.

The easiest way to access this interpretation is to examine the character of Mal, the wife of Dom Cobb. She represents Cobb’s personal inspiration; the Greek kind of muse, not just the beautiful-girl kind. Young artists conceive a passion for their métier that is analogous to a love affair. “He’s wedded to his work,” people will say. The indescribable beauty of books, paintings or music that strikes us with such brilliance and force when we are young; we fall in love with that. Some fall in love to such a degree that nothing will suffice but that they too must become painters, writers, musicians.

Young artists often come to feel that that great love will provide all the inspiration they’ll ever need to fuel their own works, that they can call on the muse and she will come, like a bolt of lightning, and then they will create works of equal brilliance out of the passion they’ve felt for the works of others. That feels inevitable, because the love is so colossal, so perfect, so overwhelming. Nothing so beautiful and fulfilling can possibly be mistaken; it is hard not to feel that.

But no artist who relies on passion alone is ever going to create meaningful work, it turns out. The world of personal inspiration is sealed to the outside. In the movie Mal, the symbol of inspiration, says this directly to Ariadne: “Do you know what it is to be a lover? Half of a whole?” Please note, there is no room for children or anything else in that formula. Then, to Cobb, in distress: “You said we’d be together! You said we’d grow old together.”

The artist has to struggle and eventually to break with his muse, however seductive and beautiful she may be, if what he wants is to move an audience. The muse will always be tempting him to indulge his own vision, rather than trying to reach outside himself for it. This is the real story of Inception.

It’s a fascinating reading of the film, and the more I run it around in my head, the more I think that this is the reading that’s going to stick and withstand the test of time. Not the clever but flawed heist movie set in the world of dreams…but a brilliant exploration of the process of creation and the sacrifices that creators must make to touch the audience.