There’s a fairly decent argument in the art world about whether an artist’s work becomes something outside of the artist once it hits other people. For example, if Tolkien writes LOTR as a parody for war and people interpret it as a story about racism, then is it a story about racism or about war? Does it matter what the artist originally intended?
I know director Christopher Nolan is walking a similar line with Inception, telling viewers “interpret the movie anyway you want.” Which is perfectly fine. In this case, I don’t think there’s much legerdemain or fanciness involved here; I’m fairly certain the whole movie is very deliberately a dream. Or dream-like. Or movie-like.
Consider the very deliberate, very simple recurring ideas planted at the beginning of the movie:
First, the idea of planting an idea itself. Ideas, after all, spread like viruses. A little drop in the well and soon they spread across the entire pond. Inception starts in a world that looks like any other. Or does it? We quickly discover we are in a dream. But then when we wake up, we think we’re in the real world only find out we are still in a dream. Idea planted.
“Fool me once, shame you on you. Fool me twice, shame on, well, you’re not gonna fool me twice.”
Second, how do you know you are dreaming? Dreams start in the middle — we can never remember how we “got here” in a dream. Interestingly, Inception is a movie that, by all accounts, begins in the middle. We never find out how in the hell Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Saito (Ken Watanabe). Or what in the world Cobault industries is. Or why they hired him. Or how long he’s been doing it. Or how he met any of his team. Or how Michael Caine taught him or where the technology came from. Or how a wanted murderer moves around Europe so easily. Or how he has so much money. Or how he’d just call up home and talk to the mother of the woman “he killed.”
And, like a dream, Cobb’s world is hazy and dynamic and grandiose. He’s a superhero. He goes from Kyoto to Paris to Mumbasa like he’s James Bond himself. And his task? To save the world.
“My competitor will own 50% of the world’s energy market and BECOME A NEW SUPERPOWER! HE MUST BE STOPPED!”
Sure, no problem. After all, he’s the best “Extractor” in the world. Whatever the hell that is.
Notice the inconsistency between not being able to explain Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) delusion to authorities based on their shared dreaming — implying the technology is not well-known or accepted — and yet the key target in the film, a confused spoiled son, Mr. Fischer (Cilian Murphy), has been trained by some unseen rival extractor to simply master the world of subconscious dream-invasion defense. It’s a world full of mazes and loops and Penrose steps. If that doesn’t sound like a dream, I don’t know what does.
Little of the remaining film takes place in our “real world,” or what I’d Level 1 of the movie/dream. Cobb skips to Mumbasa and there is tailed by Cobault Industry hit-men. Only nothing happens until he meets his man, and then he literally jumps out a freaking window to escape them. When he lands, a Cobault brood says “you’re not dreaming now!” Or something of that effect.
I found that particularly thought-provoking dialogue, because the rest of the sequence plays exactly like a dream that I’m sure we’ve all had. Cobb is shot at by a number of people, none of whom hit anything despite close range. He then escapes by awkwardly jumping over a bus and wedging himself through two buildings, which do seem to close in on him — a classic dream anxiety representation. When he breaks free of the walls, Saito picks him up in with a quick screech of the tires and a flick of the door (which also takes out a Cobault Industry droog).
Turns out Saito can tail people like the CIA and has more money than God, because, well, he bought a fancy airline for fun. You know, to make the plan easier. (What’s easier, buy 12 tickets or purchase a huge airline, which inevitably would make news, and have your biggest competitor fly on your newly purchased airline next to you in the first class cabin while you attempt to drug him?)
After the flight to LA is over, Saito makes a phone call that allows a wanted murderer to saunter right into the country. Last time I checked, only the president of the United States has that power. Corporate espionage? Buying airlines? Usurping the law in a matter of minutes, no questions asked? If you’d ask me, I’d say that’s a bit over the top. And deliberately so.
“Your world is not real! Think about it…”
“Come back to reality, Dom.”
Most importantly, because the movie offers so much depth, it doesn’t hinge on this point. (To say nothing of the fantastic score, direction, art direction, cinematography, etc.) It’s not a trick, or a twist, or a crutch. It’s simply like the fabricate of the film. The film feels dream-like throughout.
And all of these elements — the chase, the dream technology, Saito, Fisher, the chemist magician who can isolate inner-ear impact with his sedatives but still works in the Mumbasa underground — drive the story forward. They propel it toward its never ending, never relenting goal of creating catharsis for Cobb. For getting him back “home.”
Of course, we’ll have to answer what “home” is. Because when I say “home” I’m not talking about a physical place, but a state of mind. Cobb’s “home” is the acceptance that his wife is gone and the purging of whatever guilt is associated with that. Only then can he be with his children. Can he be happy again — free of all the demons in his mind. Whether that guilt is the one we are given in the story (his inception of Mal), or guilt from something else, anything else in his life even, is utterly moot. Like Fischer’s facade in his own mind, the change is still real. The guilt will be gone. And that’s what home for Cobb is.
There is another layer of Inception: the Nolan metaphor. The biography of the creator. The director’s story — a giant one of storytelling and film making. Of 10 years of tinkering and adapting and adjusting and selling. And dreaming. Of creation and originality. And inception.
Arthur: “Don’t think of Elephants. What are you thinking about?“
Arthur: “Right, but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.“
Cobb: “No it’s not.“
Cobb is like a director. (DiCaprio based his character on Nolan.) He brings his thoughts, experiences, and even demons into his work, and in the process, can find meaning and resolution. His own catharsis. Through Cobb, Nolan says, no, I can make something original. I can have something take hold in your mind from my piece of art. Most importantly, I can get you to separate it from me. It will be your own experience.
“Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places! You don’t want to alert the dreamer of your presence.”
Don’t shake the audience too hard. Wouldn’t want to remind them they’re in a movie/dream. So how would he go about doing all this? How can one get an idea to hold? Cobb offers a proposal.
“I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion.”
An idea is less effective if it’s shocked, guilted, or yelled into one’s consciousness. And that’s deeply profound and ubiquitous, extending well beyond the scope of art.
Of course, the analogy continues. There is an “audition” for a producer (Saito, the deep pockets). Yusuf, the chemist, is like a technical director. Ariadne the screenwriter, creating mazes and puzzles to guide the heroes. Eames, the actor, playing a hooker, playing Browning, and sitting at an old actor’s table prepping for the part. He even has to improvise. They have meetings. They storyboard. Sometimes the film is compromised because the damn director drives a train through the set one day.
And in that sense, Fischer is the audience. He is taken on a journey, in an oh-so delicate manner. And in the end, despite none of the events of his dream actually happening, despite none of the ideas being his, he is changed, fundamentally. Like an audience after a good movie. Catharsis.
But wait, we return to Cobb — we “pop out a layer” to our original story in Level 1 — for having made the dream, Cobb is changed too. This change, primarily, occurred in his own mind, despite any interpretation we take of Level 1. It was his own mental projection of Mal that he finally overcomes at the end.
Mal: “You keep telling yourself what you know. But what you do you believe? What do you feel?”
Mal: “I’m the only thing you do believe in anymore.”
Cobb: “I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.”
Re-read that, and remember Cobb is actually talking to himself. He only tackles his demons by facing them head on. Only then is Cobb “home.” He’s free of his guilt.He can finally look at his kids, and no longer cares about that spinning top. Should you?
4 out of 4 Paws