I already wrote my review of the film after watching it, and it’s a largely spoiler-free piece that really only discusses things in abstract. But I thought the film deserved better that that, so I thought I’d spend a few minutes just letting my mind run a little bit wild while working through the jumbled maze of ideas and impressive visuals that was Nolan’s Inception.
Note: As mentioned above, this article will contain spoilers. Consider yourself well-and-truly warned. But feel free to pop back after you’ve had a chance to view the film.
“Was the ending a dream?” “Was the whole film a dream?”
Those were two of the many thoughts running through my head as the final image of Inception nestled itself into my subconscious. Indeed, I can see that last shot – Cobb’s totem, spinning and spinning, and maybe slowing down (but not enough to be sure) – being hugely divisive. Some will call it a cop-out, a cheap gimmick and a manipulative stunt, while others will consider it perfectly in keeping with the tone and mood of the film. We’ll never know whether Cobb was awake or actually dreaming – hell, even myself and the better half have a respectful disagreement going on about – but that’s the point. And I respect Nolan for leaving it open, in the same way that Shutter Island left the movie open with its own final lines.
There’s a pivotal scene at the climax, where Mal tries to convince her husband that he never left their dream – she cites little things that I myself had noticed (secret agents chasing Cobb who look and act like defensive subconscious constructs through the streets of Mombasa, for example). In any other movie, her arguments would be shallow and superficial, a necessary gimmick – a moment of mandatory self-doubt for the hero at the climax of the movie. However, here, they are much more. Her arguments are almost logical. They make sense.
There are moments in the waking world (particularly in Paris) where there are loud ambient noises (much louder than they probably should be), which sound like the music filtering down through several layours of subconscious (stretched through time distortion). As Cobb runs through Mombasa, the city is constructed like a maze (the walls seem to physically close in on him). There’s a magical moment during Cobb’s “interview” with Ariadne when he asks how they got to the café – she can’t remember. One minute they were talking and then they were there. It was as simple as a film cut. Nolan seems to emphasise that films and dreams share the same sort of visual cues – the same storytelling shortcuts. Indeed, he also observes that dreams don’t ramp up – they typically start in the middle. Just like this particular film.
During the ‘waking’ scenes, Nolan uses film cuts to great effect – actors change positions occasionally (again, note that confrontation between Cobb and Ariadne). It lends a sort of wonderful fractured feel to the narrative. Indeed, the film works on the basic premise that the subconcious mind is layered. You can go deeper by sleeping and move back up by waking up. However, the film is structured in such a way as to avoid lines – it’s more interested in circles and cycles, feedback loops and impossible stairways. Stairs that always head up, but always circle back on themselves. There is no top, because whenever you reach the last step, the first step is waiting for you again.
It’s interesting that Cobb has taken to using Mal’s totem to confirm that he’s in reality. Isn’t that entirely risky, since she knows the balance of it herself (and therefore, her subconscious does?). If you accept that Cobb is being chased by somebody’s subconscious in Mombasa, that means he’s trapped in a subconscious that isn’t his – or at least isn’t entirely his. Given how they shared so much time together building their own world, perhaps Mal is right, and he is still trapped within their shared dream.
I find it strange that the children have not aged at all, even after Cobb has spent what seems like so long on the run. Given his subconscious’ strong reaction to mirrors (from his walk with Ariadne, which – interestingly enough – reflects an interesting facet of dreaming – seeing one’s reflection in a dream is often disturbing), it’s interesting that (as far as I recall) we never see his reflection in the real world. His father-in-law implores him to “come back to reality”. Indeed, there seem to be all manner of figures who encourage him to reject his status quo -and his dream heists - as opposed to those who implore him to reject Mal.
It’s fascinating the the movie contains so much food for thought and so many ideas. Nolan manages to put enough into the movie to leave the audience thinking about what they saw – but also building their own theories around it. Much as Cobb put a seed of doubt in Mal that grew (and Mal arguably put a similar doubt in Cobb – to the extent that he seems to randomly use his totem to determine whether or not he’s awake – gun in hand - rather than simply after “waking up”), Nolan puts forward several interesting seeds and theories and opinions. I’m nto even dead set on this one, it just occurs to me.
I plan to see it again next week with the better half, perhaps it will help me pick apart or deconstruct this idea. Maybe it’ll even give me some new ones.