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Thoughts on Inception…

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.

Inception kept me off balance...

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.

Does my theory hold water?

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.

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31 Responses

  1. Great stuff here…I can’t wait until everyone has seen it so the “real” discussions and debate on what it all meant can begin.

    Right now it’s just about getting everyone “to go to sleep” – then we can all dive deeper.

    • Yep. It’ll be the weeks afterwards where debate and discussion emerge. And, i hope, it will create a rewatch factor that will give the film legs.

  2. I don’t hate the ending, per se…it just felt like one of those things people add at the last possible minute to piss everyone off or something. I do like the theory that the entire movie was a dream, but the question is, where, exactly, did that dream start?

    I’ll see it again too, maybe.

  3. There’s two schools of thought on this:

    1) That Miles (Caine) and Ariadne are incepting Cobb to come back to reality and be with his children again. The whole Saito-Fischer heist was an elaborate set-up.

    2) That Leo never left his subconscious and is still stuck.

    I’m led to believe the second option because the children haven’t aged in the end and the children and Miles are still wearing the same clothes in every scene they are in.

    • Yep, the kids bit seems very obvious. Particularly since they are wearing the same cloths from his memory and can’t be any older (months, at most). Seriously, if he’s been only in exile for three months, he’s pretty damn mopey about it.

  4. Yeah, the Miles usisng Ariadne to Incept Cobb idea is really starting to take a stronger hold for me. There are even some out there saying Miles could’ve forged himself into Saito (Leo had to of learned of forging from somebody, and that would’ve been Miles).

    Which #2 could be tied into that very easily. Cobb wakes back up on the plane, and is now able to dream freely in reality, which he says that he wasn’t able to do because of Mal. He then falls back asleep, gets picked up at the airport (which also could be reality still and falls asleep after airport), and then gets to see his children while in a dream.

    The whole totem idea is what i have the most questions about. Was says that a totem couldn’t fall over in a dream? Your mind could very easily be playing games with you and make you think you are in reality. And why does he get to use Mal’s? Why did we never see his original?

    • Yep – the fact that you should never let anybody else touch your totem doesn’t have an bearing on the “heist” plot and never becomes a plot point. It’s only when you combine it with the fact that Cobb uses Mal’s that it becomes a bit more… interesting.

    • I’d always thought Miles was a second away from betraying the crew, and was kind of surprised when he didn’t. That he might have been changing identities sounds like a great idea to explain the point of his angst which otherwise didn’t seem to have a purpose. What was Miles’ motivation, his character’s reason for being? Sounds good to me.

  5. I have to see it again to truly test this one out…but what about the idea of it all being Mal’s dream where she became so lost deep down into her subconscious that Cobb was just a projection of herself? After all, it is her totem that is spun in the last scene…and if you think about the layers of meaning attached to the Edith Piaf song “Non Je Ne Regretter Rien” that is used to wake everyone up (the fact that Marion Cotillard played Edith Piaf in another film and that maybe Nolan was using that as a clue to this all being a projection of Mal???) – there could be something to it…or maybe not.

    I also have to check this out…but I have a vague memory of Ariadne being woken up twice in the van??? Not sure if that was just my mind playing tricks on me or a clue to another theory…

    • That’s interesting. It would certainly be fascinating to have the lead character be someone we never “really” meet. I do think, however, Cobb is perhaps the most “real” element of the film.

  6. David, Nolan had chosen that Edith Piaf song long before he chose Cotillard. They actually considered changing it after the Godess was brought on board, but both Nolan and Zimmer agreed that it was the best possible song for that specific scene.

  7. Red – aha! Interesting…thanks for pointing that out. It still added a nice layer whether it had originally been intentional or not. It was the perfect song in either case.

  8. I think Nolan loves open-ended conclusion just to mess with our minds!! I kept saying to my husband, why are the kids still wearing the same clothes??? Which make me think that Cobb is still in his dream state, but then there’s the totem spinning question, which is deliberately cut off. It’s the genius mind of Nolan that he compels the audience to see it again and again to fully grasp it.

    I didn’t know about the Edith Piaf’s song! Shoot, I wish I had seen the movie to recognize that. Interesting tidbit!

    • Yep, and even then I think it’s a movie that might reveal more of itself on subsequent rewatches. I still get stuff out of The Prestige.

  9. The thing that I want to understand is, towards the end, when cobb decides to stay to look for the other dude, he wakes up on the beach/water again… did he just go deeper? and why is that guy so old, and leo the same? i need an explanation please!

    • Yep. Because they’re so heavily sedated, when they die, they don’t wake up, their consciousness goes adrift into “limbo”.

      And the guy is older because although he only “died” moments ago, the time differential is so much greater – those minutes likely seemed an eternity before Cobb caught up with him.

  10. Just watched inception and I think the answer for the ending is with the owner of the cafe in Mombasa. The one who chooses to argue with Dom rather than serving him coffee.

    Anybody here knows Kenyan language? Nolan deliberately puts the answer in a foreign language.

    Think about it.

  11. I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again until I get it home, but when that happens, oh baby! I’ll be curling up on the couch with my headphones on and dissecting everything.

    Invitations to wake up and to come back to reality do strike a similar note to the hints dropped in Vanilla Sky, but in the case of Inception, the story is operating at such a high level that such an on the nose hint would be unworthy of the script. Vanilla Sky was never clear from the start that the whole movie was about dreams, while Inception couldn’t have been more obvious about it.

    Also, as far as the kids not ageing much – for one, we are all aware of the time discrepancies that came up through the dreaming process, which could easily make someone who spends all his time in dreams like Cobb feel like he’s been away from his kids forever. And on the flipside, when you’re a parent away from your kids, even a week can seem like an eternity. I’ll admit that the period of time never being specifically expressed does leave the door wide open to interpretation.

    Finally, the top spinning at the end: The collective gasp/sigh/groan of the audience at the screening I attended that there clearly was a change in tempo of the totem right when it went to black, rather than an implication that it would go on spinning forever, which would have generated a brief silence, followed by a collective groan. Even if I’m wrong, that the movie was all a dream or not was completely irrelevant, in that the events unfolding on screen have just as much of an emotional impact anyways, because no matter the level of reality, they’re all just fictional anyway.

    Sigh…

  12. Oh, and one more thing: Brian mentioned to me that the trick is to watch for his wedding ring. I didn’t notice it myself but apparently seeing whether he’s wearing a wedding ring or not will tell you if he’s in a dream or not…

    Second hand info, I know.

  13. Ok, most of these theories have blown my mind.
    But heres a question…

    When they arrive in the first level of dreaming and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is driving the van, he rolls the car. Wouldn’t that simulate as a kick by accident? The scene slows down to as if they are falling and don’t you wake up if you feel like you’re falling?

    • That is actually something that never occurred to me. Maybe they just “missed” it (like they “missed” the first kick).

    • I thought so too… but got so distracted by the zero-G hotel fight happening that I let it go. The answer though is that while the drug that they took would leave their equilibrium intact, it wouldn’t allow them to wake up until a certain amount of time had passed – that was why they couldn’t just shoot Saito to get him out of the dream, and why everyone was so mad at Cobb for trapping them in a heavily fortified dream. So even though they technically kicked, they couldn’t wake up because the drug was still keeping them under.

  14. the entire movie can not be a dream. Here’s why: if it was, when Mol committed suicide, that means she would have woken up, with Cobb next to her. Then she would have given him the kick, and that would be it. Unless she goes into a deeper limbo, and wakes up a projection of Cobb, but that is far-fetched.

  15. I saw Inception three times in the theater and each time, had a deep conversation with those who I saw it with. Christopher Nolan is somewhat of a genius. His early work was genius. The Dark Knight was revolutionary. And Inception is a masterpiece. I would love to have some dialogue with you about your thoughts more in depth and personal. I remember coming home after my third viewing of the film and writing down my thoughts on all these matters before I forgot them. Now that I own the film on Blu Ray, picking this apart and learning what Nolan actually felt will be a treat.

    • I’m waiting for the Bluray myself. It’s in the post. I reckon it’s a movie which – like Blade Runner (one of Nolan’s inspirations for Batman Begins) – will just keep giving over the years.

    • I agree that Nolan is a genius, he has now become my #1 director of all time just because of Batman and Inception, i’ve yet to see Memento, and no one ever talks about The Prestige, for good reason, I didnt like it much. Anyway, at first I didnt think I was going to like Inception, because I never liked Leo as an actor, but once I saw it, I was blown away, the action scenes were great, but the talking scenes were even better! the concepts spoke so much truth to me, the way they explain how dreams really work, that “one simple idea”, how we solve our day to day problems in our dreams, but I think what people dont realize is that the “fictional” parts of the movie are not that fictional, all of it is possible if not already done, although I think the most intriguing idea that ive had and some people will not get, is that this life is also a dream within many dreams there is no end to reality, so therefore every dream we’ve had is in someway real, just depends on how we look at it, now please let me know your thoughts on not just the movie but what idea was planted in your mind by this wonderful movie :D

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