Some Extraction Required: Interpreting Inception
July 21st, 2010
Although Christopher Nolan’s Inception introduces evidence to the contrary, in our reality dreams are a solitary experience: not only are they personal in terms of context, unique to each dreamer, but they are also personal in that only that dreamer can see the dream as it first appeared. After that point, the dreamer can only relay their memory of the events therein – memory which varies from vivid recollection to vague, disconnected images – to those around them.
And yet, Inception is very much built around the notion of shared experience, both within its story and in its clear desire for the audience to leave the theatre discussing what they just witnessed. In fact, I’m sure some would argue that the film requires this sort of discussion to truly come into its own, demanding that the audience either works with others who shared the same experience to reconstruct its intricacies from memory or to do what dreamers can’t do by going to the theatre and watching it again.
Accordingly, I have no intentions on offering a definitive take on Inception, both because I’m generally bad at developing theories and because a single viewing and an MSN conversation with my brother do not a complete understanding of the film make. Rather, I simply want to discuss how the film goes about creating this seemingly necessary sort of interaction, and why Nolan achieves this less through cheap ambiguities and more through a growing sense of uncertainty which simultaneously breaks down our reading of the film and the film itself as it reaches its conclusion.
A conclusion, by the way, which is not what it appears to be.
SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t seen the film, and intend to in the future, and don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading.
There were, as it seems there were in many screenings, some audible groans (translated as “Of course!” rather than “How dare you?!”) when Inception cut to black as the spinning top seemed on the verge of toppling. Throughout the film, it had been established that the spinning top was the one way to tell whether or not you were still in a dream, a totem which would allow its user (and only its user) to trust in their surroundings. And so when that conclusion came, it purposefully directs us to the ambiguity of the final scene, creating the question which most audience members left discussing: was that final sequence, as Cobb lands in Los Angeles and reunites with his children, all a dream?
However. if you think about the rules that the film established, the top has nothing to do with that question: we learned at an early stage that totems become useless if someone other than their original owner touches or uses them, and considering that Cobb claims that the top originally began to Mal, the math no longer adds up. The trust which Cobb placed on the top is, not unlike Arthur’s stairs, a paradox, and Nolan perpetrates it by hinging that final sequence on a story element which he compromised upon its initial introduction. I’m not suggesting that the top has absolutely no value: there is great meaning in the fact that Cobb never once looks back to see whether or not it falls, his reunion with his children having made the top irrelevant (just as it was for Mal when she locked it away in the safe in limbo, content with the life she had lived). It is not, however, an arbiter of reality, inextricably caught up in the film’s compounding uncertainty.
One of the key concepts in Inception is the notion of how our subconscious operates, in particular how we discern the origins of our thoughts or feelings. The act of inception, we’re told, is tricky because you can’t simply plant an idea in someone’s brain, but you also have to convince them that they were the ones who felt it. I think analyzing Inception is similarly tricky, in that every thought I had while watching the film or discussing it afterward came from a particular element of the story which could fall into any number of categories. When considering every element of the film, it’s hard to tell what qualities as a purposeful clue to the film’s reality, what is simply a stylistic choice to emphasize key themes or images, or what might be a simple whole in the film’s narrative.
Perhaps Inception’s greatest accomplishment is that I can’t entirely tell the difference. Let’s take, for example, the fact that the supporting characters seem to be woefully underdeveloped on the surface. Personally, I felt that more could have been done with Arthur and Ariadne, considering the important roles they played in introducing and walking us through the intricacies of the dream architecture, but ultimately I can understand why Nolan would make a directorial choice to focus on a single character: the film is already dealing with some complex narrative structures, and there is a clarity to Cobb’s subconscious being the only invasive species at work.
However, what if the lack of information about the other characters is actually one of the central clues regarding the “solution” to the film? What if they are so paper thin because they are merely projections, suggesting that the entire film is a dream? I don’t mean to suggest this as a giant asterisk to justify Nolan’s decision to limit the supporting character development, but rather in order to point out that there is no certainty to be found in analyzing the film. No one is going to find a definitive answer because the film purposefully writes over itself at nearly every turn. I would argue, though, that this is not simple ambiguity: the film is less open to interpretation than it is open for interpretation. Like the dreams within the story, Nolan has meticulously crafted this particularly labyrinth, including some conveniently placed air ducts which lead those willing to thoroughly investigate the maze to entirely new levels of analysis which go far beyond a spinning top – it may entice audience members to interpret it in certain ways, but there is unquestionably a purposeful design at the core of the film which drives that interpretation (either consciously or unconsciously).
Every part of the film feels as if it comes to life when we start in on this investigation. One of the key ideas when dreaming is first introduced is the sense that you never remember how you got into a dream, always missing out on the “before” upon your arrival. And so, rewatching the film in our memories after returning home, we start to see patterns, like how, as my brother pointed out, we very rarely see the characters traveling from Point A to Point B (the helicopter sequence is the one exception) within the initial reality, instead getting dropped into each location as if in a dream. And when we look to that final sequence, and realize that we as an audience know the “before” of how Cobb came to be on that chair, suggesting that it wouldn’t be a dream. Then, we consider his father’s bizarre appearance in those final moments, and the fact that he never speaks to anyone, or the fact that (as this intriguing piece points out) they don’t appear to be hooked up to any wires upon waking up. And then we circle back to the question of the hour: is this all a way for Nolan to engage with our experience of dreaming to emphasize the film’s thematic aims, or is it a series of clues which reveal the truth about the film’s reality?
There have been some who have argued that Inception is a film without heart and soul, that Cobb’s relationship with Mal is a cliche and that any real conflict is eliminated when you enter into a dream-state where the dead don’t really die. Personally, as someone who finds engaging with ideas to be quite stimulating, the sense that the film was “cold” was never really an issue for me, but I do see how some might have wanted their emotional attachment to the film to come from more than the fun provided by the action sequences. The film relies on a balance of concept and spectacle, something which Nolan used in The Dark Knight and which I think he enjoys: you can see him testing the limits of how far he can take the action without losing his concept, just as you can see him resisting taking the concept so far that the action would seem counterproductive. You might believe that Nolan should have come down on a different side of the balance, but you cannot question the fact that Nolan meticulously designed the film to sit on a particular fence.
One of the “plot” elements of Inception is the idea that Cobb is himself no longer an architect, unable to build the worlds he will journey into our of fear of what his subconscious will do with the information. In this sense, Cobb seeks to maintain the uncertainty of dreams in order to keep his own subconscious at bay, but it also reveals the need for an observer for a cinematic experience like this one. The worlds the architects create may appear to be one thing at first glance, but then someone feels the carpet instead of simply observing it from afar, and they start to notice those imperfections. Watching Inception is like being able to live inside of a dream, every moment beckoning us to interpret it only for another moment to send us in an entirely different direction. What makes the film work is that, like with our own dreams, these moments do not cancel one another out: just as our dreams represent a diverse range of experiences and memories, moments within Inception represent a wide range of directorial choices, thematic symbols, and clues towards the deeper meaning of it all.
And so I write about Inception less to stake my flag on a particular theory and more to offer others the chance to sort through their own experience – my experience with the Cultural Catchup Project and my general appreciation for comments have clearly demonstrated how rewarding the shared experience of television viewing can be, and I think Inception is one of those films which will similarly benefit. I want to know how you first interpreted the film, and how that interpretation has changed upon either revisiting your memories, reading other interpretation, or revisiting the text itself by heading to the theatre for a second time. I think it would honestly be a form of torture to show someone this film and then lock them away with no human interaction: whether they liked the film or not, I truly believe that anyone who watches this film will desire to discuss it with someone around them, and I’m looking forward to being able to take part in those discussions in the weeks ahead.
- I normally tend to write about movies in terms of television series in order to justify their place in a blog primarily about television, but since James Poniewozik already handled the Lost comparison, and because I already revisited Doctor Who’s “Amy’s Choice” when analyzing the role of dreams in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Restless,” I really had nowhere to go in that area, so we’ll just have to accept that sometimes I’ll write about movies.
- For the record, I think my brother has me convinced that the entire film was a dream, and I want to make one thing clear: I don’t think this invalidates anything. Within the film, the importance of dreams in terms of reflecting inner turmoil is clearly established, and thus the film becomes an image of a tortured subconscious which just happens to also be an inventive action film – while your position in which is the “true” reality will dramatically change the film, its central themes and ideas remain the same regardless, which is part of why its openness remains purposeful.
- The film’s concept is its star, but DiCaprio was strong in his first summer movie ever (strange, huh), and I thought that Gordon-Levitt and Page brought a bit of personality to what were somewhat simple roles on the page. However, the scene stealers here were Tom Hardy, whose Eames was the most fun out of the various team members, and Cillian Murphy, who managed to sell the emotion of the conclusion even amidst the action climax which surrounded him. Also, glad to see Nolan put Ken Watanabe to better use here than in Batman Begins.
- If the film gains enough momentum and if Oscar voters felt really bad when Hugh Jackman called them out in song for not nominating The Dark Knight, it’s possible that Inception could garner some Oscar attention outside of Best Picture (where, in a 10 film field, it stands a solid shot). Some of it could come for Oscar Winner Marion Cotillard, who does a wonderful job of capturing the haunting qualities of Mal’s persona without losing the threat she represents.
- For a review of the film, plus a fascinating interview of sorts with Armond White about the film, check out the /Filmcast’s episode dedicated to Inception.
15 responses to “Some Extraction Required: Sharing the Experience of Interpreting Inception”
So glad you posted this- I’m still unpacking what I think about the film, and am interested to see what others think. I thought the first half of the film suffered from clumsy expository dialogue, but it got better and better as it progressed. This might be one of those times where I need to see a film more than once to decide how I feel about it.
I may not be understanding your point correctly Myles, but why should the top not work as a totem for Cobb? Yes, a totem becomes useless if someone else knows its properties, but only because this would open up the possibility that you could be in one of that individual’s dreams and not know it, since their mind can accurately reproduce your totem. Obviously this problem becomes irrelevant if the only other person who has interacted with your totem is dead. Or am I missing something?
He did also tell Ariadne about it’s properties (i.e. it’s supposed to keep spinning in the dream world), which I thought should have invalidated it.
I’m not entirely tied to the notion that the Top is entirely invalid, as you raise some interesting ideas in terms of how knowledge and possession could be different in regards to the totems and how they operate – the one point I will make is that Mal’s continues presence in Cobb’s head means that the problem isn’t particularly irrelevant, as she is not “dead” so much as her presence has shifted. If he is concerned about the Mal in his subconscious invading his time in dreams, then the Top would be particularly vulnerable considering it once belonged to her.
However, I think that the film introduces enough complications in regards to the Top in particular that the final sequence can’t be considered a test of the reality either way. You’re right that there’s theoretically ways in which the Top could have transferred or remained pure, but so much of that goes against the rules Cobb establishes that we can’t trust the Top or use the Top as evidence. If it falls, or if it keeps spinning, is inconclusive considering the contradictory evidence earlier in the film.
For “the whole movie was a dream” scenerio, if Cobb hadn’t got back to the real world with Mal, then he doesn’t have a real token, just a dream prop. Secondly, his trip back from limbo with Saito wasn’t very clear, and Saito had control of the token in limbo. Third, after testing the sedative about a third into the movie, he dropped the token (before he completed the test I think) and Saito grabbed it then as well. So there are a few possibilities about why the token could be unreliable.
The odd thing is that, in my opinion, there is great scope for talking about dreams as shown on screen in the context of TV shows (far more scope than from film, at least to me). The Sopranos and Twin Peaks are both famous for their use of dreams. To me the most familiar and strongest example of the presentation of dreams on screen is in Buffy’s Restless, and I was surprised when reading this that you didn’t compare the two, Myles.
The element that the comparison draws out most strongly (for me) is the high level of logic required in Inception’s dreams, especially about the geography of dreams. To the best of recollection, no dream I’ve ever had required the geography of the world I was dreaming to remain anywhere close to constant when I wasn’t looking at it. I can easily imagine a dream that took me from basement to playground, to van, to school, to the jungle, to the basement in the way that Xander’s did, or suddenly take a turn out from the college stage to the high school classroom, like Willow’s.
Nolan is a terrifically logical filmmaker, his scripts fit together like puzzles (particularly Memento). It’s as if he couldn’t step away from that even in dreams.
My reasons for not digging deeper into “Restless” are quite simple: having written and discussed it so recently, I’m saving revisiting it until I’ve seen more of Buffy, since the comments on the CCP post were so adamant that it gets better with time. I think it’s too soon to go back to it now, so I’m holding off until all of the foreshadowing has come to light.
But in terms of the comparison, since you asked, I don’t think Nolan is trying to present “real” dreams. The First Slayer is, I suppose, an architect of sorts, but it simply used each characters subconscious to reveal some of their deepest fears and insecurities which then manifested in what one would consider a usual nightmare. However, the Architects in Inception are trying to create dreams with a distinct purpose, dreams which force the dreamer’s subconscious towards a particular goal, which is why there is such an intense logic to their construction. Normal dreams give you a sense or a feeling of being “real,” but dreams which are trying to force the subconscious into a particular pattern cannot be as “random” as one would expect of real dreams.
In that sense, “Restless” (like much of Buffy) presents a demonic twist on a normal part of life, while Inception takes our experience of dreams and evolves it into an almost weaponized form with heightened design elements to use the way we dream in an entirely different way.
I first saw the film on Friday in Imax (which was a fantastic choice, I urge everyone to see it in Imax if they haven’t already), and my immediate reaction was that Nolan made it clear that to the protagonist, whether the top stopped spinning or not wasn’t important. He had been emotionally satisfied, and so the film felt conclusive, perhaps wholly conclusive to an audience member who had been completely invested in Cobb’s plight.
On further thought I decided that the film could ultimately be considered as a form of inception itself, introducing those who weren’t already familiar with Descartes’ famous “cognito ergo sum” theory to existential uncertainty (although in today’s post-matrix culture who isn’t aware of the “life is all a dream” idea?).
Basically, I feel that the film can be interpreted in any number of ways, much like 2001 (although maybe not so amazingly open-ended with such range and depth), and there is no definitive interpretation. Nolan cleverly twists the whole idea of modern film editing (that the viewer usually joins a scene “in medias res”), perhaps wholly unintentionally (and unavoidably) as just one way of implying that the whole film could be a dream, but I really think that a definitive interpretation is impossible, and I think if you asked Nolan whether it was all a dream he honestly couldn’t tell you.
And in the end I really don’t feel like it’s that important! The movie was a fantastic experience, and I think it’s to its credit that I wasn’t frustrated in its ambiguities, but in awe of its tightness and coherency.
I was also struck by the idea that the movie itself was an inception. I fixated on the political motive of the inception: to get the heir to dismantle a corporate behemoth. Essentially introducing an idea countering the liberty threatening vision of a conglomerate that has lost a connection to the dream from which it sprang. As I reached the exit of the multiplex I felt the goodness of the movie’s artistic inspiration by concluding that Inception is about how dreams are worth living for, but not worth dying for. Facile maybe, but potentially profound considering disseminating information to the public has become a virtual bloodsport.
Oh, to be so optimistic!
I believe Saito’s political motive was not to dismantle a corporate behemoth in the name of anti-corporation or globalizing monopoly, but instead to destroy the competitors of his own company in order to become the leader in the market. Saito’s motives – and, for that matter, Cobb’s – are not so altruistic.
Indeed, I was troubled/intrigued by the corruption of Cobb’s task – how it is not made to be an issue or a reason to contest the assignment. But given our times, this only seems to further support the argument that the film is a dream, one whose background is informed by the ambient noise of the day – such as no-longer-shocking headlines of dirty business.
I’ve seen the movie twice. And have thought of other possible interpretations. Like could there be evidence for another dreamer? Could the spinning top, being Mal’s totem, imply that this whole thing possibly is Mal’s dream (or nightmare)? I initially thought the whole thing may have been Cobb’s dream, but seeing it a second and knowing the end helps to understand the beginning. This could be waaaay off but would like others’ takes on it as I explore other thoughts. Also, two other questions. How does Cobb end up on the shore of what seems to be Saito’s subconscious when he already went to limbo washed up on the shore of his own subconscious? And could his father-in-law (Michael Caine) act as a sort of inclusio following the prologue-like beginning with Saito since after the beginning the only scenes of the father-in-law are in his classroom in Paris and at the end in LA? What significance could there be in this also?
“… so we’ll just have to accept that sometimes I’ll write about movies.”
I read a couple of reviews and the NY Times piece on overt influences in Nolan’s film: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/07/04/movies/20100704-inceptioninfluences-feature.html?ref=movies so I already had a perspective on the film before I saw it.
I read David Edelstein’s review: http://nymag.com/movies/reviews/67155/ and realized that the reason Edelstein is opposed to Nolan’s film work (Edelstein wrote one of the few scathing reviews of The Dark Knight) is that he feels that fantastical work should be more free and flowing and Nolan is interested in puzzles. In the Dark Knight he had the Joker play out different iterations of the prisoner’s dilemma (a special iteration of Game Theory). To me Nolan doesn’t think like a storyteller but more of a social scientist. Social scientists are concerned with solving the intractable problems of social behavior. They usually work by setting up pieces of the social problem as a puzzle and then offer their solutions. Nolan’s workman like methodical plotting in all his films reminds me of this.
Because I have read reviews and seen the influences I can confidently believe in my one interpretation that it is all a dream from first scene to last.
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Hey Myles, great stuff as usual.
If you’re still looking for some more conversation on Inception, feel free to check out my review of the film.
I believe Nolan purposefully constructed the film to support both -‘it is real’ and ‘it is a dream’ – theories.
More in my review here – http://tinyurl.com/2ejwu55