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.