Some Things About Inception
I am not going to review this movie; I am not a movie reviewer anyway, who cares about my opinion? Maybe Inception is the next Citizen Kane (that seems actually like a bit of a stretch, to me), but I don’t think we’ll know for sure for a little while — the lash, the backlash, the back-backlash, it all needs to die down before anyone can assess it honestly.
The one thing that I will say is that it’s good, and that it deserves to be successful. It’s absolutely worth your eleven bucks, it’s absolutely worth seeing in the theater, and it’s one of the most intellectually interesting movies I’ve seen in…well, a while. If you want movies (especially genre movies) to not always be dumb, you have a moral responsibility to see this film.
In the meantime, what I want to do is talk about it.
HEY SPOILERS, EVERYONE!
I am going to SPOIL THE SHIT OUT OF THIS MOVIE, so if you haven’t seen it, DO NOT KEEP READING.
Because of the SPOILERS, okay?
Good, anyway. Inception’s got this marvelously, Philip K. Dickian structure that leaves a deliciously ambiguous ending. We know, because WE’VE all seen it: if the top spins forever, it means you’re dreaming. If it falls down, it means your awake — this is what the movie teaches us about the top. The very last moment of the film, timed SO PERFECTLY that the packed audience all went “AUUUUGH” when the film went to credits, shows us the spinning top.
Will it spin forever? We can hear it, just barely, beginning to oscillate, the way a top that’s losing momentum does. Or can we? Is it just in our imagination, because we so badly WANT Cobb to have returned to the real world? Is the top going to correct after a few moments?
Who knows? No one does; Nolan ends the movie the instant before we’ve got an answer.
But there’s actually a second issue involved here: a point that the movie expressly makes about totems: you don’t give someone else your totem. The whole point of a totem is that you, and only you, know it, so if you’re in someone else’s dream, the properties of the totem won’t be correct. Except the top isn’t Cobb’s totem, is it? It’s his wife’s totem. Where did he get it? When? Moreover: the assumption that the top can test reality is based on the idea that we’re in someone else’s subconscious.
If the entire movie is in Cobb’s subconscious the entire time, then the top is not a valuable test: his subconscious knows enough about the top to trick him into thinking he’s in reality. This is much the same way that my teeth-falling out dreams work — all the time, I have horrible dreams about my teeth falling out. It happened so often that, during the dream, I began to realize that I was dreaming, and could wake up. So what happens? My brain adds a layer of dreaming in — “Oh,” it tells me, “you were dreaming before, but look, you’ve woken up! This time, IT’S REAL!”
The subconscious mind isn’t above tricking you into forgetting that you’re dreaming, leaving us with the question: were we ever OUT of Cobb’s mind to begin with? Meaning, from moment one of the movie, how do we know this isn’t one, long, elaborate dream that Cobb’s subconscious has constructed in order to allow him to believe he’s gone home to his kids for real, instead of in a dreamscape?
This is interestingly pursuant to a lecture I just attended about the neurology of story-telling (highlight: confirmation of my self-referential Bayesian engine theory of consciousness; lowlight: arguing with a woman about whether or not Einstein had disproved “objective reality”); the problem with the mind is that, because all sensory inputs are part of the mind itself, there is nothing we can actually corroborate our experiences with.
Cobb’s position in the film — as an individual without direct, sure access to reality, parallels our own relationship to film in yet ANOTHER really interesting way. Like Cobb, we have nothing to corroborate the film against; we can’t check the objective “truth” of anything that Cobb experiences, because we can’t check his experiences against anything outside of the film.
Leaving the final set of questions — is this real? Is it a dream? Was it a dream from the beginning? — ultimately futile. There is nothing the film can do to actually answer that question, because from the beginning the entire group of experiences is fictive. Nothing was real in the first place; Inception can only be “real” in comparison to itself.
So, Cobb is given the opportunity to choose whether or not he believes in the reality that he’s experienced, but it’s dangerous for him. He doesn’t want to believe in a fantasy, but he’s got no sure way of finding his way out. We, the audience, are given the same opportunity: we have three (major, reasonable) endings from which to choose, all of which have necessarily equal value.
We’re permitted to pick which one we like to believe, of course — I’d like to believe that Cobb really did get out. But I also know that it’s possible that I’m wrong; Nolan has created a cognitive fork, in which any answer we choose also implies the opposite. The ambiguity is fundamentally inescapable, and we’re left with what I think is probably the defining element of “intelligent fiction”: the audience has no real choice but to engage in an act of imaginative paradox — accepting that all of the possibilities are both true and false simultaneously.
There’s actually plenty more to discuss regarding this movie; I was especially fond of the idea of Cobb’s wife asking him didn’t he have creeping doubts about reality? Because, of course, Cobb’s wife is a projection of his subconscious; she WAS his creeping doubts about reality. Hahah!
Also, it says some interesting things about where ideas come from, how we get infected by them, and about why the best art is oblique and symbolic — the most effective way to get an audience to believe something is to trick them into thinking that they’ve thought of it.