Some Things About Inception

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Braak, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

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.


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.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    Skipping to the end without reading, because we’re gonna catch it a little later in the week, BUT!

    I just wanted to say I’m really happy this movie seems popular and people seem to like it, because I remember coming out of the theater from Memento and having my brain totally knocked about and wanting to talk about it with someone, anyone, BUT NO ONE HAD EVER HEARD OF THE DAMN THING.

    So I look forward to not having that experience again.

  2. TruculentandUnreliable says:

    I was pretty “meh,” especially compared to Momento.

    I found it to be pretty heavy-handed, to be honest. I mean, “Ariadne”? Maybe I need to give it another viewing, though.

  3. TruculentandUnreliable says:

    Oh, but it did look very lovely and I was thrilled with a lot of the aesthetics of it, down to costuming and makeup.

  4. braak says:

    I like “Ariadne” because I felt like it was a little bit of information to be filed in the “Hey, wait, did his subconscious make this whole thing up?” category, without actually proving anything.

  5. Yes, the origin of the spinning top is key. We know (or we’re told) that it comes from one of the dream levels, and that Cobb used it to plant doubt in his wife’s mind in order to pull her back from their fifty-year dreamlife. Aside from Cobb’s use of it in the “real world” scenes early in the film, we have no guarantee at all that it’s a real-world object.

    I laughed into my large Sprite at the name “Ariadne,” but mythogeek that I am, I think I was the only one in the theater to do so. It’ll go right past most U.S. viewers, unfortunately. You know where the naming scheme really falls down? Cobb’s wife is not named “Moll” as I first interpreted it, but “Mal.” ‘Cause she’s BAD, get it?

  6. RixiM says:

    So, personally, I am inclined to believe the whole movie is in a dream. There is little evidence to believe otherwise within the movie… that being said… I think that the narrative makes sense if some of the movie was not in a dream… but it’s not clear to me when that would have been. I’d have to sit down with the DVD or something to make sense of it, but the scene with the OLD man doesn’t actually explain anything; it’s not at all clear what happens after we see that scene for the second time. which logically means it’s not all clear what happens after seeing that scene for the first time. Also, the idea that actually seems the most cogent to me is that he failed to get out of limbo, for whatever reason, and opted to spend a lifetime in a world where he has kids… it’s sort of a cop out. But I thought the ending of the movie was a cop out. It is interesting to compare inception to a PKD idea because inception has one or two obvious and very consciously glazed over logical problems whereas PKD stories are a lot more floaty and psychedelic from the start. In some regards I think inception failed to really convey how much more plastic the later dream worlds were… also I think the who-is-hosting-the-dream issue should have been more clearly resolved in some way… i will stop writing now.

  7. RixiM says:

    OH I FORGOT. this movie should have been sub-titled: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Dark Night.

  8. Very Bohemian Rhapsody.

    Interesting thought: perhaps the fact that we have multiple sensory inputs – five senses – helps us filter out things that are “real”. We’re not entirely dependent on one sense to determine objective reality. I read a discussion where one person kicked his hallucinations to see if they were real or not, because he’d see them but they were intangible.

    Back to the movie. 🙂 From the start, they had jump cuts – you’re here, then you’re there. You’re doing one thing, that scene finishes and you’re doing something else. It’s standard in most movies, so as an audience we’re acclimated to it. But then they started to play with that: do you, as a character, remember how we transitioned between jump cuts from there to here? No? It’s because you’re dreaming. That structural element was consistant throughout the movie, and played into the “you don’t know if the whole thing is a dream or not” premise.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    Have just returned! Hoo-boy! Everyone go see it now, if you have not yet.

    Various thoughts:

    1) “I used to think the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body. But then I thought, ‘Well…look what’s telling me that.'” – Emo Phillips

    2) Early on in the film, it’s easy to try to look for clues (beyond the significant naming, which – as “Lost” taught us time and again – is often just the writers trying to amuse themselves) that this is just another dream layer. I decided that, with the first scene NOT involving Cobb – one of Arthur and Ariadne working independently – we could accept that this is, in fact, a “real” situation. (Even though this is a bit of a cheat – you can have a dream where you’re not the center of attention, of course – but one I’m going with all the same.)

    3) And also “It’s ALL happening in the character’s mind!” does feel a little cheap narratively, because it tells the viewer everything they’re watching didn’t “really” happen and they’ve just been stuck watching an elaborate dream for two hours so nothing was of any consequence. Which of course brings to mind Alan Moore’s “This is an imaginary story…but aren’t they all?” line – which is to say, it’s ultimately the audience’s call which version of events they’d like to accept. (So I won’t argue with anyone who insists it WAS all a dream, unless they decide to get dickish about it).

    4) Which means I choose to believe the top was starting to wobble at the cutaway, both because believing the preceding tale happened in “reality” gives it more weight to me, and because THAT THING WAS TOTALLY STARTING TO WOBBLE I SWEAR, OH MOVIE, YOU COULDN’T HAVE CUT AWAY TWO SECONDS LATER?!

    5) Really hope Nolan doesn’t blurt out his definitive version of the ending on a commentary or something, because I’m still mad at Ridley Scott for his tossed-off “Oh yeah, Deckard was the fifth replicant” comment that really screwed with my enjoyment of Blade Runner.

    6) I am really happy they didn’t pull the “One of these characters is a traitor!” caper-trope that I kept half-expecting. Which did make me pay more attention to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, since he’d be my first suspect. But also because – and maybe it was just his fashion sense – man, I really, really like that guy.

    7) And while we’re at it, how about that Joseph Gordon-Levitt hallway fight, huh? That’s something I wanted to bring up because I don’t think reviews and stuff make it clear that even though there’s a lot of mind-boggling implications and eye-popping visuals, it’s also a really exciting and fun heist movie that is ENJOYABLE to sit through.

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    Also: Cobb was the name of the lead character from “Following,” Nolan’s first movie! “INCEPTION” IS JUST THE DREAM OF THE CHARACTER FROM “FOLLOWING,” WHOOOOOOAAAAAAA

    OK, probably not. But did I read somewhere Following was getting a theater release or something? I remember hunting that down after Memento (oh, for those halcyon days where Hollywood Video was a useful resource!), but all I remember is that it was short and I liked it.

    Anyway, look at that! Following, Memento, two Batman films, the Insomnia remake, the Prestige, and this. Seven movies in a row and not a bad egg in the batch. Good for you, Nolan.

    Man, now I’d really like him to just flat-out direct the next Superman movie, instead of this vague “creative overseer” position he’s in now. Granted, that means there wouldn’t be a new Superman movie until like 2014, but still. I’d wait for that.

  11. braak says:

    3) I think that’s an important comment on the way we misunderstand what we’re watching, though. I think sometimes it is a cheat, in the sense that, if you’ve created a situation that requires a tough decision or presents an insoluble problem, and then it turns out everything was just a dream, it’s like you’re skipping out on your own story. But, I mean, NONE of it is ever of any consequence; you were only pretending it had consequence — your subconscious created an elaborate scenario that permitted you to understand that what you were perceiving was true, but the fact that it was never real at all is important.

    In this case, though, part of the story is contingent on the fact that there’s no way to corroborate the story outside of itself — and Cobb chooses to answer the dilemma that’s set up.

    Whether or not he was in a dream, Cobb doesn’t watch the top.

    Also: That Joseph Gordon-Levitt fight scene was pretty amazing.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    If we decide that Cobb not watching the top has meaning (other than dramatic, “I don’t give a damn, I accept this as my reality”), it’s that the top is meant for the audience. I (subjectively, yes) took it as a note to the audience: “Cobb gets a happy ending, but you guys need to be more careful about what you consider ‘reality’…nighty-night.”

    (This would work a lot better if Rod Serling was casually standing by the top, cigarette in hand.)

    Also, this is a fun thing to plaster onto everyone’s attempts to figure out the end of the movie:,43518/

  13. […] Not Actually That Complicated OK: if you HAVEN’T seen Inception, Chris Nolan’s seventh consecutive Very Good Movie, just stop reading right now and go out and […]

  14. braak says:

    (other than dramatic, “I don’t give a damn, I accept this as my reality”)

    That’s pretty significant meaning given the context of the movie.

  15. Jeff Holland says:

    Nobody said it wasn’t. I’m talking about the significance to the audience, not the significance to Cobb.

  16. braak says:

    Well, you were implying that it might have needed meaning outside of the significance of Cobb looking away from it, which I am saying, I don’t think it needs. There’s a strong idea there, that we’re not permitted to know what’s real and what isn’t, and therefore we’ve got no option but to live however we are; the top’s existence is the keystone on which the ambiguity (from the audience’s perspective) hinges, but Cobb’s looking away from it is something different.

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