Having seen Inception twice now, I feel the need to clarify a few points in my earlier review, as I said that my review — in all fairness — was half incomplete as Inception demands a second viewing. After having now seen it twice, I would definitely say this is a movie that must be seen twice.
I’ve seen many reviews cite Inception’s lack of character development, and the sometimes loose or vague backstory of its characters. They talk about its many plot holes and such, and it’s odd pacing. Perhaps not entirely justified, these choices — while seemingly maybe a writing error on Nolan’s part — are in fact a meta-tactic that contextualizes most of the film and further thrusts it past The Dark Knight. And this goes beyond Nolan just being clever, having Cobb planting a train of thought into his wife’s mind that results in her death and then also using a train to run over his wife’s head — or just the idea of errant thoughts or trains of thought grumbling through our minds as characters are literally hit by a train made up of thought.
This is in line with The Prestige or Memento, where Nolan constructed a film that emulates the very thing it discusses. Memento’s structural fragmentation emulates the main character’s retrograde amnesia, and The Prestige is a magic trick where the word “magic” can be replaced with “filmmaking” to get a treatise on making films.
Inception is no different.
The film drops you into the middle of the action — not once, but twice — forcing you to catch up and giving you the “lack of a dream’s beginning” that Cobb explains to Ariadne in the film’s first half. We are really never given much firm footing with “Inception,” always floating somewhere in the ether of the dream world — the narrative — as Cobb slowly comes home. The ending of the film is not simply a “tease” as some have described it. Like snapping out of a dream, so does Inception end — cutting the audience off from any answers much like a dreamer is cut off from any closure to their dream when they snap to. As much as we don’t remember the beginning of a dream, we rarely reach a satisfying end to one either.
Also notice the vague backstory to the characters, whose motivations always seem to be shifting according to what’s needed by the dream. Michael Caine’s character is especially relevant in this regard, as his almost ghost-like appearances on both sides of the world and his ambiguous relationship with Cobb (is he Cobb’s dad? If not, why isn’t he a tad madder at his son-in-law considering his role — not the actual inception — in his daughter’s death?) Notice how even the backstories of Cobb and Mal — architects turned thieves — are left undeveloped, oozing with that loose-goosey ambiguity of the dreamworld. It’s like they just sprung into existence in our minds, possessing this innate emotional weight, yet then vanishing just as quickly.
The levels of dreams push this emulation of dreams as well, paying homage to film influences while playing at the idea of how media polluting our dreams — we go from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a must-see James Bond film that will no doubt enjoy a surge of watching now [damn you, Nolan, because I’ve been telling people it’s the best Bond film for years now]), and cutting to street heists of Michael Mann, to the sleek art deco sexy of The Matrix or Dark City. Who hasn’t heard the friend tell a dream where the only logical transition is “and then…”? Here, we have characters in a hotel “and then” an avalanche comes out of nowhere…
Even reality itself is questioned. Sure, Cobb has his top that he spins twice in the film that seems to signify that the film did indeed have reality at these points. But we are also told explicitly that one’s totem should not be touched by another, and that the top totem was first Mal’s — not Cobb’s — thus casting the totem reality-checks in major doubt. And how much time does Cobb (like Nolan who builds elaborate rules only to then intentionally break them much like a dream’s logic collapses here and there) spending doing things he says he shouldn’t?
Why all this ambiguity? Why the lack of logic at times? Why are we dropped in and yanked out? Well, again, “Inception’ is a dream. I don’t mean that as a compliment to Nolan. I mean it as a literal definition. And like most dreams, they have no single meaning. Everything is everything and nothing at once, much of it left up to our own personal subconscious to determine what it means (again, Nolan making the film the concept). As Cobb says, “you bring the subject (i.e. audience) into the dream (i.e. movie) and they fill it with their subconscious.” Again, Nolan making a statement on film as a medium, and the quest by most filmmakers to find the universality in their work with which audiences connect. And just like a dream that ends, when the film cuts to black abruptly, we are all left to to analyze this dream and figure out for ourselves what it means to us. Left with the many themes of the movie, one of which speaks both to film and dreams in that it doesn’t matter if what you’re seeing in a dream (or film) is real, what matters is the emotional experience as you engage it.
This is a film that truly defies definition. It defies any firm “this is what definitely happened.” Anyone who does so, is simply trying to act like “they got the answer. Inception is a dream — a shared dream constructed by Nolan and into which we pour our own subconscious. A film whose ultimate plot and happenings are to be ultimately determined by the dreamer — which in this case, is us.
Easily one of the best films of the past decade.