An Inception Retrospective: Responding to Criticism & Interpretation

Inception is hard to talk about at this point because it was such a phenomenon when it was released that so many things (both good and bad) have already been said about it. It's not only hard to justify the existence of yet another review of the film because the chance that I'm going to say something new at this point is fairly low (I'm not), it's also hard because in order to articulate my opinion I have to make reference to all these other pre-existing opinions about the film and about Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker.

I was extremely excited about Inception before it came out. Memento was (and still is) one of my favorite movies of all time, and I so couldn't wait to see it that I interrupted a family vacation in order to go on opening night. I loved it. As someone fascinated with Freud and the interpretation of dreams and all that psychoanalytic nonsense, I couldn't be happier to have a film that brought a lot of my favorite theories to the big screen. I proceeded to see it three more times, loving it more each time.

Then, as it often happens when I oversaturate myself with a certain film, I didn't return to it for a few years. As the inevitable backlash to the popularity of both Nolan and Inception grew, I ended up internalizing more of the criticism than I realized. When I joined Letterboxd and attempted to retroactively rate all the films I could remember seeing, I placed Inception at four stars.

After finally revisiting the film, I can confidently say that it is not merely a four-star film. It is the most exciting, creative, intelligent blockbuster since The Matrix.

Part of Nolan's brilliance—and simultaneously part of the reason so many find his style not to their taste—is the way he blends two different methods of filmmaking. If Robert B. Ray is right that after WWII American audiences split into "informed" and "uninformed" segments, Nolan attempts to cater to both at the same time (which, admittedly, sometimes means catering to neither). The Dark Knight is the simplest example of this: on the one hand you have Batman, a fun superhero anyone looking for easy entertainment will be more than glad to pay to see; on the other hand you have intelligent commentary on the War on Terror and the way a state of emergency can easily overstep the boundaries of its own power structure. But whether or not the film works for everyone, I'm glad someone is willing to take risks like this and put hundreds of millions of dollars behind high concept blockbusters.

Inception brings this principle to the next level by taking an original concept and delivering it to the audience so neatly and effortlessly that many have begun to think there's actually not much there at all. To the "informed" audience, his technique might seem obvious—Ellen Page as the Fish Out Of Water just begging for an exposition dumb is far from a subtle or original tactic—but he uses these techniques because they work. And for every mundane scene with Leonardo DiCaprio explaining the mechanics of dreams, there's an interesting idea or impressive set piece behind it. For every "This is your first lesson in shared dreaming," there's a "We create and perceive our world simultaneously," or a shot of the world folding in half. As dull as the dialogue can be, it creates a story which offers itself up to a wealth of compelling interpretations.

I won't say the film doesn't have its problems. Beyond the obvious overabundance of exposition, many critics point to the film's general lack of emotionality (something Nolan would attempt to rectify with Interstellar). It's just that none of these problems take away from what the film is trying to do. Saying that Inception is flawed because it doesn't have enough emotionality is like saying that The Social Network is flawed because it doesn't have enough fight scenes. The lack of emotion doesn't bother me because it's not about an emotional journey. Maybe my ability to overlook these flaws makes me just another credulous fanboy all-too-pleased to have Christopher Nolan tell me I'm smart for understanding his simplistic creation (I'll be the first to admit it's not a difficult film, but difficult and intelligent are not the same thing), but it never feels like I'm overlooking flaws. There's never a single moment in my experience of the film where I stop and say to myself, "Well, that doesn't really work, but I can accept it because I like the rest of the movie." For me, Inception is wall-to-wall entertainment built around a concept which has something unique and interesting to say.

So I guess it's time for me to talk about what I think the movie means. If you're one of the people who didn't like it because of all the "think pieces" it spawned and the way it seems to parade its own intelligence then hopefully you've already tuned out by now, because I'm about to do another one of those. Personally I think it's an intelligent film, but I also think Speed Racer is an intelligent film, so there's a massive grain of salt for you to take this with. I also don't buy into author's intent or critical objectivity or any of that nonsense, so if you think my reading is garbage or you have a different reading, that's wonderful. This is what the film means to me. Spoilers ahead.

The entire film is Cobb's dream, and it tells us more about him as a character and about us as fellow dreamers than any traditional character development could. This doesn't mean that it's all fake and none of it matters; on the contrary, as the movie itself explains, our dreams are populated by unconscious desires resulting from real life experiences (e.g. Mal, Cobb's dead wife who comes back to life in his dreams to embody his feelings of guilt). There are a variety of details which verify this buried in the film: the top is not Cobb's token, it's Mal's, so whether it falls or not has no bearing on whether Cobb is dreaming; when Cobb finally sees his children in "real life", they are the same age and wearing the same clothes as when he saw them in his dreams. Mal even points out the way that Cobb's persecution by "anonymous corporations" mirrors the way the dream-projections persecute intruders (my favorite detail in those previous sequences is when Cobb tries to squeeze between two buildings that are too close together, as if an unconscious agency is trying to trap him).

So what does it mean then if the whole film is Cobb's dream? It reveals the way we deal with guilt and the way fantasy and desire are structured. Toward the end of the film, Cobb reveals that the first time he performed an inception was on his wife, Mal. After spending years in Limbo, she began to believe that it was the real world, that there was nothing outside of it. We see her lock away her top (her token) inside of a safe, signifying her choice to lock away the real world in order to live happily in Limbo. Cobb decided to plant the idea in her head that her world isn't real (visualized by going into her safe and spinning the top) so that she would reject Limbo and return to the real world; but once she returned, she was still possessed by the same idea, that in turn the real world wasn't real. She thought she had to kill herself to wake up, so that's exactly what she did, and Cobb became possessed by the idea that it's his fault his wife died.

In order to purge himself of this unbearable guilt (which, as Ariadne points out, is "bursting through his subconscious," threatening everyone around him), he performs a second inception on himself in order to plant the idea that it's not his fault Mal died. This is visualized in the film as the majority of the film's primary action, as Cobb and his crew performing an inception on the well-known corporate heir Robert Fischer ("You might have the rest of the team convinced to carry on with this job, but they don't know the truth... that as we go deeper into Fischer, we're also going deeper into you."). By reuniting Fischer with his father, Cobb removes the stigma from inception, which he otherwise associated with Mal's death (it can be used for good as well as evil). But this isn't the climax of the film, it's almost an afterthought (Cillian wakes up from Limbo and fumbles his way into the vault). The real climax is when Cobb confronts Mal. This is the direct confrontation between Cobb and his superego in which Cobb seems to come out on top.
Cobb: I can't stay with her anymore because she doesn't exist.
Mal: I'm the only thing you do believe in anymore.
Cobb: I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can't imagine you with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You're the best I can do; but I'm sorry, you are just not good enough.
So Cobb seems to triumph over his guilt, and the end of the film is a sequence shot in a very different style from the rest of the film. The light is overexposed and the speed is overcranked to give it a slight slow motion effect. This is a classical tactic from melodrama (it feels almost like a scene shot by Wong Kar-Wai) in which excessive emotion (in this case presumably happiness) is visualized in the style of the image. This is Cobb's happy ending.

Until, of course, he gets home and we see his kids the same way we saw them in Cobb's dreams, and we see the notorious spinning top. Whether or not these details are enough to confirm that what we are seeing is a dream, they are enough to cast a shadow of doubt (whether or not the top falls, it was Mal's token to begin with; its purpose is as a signifier of the question, "is this real?"). They are enough for us to realize that in order to be with his children again Cobb is willing to ignore the top, to ignore reality. We don't see it fall because he doesn't see it fall, because he doesn't care enough to look. Ignoring the top echoes the previous image of Mal putting the top into her safe in Limbo when she chooses to ignore the fact that the world around her isn't real. This is exactly what Cobb is doing now. The same way Mal chose to forget about reality to be with Cobb, the same way Cobb chose to continue living in his dreams to be with Mal, Cobb is now also choosing to forget the real world in order to be with his children.
"I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there. Do I believe the world's still there? Is it still out there? Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different."
"We all lie to ourselves to be happy."
There is no reality outside of our perception of it.

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