Would you believe me if I said that the delay between part one of this article and part two was a way of demonstrating a story point about limbo in the context of how it’s used in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”?
Would you pretend you believe me for the sake of our friendship? How about if I promise to make this article better than the first one?
I will apologize for taking so long with this. My vacation (the single longest stretch of time I’ve taken away from work in the past four years, according to my wife) was certainly responsible for some of the delay, but it was more than that. It seems like it’s been forever since the first review I wrote for the film. Which I liked.
But, honestly, I don’t think I did a very good job with the first half of this revisit article. I was working too hard to impress, and I think I sort of cocked it up. Summary is fine, and I really was trying to lay all the pieces on the chess board so we could talk about the moves Nolan makes in the film, but it’s not analysis, and what a re-review should be on the rare opportunity that I write one is a chance to dig deeper into a film once spoilers don’t matter anymore. So instead of calling this part two of the earlier article, let’s take a cue from Hollywood and call this a reboot instead.
INTO THE LABYRINTH
Over my vacation, my five-year-old son Toshi decided that he wants to know more about Greek mythology, fueled in large part by his new-found love of “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Clash Of The Titans.” He wanted to know more about Hercules and Medusa and Perseus and all the other characters appropriated by Harryhausen for his work. One of the books we got from the library for our nightly story time was a retelling of “Theseus and the Minotaur.” That, of course, is the story of the young man who defeats the monster at the center of a maze with the help of the monster’s sister.
Her name? Ariadne.
Christopher Nolan is not what I would call a subtle filmmaker. That’s not an insult, either, just an observation. He seems to be mostly concerned when building his films with the grand gesture, the trick structure, the big blinking neon metaphor. The notion of having to defeat the memories and the guilt that come from losing a spouse is really what drives Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) in the film, and that guilt made physical is the monster lurking at the center of his subconscious, ready to sabotage him and his team over and over again unless he defeats it. One of the reasons his work connects to the mainstream despite the way he constantly manipulates conventional form is because he embraces the unsubtle. It takes a lot to cut through all the noise and static of the media landscape these days, and an image like Paris folding in on itself or omnipresent pop culture characters like Batman and the Joker can cut right through all of that and get a viewer’s attention.
“Inception” may well end up being the film that every conversation begins with when discussing Nolan in the future because so much of who he is as an artist is built into the DNA of the film. Naming Ellen Page’s character “Ariadne” is a perfect example of the way Nolan lays his intentions right out in plain view. She is, after all, the one who is hired to lead Dom out of the maze of his own making where he’s become lost, constantly reopening old wounds, punishing himself on an endless loop. Nolan is as interested in the techniques of storytelling as he is in the stories that he tells, and in this case, the film can even be read as an attempt to express his feelings about the work he does.
Forget all the dream technology and the science-fiction elements of the story. What is the act of inception as he defines it in the film? It’s simply the transmission of an idea in a way that makes the person it has been passed to feel like it is their own. And what’s the most effective real-world way to do that? Art, of course, and one might argue that since movies are perhaps the most-shared art form on the planet, then movies are the most popular form of inception.
After all, Dom Cobb’s team in the film may build these elaborate scenarios and traverse these amazing dreamscapes, but in the case of their supposed target Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), all of these amazing things are simply in service of one idea: convincing Robert that his father loved him. And they can’t tell him that… they need him to reach that moment as an epiphany. So often, the most elaborate and structurally complex films are in service of simple thematic ideas. Those core ideas are the seeds that these films grow from, and it’s amazing how powerful that drive to communicate these ideas can be. Within the context of the film, Robert’s eventual realization is symbolized by the contents of his father’s private safe, and they have to make him work for it, or he won’t believe it. He won’t feel it. You can make the case that Fischer’s realization is not the point, that it’s a diversion from the real mission in the movie.
If you pay close attention to Ariadne and Arthur and their relationship in the film, there’s a lot of things left unsaid. Everything she does in the film is designed to get Dom to explain himself to her and then to exploit the things she learned to help Dom. She barely does anything involving Fischer at all. She’s always chipping away at Dom and Mal. She’s steering him out of the wilderness and towards home. It was canny casting Page and Cotillard as Ariadne and Mal, Dom’s wife. In the moment the two women come face to face in a very important hotel room in Dom’s subconscious, the physical disparity between them is almost shocking. Mal looms over Ariadne like a beast, and when they meet later, Ariadne comes ready for a fight with Mal. This is her target. Dom can’t fight Mal by himself, no matter how aware he is that she’s only a shadow of the woman he loved, and that’s precisely why she takes that form. Her whole existence is to punish him, over and over and over forever.
Suicide isn’t used in this film as a lark, or as a throwaway. It is an expression of existential dread, profound and final and awful. Finding someone you love who has killed themselves… or seeing it happen and being powerless to stop it… those are some of the most trying experiences anyone can have. Talk about a test of your basic abilities to bear sorrow. It is little wonder Dom, expert in lucid dreaming, retreated into the world that he knew he could control when the real world betrayed him. When reality failed his wife, she died. That much of Nolan’s film, I believe. That memory is the most painful place Dom has, the memory he can’t bear, and when you discuss what in the film is “real,” it’s sort of a tricky thing. There is a “real” narrative playing out in the film, but much of it takes place in an “unreal” world. Mal is everything Dom fears wrapped up behind the face of his greatest failure, and his love for her, complicated by guilt and sorrow, paralyzes him when he has to act. That’s why Ariadne has to save him in that final confrontation in Limbo.
CHASING THE KICK
I’ve gone out of my way to not read other people’s theories on the film, because it’s hard enough to articulate my own thoughts on this one in an organized manner. Nolan’s film is fractured from the start, told in accordance to the film’s own description of dream narrative, so talking about it in A-B-C terms doesn’t really work. I have had many face-to-face conversations about the film, the most recent of which took place on a set visit this past weekend where everyone else was a sports or general news writer. No movie guys like on typical visits. We were talking about movies in general and this one in particular, and one of the guys said, “Can’t you just watch a movie and enjoy it?” And of course. No one “has” to read a film beyond the surface level. I think a film that intentionally punishes or confuses the audience is a failure, and “Inception” is built in a way that is meant to really reward the audience if they’re just going for a ride. The cross-cutting of that final major sequence is symphonic. It’s a pleasure to watch the movie unfold. Nolan’s built an elegant rollercoaster. But a film that invites you to dig deeper, though… that’s a best-case scenario.
Nolan built “Inception” around one major set-piece that dominates the film’s running time. The whole film is either setting it up, planning it, or executing it, and everything before the main event is exposition and preamble and warm-up, and everything after is just to wrap things up and bring the audience to a place of rest. The movie’s main event is the four-level ride into the dream world, the Inception, and it serves as a summary of everything that Nolan’s done in his career so far. He’s been refining certain techniques and motifs and signatures from film to film, and it feels like it all comes into play when building this prolonged series of action scenes.
Just the intercutting of four totally different realities, each with a different relationship to time, each with a different narrative arc, each one built in the mind of a different character, each one building to a different kick… that’s Nolan. That’s what he does. This is, after all, the same director who has a sequence in “The Presige” where someone is reading a journal about a letter about a journal within a flashback at one point. He loves to twist you up in time, and the nature of filmmaking itself is all about playing with time and perception for specific effect. Here, Nolan sets up some very clear rules about the way time changes the deeper you push into the subconscious, and he sets up challenges that force the characters to keep pushing further in, unable to use the easy exits established earlier in the film. By spending so much time on exposition and then almost immediately breaking the rules and craking up the complications, Nolan is able to carefully build the film to a sustained crescendo that really should win his editor, Lee “Dead End Drive-In” Smith an Oscar next year.
And even so, what I found most engrossing wasn’t the visual thrill of the stuff with Arthur in the zero gravity hotel on the second level or the “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”-style snow combat of the third level. That’s fun, it’s great to watch, but it’s not what really mattered to me. No, it was watching the other story, Ariadne chasing Dom chasing Mal chasing the way home. That kept me riveted both times. The film builds to the moment where the only logical choice is to drop into Limbo, the place that we were warned never to go. That’s when the three-level dream-within-within jumps to a suicide run, when it actually has stakes. Up till then, I’m not scared for anyone in the movie. Saito is shot, slowly bleeding out across dreams, but the worst case-scenario comes to pass for him, and Dom still manages to rescue him. Which makes me think that Saito is not the client, but is instead part of the team.
Remember way back at the start of the film, when Dom is trying to sell Saito on letting him teach him how to protect his dreams? Dom tells Saito how he’ll need full access to his mind, to his secrets, to his information, in order to “protect him.” And Saito doesn’t buy it.
Well, Saito is the rabbit that Dom chases down the hole to Limbo in the film, the “real” person he’s trying to rescue. And Ariadne is supposedly helping Dom do that… rescue Saito. Only the way Dom has to save Saito is by first facing and defeating Mal. It’s all about him. And in order to make the defeat stick… in order for the idea of forgiving himself and moving on and waking up seem like it’s his idea… he needs to believe that Robert Fischer is healed. He needs to see that hyper-theatrical moment between father and son, where Fischer opens the safe and finds the sled called Rosebud waiting there, and he needs to believe that he did his job. Everything else that happens is incidental, an organic digression, and not a game being played, a con being run. That’s what Dom has to believe when he wakes up. And then Saito makes his phone call.
“It worked. He’s back.”
His passport works. As it would always have worked. Dom was never a fugitive of justice. He was a fugitive of his own feelings of responsibility in Mal’s death. His recurrent dream of not being able to see his children’s faces is symbolic of not being able to face them because of the shame he feels. When he wakes up whole on that plane, shaken but finally strong enough to get off the plane, he’s ready to pick his life back up, ready to be there for his children again, ready to step back into the world.
And sure enough… he finally is able to look them in the face, and take them in his arms. And because I believe Nolan’s a human being and not a heartless monster, I believe that Dom is home. I believe that he is free.
And, yes, the top falls.
And, no, totems don’t ultimately matter. That’s all shuffle.
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