In the rush to either canonize or crucify Christopher Nolan in the last few weeks, most people have carefully avoided major spoilers. To be fair, even the film’s harshest critics have been vague in terms of spoiler-heavy conversation.
Now it’s out. Now you’ve had a way to see it. You’ve had time to see it. You’ve got a chance now to be part of the conversation, and that’s exactly what I want. I want you to engage. The film wants you to engage. That’s part of the point of the piece. And since this is such a dense text, we’ll break this into a few pieces today and tomorrow, and with each piece, divide it into sections that represent separate movements.
This isn’t a review in the same way my last piece was. We’re starting here from the given that I really like and respect the film, and I was definitely affected by it. In talking about it, I’m going to use the character names. We’re not talking film craft here, except as it affects storytelling. This is a conversation about the very nature of the story that’s being told. At dinner recently, there were several of us talking, and we were split on “there’s a set way to read the film” and “it’s all meant to keep you speculating,” and even that split suggests what a great dense text Nolan has put together, and how rich the conversation about it can be.
But it was a rare case of me not really being able to quantify or explain the impact it had on me. Almost everyone I talked to about the film thought I didn’t like it because of the tone or the body language of whatever I told them. I was still chewing on it, and I realized I would need to see it a second time. I picked a 10:45 show near my house. Three minute drive. When I bought my ticket, there were still 650 tickets available, according to the girl I asked, “Is it busy?” I went to the very top right of the auditorium, where there was a single seat, with no attached seats, close enough to the exit that I could use the light there to see, and no one would be bothered behind me if I took some notes.
Keep in mind… my “Twilight: Eclipse” review got 174,370 comments (approx.), so please… don’t let that film spark more conversation than “Inception.” Please. I’ll be crushed if people are more willing to argue with me about the sexual politics in a series about a high school girl in love with a vampire than they are the meaning and the narrative gamesmanship of Nolan’s latest.
The theater I went to had a long trailer reel after a long series of commercials. It’s weird seeing the second “Dinner For Schmucks” trailer with its Morgan Freeman jokes right after seeing the “Red” trailer, where Freeman’s appearance damn near sets up Carell’s punchline. That “Social Network” trailer is amazing, a masterfully cut trailer for what looks like a fascinating movie. I liked the trailer for “The Town,” but I’m concerned that I feel like I just learned waaaaaaaaaaaay too much about this movie before seeing it.
INTRODUCING AN IDEA
And then the theater got darker, that post-trailer cue that tells you the movie’s starting. It’s sort of like that moment… the moment as you fall asleep… when you go from being aware of the bed to being aware of something else… that moment when you wake into a dream. And the way the score seems to pick up in mid-stream just adds to that feeling of being in a dream with no clear start.
The company logos play out in black and white. Warner. Legendary. Syncopy. Rendered as labyrinths, the layout of what lies ahead. And then BOOM. The waves. The shores of Limbo.
And there’s Dom. Those first few shots of the film and the last few shots of the film are working together, as is the case in most of Nolan’s puzzle movies. We see waves. Then Dom waking up. He’s looking at something. We cut to his POV, and it’s his kids. The way we will see them over and over, from behind, facing away from us, running away, slipping away.
And once they’re gone, suddenly there’s a guard there, with a gun. They find Dom, poke at his battered and bruised body. We see that there’s a sort of grand chateau, the home of someone powerful, right there above the beach.
And inside, there’s Saito. And he’s an old man.
Right away, we see an important piece of information that you might miss on a first viewing. We see that both Saito and the guard are touching a small metal top. Later, once we learn the rules of totems, we will understand just how significant that is, but for now, it’s just one subtle clue that we are not in waking reality.
Saito eyes Dom, who sits across the table eating like it’s been years since he was fed, and asks, “Are you here to kill me?” Dom doesn’t answer at first, and Saito idly plays with the top. “I know what this is. It belonged to a man I met… in a half-remembered dream…”
And on a simple cut, we reset back to the start, back to the moment where Dom and Arthur are first pitching Saito, who is a much younger man. Dom is the same age, though, unchanged. Dom is running what we later hear defined as a “Mr. Charles,” a risky gambit in which a dreamer is told they’re dreaming in an effort to win their trust. Dom’s trying to sell Saito on the idea of letting them train Saito to resist any attempt at breaching his subconscious. Dom tells Saito that to do that effectively, he’ll have to have access to every single part of Saito’s mind. Saito isn’t buying it, though, and he walks out of the meeting.
We see what we think is the waking world, in which Nash is tending the sleepers including Saito, Dom, and Arthur, while outside, there are explosions drawing closer.
In the dream, they pursue Saito, but they’re interrupted when Arthur sees Mal. Dom goes over to talk to her, and immediately, we get a glimpse at the chasm of pain and shared history between them. Her first question sums up their entire relationship. “If I jump… would I survive?” Talk about a loaded question. And little wonder… the Mal in the movie is simply a physical incarnation of Dom’s guilt and his failure as a husband. She is not the woman he married, but a phantom version of her that he carries around in his head, always ready to lacerate him. Dom tells her that he can’t trust her anymore.
“Tell me… do the children miss me?” she asks.
He almost can’t answer, it hurts so much. “I can’t imagine.”
Dom puts Mal in a chair, using her to anchor it, then ties some sheets to it so he can go out the window. He tells her not to move, but as soon as he’s hanging out the window, she disappears, and Dom almost falls. He manages to pull a “Die Hard” and get back inside. He shoots some guards, moving silently through the building. He locates a safe and steals an envelope from inside, using the cues that Saito gave during their conversation to locate it quickly.
Before he can escape, Mal and Saito interrupt, and they threaten Arthur if Dom doesn’t return the envelope. Dom isn’t concerned at first, and he tells them to go ahead and kill Arthur, knowing it will wake him up. Instead, Mal hurts Arthur, happy to make him suffer instead of releasing him. Dom shoots Arthur himself.
And in the “waking” world, we see Arthur wake up.
In the dream, the world begins falling apart. Saito manages to get the envelope back from Dom and open it, and finds that there’s nothing in it. Cobb, who has the real envelope, manages to evade escape long enough to read what’s inside.
In the “waking” world, Cobb won’t wake up, even with Nash and Arthur trying to bring him out of it.
That’s because in the dream, Cobb is still working on reading the contents of the envelope.
Nash and Arthur decide to “give him the kick,” pushing Dom into a bathtub full of water.
In the dream, water begins to pour into Saito’s chateau, and that manages to wake Dom up. As soon as he’s awake, he’s face-to-face with Saito, both of them furious. Dom asks why Saito let him into the safe, and Saito sneers at him. “It was an audition. You failed.” Saito never believed in the dream, he tells them. “Your deception was obvious.”
But how obvious? Because even as Saito and Dom argue, we see a cut to a train where Nash is sleeping in the real waking world. A pair of headphones are placed on his ears.
And in the room where Dom and Saito are arguing, the muffled sounds of Edith Piaf echoing all around them, Dom threatens Saito. He throws him down onto the floor, and as Saito examines the rug, he suddenly realizes that he’s been fooled after all. He almost seems delighted to have been tricked. “You have lived up to your reputation. We are still dreaming.”
Finally, everyone is woken up to the train car, to a second level of the waking world. As they break their equipment down and get ready to go, Arthur takes Dom aside, upset about Mal’s appearance in the first dream. “What was that?”
“I have it under control.”
“I’d hate to see you out of control,” Arthur responds, and the group splits up, heads in different directions, with just Saito left behind, thinking about what just happened.
In that long opening sequence, everything we’ll see play out in the rest of the movie is established and explained and foreshadowed. The multiple levels of dreams, the rules of the totem, the loneliness of limbo, Mal’s relationship with Dom, and the idea that Dom’s team needs to find a way to help him. It’s all in there. It’s arguably more important to decoding the film than the entire expository sequence that follows in which the “rules” of the dreaming are explained.
Cobb goes home. Once he’s alone, we see him test his totem, that metal top. He spins it, watching closely until it falls. That’s when he relaxes, and the phone rings. It’s his children, James and Philippa, and they want him to come home. The children who speak to him on the phone don’t sound like the kids we glimpsed in those opening frames. They sound older. James asks about Mommy, and it’s wrenching for Dom to answer. “We talked about this. Mommy’s not here anymore.”
“Where?” That question just guts him, and when Dom hangs up at the end of the conversation, he’s gutted.
THE CARROT ON THE STICK
He and Arthur meet on the roof of a building, ready to leave, but they’re startled when they find Saito and Nash sitting in the waiting helicopter. Saito obviously has plans for Nash, who was the dreamer whose mistake led to Saito figuring out that the second level was a dream as well, and Saito’s henchmen drag Nash away, never to be seen again in the film. I’m convinced there’s a game Nolan’s playing that involves Nash, but after two viewings, I’m still not sure what that game might be. There’s just too much portent in those final shots of Nash being dragged back into the building as Cobb, Arthur, and Saito fly away for it to be a narrative or thematic dead end.
On the helicopter, Saito makes his pitch to Dom and Arthur. He wanted to see what they were capable of, and now he wants to hire them. Specifically, he wants to hire them for an inception. Immediately, the reactions of both Arthur and Dom are telling. Arthur claims it’s not even possible, but Cobb never doubts it. He knows it is possible, but he doesn’t want to do it. He asks Saito if he has a choice. Saito tells him he does. “Then I choose to leave, sir.”
That’s Dom in a nutshell. It’s the single driving impulse that leads him through the rest of the film. He wants to leave. He is done. He is trapped in a dream, and yet unable to shape those dreams anymore. His entire world has become a dream, and he just wants to leave. He wants to wake up. He wants reality back. He covets the real. For him, dreams are intangible and inconsequential, and all that he fantasizes about is the mundane.
That’s the carrot on the stick that Saito offers up to Dom. He promises Dom a way home. He offers him the one dream that Dom can no longer imagine for himself, as he explicitly stated earlier. In exchange for giving Dom that dream, Saito wants them to target Robert Fischer, the son of the uber-powerful Maurice Fischer. Maurice, one of Saito’s key competitors, is dying, and Robert is poised to take over the entire business empire. Saito wants Robert to break up the empire and sell it off, leaving Saito free to take over whatever industry it is that they’re in.
Saito knows Dom’s going to do the job. He can see it in his reaction, and in the questions Dom is asking. Dom and Arthur debate the wisdom of doing the job, but again… the idea of going home is too powerful. And once it’s been introduced… once Saito’s performed his own inception on Cobb… that’s all that Cobb can contemplate. That’s the only thing that matters.
BUILDING THE BAND
The next movement of the film is almost wholly expository, and this is where the most information gets downloaded for the audience. It begins with Arthur and Dom en route to Paris, where Dom explains, “We need an architect.”
This leads him to meet with Miles, Mal’s father and the creator of the technology that Dom and his team use to explore the dreams of other people in the first place. And understanding the way this entire movement of the film plays out is a big part of understanding whether you can read anything in the film as “real” or not. We find Miles in a lecture hall, explaining that he always finds his office too confining for him to think. “What are you doing here, Dom?” He seems surprised to see his son-in-law, but not upset.
“I think I found a way home,” Dom tells him, and it seems to just make Miles sad. Dom explains his recent problems, and at one point mentions how Mal won’t let him go home.
“Come back to reality, Dom,” says Miles, and it’s just that explicit. Nolan offers up any number of clues to the nature of the film’s reality, but one can’t accuse him of being too covert about his intentions. Miles knows that Dom has become lost in these interior architectures, and he feels a huge responsibility. His own work in lucid dreaming first led Dom and Mal to one another, then led them into the places where the tragedy that destroyed them took place. He is angry at Dom for using his skills as a thief, but not for what happened to Mal. That suggests that Dom’s guilt is all self-imposed, that the only thing keeping me away from home is his own inability to deal with what happened.
Knowing what happened to Mal and to Dom, why would Miles offer up another student? Yet that’s exactly what happens. He introduces Dom to Ariadne, who has the potential to be a great architect for the upcoming inception job. And what’s an architect? That’s the exact reason she’s in the film. Dom’s conversations with her and his tour of a dreamscape with her by his side serve to set up the rules for the audience, and much of the imagery that was used to sell the film came from these sequences. Paris folding in on itself, the outdoor cafe as the city explodes around them, shifting landscapes of surreality… all part of Dom’s initial conversations with Ariadne. Before they ever go into a dream, though, he tests her on maze design, asking her to draw a maze in one minute that takes at least two minutes to solve. She fails once. She fails again. But once she’s hooked on the puzzle, she doesn’t stop until she figures out how to quickly etch a maze that Dom can’t solve.
And since the rest of the movie boils down to a test of Ariadne’s skills against Dom’s abilities… and it does… that moment is a defining one for both of them.
As Dom talks about the process of designing a dream, he might as well be talking about the process of making a Christopher Nolan film. “They feel real when you’re in them. It’s only afterwards when you think back on it that you realize how not real it was. You never remember the start of a dream. It’s just how did you get here?” You mean like starting a film with a man on a beach at the end of a story? Like that sort of a start?
There’s a hiccup between the two halves of the scene, after that gorgeous cafe explosion where the entire world comes apart around them and Ariadne and Dom wake up. He explains that one hour in the dream is five minutes in the waking world, then issues her a gentle challenge. “What can you get up to in five minutes?” To answer that, they go back under. That’s the scene where Ariadne starts exploring the laws of physics and the boundaries of reality, at one point literally breaking the fourth wall. Dom explains that the other people in the dream are all parts of her subconscious, and that the more pronounced she makes the surreal, the quicker those projections will be to attack her. Dom warns her not to use places she knows in reality inside the dream, to make sure she doesn’t get lost in those dreams. Of course, we haven’t seen yet how Dom uses nothing but real places in his own dreams, so it’s one of those warnings that becomes far more important the second time you see the film.
Ariadne calls him on it, though, asking, “Is that what happened to you?” She knows more about Dom than she should as someone who was just randomly approached about being an architect. Could Saito have specifically sent Dom to Miles, knowing full well Dom would need to hire someone? Could that someone be waiting, ready, already tasked with an inception of her own? Could Dom be the real client here?
In the real world, when Ariadne and Dom wake up, there’s the definite vibe that Arthur is the one interviewing her… not Dom. Arthur is the one who wants to know if she’s ready. She tells him, “Cobb’s got some serious things going on down there. I’m not just going to open my mind to someone like that.” In other words, answering my questions, yes… Cobb is totally the client here. So there are at least two cons playing out at once in the movie, which may be why some people walk away confused.
The next person they pick up for the team is Eames, the forger. His gift is becoming people inside the dream, manipulating the dreamer using their own memories, taking the voices and faces of their significant others or key extras, an actor who can literally become anyone. Eames also seems to believe inception is possible, calling it “a very subtle art.” Mid-meeting, Dom gets nervous that they’re being followed, and he arranges to meet Eames again later. He runs, and the chase that follows feels exactly like a dream. The people chasing him are as faceless and non-specific as any of the projections we’ve seen in other dreams, and the scenario plays out with that awful sticky dream logic. When Dom tries to hide in a restaurant, someone starts yelling at him in a language he doesn’t understand, and nothing will make them stop. When he tries to escape down an alleyway, the opposite end is inexplicably smaller, so tight he can barely squeeze through. It feels “real,” but upon reflection, there’s nothing real about it. At the last moment, Dom escapes into a waiting car where he finds Saito.
Arthur and Ariadne continue to practice. She doesn’t want the job, but she can’t stay away. “It’s pure creation,” she says. Arthur teaches her about level design, about optical illusions, about tricking the brain in simple ways. It might as well be Christopher Nolan explaining the same thing to a production designer, laying out the long con, discussing the best way to fool an audience. Ariadne asks him, mid-conversation, “Cobb can’t build anymore, can he?”
Arthur tells her a little about Mal, about how she’s dead, and how she haunts every sleeping moment for Dom at this point.
They add one last person to the mix, a chemist named Yusuf who they need because he will create a sedative powerful and stable enough to send them as many as three dream levels deep. He shows them an opium den for dreams he’s established, where these 12 people spend 3 or 4 hours a day connected, sharing 40 hours of dream time, all of them co-ordinating this shared dream world. He agrees to work with them, and Saito also says he’ll be joining them in the dream, making six people who will comprise the team.
Before they test the sedative, one of the men in Yusuf’s shop challenges Dom. “The dream has become their reality,” he says, referring to the 12 people connected in the other room. “Who are you to say otherwise?” It’s no accident he asks that of Dom. The entire movie is nudging you towards an acceptance that Dom is dreaming all of this. He asks to try Yusuf’s sedative, and in the brief moment we see of his forced dream, it’s Mal, up close and full of seething malice. “You know how to find me,” she says, driving him up, out of the dream, deeply freaked out.
Tomorrow, we’ll dig into the film’s second half, where Nolan pulls off one of the most impressive narrative juggling acts of the year… but to what purpose? Plenty more to discuss, so I’ll see you back here then.
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