At the movies: ‘Inception’

08.30.10 7 years ago 42 Comments

Warner Bros.

Because I have this job watching TV that keeps me in the living room most nights, because I’m a father to young kids, and because the experience of seeing a movie in a theater has become expensive and largely intolerable, I don’t go out to the movies very much anymore. But I’d been wanting to see Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” since it came out, couldn’t find the time to hit a theater while I was at press tour (where, as mentioned before, my free time was taken up by all the “Boardwalk Empire” and “Terriers” screeners I was given) and basically had to wait until yesterday morning to get around to it.

HitFix has its own staff of film writers, and Drew McWeeny has already done an extended two-part analysis of the meaning of “Inception,” but I wanted to offer up a few thoughts (just like I did on the old blog on those rare movie-going occasions), which are coming up just as soon as I check the weight of this loaded die…

I worried that the length of time it took to see “Inception” meant that I would wind up completely spoiled about it. Fienberg assured me that the movie was un-spoil-able, and he was more or less right – in part because everyone seems to have a different interpretation of what it was about, and what the end means. Has Cobb made it out of Limbo, or is the reunion with his kids supposed to tell us that he’s given himself over to the fantasy world Limbo can create for him? In the first half of his analysis, Drew suggests that we’re meant to take even the “real world” scenes in the set-up as a dream, and in the second argues that the entire Fischer job is in fact an elaborate intervention by Arthur, Ariadne and the others on Cobbs’ own behalf, to help him get over the guilt of Mal’s death.

I’ve had less than 24 hours to process all of this (and had to devote brainpower along the way to the Emmys and to “Mad Men”), so I don’t feel comfortable offering my own theory, except to say that the fact that Cobbs’ kids don’t seem to have aged at all since he last saw them a long time ago suggests to me that the ending was a dream.

But here’s the thing: while there are some puzzle movies – Nolan’s “Memento” and “The Prestige, to name two – where it was important to get some kind of concrete answers by the end, I don’t think that really matters with “Inception.”

This is a movie about dreams and dream logic, and the latter concept has always struck me as ironically-named. Dreams are the opposite of logical. We can try to suss out rules and jot down notes upon waking and discuss them with our therapists and bore our friends with them, but even the most literal of them (say, having the test dream on the night before an actual test) will only make so much sense. So a movie that spends so much time in the dream world not only shouldn’t be expected to have a definitive explanation, but it would almost seem to defy the spirit of the idea.

Which isn’t to say that movies about dreams should be let off the hook for good storytelling. But that’s not something you need to worry about with Nolan. The man comes up with innovative ideas, but the thing that separates him from a lot of his peers – like, say, Guillermo Del Toro, whose films are always bubbling over with dazzling ideas and gorgeous images, but where the whole usually feels less than the sum of its parts to me – is that he’s also a master craftsman. Like Ariadne in this film, he is an architect who plans things out to the smallest detail. The pieces all fit together, and in a design that allows you to interpret most of it however you like.

If you want to take everything literally, then Nolan has made a damn good caper film with a sci-fi conceit that makes it feel unlike any “Ocean’s Eleven” knock-off you’ve ever seen, and one that has time amidst the hustle and all the action set pieces (Arthur’s zero-G rescue mission was a particular highlight) to tell two strong character arcs for Cobb and Robert Fischer. The cast is impeccable, both the Nolan veterans and the newbies (I’d like to think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a year or two away from being able to headline something like this) and both this world and its people feel fully-formed. 

And if you don’t want to believe that some, or any, of what we’re seeing is real, then Nolan has laid down many clues that can point you in many directions. It’s a movie that works smashingly as you watch it, and then provides fodder for discussion for days, weeks and months. Based on the comments in Drew’s posts, the debate rages on nearly two months later.

And since I’m coming to this so much later than the rest of you, I imagine you have your own theories on this. So have at it.

What did everybody else think?

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