Sunday, January 13, 2013


Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard

Christopher Nolan, I heart you so much.  You walk that line that so many other filmmakers don’t believe exists: that the American public will actually pay to see intelligent, original ideas.  Thank you, THANK YOU for proving that point with Inception.

The complex story of Inception is based on that most ineffable of ideas: dreams.  Cobb (DiCaprio) is an expert at extraction, or breaking into someone else’s dream in order to plunder their subconscious.  The technology has been developed to do this, and now corporate espionage is being taken to the subliminal level.  When international energy businessman Saito (Watanabe) hires Cobb, though, he does not want Cobb to steal an idea.  Rather, he wants Cobb to implant an idea in his enemy’s mind (the “inception” of the title).  It’s never been done successfully, but Cobb trusts in his partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) and the new girl on the team, dream architect Ariadne (Page).  Cobb’s past and his own subconscious begin to get in the way of their dream work, however, as manifested through Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Cotillard).

Inception made 300 million dollars US domestic, and over 800 million dollars worldwide.  I decided to start with this figure to make a big fatty point.  For as complex a narrative as Inception has, and hoo boy does it get convoluted at the end, people ate it up.  Inception found an audience, it was one of the biggest films of the 2010 summer, and it was an international success.  It is one of the precious few films that appealed to both critics (it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) and the popcorn summer crowd.  The divide between these two audiences is growing ever greater with every passing year.  The Oscars is growing more and more out of touch with the rather lowbrow tastes of the American public at large.  I do not solely blame the Academy for this; the “big” summer films are getting bigger and stupider, and the “small” critical darlings are getting smaller and holding less general appeal.  

But then Christopher Nolan comes along, makes another film, and bridges that divide, and I feel that once more, all is right with the world.

Inception is smart.  Really smart.  The audience has to buy in to a rather incredible idea, but that isn’t enough for Nolan.  He doesn’t stop at asking you to believe that people can infiltrate others’ dreams.  That’s just the basic premise.  He then layers on rules and restrictions and dangers and dreams within dreams.  The maze that Ariadne’s name brings to mind is represented not just in the set work of the designed dreams, but also the narrative of the film.  At its most complicated, Inception involves a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.  Four dreams deep, all having their own settings and perils, and all requiring impeccable timing.  And yet, like a master puppeteer, Nolan is always in control and is always careful enough to cut back and remind the audience of his orientation.  This movie reminds me of Nolan’s take on a Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse.  Wodehouse was the master at creating complicated situations for Bertie, all seeming impossible to escape from and involving at least a half dozen other characters.  But then Jeeves would come along and pull on just the right strand of thread, and everything would unravel and Bertie would be saved.  What’s most amazing is realizing that the strand of thread was there all along, you just never realized it needed to be pulled.  Wodehouse never pulled some random crap out of thin air; his genius lay in his ability to write such complicated narratives that could be solved so simply.  Inception is so similar in its complexities, and how Nolan manages to get out of said complexities.  He is in control, and he knows which thread to pull.

For a summer movie market that is continually inundated with sequels, prequels, reboots, and adapted material, it is remarkably refreshing to have had a summer movie as damned unique as Inception.  I honestly don’t think we’ve seen this before in film, not in this way, and if we have, then it’s obscure enough that even I, a fairly well-read film fangirl, don’t know about it.  And what’s so brilliant about Inception’s uniqueness is the fact that it is based on dreams, which are universal.  We have all dreamed.  Nolan pulls a few universal ideas about dreams into this film which helps to connect with his audience.  I love how he writes about the timeline of dreams.  Five minutes in the real world is a few hours in the first dream state.  Who hasn’t had THAT dream before, where they feel like SO MUCH happened in the dream, but wake to realize that only an hour or two, or maybe just a few minutes, have passed?  And the idea of how being killed in a dream will lead to waking up in real life?  I’ve died a few times in my dreams, and yes, I immediately woke up afterwards.  I’ve been there.  Lastly, the very idea of being able to control the dream state, to make impossible things happen, shown best in Inception when Ariadne really experiments with the dream state in the first hour of the film, is one that I’ve experienced only two or three times in my dreams.  But when I‘ve realized I was dreaming, when I’ve realized in my head that what I was experiencing was not real, it’s been an incredibly freeing feeling and I’ve defied physics to do incredible things.  I remember that feeling, and there’s Nolan, putting it up on the big screen in Inception.  When you combine these universal feelings with Nolan’s intense storytelling, I can understand why audiences paid to see Inception many times over.

I love the production design of this film.  It’s this strange blend of classic fifties/early sixties wardrobes and sets, combined with vaguely futuristic ideas.  The film is saturated in warm neutrals.  There are lots of golds, browns, and greys in Inception, and, for that matter, almost any other Nolan film I can think of.  There are few colors.  Nolan, I realize, does not like to work with bold colors.  His palette is always a little washed out.  I don’t mean that as a slam, more an observation.  But I love the design here.  I love the sets.  The Japanese sets at the beginning of the film are a blend of recognizable Japanese influence with that vague futuristic sense.  The second dream state is my favorite, the one with the famous rotating hallway fight sequence, and I love the clean lines, the slick wardrobe, the golden lighting.  But one of the most fascinating ideas about this gorgeous production design is its rather distinct lack of technology.  For a movie that clearly has some sort of a science fiction basis, we see no computers.  No cell phones.  The only tech shown on screen is the delivery mechanism for the sleeping potion the characters use, and that is relatively small and contained in a steel briefcase.  It’s more of a movie based on ideas rather than specific technology.  Because of this, Inception has a timeless feel to it.  Is it set in the future, or set in the present?  The sets and costumes and locations make it very difficult to discern.  We see Paris early on, and Paris is not a city that is constantly evolving its architecture or landscape.  The look of Paris evokes a very specific and non-techno vision.  This will make Inception appealing to future audiences.  There is very little in this film that will date it, and very much that is timeless.



I really don’t like to spoil films here, and I don’t even like using the word “spoiler,” because I know that if one has heard that there is a “twist” ending, all you’re doing is waiting for it, watching for it.  But I *have* to talk about the ending of Inception.  To those who’ve seen it, you know what I mean.  Things get too complicated for Cobb and he is too wracked with guilt about Mal.  We see nearly all the other characters emerge from the dreams within dreams within dreams to return to reality, but Cobb stays behind in his subconscious to find the injured Saito and deal with Mal once and for all.  Then, magically, Cobb is awake, everything is fine, and he is reunited with his children whom he hasn’t seen in quite some time.  He spins his top, his totem, his way to tell if he is dreaming or not.  The top spins.  It wobbles a little.  Cut to black, roll credits.

Nolan leaves the door open to debate about whether or not Cobb is dreaming or if this perfect ending is reality with that damned top wobble.  And once again, we have one of my favorite things in film, ambiguity.  I love you, Nolan.

So here’s my take.  There’s no way in hell that Cobb came back from limbo.  Everything he is seeing is just his own dream.  Here are my various reasons for this interpretation: first of all, let’s take the spinning top.  Cobb has always watched the top throughout the film, but he does not watch this one.  He is too excited by the prospect of seeing his children to care if it is a dream or not, and that represents a fundamental shift in Cobb’s mentality.  He has always cared.  He no longer does.  This is not the “real” Cobb.  And the top itself – it doesn’t fall down.  Wobble or not, it doesn’t fall down.  Period.  But more than that, I go back to the mythology about dreams established earlier in the film.  Cobb explains to Ariadne very early on that in dreams, you cannot remember how you got to where you were when the dream started.  Dreams just start in the middle of the action.  Every time we see a dream state, it always follows these rules.  There are no introductions, no beginning of the stories.  No explanation for how one gets there.  Given that these are the established rules of dreaming, now consider the ending.  We watch all the other characters except Cobb go through the various kicks through the various dream states.  We see how they get back from the depths.  We never see how Cobb returns.  We don’t know how he gets there.  There is no explanation.  He doesn’t follow the set of kicks.  Why?  Because he didn’t really wake up.  And along with this idea of no explanation, how did Michael Caine’s character, Cobb’s father or father-in-law, know to pick him up from the airport?  We never saw Cobb tell him he was coming.  No explanation.  It just happens.  Dream.  Totally.

But my biggest argument for the ending being just Cobb’s dream is based purely on opinion.  Inception is such a better movie if it ends with Cobb being stuck in his dream than if we have some magical, pat, happy ending.  Nolan doesn’t do happy endings, guys.  Nolan is not that type of a storyteller.  I just don’t buy that he would write himself into this corner for Cobb, where so many things are going so horribly wrong, where Cobb is so wracked with guilt that his subconscious is destroying him completely, and then give him a happy little rainbow-in-the-sky ending.  I don’t buy it for a second.  Nolan has spent most of the film establishing that Cobb is deeply troubled, that Mal is a significant threat.  Cobb is a tragic hero, and tragic heroes have to die.  (Or, in the case of this movie, be stuck in limbo.)  Tragic heroes don’t have everything magically work out for them in the end.  And no little wobble of a top will convince me otherwise, so if you’re in the opposite camp on this one, save your breath.  Take it to the IMDB messageboards instead.



Look, when it comes down to it, even if you can’t follow the complex narrative, even if you don’t really care about the gorgeous look of the film or the creativity in the central idea, you’ll still have a really fun time with Inception.  It’s an action movie, it’s a tortured love story, and it’s a thriller.  It’s entertaining as all get-out, and it never, EVER panders.  God bless you, Christopher Nolan.  Much thanks.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10  If anything, I do think it’s a just a tad long.


  1. I agree with practically everything you said, except for your take on the ending. I think the opposite, but only on a surface level, I haven't really deciphered and reviewed the possibilities, its just what I assumed had happened the first time I watched it.

    Inception is probably my favourite of Nolan's films to date (followed by The Prestige, Memento and the Batman trilogy). I love the idea of multiple climaxes occurring simultaneously, and in fact being forced to occur simultaneously or they'll all be for nought. And the ingenuity of the spinning hotel fight. And the style. And, well, just everything really. The only reason I don't watch it more often is, as you so rightly pointed out, its a little too long. Great review.

    1. My husband and I, when we routinely bond over Chris Nolan's films, have endlessly dissected the end of this film. But my opinion never changed - it always felt like it ended that way. At least for me.

      Yeah, this is a really fun, great movie. I don't think this is my favorite Nolan, but my feeling on Nolan is that "mediocre" Nolan (which, for the record, I don't think this is) is still loads better than so many other films.

  2. Good review. I'll take this film over any of Nolan's Batman films any day of the week. It has the internal logic that those films are lacking. Inception was my number four movie of all of 2010.

    It's funny, but my only quibble with the film is the thing you wrote extensively about your love for - the lady or the tiger ending.

    As a writer/director that is in control of where the movie goes, there are only three reasons to end a film like that: 1. You can't decide yourself which outcome you want it to be (or can't be bothered to decide - see David Lynch); 2. You can decide, but you love the power that comes from knowing the real answer and making your fans guess and beg you for the true answer (see Michael Haneke); or 3. You are unsure how your film will be received and it is a very easy way to artificially get critics to spend a lot of time writing and talking about your movie.

    Nolan had had this movie idea kicking around in his head for ten years, so I highly doubt it was number 1. Number 2 is a possibility, but if so he hasn't shown a predilection for this in any other film of his I have seen. It therefore seems unlikely. This just leaves number 3 - he was unsure if people would buy into the concept in his film. I wish he would have been more sure because my quibble isn't that it leave things sort of open, but that it feels like a cheap, tacked on ending that the film doesn't need. The movie is more than good enough to stand on its own, no matter which way he would have chosen to go. I do have to give him his due, though, because the tactic succeeded brilliantly; people are still discussing the ending today.

    On a related note, and I mention this because of your special feelings for Titanic: someone pointed out that Titanic ends with Dicaprio slipping into the water and Inception starts with him washing up on a beach. Titanic is therefore just a dream with an Inception dream.

    Oh, in regards to whether something like this movie had been done before, the 1984 movie Dreamscape comes to mind. It involves a man (Dennis Quaid) who can enter people's dreams. He is recruited to conduct espionage this way. He encounters an evil man that can also enter people's dreams, but he is doing it to sow terror and insanity. His ultimate target is someone very important, who I will not spoil. Quaid's character has to try to stop him. No, not an exact match for Inception, but I figured I'd mention it.

    1. Ha! I love the interpretation of Titanic as just a dream within Inception! For me, it's a nightmare.

      I knew there were probably other dream films (Nightmare on Elm Street certainly plays with dreams but in a different way), but given that CHIP, who's seen THOUSANDS of films, can only come up with ONE related example does at least make the point that this is a fairly underrepresented filmic idea.

      I don't see the ending as a cop out at all. I just think he trusts his audience. Sure, there was probably some "man I just know they'll talk about this!" there, but it was STILL a bold move.

  3. This was my pick for The Club. I was going to go with something obscure, but I was asked specifically for something a little more...inclusive.

    My issue with Inception is one that I fear is peculiarly my own--I have a difficult time rewatching it. On a first viewing, it is truly spectacular. And, as you say, it's smart. It forces the audience to pay attention to it at all times, and rewards the audience for doing so by not making it too easy for them. It requires the audience to form their own meaning out of what happens, and most especially what happens at the end.

    But for some reason, I can't get into it a second time. I've tried. I guess I should try again.

    1. Jurassic Park was my pick - Squish also asked me to pick something large and mainstream. I figured you can't really get much bigger than Jurassic Park.

      Hm. That's an odd and rather unique predicament. Somehow, knowing what happens keeps you from enjoying the ride more than once. I have a similar thing with a few films (Borat, Chicago), but not Inception.