Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Part One: Christopher Nolan’s Love Affair with Non-Linear Narratives
I complain a lot on this blog, mainly about narratives other people love. You might imagine this is because I just like to complain and, well, yeah that’s part of it, but every so often I have to stop and relish in one of the few things I unabashedly adore, nitpicks and all. Inception is one of those things.
I will rarely walk out of a theatre and think to myself, That was absolutely worth the price of admission and the two hours of my life it spent. I could in no way have used that time or money better. It’s not because I’m stingy or wasn’t entertained, but because I have this unfortunate habit of judging things by some hypothetical standard of perfection. My rating system does this, and it’s probably a source of tremendous irritation to anyone who just glances at them and wonders how Logan Lucky and Rock of Ages got a higher rating than Moana. It frustrates me too, because it often prevents me from enjoying quality media as much as I feel I should. My brain continues to think, Maybe there’s a version of Inside-Out that deals more directly with depression and mental disorders and doesn’t have that one corny line or off-kilter character. I mean, it’s a bit of a crap shoot and you’d probably never find it anyway, but if it exists, you’re wasting your liiiiiife…
As Inception shows, brains can be annoying things. My point is, it’s a beautiful feeling when I finally do find something that I can just enjoy as is. It doesn’t have to be perfect or beyond criticism, and it doesn’t even have to weather well with time. It just has to be something that fits – like a film that seems tailor-made for my interests, tastes, and guilty pleasures. I only find narratives like this once or twice a year, but Inception was one of them and it came completely out of the blue. The first time I learned about it was while watching a trailer twenty minutes before seeing the actual film. I ended up seeing it in theatres two more times, buying it on DVD, losing on DVD, buying it again this time on Blu-Ray and DVD, and losing the DVD again. I find my willingness to purchase something multiple times, whether I have lost it or not, is usually a pretty good indicator that I like it. I’ll even go so far as to say Inception is easily within my top five favorite films I’ve ever seen, and I take a lot of solace in that other people don’t find this opinion weird: it is a genuinely good movie.
As a Nolan Film*, it naturally has a lot of Nolan-isms: sharp pace, expositional dialogue, Hans Zimmer’s dramatic cellos, blue and yellow, snow, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, few female characters, high tension, a well-known actor in the main role, themes of fatherhood and loss, dead love interests, an ending that makes you both very impressed and very unwilling to admit how confused you are, and of course, non-linearity. I find it somewhat fascinating that a director can so consistently make films that almost feel like they’re part of a series yet have completely different plots and seemingly nothing to do with one another (and, yes, I do include all of his Batman films when I say that). Inception is one of Nolan’s most reality-centered films, being about dreams and the intersection of fiction and reality. However, unlike The Prestige, Dunkirk, and arguably Interstellar, Inception remains surprisingly simple when it comes to its linearity. Several things happen in different locations simultaneously toward the end, but the plot is effectively linear aside from the opening and brief flashbacks. The film can be extremely complex when every event is plotted out as it occurs with scene cuts and so forth, but oddly enough, it can be summed fairly concisely.
In some futuristic world, people have the ability to enter one another’s dreams. Specialized thieves called extractors use this technology to break into people’s minds and steal their secrets. Cobb, a skilled extractor and American expatriot, gets caught mid-heist by the man he’s trying to steal from. The man unexpectedly turns around to present him an unusual job: perform inception, placing an idea in a person’s head instead of taking it out. Offered the chance to return home to see his children, Cobb takes the job and recruits a team to perform the heist necessary for inception. All is going more or less well until the audience vessel and team architect, Ariadne, discovers that Cobb’s inner turmoil over the death of his wife – the ultimate reason for him leaving the U.S. – poses a threat to their operation. They go through with the plan anyway and nearly succeed until Cobb’s memory of his wife literally stops the plan dead in its tracks. Cobb risks his life (played here by his sanity) to confront his past and confesses to Ariadne the full truth of what happened, allowing the heist to resume and conclude. Cobb eventually finds his way out of the dream and, having completed the job, returns home.
The plot is decent, but it’s not what makes Inception stand out; the film takes full use of its mental landscape, turning literary concepts into physical objects, but rarely to a clichéd degree. The film has its own identity, such that while it’s easy to see its influences and imagine other stories that have used similar elements, after seeing it once, you’ll never mistake anything in Inception for that of another film. Doctor Strange, for instance, takes a similar aesthetic approach with its dream-like gravity, but this is such a superficial similarity as to be meaningless when comparing the two films. Even Psychonauts, which I often laud as one of the closest narratives out there to the film in terms of its concept and mechanics, has an aesthetic so far removed from the subtle surreality of Inception that their use of dreamscapes are likewise incomparable. In Inception, objects take on meaning according to the plot, almost independent of external context. Everything that the audience needs to know is contained within the film itself.
Part Two: Why Isn’t Tom Hardy Mumbling?
Story is conveyed through character. While Inception doesn’t exactly have a novel approach to character, nor are its characters particularly unique, the way it uses them certainly is. Like any ensemble story, the characters each serve a designated role. Cobb is the protagonist, Ariadne is the audience vector, Arthur is there for support and exposition when Cobb is emotionally unavailable, Mal is the antagonist, Yussif is the technical coordinator and comic relief, Eames is the muscle and comic relief, Saito is the MacGuffin, Fischer is puzzle piece the characters have to maneuver (and another MacGuffin), and Browning is the scapegoat. You could almost write the story yourself based on the archetypes of these characters, and the plot, when simplified, doesn’t deviate much from that basic framework.
What makes these roles interesting (aside from the performances, which are stellar as per the cast) is the little details that change character relationships slightly. Making Fischer a side protagonist three quarters of the way through the film, for instance, is a creative and gutsy move, but it pays off. You don’t get the emotional moment of Fischer opening the vault to find his dying father and the pinwheel he made as a child – planted by the heist team, but still very much a real emotional moment – without making Fischer a protagonist. The characters are all far more complex than they need to be to serve their roles, but this is invariably for the best. The characters remain engaging in every scene and become more interesting each time you watch the film.
For instance, it’s not at all important to the plot that Eames and Arthur have the relationship of two ex-lovers who used to work together, or that Saito clearly has only a basic understanding of extraction but is insistent on storming the castle along with the people he hired for the fun of it, but those small nuances make them feel more like real people. The character interactions are constantly imbued with little pieces of their interrelationships – most of the comedy derives from this, even – and it does wonders for the story’s tone and pacing.
Without interesting characters, half of the story is just people talking in serious voices about things that don’t exist. This is a common problem in science fiction; the writer becomes more concerned with world and themes than the characters through which the audience experiences them, and as a result, the experience becomes pretty dull. Humor can jumpstart engagement with the characters by lowering the audience’s requirements for suspension of disbelief, but ensuring characters feel like living people is another good way to up engagement. If the audience cares about the players, they’ll care about the story.
Admittedly, this is one of the film’s weaker areas, as the dialogue occasionally strikes an oddly explanatory tone. It’s still rich in detail and serves the plot, but some of the lines are noticeably stilted when characters demand something of each other. The line delivery works well enough and the lines themselves are competent, but these are clearly lines written for a film, and they fit film standards. The rest of the writing isn’t meant to be realistic, but it manages to be that little bit more synchronous that the dialogue occasionally feels artificial by comparison.
Part Three: STOP CALLING IT A PUZZLE MOVIE!
One of the most common responses to Inception that I’ve been hearing ever since its release is that it’s complicated. My initial reaction to this was the arrogant, “You’re wrong, it’s straightforward, you’re just not paying it enough attention.” In the intervening years, I’ve become [slightly] wiser and tried to understand why some people find Inception somewhat obtuse. I’ve heard it described as a puzzle box, a mystery, a riddle, and all manner of similar terms, which seems a bit odd given the only real question the film brings up but does not answer comes in the very last shot. To say the film is simple is misleading, as it has a large cast and interlocking components framed in a fairly original science fiction skin. Everything in the film, from the characters to the aesthetics to the plot can be simultaneously interpreted literally and symbolically, adding to the intricacy of its craft.
This film feels a lot longer than it is. The variety of locations, cast members, and plot tracks make it immediately apparent that inception has a lot to offer. It’s easy to get lost; lose focus for a few minutes, and suddenly all of the characters are unconscious and floating in an elevator that’s about to explode. It’s a bit of a weird film when you take it in pieces, and everyone has their own way of viewing narratives. If you like to nitpick or fully understand the progression of events of a complex film in order to enjoy it, Inception can deliver, but it’ll take a lot more effort than your average superhero movie to work apart its tangles. The film is surprisingly cohesive, and in some ways, it’s made for people who like to take a scalpel to stories and see how they work (hello).
However, none of these things is really essential to understanding the plot of Inception. The film is unusually logical in its progression, requiring few leaps in intuition to follow major developments, provided you’re willing to roll with anything that seems strange. A lot of information can be lost in the shuffle when watching the film, but it’s there for subsequent viewings. What gets the audience through that first viewing in theatres, where information must be absorbed or abandoned and characters occasionally talk at a breakneck pace, is the emotional core of it all. This is a film about a man trying to get home to his family; more broadly, it is about memory and forgiveness. The emotional crux of the film – Cobb finally giving up the fictional version of his wife, and later seeing his children once more – draws on concepts so universal that the scenes could be viewed out of context and still hold meaning.
Inception is a heist film through-and-through; even though the intention of the heist is to plant something rather than remove it, it still bears all the characteristics of a heist action narrative. Nearly the first half of the film is spent in the planning stages, showing enough of how the break-in will be performed that the audience can follow it, but not so much it makes later scenes boring. The ensemble crew is assembled and each character has their own unique skill to contribute to part of the heist. There’s a massive bank vault, a sexy femme fatal, increasing security as the characters get closer to their goal, the twist in the third act that almost ruins the heist, high emotional stakes beyond the immediate success of the heist itself, and plenty of personal baggage.
The mental landscape and surreal mechanics of world in which the break-in takes place offer new material seldom seen in heist stories, but the skeleton is still there. What’s the point of a heist film? They’re fun, certainly, often action-packed with a clear end goal for the characters to work toward. However, the heist itself is only half of the film. Characters need motivation that is personal, that goes beyond physical objects or money. Compelling heist films use the score at the end as a MacGuffin. The audience doesn’t give a damn about the gold in the vault; what the audience really cares about are the things the main character has to sacrifice to get that gold, or the things they end up sacrificing the gold for. This usually comes in the form of young children, as family acts as a simple juxtaposition between the protagonist as a skilled criminal planning a massive crime and them as a parent who just wants to be there for their kids (Logan Lucky is pretty explicit in this).
In Inception, the MacGuffin is twofold; the literal bank vault in Fischer’s mind is the object of the heist, but halfway through the film, a hiccup in the plan forces Cobb to go rescue Saito from Limbo instead. Saito holds the thing that’s the object of desire for Cobb specifically — his chance to return home — and thus forces Cobb to venture closer to Mal in order to resolve his personal dilemma before the heist can be completed.
Limbo: Understanding Loss and Memory
Yeah I’m deviating from my established format just because I like this film so much. Deal with it.
Everything in Inception can be viewed as symbolic. The characters, the top, the stopwatch, the locations, the music, the names — even the fundamental structure of the narrative has metaphorical meaning beyond its literal function within the story. This is not unusual for stories about dreams. What is somewhat unusual is that the symbolic meaning of these elements is seldom restricted to just one interpretation. Symbols often have one clear meaning: hearts mean love, snakes mean evil, birds mean freedom, etc. Because Inception doesn’t rely on a single source of inspiration, like the Bible or another film, its symbology is, for the most part, self-contained. Symbols can stand for elements of the story, such as the totems being representative of the characters who own them.
This also means that all of the actions of the characters have multiple facets.
That Mal isn’t a real person anymore but Cobb’s subconscious guilt provides a plethora of meaning to all of her actions. She appears constantly as something Cobb can’t forget or move past, a roadblock to his emotional development and daily life. She prevents him from doing his job, but he never resents her for it. It’s not Mal who’s the antagonist, or even her projection, but Cobb. He sees himself as the bad guy because he considers himself to be responsible for his wife’s death — and rightfully so. Cobb wants the projection to stop sabotaging his dreams, but he can’t do anything about it. When he’s shouting at Mal to stop her from stabbing Ariadne, he uses the same tone as when she’s about to fall from the window in his memory. This suggests, among other things, that Cobb is helpless to stop her, or at least feels like he is. He consistently has no control over the projection of his wife, nor does he seem to really want control over her. The projection of Mal and Cobb’s memory of her are the same thing, as we see in his own crafted dream, and that makes the situation even more fraught. Cobb’s real wife died as the result of him manipulating her with inception, and even if it’s possible to change the way projections behave (which the film suggests at several other points), Cobb can’t do that to her again. The projection of Mal is the accumulation of years of guilt and the internal anger Cobb feels toward himself, but it’s still Mal. Inception frequently plays around with the theme of memory, and in this case, the Mal projection represents all of Cobb’s memories of her and everything that goes along with them. In order to move past his guilt and accept that she’s gone, all of Mal has to die, the good memories along with the bad.
That’s not to say that Cobb’s memories of Mal are completely erased by the end of the film, but in this sort of story, where every component can be interpreted symbolically, literally, and both simultaneously, that might as well be the case. When the heist is over, none of the other characters really talk to each other or anyone else. The last five minutes of the film require audience interpretation to understand what the characters are thinking. The music (which is utterly phenomenal – Time is one of the most emotional and delicately composed pieces of music to come out of the last century) helps, as do the visuals. The emotion is pretty simple on its surface: everyone is exhausted but relieved that the job succeeded, and Cobb is overwhelmed to be able to go home and visit his family after being away for so long. But, as with any film, there’s meaning layered in every shot, and most of it goes unnoticed.
And what about that top, you might add? Well, I find it kind of funny that people talk so much about the top (and, yes, I realize the irony in me discussing it here) when it seems to have a pretty consistent interpretation. The top wobbles, suggesting it’ll fall over because it never has any of the previous times it’s been spun in the dream, but the film cuts out right before it falls over, in line with the music ending, so we’ll never really know. The end scene is crafted in such a way as to be somewhat suspicious, such as how everything looks the same as Cobb remembers it, even the children right down to their poses, but I don’t know that there’s really much of a split in the audience over the interpretation of the ending. Even the people who try to pedantically characterize every curious detail in the film and conclude that Cobb is dreaming still seem to understand on some level what the film is going for. By cutting out before the top falls, the film intentionally reveals its ambiguity in a way fairly few other films do, breaking the fourth wall because the filmmakers know the audience is watching that top intensely. Denying the audience the satisfaction of knowing for sure creates ambiguity where none necessarily has to exist.
What’s the meaning, then? Why does it do this?
Because it’s a film. It’s allowed to end that way. It begs for argument and discussion, and draws attention to the fact that, like the dreams it’s been depicting, the film itself is just another layer of representation and ambiguity disguised as reality. It’s a fiction, and like many dreams, it ends without fully concluding. That’s not to say you can’t interpret it in many other ways. Maybe the top was going to fall down anyway. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the top falls down because either way, Cobb’s back home. Maybe it’s yet another uncanny occurrence to make you question the reality of the film in general. Maybe it is a dream and the top will wobble eternally, a deviation from its former state associated with a breakdown or change in Cobb’s mind from his endeavor. Maybe it’s a tiny spaceship and about to lift off, but the filmmakers thought (rightfully) that showing it fly would break with the tone of the scene. Maybe Cobb is dead.
As nonsensical as some of these interpretations are, they’re all still valid. That’s the beauty of art: there is no right way to view it. What the author intended is an acceptable view, but it’s no more or less acceptable than what the audience perceives, and the end of Inception welcomes dissent. Even if the audience is asking a question as simple as, “Does the top fall down or not?” they’re still thinking about the film. Ambiguity incites engagement, discussion, and curiosity. What are films for if not that?
*I tend to avoid talking about directors or authors when possible, as most creative projects are group efforts that often get attributed wholly to the person who’s name is largest. In this case, though, the films associated with Christopher Nolan, particularly those with him directing and writing, often have such a distinct style that it’s worth giving this style a name. Since Nolan is the linking factor, that’s the name I’ve gone with, but I don’t want to discredit the rest of the creative team. Nolan is a significant part of the creative team, but he’s far from the only member of it.