The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we examined how The Prestige was the key to understanding the films of Christopher Nolan. Today, we’re skipping The Dark Knight to look at what many consider to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus: Inception.
As always, I’m going to point out that the Batman films are being saved for a special Batman trilogy installment at the end of the retrospective; which, coincidentally, is going to be the next one. This will coincide with my review of The Dark Knight Rises, so that we get to look at the ways the three films work together as a trilogy. Another thing to point out is that there will be major spoilers in the following discussion, so if you haven’t seen Inception (Which isn’t really likely) then you can rent it anywhere discs can be rented, or even buy it anywhere on DVD or blu-ray.
With that being said, let’s dive right into the many different dream layers ofInception…
All throughout this retrospective, I’ve kept hinting at a film that I considered to be the best of Nolan’s filmography and my favorite of his work. Well, prepare for your minds to be blown because I’m talking about it right now. Inception is my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. A lot of people will probably agree with me, and a lot will probably disagree as well; but regardless of what you think of the film it’s impossible not to admit that this is Nolan’s most ambitious, audacious, and imaginative film he’s ever conjured up.
In the last installment, I kept bringing up how The Prestige was the Nolan Rosetta Stone, a.k.a. the key to understanding all of Christopher Nolan’s films; because it contained every single theme and character type that Nolan was obsessed with and had them in an almost meta display on how he constructs his films. Well, if The Prestige is the key to understanding the films of Christopher Nolan, then I’m going to argue that Inception is the key to understanding Christopher Nolan himself.
Inception follows a man named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who specializes in subconscious extraction. He uses special devices that allow people to share dreams and uses them to sneak into a target’s mind, steal their secrets, and gain a profit from it. The only thing he longs for is the home he’s been exiled from and the family he left behind there, because of a crime he didn’t commit. When a lucrative Chinese entrepeneur named Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires him for a job that he would reward with a lifting of his sentence, Cobb accepts right away only to discover that the job in question is more challenging than he expected. What Saito wants isn’t an extraction, but an inception. Rather than stealing an idea, he wants him to plant an idea into someone’s mind.
Inception–pardon the (intentional) pun–works on so many levels. It works as an action film, it works as thought-provoking sci-fi, it works as a character study, hell I even belong in the minority of critics who think that it also works as a tragic romance. The film shouldn’t have worked. There are so many different moving parts and ideas all fighting for space that it’s almost overwhelming, but Nolan pulls it off beautifully thanks to incredibly sharp writing and masterful editing (Seriously, the editing isn’t credited enough or this film).
As an action film, Inception is an incredible spectacle to behold. Christopher Nolan isn’t usually the best at action scenes. They’re normally decent at best, because you could at the very least tell what is going on in all of them and there are actual stakes involved. Here, however, not only are they comprehensibly shot and edited, and not only are the stakes there; you witness some of the coolest things you’ve never seen in an action film until then. The hallway fight scene alone, as brief as it is, is one of the most incredible, original, exciting, and imaginative set-pieces I’ve seen in an action film ever.
As a sci-fi film, Inception is rife with so many ideas it’s almost too much to handle. The film sets up the rules of the world in a way that is expository without being boring. Is it a lot of heavy-handed exposition? Yes. In fact, some people have cited the fact that you spend an hour learning about the rules of dream-sharing and getting accustomed to the vocabulary (kicks, totems, architects, etc). I never had a problem with it, though. For one thing, it never felt like an hour (at least for me it didn’t). For another thing, the way everything is explained is so visually rich and imaginative that I didn’t mind re-watching these scenes in the slightest.
I’ve heard detractors of the film claim that the film has no imagination; that for a film about dreams, it doesn’t take full advantage of the crazyness that dreams can provide, opting more for a realistic look with only slight tinges of surrealism. This is a semi-legitimate complaint, only it falls apart when you learn this one crucial fact about the film: The reason why the dreams don’t really resemble one’s usual surrealistic dreams is because everything in the film is literalized. I’ll get more into this later, but for now, the simplified version: Every single idea and theme in the film is literalized into a recognizable, physical form. The other parts of people’s subconscious take the form of random civilians, the place where secrets are stored is literally a safe, and the only way to wake up from the dream is to take your life from it (i.e. kill yourself).
It also makes sense that the dreams have only subtle hints of surrealism since the entire film is about deception. To be fair, almost all of Nolan’s films have characters that deceive one another. But what makes Inception different in this regard is that instead of the main characters (and the audience) being deceived, it is the main characters that do the deceiving when they trick oher people into thinking that dreams are reality. The only time the protagonists are deceived is when they themselves can’t tell the difference between dream and reality (Which ties into one of the two primary Nolan themes that we’ll discuss later).
I’ve also heard some of the film’s detractors say that the film “isn’t as smart as it thinks it is” simply because it isn’t confusing. They’re right in that it isn’t confusing, they’re absolutely wrong in saying that it isn’t smart. The film is complicated, yes, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t confusing. If anything, the fact that it isn’t confusing is a testament to how strong the world-building is and how well-written it is. Even though there’s tons of exposition thrown at the viewer, there’s never a point where Nolan treats the audience like an imbecile. He expects you to follow along, and rather than holding back bits of information to rope you along in mystery like he does in his other films, he gives you all the pieces and expects you to follow everyone along…only to subvert you again in the end.
However, what not many people seem to appreciate (at least not as much as I do) is how well Inception works as a character study. While it’s definitely not quite up to Wild Strawberries levels, I still found myself oddly moved by the tragic story of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the fact that his guilt literally interferes with his work.
I mentioned in both my Insomnia and Prestige pieces the specific character type that Nolan likes to use in all of his flms: Each of his main characters from Batman to Leonard Shelby are specialists who hold professionalism and strict order as their highest virtues, but experience their downfall when emotional interference comes into play. The simplified version: The conflict between logic vs. emotion; head vs. heart.
To paraphrase a quote Bob Chipman’s review of the film: In Inception, that isn’t just a character type; that’s part of the plot. Because everything in the film is literalized, Cobb’s emotional crisis takes on a physical (at least, in the dream world) state in the form of Mal’s shade. Whenever Cobb is trying to get a job done, parts of his subconscious start leaking into his subject’s and begin to interfere with his work. To put it more bluntly: In a film where everything is literalized Cobb’s emotional guilt doesn’t just internally interfere with his work, his emotional guilt literally interferes with his work.
It’s because of this that I think that it’s Nolan’s most emotionally satisfying film next to Memento. It’s not subtle, sure, but it fits the universe, the final catharsis Cobb has with Mal feels satisfying, and the performances from both DiCaprio and Cotillard are excellent.
It’s also because of this that I think Inception offers some insight into how Christopher Nolan’s mind works. Think about it, why do all of these films have the exact same character type for their protagonists? Lazy writing? Well, that would be a viable criticism if all of the characters weren’t so different in the more specific details and scenarios.
There’s always been the phrase “write what you know”. In fact, this phrase is referenced in Inception, when Ariadne (Ellen Page) constructs a large bridge in the dreamspace, only it turns out to be based on a bridge that she crosses all the time that exists in the real world. Cobb then says that she isn’t supposed to do that. You’re only allowed to create new things, and you can’t derive things from memory because it’s the easiest way to lose your distinction between reality and fantasy.
Now, imagine Cobb saying that exact same sentence, about only being allowed to construct original ideas rather than copying them from real life, but this time imagine Cobb saying it to a writer. Now you may start to see the connection. Constructing elaborate dream worlds? Relying solely on professionalism to get the job done? Emotional interference ruining that work? Sticking with what you know making the creator lose themselves in their work? If this isn’t a glimpse into the way Christopher Nolan’s meticulously structured mind works, I don’t know what is.
There are two primary themes in Nolan’s work that I’ve kept mentioning throughout these retrospectives. The first one is the relationship between order and chaos, which isn’t really the thematic focus of the film, even though you can argue that Cobb’s conflicting professionalism and emotional guilt could qualify in that category. It’s the second theme, though, that is truly at the center of Inception: The idea that objective reality can be shaped by subjective perception.
Much like everything else in the film, this theme is literalized. It’s more than just a thematic element that is driving the film; it’s also the definition of the film’s title. The whole film centers around the premise that you can plant a simple idea into someone’s subconscious, and it would change them as individuals and, in turn, the person’s perception of objective reality. This doesn’t just apply to the heist at the center of the film. It also refers to the plight of Mal, who started to believe that reality was just a dream because of Cobb’s mistake of planting a simple idea in her head.
And depending on your take on the infamous final shot of the film, this could also apply to Cobb himself. Much like Memento’s Leonard Shelby, he could’ve very well just lied to himself about what reality truly was just to attain happiness and purpose in his life.
I know that the mere act of discussing the ambiguity of the final shot has become something of a cliche. There are countless arguments all throughout the internet, and I personally don’t choose a single side in the “Did the top topple over?” debate. Nolan made it ambiguous for a reason: Because there is no right answer. In the Nolan universe, where subjectivity can shape objectivity, the simple cutaway from the spinning top is the ultimate summation of one of Nolan’s primary themes. There is no right answer solely because objective reality is whatever the individual chooses it to be. It can be anything. There’s either no right answer at all, or everything is the right answer.
Throughout his films, Nolan has made many of his main characters endure the struggle of figuring out what the true objective reality was. It is with the final shot of Inception that he finally gives that conflict over to you, the audience. All his characters have chosen. Leonard Shelby lied to himself to achieve purpose, Alfred Borden gave up his life for the sake of mere illusions, and Mal believed that killing herself was just another way of waking up. Learning from all these characters’ mistakes, it’s now your turn to choose the objective reality. Because something as simple as a photo, or a spinning top, or a magic trick can change who you are. But unlike the movies, in real life we get to decide whether the top spins or falls.
Inception went on to be a massive pop culture phenomenon, while also raking in a Best Picture nomination at the 2010 Academy Awards (Despite no Best Director nom for Nolan himself). After achieving an impossible feat with making his most complicated script one of his most comprehensible, Christopher Nolan went on to perform a more difficult task: Closing out his Batman trilogy.
Tune in next time for both my review of The Dark Knight Rises and the final installment of the Christopher Nolan Retrospective in which I tackle the entire Batman trilogy.