A man in the night kindles a light for himself when his vision is extinguished; living, he is in contact with the dead when asleep, and with the sleeper when awake. - Heraclitus
A shaggy dog story, Inception is a PG-13/kid's film concept sold to adults-of-all-ages. What should be a flowing, portalled adventure is only guilt-ridden dream chaos witnessed drop-by-drop from the inside of a frequent flyer's head. Basically it's a lunatic metaphysical shouting match between exes, draped in dour, puny minded sci-fi exhortations. Maybe it's the terminal blockbuster, a relationship film that ends with a symbolic, ritual execution:
Hey, honey, this is Ariadne, she's the avatar I brought into my dream to kill you.
Christopher Nolan's first original script since Memento arrived ten years ago, Inception is sold to the market as a game-changer, yet the film is plastered with uncryptic and blandly wooden pitch-phrases like The Dream is Real. Sounds like a desert casino's lure — too bad it wasn't. By the film's aggressively false-ending made out of an abrupt cutaway (synched weirdly with Minority Report's), we've been force-focused so laboriously to all the new nouns we have to memorize, we realize Nolan is force-feeding his crypticism. The dream he's egging us on about was all onboard a plane, in your mind. Through Nolan's shakey-cam he's explained everything so logically, so not non-chalantly as needed, it becomes clear the logic pretend-hides, the way adults do with children or pets who think a toy is gone once it's out of view. When something is off-screen it's gone from the film' logic. Instead of building exacting passages and abstracting shareable ambiguities the movie invents it whenever necessary. It's not a maze per se, but guilt-ridden self-deception. An emotional maze as chaotic as any domestic dispute. A metaphysical he said/she said. Inception will find its true audience among sleepless passengers on countless red-eyes and they'll deplane knowing Nolan’s another Wizard of OZ, revealing his shoes under the curtains late-in-the-game, he bears metaphors not metaphysics.
In a too local future, ex-pat Dom Cobb (he's chased by a surly/similarly named Cobol Corporation: early resonant proof he's chasing himself) stars as the world's best extractor, an agent/double-agent who enters dreams and extracts secrets from high-test minds holding the tightest reins on the corporate realm. As a fantasy probably imagined by Nolan in first-class sleeper-seats, no doubt the plot is something any travelling CEO wishes they could perform on the others close at-hand. Cobb's ex-pat/ex-husband status are the stuff plots are made out of, all due to his wife's carefully arranged suicide, it's so well planned he's taken the fall for her act (the mystery sags with who arranged it and what arrangement actually means), and Cobb’s messy guilt of having suggested her withdrawal from society in a previous dream-state. You see, wifey Mal couldn’t tell real from dream, a quality-metaphor we know Cobb is operating with as well, the key hint the film is fatally flawed: if she cant tell what's real who can? and if she can't then who cares? Mal has thought of an airtight lure to her husband to join her in an escape, she's visited psychologists to rant about his danger and staged a planned reunion celebration hotel room with broken glass and torn curtains, but as Dom arrives to share another year in 'real', he finds her perched across the street twelve stories up, legs aiming for the street below. The lynch-pin scene of the film is told as a flashback, the stickiest of all film devices, it's a kind of get-out-of-jail card directors use frequently if they can't find a way to imply behavior or waste expensive screen-time exposition. Masters like Hitchcock are loathe to use them, but when properly deployed, they ratchet the nuances quite fluidly, with an exacting skill it hardly feels like a flashback, case in point the source of Inception's device: Vertigo, where a murderous switcheroo explains why platinum Kim Novak actually did look like brunette Kim Novak.
Most of the film is logically slack from each character's point of view since no behavior holds up. Straining to lose composure from the get-go, Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb is the last person anyone should be dreaming with, let alone playing with the idea of suicide to end a dream-state; he warns away his entire staff with angry outbursts yet illogically they follow him deeper and deeper until we arrive at a James Bond ending (from one of the two Bond masterpieces - On Her Majesty's Secret Service via the League of Shadows in Nolan's muh better Batman Begins). Here a re-dying scion re-explains his dying words to a grieving son in a clinically fabricated safe.
Inception has interesting ideas, ideas like who really controls any story, whether dreams are ultimately shareable, the problem is Nolan makes it a heist-film to cover-up the film’s true central goal, then couches the bulk of the film inside Cobb: the film is about the release of his tortured soul from what we gather is indirect guilt. Like Shutter Island employing its similar if not identical goal and gotcha, Inception plots along with B-movie layers in A-movie depth. Both begin paralleled on transportation heading for islands. They both start with seductive premises, here an unaged (one of the dead giveaways) extractor Cobb-DiCaprio meets a very aged Saito-Watanbe, the initiator of the inception plot about to unravel (instead of stealing, planting an idea to dismantle a competitor), scion of a massive Japanese conglomerate (like other abstractions in the film, they are underused, undersatirized as possible subliminal reality-benders, more proof we're slumming in mediocrity). The two appear as glitches of the film-dream, waxing poetically as if the plot has this loop that cannot be escaped until the true awakening (we return here much later), which then enters a dream within a dream, where a test results in an unsatisfying demonstration for a younger, 'earlier' version of Saito. Cobb is a rogue dream-weaver with the dimensionality of a videogame character enhanced only by the unidimensional inception he accidentally (ha—subconsciously) plants on his wife. Despite the clever distortions of the test (the Japanese house in question jumps from crowded to empty, his wife appears from his subconscious afflicting pain on his 'coworkers'), Nolan never lets us know the conceptual reach of Cobb’s (or his) skills as a storyteller within his own dream, Nolan uses characters labeled architects to build dream layouts in absentia of the dreamer, important clues are abandoned: was the Saito house a set of Lukas Haas's or Saito’s, do the dreamers not recognize their own homes while detecting subtlties like carpet roughness, etc? Although the opportunity was there to explore transformation in real time, we only see this practiced during Cobb’s recruited Ariadne's training or, when a larger gun is required during the heist, or most medicinally, as a duplication of a Penrose loop shown in training, then used in-heist to off a gun-toting extra (a clever merging of biology and issues of time). The Penrose reference may be the only actual fact of the film (ie: it comes from our referenced realm); the loop device is the film's life-blood, and if so the futility of its gesture, the blandness our sidekick shouts "paradox!" becomes crassly obvious. Nolan's saved his best line for this shock-toss and it drops meekly with the subcon into the stairway. Other jokes are worse than contrived, their redundant. Despite its well-researched tangents, Inception never comes to life as a simula with expressive power. Loads of richly designed logic could-should have been carefully inferred by unspoken visual references (and left unexplained) to encode the film to pique interest, instead, Nolan relies on clever, one-note gimmicks that never share logic, the key is left to the totem, an all around proof. A game-piece that has a subtle flaw that only the dreamer is supposed to know about, the totem is the film’s x, and Cobb unsubtly appropriates his wife’s, proof he's already given away its secret-tell inwardly. An amazing idea that bears no fruit emotionally. While the film endlessly plays "I Regret Nothing" by Piaf (both in real time and ultra slo-mo scream) to alert dreamers their time is up, Nolan follows this with Cobb spinning Mal's top and though we think it 'works' we are slyly shown the top symbolizes something much darker: regret, not any real awakening. He can watch the spin for hours, it was his wife's. When we witness Cobb shake clear of his wife during Saito’s opening test, then tie his repelling wire to her chair when she reappears seconds later, we know too much about his weaknesses too soon. Avoid her yet anchor your life to her. It's in fleeting glimpses that we seem to be in an afterlife screwball comedy inside Cobb's dream, reconnecting two humans at differing scales of the subconscious, but Nolan plays it way straight, pretending the film has universality in its scope. In a film with two elaborately conceived safes, Nolan hides totems in both, one is of course Mal’s, ceremoniously limiting the film’s nascent ambiguities (the other safe-bound totem is the heir's, whose pinwheel belongs really to someone else's consciousness, it's an off the cuff Rosebud of Cobb's, stolen from a more stable unreality flick Blue Velvet), aimed squarely at his potentially estranged fatherdom. All of the totems are sourced in the rotors of the helicopter where the inception was initially discussed, and later all the main characters are housed onboard a plane where the dream is conducted from. This constant shift, augmenting the story with both direct and indirect references to Mal, tells us the film is less about the merits of the dreamer (Cobb's/Nolan's creativity) than the dreamer's guilt, the things left hidden, their artifacts of pain. Once we see his wife plugging away at 'team-members' in the opening scene, the film is essentially over since we can sense she’s the only real villain, the thing to fear. And once we realize she’s only his memory (she's not on the plane), we know it's only Cobb’s inner mazes the film inhabits, the external stuff is up for grabs or worse, like the 'inception' of Fischer, totally pointless. I used inception there in quotes since, existing almost entirely in a dream, the film isn't really about any specific inception since it either 1) never occurs or 2) it happens every second. The Mal-suicide flashback, for all its weight in data, might just be its own self-deception, can the viewer decode what really happened with her death? Nope. Nolan leaves her out of the post-airplane scene to heighten his ambiguities but doesn't leave us much room for proofs. Metaphors not metaphysics. As dreams collapse and subsume and psychoactive 'subcon' dream extras appear in armor, firing weapons that mostly miss, spinning wheels, we synch up the film’s two metaphorical trains and we slowly get the pictcha, this is a limbo film conflict, a man’s crazy wife is stalking him, and he’s got her psyche shelved away off an elevator (or so he thinks, he hides her now in the hotel room she staged, like a mirror joke, or worse, a reveal that he's really responsible). To quote Blade Runner: Memories, you’re talking, and talking, and talking about memories. Nolan puts her front and center and no doubt he toyed with the idea of putting her in disguise or hiding her identity but he boldly and blandly decides for narrative openness. Like a pat Freudian analysis subject, Cobb can't help but lay his cards down and face the music: he's got to wake up. Lots of the film eeks out an existence milking the far reaches of logic while trying to convince us we're in a 'reality' of some kind, Nolan in effect seems to make fun of movies and how perfectly we want our logic offered. Unfortunately he does it without a grin, with total literalness, overtly, overexplained. Everybody in the film says yes, debates are formless, warned characters return for more, shifting gravity in other worlds is the only shared distortion from a previous ‘normality’. The film's incept guide-by-proxy is even named Ariadne, Theseus's maze decoder, as if her role and name could actually be the same in any reality (hint, we're in a myth that Cobb's unconscious controls). In the film's most elaborate zero-gravity scene, dreamers are tied together and packed into an elevator to await the return of gravity and their return to a shallower dream-level, yet the premise is not as airtight as it seems, it goes by fast enough that no one seems to notice other questions of merit: why use all that explosive — why not just open a window and wait for the drop to happen? That it all looks like a car commercial starring the airborne kinetic elite of the western ruling-class is not only toxically bland, he even leaves it completely unsatirized (think about Roger Thornhill's ad-man background in North by Northwest, Hitch knew to make fun of it with a scant six references). Nolan however is sold on it, he's the pragmatic CEO lording over his inception IPO, gravely intonating its teaser: your mind is the scene of the crime.
The inception of Fischer, what the film endlessly holds as a watermark of adventurous mindplay, was never the point of the film, it stands in for one that we never get to watch occuring to Mal and for the one we barely notice happening to Cobb (isn’t that the collapse of the film, it’s called inception but the real inceptions occur offscreen, ostensibly too difficult even to flashback to, it appears, like many of the emotional entanglements, as a sunlit Hallmark card moment). Cobb's one successful inception, his wife's 'suicide,' forms the only tangent of merit, his guilt forcing him to succumb eventually in limbo only once she’s dead (he can’t bring himself to ‘kill’ her). Since this is the only conditional conflict the film operates with, its plot becomes dominated by shrieking Shakesperaean mechanics like the endgames of The Dark Knight, Inception is the sci-fi film guilt-corrupted by a mythic dead-wife (see Solaris), a retrograde plot density not seen in the U.S. since Forbidden Planet’s id monster haunted Altair. The film Nolan aspires to is composited from the likes of Blade Runner, but that film’s use of memories was careful and slight, elegant, and very, very private. P.K. Dick would mock Inception’s upper-class Bond atmospherics as a sell-out to corporate conspirators (isn't Cobb working for his anonymous cabin-mate, whom he invents as a Tyrell-like magnate who insists on an inception). Unlike Inception, Blade Runner’s conflicts were widely dispersed among multiple philosophical tangents, like the high-bar established by 2001. Hell, a movie like Men In Black is operating more tangents than Inception. Here, Nolan shrugs away a thousand questions and turns his film merely into the gimmick of whether to kill or not kill your wife’s memory so you can live with your memories in peace, and because death is so immaterial in the film, it doesn’t really matter whether Cobb is ‘dead,’ asleep on his plane, comatose (like the permafrost John Anderton of Minority Report) or not.
And let's not avoid the film's not-so-hidden messages, the plot's mariticide, the key act of the film, the one that lets Cobb return to his children is no doubt rife with some heavy female-hating, and as traffickers of dreams, the Cobb/Mal partnership can be seen as the alter-egos of the filmmakers, the Nolan/Thomas team. Strange the press around Inception lacks a noticeable debate about the marital message to its largely teen audience of PG-13'ers, but because the film is 'woven' from dreams, the audience spills out debating that logic, while its inner intentions remain largely undiscussed, side-bar, subconscious. As a film about love, killing love and surviving love, Inception is really just an unstable ex-wife thriller, dressed up in computer-age formula. Fatal Attraction meets The Matrix. And the action, the glue of any modern day box office behemoth, is as remote as can be, the subcon extras are less individual than The Matrix's passersby and agents - Inception is guilty of total blandness of alternate reality design, a formulaic world the result, its action is more a device to exhibit the drama unfolding in other layers, and it's even lazily staged, no one cheers as the team succeeds, the hyped set piece floating corridor is less than masterfully exploited, when we see the assailants merge in zero-G, its looks as clunky as two mailmen meeting in space. No intense combat, but instead the sterility missing from the spoken exposition's hysterics. It's an assasination of Cobb's slumbering creativity. We know his name is Dom since it's the only label we hear post-flight, maybe his last name isn't even Cobb.
Let's end this thing. Debate the film all you want, no one leaves glassy-eyed from Inception's sunlit finale, after two hours of headcrunching sterility, few audience members are awoken to Nolan's sentimental journey; the falseness Cobb greets his apparition-children with is too literal to be taken seriously, whether they age or not, that they turn to face us from their continuously looping state force-feeds ambiguity onto an audience that now must re-watch the film to make any sense of it. Or so they think. "Kids, you wouldn't believe the dream I had on the flight!" As if addicted to his easy-bake ambiguity, Nolan then toys with whether the spinning top eventually stops, proving how cheaply the logic unfolds throughout his film. Nolan has played his cards weakly only to end as a barker at a rollercoaster's exit, the spot where the coaster jerks to a stop, a slight lure to remember that first rush: "ride again?" he's barking cynically. He knows blockbusters thrive on repeat business.
From the beginning, the film's contractions of logic only support each individual's view, not the collective, ambiguity of this type is not metaphysical (we are left not to debate the meaning of the totem, merely its outcome). Inception suffers from a poverty of ambiguity: it's so leaden Nolan has to manufacture it mechanically using a metaphor he cuts away from and in the end, never really has the definition it exhibits during the in-flight dream. Is he really just trying to fool us by agreeing with us? Great movies allow its symbols to be shared dynamically, here they're locked in values tied to a character (Cobb never embodies the audience, he ignores the totem's ending while the camera remains, a gimmick that still offers the totem weight it never had). Michael Caine's Miles, whose surprising appearance at the end is another d-g (dead giveaway), plays the ‘architect’ of Cobb’s dismantling (which turns out is the entire film, we begin in a 'limbo' Cobb is conscious inside - it was ALL a dream—after all, Miles plays Ariadne’s teacher and as the greeter after passport control, finds himself reverse projected into the dream). The simula of 'reality' completes its transition from the Florentine chalk-marks of Miles's lecture hall to the temp-workshop of the planning team: it looks like a modern day charette meltdown. Nolan slyly hints at Miles's role in the film when Ariadne shows up and assumes Cobb is looking for a 'work placement' - decode the wordplay and you see what she's getting at. Her task, indirectly requested by Cobb, proffered by a dreamed Miles, is to incept the idea and then kill Mal during their trip to limbo. As Cobb's self re-assembler, the inception of killing off Mal really is this archetype's domain, Miles may have guided Cobb from airplane dream to home, but he actually guided his path the entire film in Cobb's unconscious, finally finding a way to get Cobb’s unconscious to axe, or help axe his wife’s memory as an after-thought to the film's core task when the danger of getting 'stuck' in limbo becomes too great a possibility. Limbo is the purgatory that forces Cobb's hand. In Nolan's myth, unfortunately, we're absolved of the pleasure of meeting the players outside their 'roles,' here they remain mysteries of variables, merely fellow passengers Cobb communicates solely through loaded glances at then end. Nolan's ending offers a math solution without the proof, the way bad professors operate classrooms. As a stock actor in the Nolan troupe, Caine plays himself again, the patriarch puppetmaster, the deliverer of the joker card in The Prestige and the burner of Rachel's letter (that guarantees a sequel) in Dark Knight, here he's the only intentional inceptor of Inception. The question is why does Nolan keep hiding this archetype's true role? Is this, holding a father-figure accountable for solid mayhem the only real trick? That's not a very deep rabbit hole to build a world around now, is it?
[This mstrmnd link is to Philip K. Dick's speech "How To Build A World That Doesn't Fall Apart in Two Days," something Nolan and every simula builder should read once — or twice] [This mstrmnd link is to a very detailed definition of the verb inceptive and how complex the concept is]
Shakespeare comes to sci-fi, Inception and Forbidden Planet then a slideshow of architects and their subjects, Cobb and Neo.