WARNING: SPOILERS (OR ARE THEY?)
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them,” says Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), early in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
In this regard, nothing feels like a dream so much as a movie. In the dark we suspend disbelief. Then the lights go up, the analytic part of the brain starts working again, and we go, “Wait a minute.” Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the lights to go up.
That’s one of the things I loved about “Inception”: the parallels between its form (movies) and its content (dreams). At one point Cobb is attempting to recruit Adriadne (Ellen Page), his latest architect of dreamscapes, to become the final member of his team, his subconscious “Mission: Impossible” force, and they’re drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe in Paris when he tells her that dreams always begin in medias res; we don’t know how we got to a place, we’re just there. Then he asks her: “How did you get here?” She thinks, can’t remember, realizes they’re in a dream, but in the audience I’m thinking, “I know how she got there: the quick cut.” That is: They’re in one spot talking about a topic; then they’re in another spot a bit further in the same conversation. It’s a common storytelling device. We accept it in movies. Hell, we demand it of movies because we don’t want to watch characters walking downstairs, going outside, hailing a cab, being driven to the cafe, getting out, paying the cabbie, getting a table, ordering, drinking, and then continuing their conversation. Just give us the quick cut already. That’s part of why movies are the perfect medium for a story about dreams. Form lends itself to content.
My favorite of these parallels may be the moment Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s dead wife, who haunts his dreamscapes, and is in fact the most uncontrollable and malignant element within these dreamscapes (hence her name), tries to convince him to stay with her in his dream world. She tries to convince him that what he considers the real world? That’s the dream. Think about it, she says. Some faceless international corporation is out to get you—you think that’s real? As a movie audience, we accept that trope because we’ve seen it before: the subplot that continues to dog the protagonist throughout the plot, adding an extra frisson of tension. But once she mentions how absurd it is, well, it does seem absurd. Because it’s a movie, a Hollywood movie, and most Hollywood movies are absurd. She’s basically the movie critic in his subconscious, saying, “C’mon, man, this is bullshit.”
So is this movie bullshit? When the lights come up, do we go, “Wait a minute”?
In “Inception,” Cobb is an on-the-lam extractor, a man who can navigate other people’s dreams and extract useful information for, say, international corporate rivals. That’s basically where we first see him. Like in a dream, we’re plopped in medias res into a complicated storyline and have to suss it out. Cobb, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nash (Lukas Haas), are trying to extract business secrets from international CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). But their real selves are in a dingy room in a Latin American country in the midst of revolution, with IVs strapped to their arms putting them under. In the dream, an elegant party at Saito’s place in Japan, Cobb is betrayed by Mal, his dead wife, whom his unconscious keeps dragging along to gum up the works, but at last he has the information in hand when, no!, he’s forced to wake up because things are getting dangerous for their real selves. Except why the quick-cut to the Japanese kid on the train? We get the answer to that when Cobb and Saito fight in their dingy room and Cobb forces Saito’s face into an ugly shag carpeting. The room, it turns out, is the room where Saito often met his mistress, and he says he always hated that carpet, and the smell of it, and he can’t smell that smell now. So he knows he’s still in a dream. A dream within a dream. That revolution outside? That’s Saito’s subconscious, rebelling, like antibodies, and trying to attack the foreign substance, which is the dream’s architect, Nash. Their real selves are actually on the train, being administered to by the Japanese kid, who wakes the three team members with Edith Piaf’s song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” At first I thought this homage to Ms. Cotillard, who won an Oscar playing Piaf in “La vie en rose.” But it has a deeper meaning. This film is all about regret.
Saito quickly tracks them down. Not to hurt them but to hire them. And he wants something more dangerous that extraction. He wants inception: an idea planted into the mind of a rival, Robert Fisher, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), that will cause him to break up his international corporation, which currently controls one-half of the world’s energy. “Choose your team wisely,” he says to Cobb, in reference to Nash, who couldn’t make carpets smell right, who didn’t get the details right. He’s like the lackadaisical production designer on the Michael Mann movie set. Fired.
(At the same time, if you extend the metaphor, the real screw-up is the director, Cobb, whose guilt over the death of his wife is so strong he keeps dragging her along into other people’s dreamscapes. Is this a directorly admission that you’ll eff up the production when you bring your personal baggage onto the set?)
For his team, Cobb already has Arthur, his point man, and he quickly gathers the rest: Ariadne, who will design the dream, Yusef (Dileep Rao), who will administer the drugs, and Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger, who can impersonate important people from Fisher’s world in the dreamscape. It’s both a good team Cobb has assembled and a good team writer-director Christopher Nolan has assembled. Ellen Page is whip-smart. Cotillard is both dreamy-looking lost love and dangerous femme fatale. But I may have been most impressed with Hardy. He steals every scene. The scam is Cobb’s, the whole story is Cobb’s, and everyone seems to channel their energy into these, and his, obsessions; but Hardy suggests for Eames a life outside of this story. We don’t have much to wonder about with Cobb but we have everything to wonder about with Eames.
To plant their idea into Fisher Jr.’s mind, they plan on three levels of dreams, each one more dangerous, each one requiring a heavier level of sedation. They need time, too. On the plus side, each level you go down, time speeds up. Cobb and his wife once spent 50 years in a dreamscape together, growing old, creating their world, while in the real world, what, a month passed? Less? But they still need access to Fisher Jr. for an extended period of time without his knowledge. They get it when he books a 10-hour transatlantic flight to Los Angeles. So they book the rest of the seats. Everyone on board is with them. (Question: Has he no security, though? Does one control half the world’s energy and not travel with bodyguards?)
To reiterate, for myself as much as you: They enter his dream, his subconscious, but the dreamscape has been designed by Ariadne, and they, the team, are conscious actors, as opposed to figments of his subconscious like everyone else. But he can’t tell they’re conscious actors.
On the first level it’s raining hard, and they complain about the water Fisher drank on the plane. Nice touch. Then they kidnap him in a taxicab but things quickly go awry. A train, not designed by Ariadne, slams through the middle of a street, and suited toughs, projections, placed in Fisher’s subconscious to protect him from just this kind of attack, engage the team in a gunfight. Saito, along for the ride (for some reason), is shot in the chest, and the team holes up in a warehouse, where they are continually assaulted, and where Cobb tells them that dying in here won’t wake them up up there. They’re too heavily sedated to allow for such a wake-up jolt. So what happens? They will remain here, in Fisher’s subconscious, forever. Scary.
To get down to the next level, they get into a van with their IVs, and Yusef drugs them to sleep. Then he drives furiously through the dreamscape, chased by projections. That’s level 1.
At level 2, they’re at a 1940s-style hotel. At level 3, they’re at a wintry fortress that looks like something out of a James Bond movie or the ice planet Hoth. But every level affects the lower level. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. So if the van at level 1 careens wildly, the world of the 1940s-style hotel tilts correspondingly. This leads to some of the movie’s best visuals, particularly a fight in the hotel hallway that’s turning over and over, as the van, at level 1, rolls down a hill.
At level 3, both Fisher and Saito die, so Cobb decides to go into his own subconscious to retrieve them. Not quite sure how this works, to be honest. But Ariadne, who’s spent the movie sussing out the pieces of Cobb’s tragedy, goes along with him. To level 4.
Cobb is on the lam because he’s accused of murdering his wife. Apparently the two went deep into their 50-year-old dreamscape, grew old together, and she refused to come out. She refused to believe that their dreamworld was in fact a dream. So, for the first time ever, Cobb messed about with inception. He planted an idea directly into his wife’s mind that this world wasn’t real; that they needed to die, under train tracks, to get back to the real world. Which they did. All good. Except that idea followed Mal into the real world, and she became convinced that the real world wasn’t real, and that the two of them needed to kill themselves to “wake up.” And that’s what she does. She leaves evidence behind implicating him. That’s his tragedy. That’s why he’s on the lam and that’s why he can’t see his kids. Non, je regrette tout.
The dreamscape Cobb and Ariadne encounter at level 4 is the world, now crumbling majestically, that he and Mal created so long ago. There, with Ariadne helping guide him toward rationality, he finally faces his past, his regret, and the two retrieve Fisher and jolt him awake at level 3. Cobb then remains behind to retrieve Saito.
Thus, more or less concurrently, you have: Cobb confronting an ancient Saito at level 4; a gun battle at the ice fortress at level 3, where Fisher also confronts his father, and where the idea of breaking up his father’s empire is ingeniously implanted in Fisher’s mind; Arthur figuring out how to jolt the principles awake in what is now a gravity-less hotel at level 2; and it’s gravity-less because, at level 1, the van has been driven off a bridge and is falling in slow-motion into a river. Four cliff-hangers for the price of one. Four Steven Spielberg movies all at once. It’s like a Pixie-Stix IV straight into the veins of the summer moviegoer.
Eventually, at every level, everyone is jolted awake, and everyone, including Cobb and Saito, wake up on the plane. Secret smiles are shared. Fisher looks like an idea, that most resilient parasite, has gotten hold of him.
Cobb is still wanted for murder in the U.S., of course, but Saito promised that if the mission succeeded he would make it all go away. And he does. At Customs, Cobb is allowed in. “Welcome back, Mr. Cobb.” His father-in-law (Michael Caine) is there to greet him, and he takes him back to their home, where his kids, who, throughout, have remained playful but distant, forever turning their faces away from him, finally turn, smile, and rush into his arms. It’s like a dream.
Is it? If you’re someone who enters dreamworlds all the time, one of the things you bring along, Cobb advises, is a totem: some small object that only you know about. Cobb’s totem is a small metal top, which, he suggests, never stops spinning in the dreamworld. That’s how he tests his reality, his sanity. If it stops spinning, he knows he’s in the real world. And just before his kids turn to him, he spins his totem on the dining room table, then forgets all about it as his kids rush into his arms. The camera doesn’t forget, though. It pans back. The top is still spinning. Still spinning. And just as it maybe begins to wobble, the screen goes dark. The End.
There’s going to be a lot of discussion on this lady-or-the-tiger ending, but the question I’d ask isn’t “Is the ending a dream?” but “Is this ending more effective?” I’d argue that it is. “Inception” is about questioning reality, and an ambiguous end lends itself to this theme, and we carry this feeling out of the theater. At least I did. As I walked in downtown Seattle at twilight on a Friday night, everything seemed slightly off. People seemed odder, buildings less substantial. And why were all these Japanese walking around speaking Japanese? Where was I anyway?
There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has.
Not bad for a summer blockbuster.
July 18, 2010
© 2010 Erik Lundegaard