Friday, October 15, 2010

A Review and Analysis of Inception

     Inception is the movie that I have been waiting for. It has been years since a movie managed to create a storyline truly original and so completely unique that it cannot be legitimately compared to anything else previously made. It is the sleeper hit that everyone will be talking about, debating, and nerds of a specific variety will dissect, honing in on the smallest details. Inception is the movie that every filmmaker on the planet is wishing they had thought of, because it can never be imitated, sequeled, or duplicated. While I fully expectInception to be snubbed by the Academy Awards, this is what true Best Pictures are made of.

     From the very first minute of this unsurpassed cinematic experience,Inception declares that it is not a typical summer movie thrown together for the enjoyment of the temporarily unschooled mob. Rather, it is a deeply contemplative movie that walks a steady line between action and drama, and is not for the simple-minded or concrete thinker. In fact, do society a favor and do not see this movie if you needed The Matrix explained to you. Although The Matrix and Inception are not comparable, they both deal in the metaphysical realm of dreaming. If the somewhat elementary complexities ofThe Matrix confused you at all, then there is no hope whatsoever that you will emerge from Inception without your brain dripping out of your nose. Without giving away too much, Inception presents a final product that is open to interpretation and debate, which is bound to frustrate the more concrete thinkers, and infuriate the abstract thinkers who have to listen to them.

     Inception succeeds as a visually sumptuous indulgence combining physical impossibilities with paradoxical imagery evocative of certain M.C. Escher pieces, poetically wielded in an ingenious and fully engaging construction. In an age where CGI effects are standard, a claim such as “never before seen special effects” is a promise rarely fulfilled. And yet, I felt my mouth fall open during Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gravity-shifting hall fight. Personally, this particular sequence and the subsequent series of zero gravity scenes were alone worth the theater admission price. Gravity shifting and zero gravity have been done before, but Inception masters the technique so seamlessly that it was only after I exited the movie that I remembered that I know how the effect is achieved. Such is the magic of this illustrious film that I could be dazzled by tricks to which I already knew the secret method.

     The special effects and computer-generated imagery tastefully enhance the surreal dreamscape, while still keeping the ambiance of the dream feeling every bit as warm or threatening as the waking world. For example, there is a moment that is given away in the trailer where Ellen Paige’s character Ariadne is walking through Paris, bridges and walkways materializing in front of her as she walks. As she admires the dream world, the far side of the city rises up and folds over on itself, leaving cars and pedestrians to move around upside down over the character’s head. This extraordinary sequence pays a beautiful homage to the surreal, bizarre composition of dreams, while still portraying this place in the subconscious as dangerous and unpredictable-- such as when amidst Ariadne’s physics-bending trials, she is viciously attacked by an unprovoked mob of subconscious projections.

     Furthermore, Inception walks a fine line of honoring the common composition of dreams without becoming Wonderland-esque. The film points out that a person can never remember the beginning of a dream, therefore each time the characters enter this abstruse realm the audience is never shown how the characters enter or where they appear. Unlike The Matrixwhere characters entered and exited the induced state via a telephone,Inception simply cuts from one scene to the next and the characters are in the midst of a functioning world without the use of a secret door or rendezvous point. This lack of defined transition will become a crucial point in the last few minutes before the credits roll. Elsewhere, a character morphs faces multiple times, topography is altered, and time has almost no meaning. And similar to real-life, outer forces affect the environment of the dream.


     Flawless special effects may enhance the dream ambiance, but they never upstage the delicate and intricately woven story. Inception develops characters while on the move, taking only carefully chosen moments to focus solely on characters and ensuring that each character contribution is relevant to the greater story. Exposition is given almost entirely via flashback, and while these moments are seemingly significant to the character but not the greater story, ultimately everything has a purpose.

     At the heart of the film is Dom Cobb, played solidly and emotionally by Leonardo diCaprio. Marion Cottilard portrays the idealized ghost wife with effortless sensuality and mystery, simultaneously conveying warmth and vulnerability with a general air of instability and danger. Inception’s emotional center is embodied in Cobb, who leads the group of dream raiders in their dubious business of stealing ideas from the recesses of one’s mind. The film’s emotional conflict is incarnated in Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife and the physical representation of his remorse. He is tortured by the guilt surrounding the loss of his wife and frequently enters an induced dream stage so that he can be with her through his memories. His psychological turmoil gradually evolves into a battle that threatens not only himself but also everyone that Cobb works with.

     On a psychological level, Cobb’s personal struggle could be interpreted as a cautionary tale on the destructive power of suppressed guilt and unresolved conflict. While his colleagues are aware of his inner chaos, Cobb deliberately avoids disclosing the details, therefore severing any chance of help from the real world, preferring to continue “visiting” his creation of Mal in his mind. Cobb’s inability to control his own guilt and anguish translates in the dream stages as an inability to control Mal, who turns up several times to sabotage the group’s mission, wounding several of Cobb’s group members along the way.

     Arguably, Cobb is a master escapist. Although he claims that due to the overuse of dream invasion he is unable to dream on his own anymore, Cobb’s true reasons for revisiting the same memories again and again through his dreams are (thankfully) more legitimate than simply a desire to dream. In the real world Cobb feels trapped by his circumstances and unable to change what is: his wife is dead and his children have been legally removed from his care. Unable to deal with the guilt of having mentally manipulated his own wife, Cobb revisits her memory in his dreams repeatedly in an attempt to rewrite the moments in which he made mistakes. He goes back to the night she died and he revisits the day that he last saw his children, hoping each time that he can change the moment. Although Cobb learns that the outcome of his dreams cannot be altered any more than reality can, it does not stop his futile efforts. Despite the plea of his father-in-law to “come back to reality,” Cobb is addicted to the unreal world that he believes is the means to the end of being reunited with his children.

     On a minor side note, it is significant that one of the main supporting characters is named Ariadne. Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, is the young university student pulled into the schemes of Dom Cobb and his crew. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and a ball of red yarn that he might find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. While the labyrinthine themes of Inception are undeniable, the character of Ariadne in the film is especially important because she is not only the architect of the dreams that the rest of the team must navigate through, but she is the only one that learns the complete truth about Cobb’s past and the demise of his beloved Mal. Towards the end of their quest at a pivotal moment, Ariadne leaves Cobb with parting words that encourage him to finish his quest and then leave the labyrinth. Whether or not he ever does is a different matter.

     The final image of Inception somehow bursts a puzzle into a thousand pieces while simultaneously tying together seemingly insignificant details from earlier in the film. In the final stirring moment, I found myself backtracking through multiple sequences to make sense of the end. Earlier in this piece I mentioned the lack of transition between scenes and realms of consciousness. Because of this cunning device, it is impossible to track how far back the illusion began and where or if it ends. The speculation regarding Cobb’s state at the end of the movie is endless. In a way, Christopher Nolan performs an inception of his own on the minds of the audience. In the course of the film, it is revealed that Mal committed suicide, convinced that she was still in a dream and that her death would bring her out of it. This tragic act was rooted in Cobb planting the idea in her mind by making a very slight, very subtle, but hugely significant change in the world that they were trapped in. Mal had to believe that her realization that they were in fact trapped in a dream within a dream etcetera was her own recognition. Therefore, Cobb makes a slight alteration that causes her to question the reality of their circumstance. Similarly, Nolan in the final moments of the film gives the audience just enough of a nudge to question whether or not we believe what we have seen, but not enough to explicitly suggest a distinct answer (if indeed there is an answer). Because of the ambiguity of the final image, individuals will draw their own conclusions. It wobbled therefore it fell. It was still spinning therefore the illusion has not broken.

     To break it down, I will here make a reference that is bound to murder my credibility. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a hologram of Professor Moriarty from a series of Sherlock Holmes simulations becomes self-aware and demands that crew members assist him in finding a way to leave the holodeck (a place where simulations and holograms can be created to suit the user’s purposes). At some point in the episode Data and Commander LaForge realize that they themselves are still in the holodeck, not in Engineering as they thought. Eventually they create a simulation within the simulation to trick Professor Moriarty into believing that he has successfully left the Enterprise. By the end of Inception, Cobb is either reunited with his children, or blindly living in a dream within a dream within a dream and so on up to five levels deep, as unaware as Professor Moriarty because his subconscious expands the world as he moves in it. As previously stated, the speculation is endless regarding the baffling ending, so here I will let it rest and leave it to some face to face discussion, lest this note become a novel. I will simply say that there is sufficient support for both main views on the interpretation of the ending.

     Arthur remarks that Cobb consistently breaks his own rules—a fact that further erodes the degrees of certainty. One example is that Arthur instructs Ariadne not to let anyone touch her totem, as allowing anyone else to know the secret of the object would compromise the integrity of its purpose. Cobb’s totem, a small top, changes hands several times throughout the film—in fact we are never told what Cobb’s totem was because originally the top belonged to Mal. Furthermore, he clearly explains its secret and function to Ariadne. Earlier on when Cobb is walking Ariadne through a dream workshop, he strongly emphasizes that drawing on memory to create these artificial worlds is an express route to losing the ability to discern between what is real and what is imagined. Cobb defies this rule on a normal basis. Combined with Cobb’s careless treatment of his totem, Cobb essentially sets himself up to lose the ability to distinguish between the waking world and the dream worlds.


     On a more technical level, Inception is a triumph in not only the exhaustively discussed special effects and excellent writing, but also in fluid cinematography, precision sound editing, glorious music, and inspired casting. Hans Zimmer emerges victorious once again with a perfect score that captures the attention of the listener, but charmingly blends into the moment. Zimmer knows the difference between music that magnifies emotion and music that creates it, and Zimmer is a master of the latter. As regards sound editing, especially in the high-intensity moments, the meticulousness of each sound effect is employed with such perfect sharpness that by the sound effects alone the rattle of the train tracks, the pounding of the rain, and the shattering of glass are stunningly tangible.

     While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb is the center of the story, he is matched by the solid and convincing performances from the supporting cast. Michael Caine’s role for example lasts no more than five minutes total, but his character is a refreshing anchor of reason and peacefulness in the world of confusion that he lives in. Ken Wattanabe as Saito the ambitious billionaire demands respect as a man of power with an appropriately commanding presence. As the originator of the proposal to plant an idea in the mind of his greatest rival that will dissolve the other’s empire, Saito is a fiercely motivated leader driven by progress, but inexplicably likable somehow. Saito’s motives are understandable enough—his rival Robert Fischer is one step short of total energy dominance and Saito seeks to destroy this monopoly. However, the ethics of invading the mind and stealing or planting a thought are highly questionable. Cobb points out that an idea in its simplest form begins minute and grows into something that could redefine a person in every way. It stands to reason then that the nonconsensual infiltration of the mind for these purposes is a cruel violation of the deepest kind—yet another point of touchy debate that could evolve into several pages.

     Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur seemed an unlikely choice at first glance, but he carries off his role with style and charm, never overshadowed by the other supporting cast members. Arthur has the most memorable action scenes of the movie, and despite his supporting character status, he avoids sidekick character clichés and skillfully holds his own as an individual character, frequently complimented by the wisecracking Eames. Cillian Murphy’s classy but sensitive turn as heir to an empire Robert Fischer is not necessarily a stirring performance, but it successfully captures in very few moments the complicated nature of his life as the son of an unfeeling and tyrannical father. Because Fischer is the subject (victim?) of the inception, it is vital to understand the nature of his relationship with his father to comprehend how the generated notion can successfully take root. Inception skillfully delivers this explanation in simple but meaningful snippets without slowing down the momentum of the story. The most memorable supporting character is undoubtedly Tom Hardy, whose lively wit and sarcasm is absolutely scene-stealing. Tom Hardy is less recognizable as a celebrity than some of Inception's famous names, and yet he manages to upstage his Academy Award nominated/winning co-stars with his timely comic relief and casual treatment of the grand heist.

     The genius of Inception is that the story is unraveled so elegantly and given such intricate detail that only in the last five minutes of the movie did I realize that I had been carefully led and then abandoned in the heart of a perplexing riddle. Up until that point, although there were times when I had to consciously stop and recount the preceding steps, I was confident that I had navigated the labyrinthine turns tolerably well. But just before the credits rolled and I was left with a puzzling final image, I realized that the multidimensional maze in which I had been so thoroughly engaged for the last two hours had changed shape behind me, and I no longer knew my way out.

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