INCEPTION: A Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream.

Inception – 2010 – dir. Christopher Nolan

I was very impressed with the world of Nolan’s film.  It seemed as though so much was possible, even though we only see a small piece of it.  The audience is along for the ride from the very first shot.  A world where you can explore other people’s dreams?  We buy it seamlessly.  Heck, it’s fun to imagine, similar to how a world without murder is fun to imagine in Spielberg’s Minority Report.

What I really liked about Inception was that I could actually imagine Christopher Nolan handing me the film and saying, “I know there’s a lot going on, and it’s a lot around which to wrap your mind.  But you know what?  I think you can handle it.”

Giving audiences credit is, sadly, almost a novel concept in contemporary filmmaking.  For a contrast point, I can offer you no less than Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.  She’s a good girl who goes bad.  We can figure that out from looking at the poster.  Why, then, does every scene have to be so filled with symbolism as to render viewers unconscious with the weight of it?  She sprouts feathers, for crying out loud!

It’s always best to give your audience the benefit of the doubt.  “Audiences are smart.  They make connections,” they told me in screenwriting school, and they were right.

Interesting tidbit: it reportedly took Nolan eight years to complete the screenplay.  Of course, he was busy with other projects, but he did state that he didn’t think that the script would take more than “a couple of months” to put together.

Of course, Nolan isn’t immune to connecting a few dots for his audience.  Ariadne (Ellen Page), as an example, is the audience’s representative in the film, and is named for the maiden who gave Theseus the thread to help him find his way in and out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.  Of course, in Nolan’s film, as in the myth itself, “Theseus” (Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb) and the “Minotaur” (Marion Cotillard as Mal) are both two aspects of one enigma – they await each other in the very center.

The film’s characters need no sequel: Inception is a complete story.  However, the world of the film is one that I would love to see again.  Invading other people’s dreams?  What couldn’t you do with such a premise?

Another impressive element of Inception is that Nolan gives us easy-to-digest rules in a world that, by definition, shouldn’t have any.  There are no dinosaurs in party hats, no talking squids, and no break-dancing robots.  These are carefully controlled dreams, and what’s more, you’re given solid, believable reasons behind this level of control.  You’re left free to enjoy the film’s astonishing suspense.

It may not be the best film of the year (characterization, at times, still takes a backseat to its special effects) but it’s arguably one of the smartest and most cerebral.

Does the top stop spinning in the end?  Yes.  First of all, it wobbles.  Second of all, if it doesn’t stop, then it completely invalidates everything that the film has been about, and Nolan is too shrewd a filmmaker to trip at the finish line.

The difference, then, between Nolan and the filmmakers behind most everything else you saw last year is that he thinks that you’re shrewd, too.

And, most importantly, awake.

Jared Gordon Written by:


  1. Jared
    January 23, 2011

    Jake –

    Artistic flourishes are fine. Perhaps it’s a product of my education in film and screenwriting, but I was taught over and over (ironically) to avoid the redundant. Natalie Portman’s character is troubled, both within and without. There are many ways to show this to an audience without repeating the same motifs over and over, ad nauseum. The talking pictures, the horrific visions, fine. But constant, repeated bombardment of the same symbols don’t make a film more “artsy.” They make it tired and overdone. It’s visceral the first few times we see it. It’s laughable beyond that.

    Again, we’ll have to disagree on the “it was all a dream” idea. Characters need to change due to actions and events. A dream is neither an action, and it is, at best, a passive event. One could argue that Napoleon decided to invade Russia because of a dream, but far more likely are that a series of events and actions occurred in real life that precipitated his military strike. Perhaps in real life, people make decisions and perform actions because they had a dream the night before. In a film, characters act based on motivations grounded in reality. I don’t have an issue with the sex scene in Black Swan for that reason. Sure, Natalie Portman’s character may not have ever slept with Mila Kunis, but it’s not the fact that the encounter was a dream that’s the point of that scene: it’s the fact that her psychosis is preventing her from telling the truth from reality. By that point in the film, however, that idea has already been beaten into the audience’s head, so much so as to dilute the “twist” factor of its eventual revelation as a fabrication of a damaged mind.

    I believe that Nolan made it crystal clear that the character was not dreaming. What I mentioned about screenwriting was that audiences are smart. Structure can be bent or broken just like anything else, but it needs a point: you need to carry your audience at least part of the way with you, or you risk leaving them onshore. The question of whether or not it was all a dream takes a back seat, however, to the question of whether or not Cobb changed. He did, and that fact is amplified due to him changing within reality, as opposed to a dream-space.

  2. January 20, 2011

    I understand your points; I see what you’re saying. But for the sake of film theory let me defend my opinions for a few more lines.

    First, ‘Black Swan’. I don’t see the feathers or the mirrors to be some kind of cue that’s supposed to help the audience understand the plot, they’re artistic flourishes. Those, in my opinion, don’t have much to do with whether Aronofsky is respectful of his audience or not (In my opinion, he’s respectful in not forcing the viewer into any interpretation, he doesn’t tell you whether the pressures of Natalie’s art, her mother, or her boss are the cause, and he doesn’t cop out with an out-of-place exposition scene explaining exactly what happening at any point. But that’s another piece of writing entirely), since they’re not meant to indicate anything definite in the first place. In terms of the symbolism, Aronofsky uses it as a motif, almost as part of the set design. Again, I see nothing wrong with symbolism and motifs on a grand scale; I imagine there are many who feel cinema in general is built on those very constants. Does Herzog overuse an overbearing jungle as metaphor in “Aguirre” or “Fitzcarraldo”? Does Powell overuse his titular object in “The Red Shoes”? I think not, and while I don’t rank “Black Swan” with those timeless films, I think Aronofsky’s overbearing use of symbolism is similar. It’s a visceral attack; it’s about the texture of the film, not meant to be informative plot wise.

    Then, ‘Inception’. I think our disagreement comes again on an issue of film theory. I see nothing wrong with ‘it was all a dream’ films anyway. The things we see on screen are not reality. The cinema is (in my opinion, of course) far closer to a hallucination than to honest reality. So why should the emotions, actions, and feelings of a film be diluted in the viewer’s mind if they’re eventually represented as dreams? Our reactions are still the same, the images are still the same. To again drag the classics into it , does “Blue Velvet” or “Eraserhead” become any less unsettling if you read it as a dream? I don’t think so, and I think both “Black Swan” and “Inception” are just as effective if you read them as a dream from the first frame to the last.

    Perhaps those obsessed with the literal plots of films dissect the last frame to no end, but Nolan’s intention is his moods, his themes, his images. If he had wanted to make it clear whether the character is dreaming or in “reality”, he would have. To say the ending isn’t ambiguous, by the way, is to be misleading. No matter the interpretation, it’s undoubtedly meant to make you question the difference between the two states of being, ending on a moment of uncertainty between the two. To act is if there is one distinct answer to the ending is, in my opinion, nothing more than discrediting the wide range of thoughts Nolan was able to produce with that last shot. You mentioned a screenwriting class, and if you’re solely looking at things in terms of traditional character arcs and the way things should end by Hollywood formula, then yes, Cobb would certainly end up in reality with all the members of his family smiling and embracing. But personally, I’d like to think Nolan’s aiming for something more than a formula character arc in “Inception”, something more than your average happy ending, and that’s why I think the ending is far more complicated than “it fell” or “it didn’t”.

  3. Jared
    January 19, 2011

    Jake –

    Thanks for your response. It was well-written and I want to address your points.

    I used Black Swan as a contrast juxtaposition. Namely, to exhibit an example of a filmmaker who gives his audience credit versus one who does not give his audience enough. We will have to disagree upon how intelligently it purportedly treats its audience. I found Aronofsky’s latest opus to be heavy-handed, repetitive, and far too greedy at the symbolism spigot. Feathers and mirrors in every scene? You have a brain and you know what they mean after ten minutes. Why consistently bombard us with it over and over to the point of it becoming laughable?

    The words I used were “one of the smartest and most cerebral.” I never called it (as you put it) “THE cerebral film of the year.” I am certainly in no place to issue that call, as I have not seen all films that were released last year, and doubtless there are those that could outdo Inception on that front.

    It’s very easy for a film’s closing shot to make previous plot development and character arc irrelevant. Look at any film that ends with, “It was all just a dream.” If the protagonist never goes through conflict, never interacts with others, and never emerges from the conflict as a changed character, then that character never arcs. We watch films to see a character arc through action. If there is no action, only a dream, then how is there an arc?

    In my mind, there is no ambiguity. Nolan (and doubtless Aronofsky as well) know that audiences are smart, and to end it on such a glaring question would short-change the viewer. It would be a colossal disappointment, and would beg the question, “What was the point? What did Cobb learn, if it all simply didn’t happen?” Having described the spinning top in the film’s final scene, I believe, is enough to discuss how the film ends

    You don’t have to have seen an extended cut to know how Cobb’s character arcs, what he wants, and what he needs. Inception, while not perfect, is a complete and satisfying film. Nolan’s certainly not the smartest man in Hollywood, but he knows how to pack a theater by telling both adapted and original stories, so he’s pretty damn close.

  4. January 19, 2011

    Look, I love your enthusiasm, and I got no huge problem with ‘Inception’, but I really don’t follow you on a few things here, I had to reply.

    First off, why do you have to use this as some platform to attack ‘Black Swan’? It treats its audience with just as much intelligence as ‘Inception’ does, not only refusing to ever outright explain its hallucinatory tendencies, but providing audiences with numerous options for interpretations as to why the events of the film happen. Anyone consciously thinking while watching that film would find it to be a lot more than a story of “good girl gone bad”, its interested in the process of creating art, in ballet, in dualism, and all the while it’s a crazy, feverish nightmare on the level with early Polanski and Cronenberg, a total audience pleaser. And finally, what’s wrong with symbolism all over a film anyway? I’d hate to see your review of a Murnau classic. Of all the 2010 films you could knock, why pick out one that’s actually got a brain, except to be contrarian?

    Secondly, I must note that if you think “Inception” is THE cerebral film of the year, you probably were only watching American studio films. Nolan’s film is full of irrelevant car chases and gunfights (the holy grails of commercial cinema), gunfights which are hilariously bloodless and far from intense due to the need for a PG-13 rating. When you compare “Inception”, full of such characteristic mindless action scenes (and the very occasional non-mindless action scene – the admittedly excellent zero gravity hotel lobby fight) to films like Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”, Assayass’ “Carlos” (playing at the Brattle next week!), or Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee”, among many many others from 2010, it really isn’t even close to the same level.

    And lastly, how would a closing shot make everything before it irrelevant? You fail to explain. If the top did keep spinning or if it fell, it would have been in the movie. The point IS the ambiguity; the ambiguity does not lead to the point. It’s not like Nolan ran out of film and just decided to end it mid shot. Besides, why even tell us that you know conclusively how it actually ends if you never even back it up with scenes from the film?

    I mean, I dig “Inception” enough, I just don’t get why everyone who writes about it, for whatever reason, feels the need to not only tell you they KNOW how the movie actually ended, as if they saw an extended cut, but also sees the need to knock other high quality movies in a year that had a lot of true garbage in the multiplexes. Chris Nolan’s a decent director and all, but all this acting like he’s the only smart man in Hollywood is pretty narrow thinking, in my view.

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