I’m watching Inception again.
I love the clothes, I love the acting, I love the fact that it only has two funny moments, I love the fact that it’s as thought provoking as it is entertaining, I love the music, the post and the headfuck.
But most of all I love the way it can plausibly be several stories at once:
There’s the ostensible story, which is entertaining enough. But then there are five others, of which this is my favourite:
All of Inception is a dream.
We are never once shown reality. Every frame of Inception is a dream. Whose dream? My money is on Cobb, though it is conceivable that Cobb is simply the subject and that he is in someone else’s dream (see Interpretation 3 and 4 below).
There are a number of key elements throughout the film – lines of dialog shared amongst the characters (Mal and Saito both tell Cobb to take a “leap of faith”, Cobb predicts what Saito will say in limbo), acceptance of improbable events during segments of “reality” (Saito saving Cobb in Mombasa) – that support the notion that everything is a dream, but for me it all comes down to a simple question: What is our totem? We learn very early on that the one unimpeachable way to know whether or not you’re in a dream world or the real world is to test your totem; an item whose behavior only a single individual can identify and predict. In the case of Cobb, it’s his wife’s spinning top. Arthur’s is a single loaded dice. Ariadne’s is a precisely weighted chess piece. But what is the audience’s totem?
What event in Inception is the audience aware of that no one else can know? There isn’t one. There’s no point in which reality is clearly and unimpeachably established. The film opens in a dream sequence (Saito’s limbo) before transitioning to another dream sequence (Saito’s dinner party), which then slides into another dream (Saito’s secret apartment). The characters supposedly awaken from that last dream sequence aboard a Japanese train, this presumably being our first glance at reality, but one must ask how the characters arrived from the apartment to the train. There’s no visual transition; no shot of “tunneling” from one reality to another. One second we’re one place, a second later we’re somewhere else, but can you remember how we got there? No, because we’re never shown it; we’re never shown the awakening process that bridges the two. And not being able to identify specifically how you got from point A to point B is clearly established within the film as a sign that you are in a dream.
That transition, if it existed, would be the audience’s totem; it would be the one thing we can cling to, whose behavior we can understand intimately and always predict. By not giving the audience a totem of their own, Nolan has flat out made it impossible to ever anchor any portion of the film as being real versus being a dream.
Now, that’s not to say that the movie is ruined if everything is a dream. It doesn’t negate the emotional breakthrough that Cobb goes through, which is ultimately what the film is about. In fact, everything being a dream is the ace up Inception’s sleeve: if it’s all a fantasy, then there can be no plot holes; the lack of deep characterizations for anyone other than Cobb can be chalked up to the fact that they are all his projections and thus do not require rich histories or distinguishable character arcs. It’s basically a catch-all safety net for any complaints registered against Inception’s narrative.