I love inception

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.

Comments 26

  1. vinny warren wrote:

    have you seen PRIMER? just watched it.

    famously made for just seven grand.

    fucked with my head.

    not that that’s necessarily saying very much.

    shall watch inception soon. was put off by all the hype here.

    Posted 16 Oct 2011 at 1:32 am
  2. john w. wrote:

    Wake up!

    Posted 16 Oct 2011 at 1:10 pm
  3. ben wrote:

    Sorry, Vinny: I should have said ‘spoilers alert’ ort something. It’s a shame you won’t be seeing it on the big screen. The experience is quite immersive. I’ve never found it quite as good on the DVD.

    Posted 16 Oct 2011 at 3:30 pm
  4. Minge wrote:

    I don’t think I’ll bother. I hate all that highfalutin’ “oooh is it a dream?” crap. Give me Battle of Britain or Zulu anyday.
    *Adopts Michael Caine voice*
    “Don’t throw those bloody spears at me”

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:48 am
  5. vinny warren wrote:

    don’t worry ben. i am blessed with goldfish memory. everything is surprising to me!

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 4:35 am
  6. Jim wrote:

    That’s brilliant Ben.

    BTW – my teeth just started to fall out – what does that mean?

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 10:55 am
  7. anon wrote:

    Inception is completely souless.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 11:48 am
  8. Lubomir wrote:

    I was stunned when The King’s speech took Oscar for Best film over it :)

    I’ve watched Inception 3 times. I was sure that everything is a dream… but then at the end of the second time I saw that the kids have changed… but then at the end of the third time I thought that probably the main point is that Cobb doesn’t care is it real or not… he was happy to be where he is… dream or reality. Is it too Zen? :)

    A friend of mine thinks that everything is happening in Mile’s (Michael Caine) head…

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 12:01 pm
  9. adam wrote:

    I was really drunk when I saw Inception. I thought it was a bit rubbish. It might, just might, have been more about me than the film. In my hazy recollection, it was mainly the fire-fight bit in the snow that I didn’t like.

    I am enjoying the ‘what does it all mean?’ stuff. I no longer want to anchor any of my ads in any kind of reality. I want to uproot any totems. Topple them even. My ads will, therefore, move beyond criticism. Become Art, if you will. They may get beaten in awards shows, but I will look right clever and that.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:02 pm
  10. ben wrote:

    My wife’s dad and his wife walked out of it.

    Lots of people think it’s rubbish, but I think being really drunk will make it harder to enjoy.

    Unlike The City, which has been much better recently and works well even if you’re a bit plastered (smiley face made out of punctuation).

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:22 pm
  11. David wrote:

    I see it’s the 10th anniversary of Mullholland Dr. this year. Now that’s a fucked-up film.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:33 pm
  12. Cock Knocker wrote:

    Inception is a film people who want to sound intellectual talk about in an attempt to sound clever. It’s therefore not cool to not like it.

    But I agree with Minge (what a combo we are) that ‘dream crap’ is just boring as fuck. TOTALLY unoriginal. Yes the soundtrack and visuals are incredible (I bought the blu-ray for that reason alone) but the storyline itself is very very mediocre and up it’s own arse. Especially the wife bullshit. Who really gave a shit about that?

    Next you’ll be telling me that ‘Burn After Reading’ was good…

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:51 pm
  13. mary wrote:

    trying really hard not to read this post. havent seen inception yet.

    usually, i like messed up narratives. as long as they are not trying too hard. one of the movies that made an impression on me is 21 grams. very good yet sad. great acting. lets see what inception brings… hope its not in the slightest like vanilla sky.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 1:58 pm
  14. Anonymous wrote:

    There’s a line in Inception where Cobb says something like ‘We both liked this kind of architecture so we created this world in which to live’

    The world was basically Canary Wharf. This tells you a lot about Christoper Nolan I think.

    The film is brilliantly constructed but utterly unengaging because it is so souless. I mean it’s about some fucking corporate takeover ffs! What kind of jeopardy is that? Who really gives a shit whether one billionaire or another owns a company. Again, the whole thing reeks of ambition over anything resembling humanity. Private jets, fancy cocktail bars, hi-tech office blocks and fabulously well dressed human beings as stiff as all of that… No heart. No soul.

    Then there’s the action. Nolan cannot direct action. The scenes set in the snow are as riveting as some crappy low budget action movie from the seventies. He has been consistently bad at action in every single one of his films. It’s all clunky and confusing and poorly paced.

    There is some awful exposition in the film. Awful clunky exposition.

    Nolan, because he is so utterly humourless, takes ideas that are basically fucking stupid (a billionaire dressed as a bat, soldiers running around inside your head protecting your thoughts) and plays them utterly straight. To me it just comes across as laughably infantile.

    Finally he ripped the idea of Scrooge McDuck:


    I don’t like Inception.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 3:04 pm
  15. ben wrote:

    CK: despite myself, I really liked Burn After Reading. I thought it was very funny.

    And on the contrary: I think it’s much cooler not to like Inception (is it invariably is not to like (be impressed by) anything). I don’t think it’s intellectual; more of just a fun puzzle that’s a hell of a lot more interesting than, say, The Dark Knight, which, opening scene aside, was fairly shit.

    Memento, The Prestige and Insomnia were excellent, though.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 4:46 pm
  16. George wrote:

    Did someone just say Mulholland Drive? Oh good grief what a pile of horse balls. David Lynch and I are not friends. We just don’t get on. Not one bit.

    It surprises me that there is so much venom for Inception – I enjoyed it. But then I’m a simple fellow from the West Country (which is probably why I think David Lynch should be dissolved in a vat of sulphuric acid).

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 5:27 pm
  17. john w. wrote:

    The Matrix and it’s bastard love child Inception can go and take a running jump as far as I’m concerned.


    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 9:54 pm
  18. adam wrote:

    You are right about The City. A great return to form. The visuals have never been better or seemed so engaging as I sit at my desk on a pitch.
    Inspiring stuff indeed.

    I wrote a story at school once that ended with “But it was all a dream.” Christ my arse hurt afterwards. Never again.

    Posted 17 Oct 2011 at 10:27 pm
  19. David Milligan Croft wrote:

    It’s a bit like that old Smirnoff commercial on the train… but longer.

    I liked it. I love stuff that messes with time/reality. (Terminator, Twelve Monkeys, Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind…)

    There are so many layers, by the end I’d forgotten they were actually on the jumbo.

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 9:54 am
  20. David Milligan Croft wrote:

    …or were they?

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 9:55 am
  21. L wrote:

    Most over-rated movie since ‘Woohoo! This Movie is Fuckin’ Awesome 2!’. Wasn’t a patch on the original.

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 1:18 pm
  22. john w. wrote:

    Wasn’t ‘Dallas’ all a dream?

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 1:22 pm
  23. ALS wrote:

    I really need to get better at checking the comments on this blog: I could have rehashed my HILARIOUS “Inception is basically a film about a bunch of blokes having a kip on a plane” observation; but the conversation’s moved on now. You’ve all missed it. Bugger.

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 2:01 pm
  24. Claus the Maus wrote:

    I hated Inception.
    As Hitchcock said. “An Audience asking questions are not an audience, they’re a room of critics.”
    and he was the master so there, thats you told

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 2:10 pm
  25. ben wrote:

    Says the man who made Vertigo…

    Posted 18 Oct 2011 at 3:51 pm
  26. Sausage man wrote:

    I love this post. You lot have reminded me about a load of films I never got round to seeing

    Posted 19 Oct 2011 at 10:36 am

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