#cinefile: a dream within a dream

Inception (2010) – a film worthy of a long post…

the team behind Chris Nolan’s latest blockbuster have done a surprisingly good job of keeping the details relatively hidden, even down to having managed to convince the advertising people not to cut a trailer that details all the major ideas and significant sequences – which is a rare thing. i managed to avoid knowing much about it before seeing it and i was glad of that. i would also recommend you doing something similar if you’re yet to see it and are planning to (which you should be), therefore i have broken this post into an initial section which you can happily read beforehand, and a latter one which you might want to leave till after.

i should perhaps say that the secrecy has not been maintained to protect specific plot points per se, it’s not a film with a ‘twist’ in the clichéd sense, that if you learned of it, would dull the experience. it’s more i think that they are worried that people will be confused if they see or learn too much out of context. this seems to have fuelled, however, a burgeoning rumour that the storyline is fiendishly complex, or even deliberately impossible to follow.

as far as i’m concerned, it is not only fairly straightforward to follow what is going on – as long as you’re concentrating – thanks to a skilful use of different palettes and tones to represents the various ‘locations’, but i think it’s actually very important to the overarching philosophy of the film that its own logic be seen to remain consistent and thus discernible until the end, or at least for it to appear to be. do not believe anyone who suggests that you’re not supposed to be able to follow it – they are just dim. also, you will probably have by now been told by several reviews not to go to the loo during this film. who does that anyway? never go to the loo during any film – especially if you’re near me.

although i have many questions about what exactly it’s trying to do (which i’ll express below), i should say that whatever it is, for what is essentially a mainstream blockbuster, Inception is a really enjoyable and very well made film. Chris Nolan has a rare combination of vision, talent and (now) a strong foothold in Hollywood (The Dark Knight made close to $1B) which have come together to create a film with such vast scope and scale that probably no-one else could have made it right now – a fact, of course, that cuts both ways. some people are calling him the new Kubrick, but that is a sentiment I simply cannot yet endorse. for me, if anything, he is more like the new Scorsese – a comparison bolstered by the quality of the performance he gets out of Leo ofCapricorn, which is up there with his efforts in Gangs of New York and The Departed (probably the less said about Shutter Island, the better).

the performances, in fact, are of a high quality all round, with Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanbe (who i still confuse with Chow Yun Fat) and especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing good work, and Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite chipping in what is pretty much surplus refinement. but then that is what you get with a director on top of their game – great actors want to work with them, even if it’s only to do lying in a bed and dying.

the visual effects are very impressive, managing to bring to life some remarkably strange, and difficult scenarios. what is all the more impressive is Nolan’s commitment to do as much as possible mechanically and to turn to CGI only at the last possible moment. this reflects, i think, one of my favourite aspects of his films which is what i see (and experience) as a real commitment to materiality and corporeality. in Insomnia and Memento the central characters battle wearingly with the physical limitations of their bodies, the protagonist in the latter using the very surface of his body to record the world. In Batman Begins there is a striking scene where Rachel (Katy Holmes) slaps Bruce (Christian Bale) across the face in disgust. something about the jarring physicality of that slap has made it stay with me, which given all the violence and destruction in the full-on action scenes is quite remarkable. in Inception, amongst the somewhat overblown action sequences and gun fights, there is a similar moment where we hear the jarring sound of a head hit a windscreen. it’s not a key scene, it’s a momentary and incidental thing, but there was a quality about that sound that sharply flung forward the same feeling of fleshed-out bodilyness. it might seem like a small thing, but the devil is always in the detail.

the only left to discuss is the plot, and more importantly, what it might be about. i can’t really say much more without revealing a little too much to those of you who haven’t seen it.

the last thing i’ll add for non-seeners is that if you are still struggling to feel comfortable about what to expect, then a) good and b) here’s some of films that for me Inception brought to mind in terms of style and/or content: Blade Runner, Brazil, Cube, Dark City, Dreamscape, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix Trilogy, The Mission Impossible Trilogy, The Orphanage, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, True Lies and several others that i can’t recall right now, as well as elements of most of Nolan’s existing portfolio.

keen readers might want to be thinking Philip K. Dick meets Aldous Huxley meets David Mitchell (not the comedian).

and i think perhaps now is the time to consider switching off if you haven’t yet seen it…


i’m not going to try to explain what i think happens in the film (for reasons that should become apparent), but here-below are some rambling thoughts about the ideas in the film:


the overwhelming question i was left with is whether or not it is essentially a politically conservative film about the inherent danger of ideas. certainly the notion of ideas being like viruses or cancers that, once implanted, grow and spread and infect people’s minds is central to Cobb’s embittered understanding of the world. reading the film that way would certainly seem to bring a kind of anti-radical agenda to the fore, and it has been suggested before (most plausibly of his two Batman films) that despite his apparent ‘liberal’ (NB not ‘Liberal’) sensibilities, Nolan is essentially a conservative film maker.

Cobb’s rule that dreamers should have no knowledge of the geography of the dream environment because knowledge opens the way to corruption is likewise a potentially troubling notion. there is certainly an echo of John Rawls’ famous ‘Veil of Ignorance’ in Cobb’s insistence, which might add credence to a reading of Cobb as a rational, Liberal archetype and perhaps the anti-ideas interpretation. whether we are dealing with the inherent dangers of ideas, or simply the power of ideas and the inherent dangers or ideology is the question which lay at the heart of my experience. it is really the answer to that question which, to some extent defines the moral status of the central characters. we know they are thieves and mercenaries, but what kind of world do they believe in?

as someone drawn to Marxist interpretation but generally unconvinced (and confused) by the Frankfurt school, i prefer to think of ideology as good, or at least neutral, and to see hegemony as the central evil which necessitates resistance. that having been said, i’d certainly have more sympathy with an anti-ideology stance than one which is anti ideas. i guess in the end it all comes down to whether or not we take Cobb to be the ‘hero’.

if, on the other hand, we see Ariadne as the hero, then we might have cause to question this interpretation. we learn early on that she is ‘better’ than Cobb, at least in Miles’ opinion. not only is she talented, but she is also the only member of the group to recognise Cobb’s mental state as a threat and seek to investigate it (as opposed to Arthur, who largely ignores his fears). she is inquisitive and clearly believes that knowledge is the key to understanding – which might be seen to be endorsed at the (turning?) point where she has the idea of descending into ‘limbo’ and riding the ‘kick’ back up through the layers. at that point Cobb is convinced that all is lost, but Ariadne is able to conceive of a potential solution.

she is also the only character motivated by any real sense of empathy or compassion. Cobb seems happy to put the lives of the others at risk and to keep them ignorant of various details in order to receive their consent and ultimately achieve his very personal objective: ‘i just want to get home’ is his mantra. Ariadne, however, repeatedly questions the morality of his behaviour, and affirms that, being cognisant, she has a duty to protect the others, who are ignorant of the situation.

zooming out somewhat, there is also the murky question of why we should want the team to succeed in the first place. of course as the film goes on we become caught up in Cobb’s quest, but the overarching motivation, the reason the others are involved (besides the issues of money and power) are never really explored. we learn that there are two oil companies and one is on the verge of becoming a monopoly, but given that we don’t learn anything about the nature of either company, i was left with significant questions about my motivation and investment. apparently, we are told, the world needs this to happen to prevent the rise of a new superpower – notions that seem to disclose anti-monopolisitc sentiments and a desire for the maintenance of the political status quo.

one idea in the film that i did find very interesting was the reason that Cobb gives as to why he couldn’t just stay in ‘limbo’ with his version of Mal. he says that she is not complete, not real, because he cannot imagine her perfections or her imperfections and therefore she can never be real. Muslim artisans always deliberately introduce at least one imperfection into their work (for example a flaw in a geometric fabric pattern) as a way of distinguishing human work from divine creation – the point being that only Allah is perfect. this idea has long confused me. if as humans we have to swerve away from what we recognise as perfection in order not to create like God, then surely there is little mystery to God’s ability to create in perfection? i like the idea much more that while we are capable of creating things which are simple, harmonious and perfect (at least mathematically speaking), what we cannot do is create ‘proper’ perfection because what escapes us is true imperfection. in this sense, it is the imperfections of a person, and not their perfections, that makes them real.

The other proposed marker of ‘the real’ in Inception is heft – the weight and true feel of the totemic objects. if you keep your totem, you keep your grip on ‘reality’, Cobb explains to Ariadne. whether or not it is a deception, i like this idea too, and i feel it fits nicely with my conception of Nolan as someone who is interested in the materiality of reality.

when it comes to interpreting the film, for me, the key question is whether it is ultimately interested in puzzles? and, despite all the talk of mazes, the answer, as far as i can see is no. i am not convinced that the film is an exercise in logical reasoning – although as i said earlier i think it maintains that pretence as long as possible.

for those of you who are playing the game, however, there are a few questions you might want to be asking yourselves: why, for example, does the issue about the sedation being too high to allow escape through death seemingly cease to hold sway once Cobb and Saito descend into limbo? the presence of the gun on the table at the end (and beginning) strongly suggests that they make it back to the plane by shooting themselves, but wasn’t that supposed to be impossible whilst heavily sedated?

also, why does a shift in gravity in the first layer of Fischer’s dream (the van) make a huge difference in the second (the hotel), but the resultant shift in the  second layer (the hotel) have no such effect on the third layer (the snowy, James Bond hospital fort)? likewise, why in the first dream we see, Cobb’s two level invasion of Saito’s mind, does he apparently remain orientationally unaffected in level two (the chinese style mansion) when he’s being tipped backwards in the emergency kick in level one (the apartment)?

furthermore: why does Saito seem to age far more so than Cobb in limbo? who trained Fischer’s mind? when Cobb kept asking him to “remember what i taught you” was that just part of the ‘Mr Charles’ act? is there a significance to the use of Je Ne Regrette Rien? oh, and here is a good one, what, if anything, was the relationship between Mal and Ariadne? think about it…


while many people will react (either out of frustration or disappointment) against the final shot of the spinning totem (which, had there been a mid-way interval, i would have bet my life savings on being the ending), in many ways it was the only way of preventing the tensions created by all these questions from collapsing into certainty. it seems to conjure an image akin to a quantum state suggesting that, in those first few moments of spinning, many interpretations are possible and true.

essentially, however, there are two options: either we have arrived ‘back’ at the real and the spinner will fall, or we have lost track somewhere (remember Cobb’s inability to spin it in the bathroom in Mombasa?), or we’ve been deceived all along. perhaps we are ‘home’, or maybe we are now, or have only ever been, witnesses to Cobb’s dreams and projections. in cutting where he did, Nolan keeps the tension…right?

the fly in the ointment of the predictable, neat version of the set-piece ending is that, at that point, if we are not in the real world, we are most likely in Cobb’s unconscious and although the spinner was originally Mal’s totem, Cobb has taken it as his own – he stole it (perhaps his most significant act?) and he knows its heft, and could therefore accurately imagine it falling. or perhaps the rule about heft as the marker of reality and the totem as the saviour of the sane, is all part of Cobb’s construction? perhaps, in this sense, a better final scene would have shown the spinner falling, given that the act would have explained nothing? for me, the totem is a kind of macguffin – it lodges in our imagination (right to the end), but it is essentially a red herring. or at least it is if we are playing the game, trying to complete the puzzle.

my guide through this film was the protagonist of another – Max, the central character from Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant Pi. Max is trapped in a puzzle, an unceasing problem which comes to haunt him. some people could interpret the path he finds out as a retrogression into ignorance, into defeat. i see it as a recognition that, despite what John Nash once taught, life is more than just an unending series of games. life is also dreams. and, sometimes, dreams within dreams.

thus we arrive back at the most obvious philosophical question posed by the film from the start – what is ‘the real’ and how can we know it, and we are scantly better equipped to answer it now than we were before. but, then, why should we expect the end to be significantly more enlightening that the beginning or the middle in a Nolan film? i could blab on for ages more about Lacan and Zizek and ‘the real’ and so on, but frankly i’ve rambled on enough and you deserve credit for reading this far. 1 credit.

anyway, if you have ideas to share, points to raise or arguments to start, please leave comments.

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  • Comments (3)
  1. Brilliantly written review as ever RQT, and appreciated, from someone who as you said has heard too much, and not enough about the film. And right now, Flixster (film review/info site) agrees with you, with 94% viewers enjoying it.

    • Drew
    • July 26th, 2010


    I was going to email you a message but then thought perhaps a public forum might create a more interesting space for exchange. This way at least 6- hell maybe even 7- other people can look on and be bored by our ramblings.

    Rather than give you a thorough and detailed exposition of my thoughts about the film, it may be more entertaining for me to simply pose a few comments/ open ended questions for reflection;

    (i) Mal. For me the presence of Mal was one of the most continually unsettling and provocative themes of the film. Leaving aside the potential symbolism of the name, I was fascinated by the casting of the romantic partner as the anti-hero. The lingering question for me is whether we are essentially partaking in an unreliable narrator’s dream, the real twist being that Mal is in fact the one trying to plant an inception in Cobb’s mind. Hence my initial reaction when we spoke briefly on the phone that the final spinning top cut sequence was perhaps a red-herring.

    (ii) I totally agree with your appraisal questioning ‘the murky question of why we should want the team to succeed in the first place.’ In many ways, this felt like a surprisingly light and under-developed conceit- almost as though it was a dream plot in and of itself; hence supportive of my question above. We were never shown the motivation of Cobb’s partners in crime (financial, thrill-seeking, loyalty…?) to the extent that there was incredibly little anger, despair or sense of betrayal when the crew were awakened to Cobb’s dishonesty in leading them into the heist. Even more so, unlike nearly any other hesit movie I have seen, we were never shown an objective demonstration of whether it was successful or not; no get away with the swag, no resolution as per The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven.

    (iii) The music, still frustrates me. I feel like Zimmer was trying to create something overtly ‘present’ and distinctive a la Vangelis in Bladerunner. For my money, he failed. This is even more bothering given the distinctive feel and tone that was otherwise created across the different dream levels. How much the music could have (should have?) complimented this. I would like to hear an interview with Zimmer explaining his thoughts behind the score. I usually love his stuff.

    (iv) Limbo. Perhaps the least convincing aspect of the movie. Or at least the one that most demands a re-viewing for my money. There are many aspects that frustrate me. The ageing of Siato and not Cobb, the shared inhabitance of Limbo (implying an objective reality rather than an individual’s own creation or Ariadne’s creation? Cobb, Siato, Mal, Ariadane and Fischer all shared the same Limbo did they not?), and still most bafflingly, the apparently unproblematic ability to ‘kick’ out of it. Whereas the timing of the other 3 levels felt consistent to me, I was still unconvinced if limbo’s timeframe adequately matched the experience. Also if Siato had spent a lifetime there, why isn’t his brain scrambled as we are repeatedly told it would be?

    (v) Mazes and labyrinths. I would have liked some more exploration of this. Other than the air duct in the third dream, this felt underdeveloped to me. Particularly given the religious and spiritual use of Labyrinths over many traditions in the past.

    How’s that for starters? I like your Rawlsian reference by the way- not something I picked up on, but I do agree.

    drew x

    • a) 6 or 7 people? I think we both know that’s fanciful.

      b) The limbo thing is the weakest conceit for me. I went to see it again, and second time round the introduction of the ‘rules’ struck me as really over-convenient. The notion that limbo is empty dream space, only populated by the thoughts/experiences of anyone in the shared dream who’s been there before, seemed quite a weak and arbitrary concept once I knew how significant it was. If felt like something of a thin patch over the narrative problem of how to have the characters’ experiences converge.

      c) As I said on the phone I agree with you totally about the music. It’s too intrusive and leaves too little space for thought. I’d like to think that it represents a deliberate attempt to shunt reflection back to a later point, so the deeper levels of possibility only begin to dawn on the audience after they leave the theatre, but I’m not sure that’s true.

      d) Seeing it again, I was even more blown away by the audacity of it. People say Kubrick made a perfect film in ever genre. While I’m generally not up for the Nolan/Kubrick comparisons floating round, and this film is far from perfect, there is a glimmer of Kubrick’s moxie in this. The various types of skill on display show that it could have been an excellent film in any one of about 5 genres. For a mainstream movie, the range is amazing.

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