Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
PAULINA STREET JOURNAL
I realize I'm a little late getting to this, inasmuch as Inception was released in July and here it is the middle of August. However, it's taken a while for the fog to lift. Besides, this is one they'll be arguing about in film class for years. The way I look at it, I'm not behind schedule, I'm getting an early start. But first some business:
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
I do this mostly because protocol demands it. My feeling personally is that the more you know about this movie going in the better, unless you like spending two and a half hours of your life without the faintest idea what's going on.
So is the "real" world a dream or not?
This is the question on which most viewers fixate. In the closing moments of the Inception, the hero, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), spins a small brass top called a totem. A totem enables a dream traveler (the idea that you can enter somebody else's dreams is the basic conceit of the movie) to determine whether he's dreaming or awake. If Cobb's spinning top falls over, he's awake. If it keeps spinning, he's dreaming. In the last scene, the top spins for quite a while, wobbles a bit, and then
THIS IS IT! I'M SERIOUS! IF YOU DON'T WANT
Right, like anybody actually stopped reading. What happens is, the screen goes black before you see what becomes of the top. Whoa! Is this reality, or just a dream an illusion? Well, technically it's an illusion, because it's a movie. The question is, is it movie reality (in other words, an illusion of reality), or movie illusion (that is, an illusion of an illusion)? I know what you're thinking: this one's deep.
Eh, not that deep. Here's the answer: neither. The point of the exercise is to keep you guessing. This is called ambiguity, an essential spud wrench in the modern artist's toolkit: if the audience can't tell what's going on, they'll take this as a sign of genius. It worked for James Joyce and numerous other creative giants, and Christopher Nolan, writer and director of Inception, figures it'll work for him.
Fine, but I think the top keeps spinning, because the last time we see it fall over is near the beginning of the movie in the room with the
I get this from everybody. They think there's an answer. This is the sign of a shallow mind. Take it from me: there's no answer. Christopher Nolan is messing with your head.
Stop it. Stop it right now.
Explain the beginning of the movie.
This is the reason they'll be talking about Inception in the film schools fifty years from now. Unexplained beginnings are a common ploy in movies think Pulp Fiction. Normally you see a reprise of the beginning at the end of the film, at which time what was formerly mystifying becomes clear. That sorta happens in Inception; the beginning repeats. Nolan's innovation is that when you walk out of the theatre, you're as baffled as before.
As the movie opens, we see the injured Cobb washed up on a beach. He sees a couple kids. A couple palookas see him. They find he's got a gun tucked in his pants. Cut.
We see an elderly Asian gentleman in a boardroom. He inspects Cobb's stuff, including the brass top that will figure so prominently. Then the palookas (one presumes) bring in Cobb, who engages the elderly gentleman in cryptic conversation. Cut.
We're still in the boardroom, and Cobb is still there, looking healthier but otherwise much the same, except now he's got a partner, Arthur. The elderly Asian gentlemen is no longer on the scene. Instead they're having dinner with a younger Asian man, whom we correctly surmise is the elderly gentleman, only fifty years younger.
We get no opportunity to consider the implications of this, because there now commences a long frantic sequence involving gunshots, yelling, fiery detonations, inexplicable seismic and meteorological events and general uproar that I won't recount in detail. (Here's a plot summary see what you can make of it.) The gist is that Cobb and his partner Arthur are in a dream trying to extract vital information from the Asian man, whose name is Saito, only Saito sees through them, and a woman who turns out to be Cobb's wife, but who is actually dead, shows up and shoots Arthur in the foot, causing him to shriek, whereupon Cobb grabs a gun and kills Arthur, which is actually the smart thing to do because if you get killed in a dream you wake up, which Arthur does, only there's rioting and explosions outside the place he wakes up to, the significance of which isn't clear except that in an action movie it's always a good idea to have rioting and explosions.
Then Cobb and Saito also wake up (they've been hooked up to a dream machine, which looks like a combination game controller and intravenous drip) and exchange bitter words, after which Cobb throws Saito on the floor and threatens to kill him, but Saito feels the rug and recognizes that it's not the right one (it's his apartment), and instantly realizes that they're in a second dream. The rioters break in, and I'm not sure what happens next but I guess everybody gets killed (which maybe was the point of the rioting and explosions), because Arthur and Cobb wake up on a train and rather anticlimactically scoot, leaving the sleeping Saito behind them. Cobb then puts a gun to his head and spins the top, which falls over. Cobb is happy because that means he's back in reality (well, movie reality) and doesn't have to kill himself to wake up, and we're happy because we can catch a breath and think (assuming we can muster enough unscrambled neurons to make this feasible): what the foo was that all about?
We'll return to that. First, however, other important matters need to be explored.
How is dream traveling supposed to work?
This isn't explained. All we learn is that: (a) the point of dream traveling is industrial espionage, in which you enter somebody's dreaming subconscious and steal his secrets; (b) except you don't really enter the victim's subconscious instead, the dream is hosted by a randomly selected member of the dream team, which has confusing implications to be discussed in greater depth below; (c) to design the dream you need a dream architect, a person of such staggering intellect that he or she can conceive, not just an entire world, but worlds within worlds (we learn it's possible to have three levels of dreams), which must be thought out with sufficient care that you get the rugs right; (d) to assess the talents of a potential dream architect, you have to see how good they are at drawing mazes, although mazes have nothing obvious to do with dreams or architecture (other than seeming vaguely cool and mysto) and don't figure in the movie that I can see; (d) for the most demanding dream projects, you want your architect to be an attractive young woman, or at least you do if you're Christopher Nolan. That's because, during the many stretches in this movie when the audience is utterly stumped, you know the males will be able to distract themselves by thinking: boy, that Ellen Page (who plays the dream architect Ariadne) sure is cute, whereas female viewers can luxuriate in the virtually uninterrupted on-screen presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, about which no more need be said.
The most basic facts about dream travel remain a puzzle. For example:
Think about what this means. Dream host #1 provide the physical substrate for the first dream, the inhabitants of which create a second dream. Dream host #1 must in some way provide the substrate for this dream too let's call him the metahost. The inhabitants of the second dream then create a third dream, for which dream host #1 is the metametahost. In short, dream host #1 (who in the movie is a character named Yusuf, a bright enough fellow but not one of exceptional gifts) at the end of the day is providing the cognitive processing power to support three nested universes. I don't know about you, but if I think about that for any length of time, I need a nap.
So what's up with this dream limbo thing?
This is the central mystery of Inception, in my opinion. In order to explicate it, I need to present the following stripped-down version of the plot, from which vast chunks have been excised to make the remainder even minimally comprehensible:
It's fair to say things have been confusing up till this point. Now they get real confusing. Previously we've been lead to believe limbo is some vague netherworld. Now we discover it's actually the fourth level of the dream world, and you can get there by conventional means. (I use the word conventional loosely.) We resume our story:
The shellshocked viewer stumbles from the theater thinking: huh? Assuming we can get past the spinning top bit, we ask: What was Cobb doing washing up on the beach? Since he and Saito are both in limbo together, why doesn't he just go over and knock on the door? Why has Saito aged but not Cobb? Why, when the two (apparently) kill themselves, do they wake up? Aren't they still under sedation? More to the point, why do they go all the way back from level #4 to the airplane? Earlier in the movie when Arthur got killed he went back just one level. The confounded filmgoer thinks: I don't get it. I better see this movie again.
That's the beauty of it, I figure. Somewhere, undoubtedly in the dreamy state inhabited by the makers of blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan is smiling, perhaps idly spinning a top, and thinking: this is all going according to plan.
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