Reality in Inception, with spoilers

I saw Inception this past Friday, but couldn’t come up with a way to write about it until now. As pretty much everyone has already noted, the movie is meant to make you think, which doesn’t lend itself to immediate blogging. I was trying to come up with some sort of angle to tie together my observations when Roger Ebert pointed me to Steven Boone’s review. Ebert’s point is that Boone’s review is useful even if you don’t agree. Well, I’m certainly going to get some use out of it.

I don’t think Inception is a perfect film, but I do think it is fabulous. I don’t want to entirely recap Boone’s review (I encourage you to read it), but I will summarize the points that I want to respond to. First, Boone argues that there is too much exposition – characters speak too much when the actors could show more. Then, the dream worlds are too slick, with no messes along the lines of naked people suddenly showing up. In combination, you get a slick heist or caper film that doesn’t reveal all that much about anything.

This is totally not how I read the film.

Arthur and Cobb

Inception deals, at its most basic level, with the question “What is real?” or “What is reality?” On a superficial/expository level, Cobb questions reality repeatedly. But the techniques used throughout the film undergird that questioning and spread its influence. We go from “Cobb has questions about reality and might be insane” to “Cobb may not have ever woken up at the end of the film – or may never have been awake at all.” The very things that Boone dislikes as bad filmmaking are necessary to support this questioning. He brings up the absence of, to continue the example, sex. Yet, if Cobb suddenly found himself looking at a pile of hot, naked women, he would probably realize that he was in a dream. In order to really question reality, the dream must resemble reality on some level. No dreams of riding purple elephants.

You might respond that this is a cop-out, and that one needs to address what dreams are really like in order for this questioning of reality to work. But Nolan does answer that: the dreams in the movie are not set up to be actual, what-you-see-at-night dreams. Inception‘s dreams are, in fact, almost anti-dreams. They do not leap and dodge across times and places like real dreams. Inception‘s dreams are carefully made in a maze-like pattern by a dedicated architect. The movie reminds us many times of how hard it is to build a dream correctly. The target of these dreams only peoples them with projections of her subconscious, she does not create the locales. And those projection-people are characterless.

That leads to Boone’s other criticism, that the actors explain too much without showing us all that much. I think the actors show us quite a bit (there was a great moment when Cobb saw how quickly Ariadne was learning to manipulate dreams and was clearly uneasy, for instance), but he’s right that there is a lot of explaining going on. However, we have the projections to consider. Inception is similar to your slick caper flick in a variety of ways, and Nolan exploits that where the character Mal is concerned. Not a “real” character, Mal is a projection of Cobb’s mind, his subconscious exerting itself to keep her alive in some way. Everything about Mal’s introduction in the film screams femme fatale of the caper flick variety. They’re at a party thrown by a wealthy man, she’s wearing a slinky dress, Arthur’s comments suggest that she has tripped up Cobb in the past and that there is romance involved… we trip through the standards of caper flick femme portrayal throughout that dream, even getting in some light bondage when Cobb ties her up, until the betrayal we all knew was coming. Mal behaves like a stock character because she is a stock character. As Cobb finally admits to himself at the end of the movie, Mal is not his wife. She does not have a fraction of the complexities his wife had. She is just a character in his mind.

(Sidenote: In a sense, Marion Cotillard had the hardest job of all. She had to fill out a number of Cobb’s memories, be the personification of Cobb’s subconscious will, be inhuman and yet believable as Cobb’s wife. Well done.)

Mal blurs the line between the other projections and the other characters. Most of the projections never speak; they simply go about their business. When they sense an incursion into the mind they look for it, then at it and finally they chase and “kill” it. Mal is different. She makes incursions into other people’s dreams. She acts on her own to achieve her own objective: the destruction of Cobb. The discipline needed to be a dream thief is hinted at throughout the film. The thieves need to go into others’ dreams while keeping their own subconsciouses out. Mal shows that Cobb has lost that discipline.

As you go through the film, whether or not the “real” characters are, in fact, real people, is called into question, particularly through the filming techniques that Boone decries. Think about a scene, focusing on Arthur, for example, which shows him considering something at length. No words, just pure acting, with a focus on one of the “real” characters who is not Cobb. It suggests, to the viewer, that Arthur is, indeed, a real person, does it not? After all, we’re seeing him outside of his interactions with Cobb. The more we see characters outside of their interactions with Cobb, the more they seem real. The more they express themselves by talking to Cobb, the more indeterminate their existence. It’s not a coincidence that we see characters acting outside of their relationship to Cobb more and more as the movie progresses: even as Cobb’s discipline is breaking down more and more the other characters’ independence reassures the viewer and keeps the scales weighing the real versus the unreal in balance.

To pick up on something else Boone mentioned, the biggest expressive moment in the film featured Fischer learning that his father wanted him to be a better man (than the father). But Fischer isn’t talking to his real father, he’s talking to one of his own projections. Fischer’s change of heart is spurred by himself. Could this be paralleled by Cobb’s change of heart being spurred by himself? Perhaps Ariadne’s insistence on entering the final dream sequence was imagined by Cobb, and her presence there was just another of his projections gone amok? Why not take it farther – could the entire team be projections? Boone wants a slower film, with less cutting from place to place and scene to scene. But we’re cutting from scene to scene, because, as the characters explained to us, one way to tell that you are in a dream is that you don’t remember how you got there. We criss-cross the globe in this film, but how much travel really happened? What, exactly, was real?

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