There are good movies and great movies and sad movies and then there are movies that delay the onset of reality once they are over. You stumble out of the dark, and it takes a while for everything to go back to normal. This has happened to me three times in my movie-theater-going life: after Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. From the trailer to the final shot, Inception was like falling through a trapdoor into a world that looked familiar but felt completely new. And that’s one of the best feelings a big movie can give you.
When I first saw Inception I was so blown away by the elaborate nature of the set pieces, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a zero-gravity Gene Kelly routine, by Juno flipping a city block on a hinge, and by her majesty’s secret avalanche at the alpine compound, I didn’t really stop to think if any of it was actually happening. Which is precisely the point. It’s only when we wake up that we find out how strange things actually were, and Nolan provided the movie with its own kick, yanking us out of our altered state: a spinning top and a cut to black, causing us to ask, was it all a dream?
That wobbling totem sparked one of the most enjoyable pre-social-media pop culture debates of the century. Was the last scene in Inception a dream? Was Dom Cobb still in Limbo? Had he simply patched together a happy ending out of his own memories of a life he left behind? Was he stuck somewhere, an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone? Or had he bucked the trend and made the one, last job work in his favor?
In 2015, Nolan gave a speech at Princeton and said the meaning of the last shot, “is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”
This is true. A movie audience pays however many dollars for a ticket and all they ask for in return is to feel at once safe and challenged. Inception did that — it combined the psychological thriller elements of his earlier work like Memento, and rendered the action of the mind like it was a blockbuster action film in the vein of The Dark Knight. For as much as he, as a filmmaker, might owe Hitchcock, Kubrick, De Palma, and Spielberg, Nolan did something breathtaking and original with Inception. The funny thing is, seven years later, I think the same thing for entirely different reasons than when I walked out of the theater in 2010.
Let’s not beat around Cillian Murphy’s daddy issues: Inception is a dream. Most of what happens in the movie is a dream. I waver back and forth on when the dream starts. Maybe Dom never wakes up out of one of the first two dreams with Lukas Haas’s Nash as the architect. Maybe he’s still on that bullet train in Japan. Perhaps the last two-thirds of the film “take place” in the Mombasa chemist’s sleep lair — remember, Dom accidentally drops his top after waking up when he’s surprised by Saito in the bathroom.
Regardless of how much of the film is a “dream,” the movie is a fantasy — a brilliant commentary on the dream logic of storytelling and an essay on the sleight of hand that is film editing. It’s about the hubris of fictional world-building. And, crucially, it’s a rumination on how we don’t actually know anyone, and our perception of other people, even those dearest to us — the loves of our lives — is just an assortment of assumptions and suppositions and fractured memories. If you know what you are looking for it’s totally obvious. I am Rust Cohle. Here is your Beer Can Man.
Some people disagree. Dileep Rao, who played the chemist Yusuf in the film, gave a particularly mind-altering interview to Vulture back when the film came out (sadly not available anymore on Vulture, but the relevant quote is here) in which he dismissed the idea that the whole film was a dream: “I don’t think the ‘It’s all a dream’ theory makes much sense to me, because where is ‘the real’ Cobb? … We never see reality. We have no idea who this man is, what his circumstances are.” The costume designer thinks the last scene is reality. Michael Caine thinks the sequences that his character Miles (Dom’s father-in-law) appears in — early on when Cobb hires Ellen Page’s Ariadne, and later when Cobb gets “home” — are real: “[The spinning top] drops at the end, that’s when I come back on. If I’m there it’s real, because I’m never in the dream. I’m the guy who invented the dream,” he told the BBC, back in 2010. With all due respect, Michael Caine should know better. He practically announces the movie’s parameters when Cobb shows up in his classroom, looking for a new architect.
Listen to how heartbroken he sounds when he says, “So you want me to let someone else follow you into your fantasy?” It’s like he’s talking to a relapsing addict. And look at Dom. It’s obscured by DiCaprio’s facade, but he sounds like he’s having a paranoid delusion. What charges? What powerful people? Why is the company that Cobb is running from a mild mispronunciation of his own name (Cobol Engineering)? Why does Saito insist on accompanying Cobb and his team? Why is Miles so reserved about the man who is accused of murdering his daughter showing up in his classroom and looking for a young student to help him commit international corporate subconscious espionage? Why is the young student, Page’s Ariadne, so prone to interrogating Dom about his motives and the rules of various dream levels? Why does Dom keep her around? Because she draws cool mazes? Is she actually an operative hired by Miles to investigate his daughter’s death? (I love this theory.) Why is there a rule about not touching other people’s totems, but Dom uses Mal’s totem?
If you start asking these questions, or any of the hundreds of others proposed on blogs and message boards over the years, it’s hard to take what you see in the movie at face value. It says a lot about how we judge movies within the context of their creators that, in a vacuum, analyzing the plot, dialogue, and settings of Inception suggests that we are along for the blank-check Ambien ride of a James Bond superfan. Everything that happens in this movie is screaming, “This is not happening!” Except for these words:
In Nolan’s other films, the narrative shenanigans that happen in the final acts shatter whatever suspension of disbelief and feeling of wonder the viewer has in the moments leading up to it. Inception leans into the essential con of moviemaking. Dom talks about building cathedrals and entire cities with the mind, like an auteur making a pitch to a studio. He talks about the meeting point between creation and perception, which is essentially the nexus where movies exist.
Dom asks Ariadne if she ever remembers the beginning of a dream. No, she always winds up in the middle of what’s going on. This is editing — a hidden language that looks to economically tell us a story, by not showing us a story. Except in Inception, that idea is on display — characters jump from continent to continent with no air travel shown. When a problem arises, a billionaire industrialist solves it. Weapons appear when gunfights break out. These are Hollywood dreams.
Around the time the movie stops making sense, once Dom enters Limbo, characters that played like staid “types” become wracked with guilt and longing. I am sure, deep down in my cufflinks, that this movie is a dream. The only thing that gives me pause? Inception was made by the same man responsible for the five-dimensional bookshelf of love in Interstellar.
This is the only Christopher Nolan movie that calls bullshit on Christopher Nolan movies. He goes to two churches — fantasy and reality — and he’s got perfect attendance at both and it scuttles almost every picture he makes. Actually he goes to three churches — fantasy, reality, and the dead girl/disposable woman story line. Inception is the only one of his films (prior to Dunkirk, which I haven’t seen yet), that actively acknowledges and plays with the director’s own flaws.
First there’s the whole plot of the movie which is capably critiqued by a character in the movie itself. “No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces, the way the projections persecute the dreamer? Admit it: You don’t believe in one reality anymore.”
This is a character in a Christopher Nolan movie asking whether or not the story mechanics of a Christopher Nolan movie aren’t just a little bit ridiculous. This would be like if a character in a Martin Scorsese movie looked up and said, “Hey, maybe we’re doing just a little too much cocaine?”
The character saying these lines is Mal. For the longest time, Marion Cotillard’s character seemed like the odd person out in this movie — an “emotional” story line stapled onto a cool spy-action movie to give it a false sense of significance. She was described by Nolan as a “femme fatale,” and in initial viewings had about as much depth as that cliché suggested. She was doomed to take her place in a long tradition — with Rachel Dawes, Angier’s wife, Julia, Cooper’s wife in Interstellar — of Nolan women who die so that their men could live anguished but meaningful lives.
But on a repeat viewing, I found her character to be the most moving and sad creation in Nolan’s filmography. She is certainly the most self-aware — a figment of someone else’s imagination (delightfully, that someone is a character styled EXACTLY LIKE CHRISTOPHER NOLAN), who rebels against her role in a story. She isn’t the femme fatale who lost her mind and killed herself, destroying our hero’s life in the process. She is the victim of a flamboyant act of hubris by her own husband — handed a prison sentence of a seemingly eternal life with someone who was supposed to be the love of her’s, in a hell of their own creation. Mal’s death — deaths, really — is essentially by Dom’s hand, whether or not he is ever actually charged with her murder. And that crime is compounded by his final act of cruelty, when he tells her, as he tries to escape Limbo, “… I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.”
Dom incepts Mal with the idea that the only way to get back to “reality” is to commit suicide. He manipulates her totem, breaking into her “safe” and setting the top spinning. He turns her into the Anna Karenina of Limbo — as she lays her head on the train tracks, waiting for a train.
You’re waiting for a train. This is a refrain repeated throughout the movie, and it plays like a Hallmark card most of the time. It feels unspecific, vague. And then all of a sudden is given the weight of tragedy. In this moment you forget Saito’s quest to smash a global energy monopoly, the breakup of the Fischer company (let’s not even get into Fischer/Fisher King/Holy Grail stuff), whether or not Eames gets his kick, or if Saito lives or dies in whatever level of dream he was shot in.
Look at how Leonardo DiCaprio glances at the train coming, and listen to Cotillard’s voice when she shouts, “because you’ll be together.” She sounds uncertain. They both do. His nervous look at doom. He’s asking for the worst, and hoping for the best, and he destroys her. He destroys them both, really. It’s the most real thing Christopher Nolan has ever shot. Who cares if it really happened?