thoughts on Inception

Saw it a second time tonight (with my brother and sister-in-law, who hadn’t been yet), and have a much clearer sense of the film this time around. Most of the things that were bugging me as inconsistencies turn out not to be; I just hadn’t caught the explanations that cleared them up. (Things like the distinction between the dreamer and the subject of the process — I had assumed they were the same person.)

(Which isn’t a spoiler, if you just flinched, thinking I’d given something away. I’m talking mechanics there, not plot.)

Definitely spoilery thoughts below the fold.

Having taken a second look, I’ve come around to the side that says the “external layer” (i.e. the parts that weren’t framed as the Fischer heist) is actually reality, and not another dream. I have several reasons for this, starting with the fact that you do see and hear Cobb’s totem wobble at the end; when you see it spin in a known dream-space, its motion is steady. More importantly, if I start from the assumption that the external layer is a dream, I have to ask myself how that works, and neither answer I can come up with is satisfactory:

1) We see the totem fall over when Cobb’s in the hotel after the failed Saito extraction, which indicates reality. However, after Yusuf puts him under briefly in Mombasa, Cobb runs into the bathroom and tries to spin the totem, but it falls on the floor. We don’t see him spin it again until the very end of the film (barring the flashback of his inception on Mal). So it could be that the external layer was reality, but everything from Mombasa onward is a dream — he hasn’t woken up yet. If that’s the case, though, you’ve got to explain why the rest of the film goes the way it does, and I don’t see a clear structure to answer that.

2) Cobb mentions that his totem was originally Mal’s. Arthur says that letting somebody else touch your totem defeats the purpose, because then they could fake it in a dream. The external layer could therefore have been a dream from the start (including the falling-over bit), if it’s Mal’s dream; she knows the totem already. But that doesn’t work, because the idea of Cobb being stuck there only works if it’s his dream — otherwise they could just “kick” Mal awake and the thing would start collapsing around him. Or just shoot Cobb; unless he’s heavily sedated (which we have no evidence for), he’ll wake up instead of falling into Limbo. Finally, if the hidden point of the film was that the entire thing was an inception effort staged by Mal from actual reality, to convince Cobb to wake up, then I don’t think we would have gotten that ambiguous ending. Either it would have succeeded, or there would have been clear indication that it failed, and Ariadne would have been arguing that point somewhere in the process. So I think the “it’s all a dream” interpretation requires too much reading-in on the part of the viewer for me to buy it, personally; you have to bring too much to the table in order to make it work.

So why the “lady or the tiger” ending? Two reasons that I can see. First, it’s just a generalized point, saying that you can never be absolutely certain that reality is real. Second, even if that is in fact reality, Cobb walking away without seeing his totem fall is a sign that he doesn’t care whether he’s in a dream or not: he’s seen his kids’ faces again, and that’s all he really wanted.

It’s still possible that Ariadne is trying an inception stunt on Cobb, though. (Which I hope is the case, though I’m not entirely certain; it would mean the title concept gets iterated threefold, which is 50% niftier than just twofold.) It’s a bit hard to say for certain because of how Nolan handwaves the functioning of the process; we know the subject isn’t the same person as the dreamer (which is what I thought the first time I saw the film), but can there be more than one subject? I think so, given that the subject’s role is to populate the dream with projections, and Cobb’s projections (Mal and the kids) keep showing up even when Fischer is the ostensible subject. So Ariadne, with or without the help of Arthur et al, could be taking advantage of the depth on the Fischer job to try and get Cobb past his own issues. I’m not sure if this is the case or not, though like I said, I hope so. Either way, I don’t think it requires that the external layer be a dream organized by Mal; that can be reality, and she can be dead, and Ariadne can still be the thread leading Cobb out.

Or her name could simply indicate that Nolan wanted a good name for a female maze-architect, and “Ariadne” sounds nicer than “Daedala,” even if its implications are slightly off.

There are a few things that still don’t quite hang together for me. What happens between Cobb leaving Mal in Limbo and showing up on the beach by Saito’s house — why is he unconscious in the surf? Why is Saito old, when he’s been in Limbo for less time than Fischer was? And how did Cobb and Saito get out of Limbo? I guess everybody else cooled their heels in the top layer of the dream for another six days until the scheduled time-on-plane was up — they said they’d have about a week there, and there wasn’t any kick planned from the plane — and maybe Fischer’s subconscious stopped attacking them, but what about the other two? You see Saito reach for the gun, but the script doesn’t specify whether dying in Limbo will wake you even in cases of heavy sedation. Or maybe they just chilled there, reminding each other that it wasn’t real so they’d wake up with their brains still functioning, until the time was up. I’m not sure.

But there were things I wasn’t sure about after the first watching that got cleared up by the second, so I’m willing to grant this might be more of the same.

Any way you slice it, it’s still an intricate, thought-provoking movie, with lots of bonus snarky lines (mostly from Eames) and eye candy (particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt rocking the three-piece suit), not to mention a female lead (Ellen Page) who actually uses her brain. So even if I can’t fit all the bits together, I enjoyed it a lot.

0 Responses to “thoughts on Inception”

  1. icedrake

    It’s not Cobb’s totem. He mentions the totem was Mal’s, yes, but at no point does he indicate that it’s become his, or that such a transfer is even possible.

    • Marie Brennan

      Except for the fact that he uses it repeatedly to verify whether he’s in a dream or not — which is the purpose of a totem. I call that evidence.

      There’s no reason to think a transfer isn’t possible; according to the explanation Arthur gives, a totem is just a small, heavy physical object, special only insofar as only one person is supposed to know its weight and feel. With Mal dead, there would be no reason Cobb couldn’t take it for his own, and plenty of emotional/psychological reason why he should, given what he did with it before.

  2. drydem

    I think Ariadne is partially a plant by Michael Caine to get Cobb to deal with his issues.

    • Marie Brennan

      I prefer to think she made that decision on her own after seeing what a mess Cobb was; that way she’s her own person, rather than his tool.

      • drydem

        I can see that argument. The only reason I see it as Caine’s decision is the existing personal connection between Caine’s character and Cobb.

      • tiamat360

        Maybe a plant inasmuch as Caine thought she’d be the kind of person who would take initiative upon seeing Cobb’s problems.

  3. akashiver

    I totally planted that idea in your brain, just so you wouldn’t realize It Was All a Dream.

    My brother just raised a question about the final “kicks.” The sensation of falling “kicks” you out of a deeper level of dreaming to a higher one, right? And the sequence of kicks at the end is supposed to kick the team out into the “real world” – i.e. the airplane. But instead they get kicked out into the river beside a submerged car – which is still part of F’s dream. We don’t actually see the kick that moves them back to the airplane.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, it’s clear that the kick has to operate from one level up: dropping Cobb into the tub at the beginning pulls him out of the house-dream, not out of the apartment-dream that has the tub in it. So blowing up the hospital bunker should kick Cobb, Ariadne, and the revived Fischer up from Limbo to the third-layer bunker dream; Arthur blowing the elevator should kick those three plus Eames up to the second-layer hotel dream; and Yusuf dropping the van should kick those four plus Arthur up to the first-layer city dream. But unless the pilot was told to drop altitude on the plane at a particular signal, they don’t get kicked out to reality; they have to wait for the scheduled time to run out.

      Yet in Limbo, Ariadne throws Fischer and then herself off the balcony, in order to get back into the third-layer dream. All I can figure is, that doesn’t operate as a kick; the point was for them both to die as an exit from Limbo. Which argues that Cobb and Saito did commit suicide to get out . . . sending them into what, exactly? By then Eames, Arthur, and Yusuf (the three dreamers for what Ariadne had built) were all awake, so presumably the dreamspaces had collapsed. Did it throw them all the way out to waking? I guess so, and I guess enough time had elapsed while Cobb searched for Saito that everybody else was awake by then, however that got arranged.

      I assume it does hold together, because that would be a damn sloppy bit of writing for Nolan to overlook in the ten years he spent on the script. But it does take some scrutiny to figure out, and I may not have it quite right yet.

      • shadowkindrd

        The kick that happens in that level kicks you closer to wakening, from what I understand. So Ariadne throwing herself off the balcony in Limbo kicked her up to the snow world. From the snow world, the explosions kicked her to the hotel. From the hotel, the elevator kicked her up to the van. From the van dropping into the water, she was supposedly kicked awake. Except they couldn’t be kicked awake because of the sedative.

        The film also indicated that the sequence could also be the other way around, but honestly, I think it got fuzzy near the end about how the kicks worked, and I’m not sure that it’s the writer’s fault. Could easily be an editing issue.

        We don’t see Cobb and Saito’s kick, or if they do progress up through the layers. We also don’t know if they were pulled from Limbo by the sedative wearing out. Remember, Saito is “dead” in snow, hotel, and car dreams.

        *serious spoilers*

        However, I’ve got four things that tell me that in the final scene, Cobb is still dreaming.

        1. None of the people attempted to confer with him about success or failure. They all just looked happy. After what happened in those dreams, I’d expect far more reaction. Even Fischer shouldn’t have looked so content. Perfect expressions = suspicious behavior.

        2. The old man looks exactly like he did in his office, right down to the same clothing (iirc, of course), and again, too happy to see Cobb. Everything went smoothly.

        3. The house was identical to other scenes. No way in over a year or more does a house stay exactly the same. The shots are even from the same angles.

        4. The biggest thing, though, are the children. They’re exactly the same size, and wearing exacty the same clothes as in his mental picture. After a year or so? Nope. He may see their faces, but again, it’s they’re one year ago faces. Kids grow and change rapidly in that time period.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: kicks — nope. Yusuf explicitly says he tailored the chemicals not to mess with the inner ear, because a kick is the only option for waking up prior to the time running out (death and generalized disruption of the dreamer’s environment won’t do it). And the earlier examples make it clear that the kick happens at the level you’re trying to exit to, not the one you’re exiting from. (Edited for clarity)

          The final-scene stuff is so wordlessly happy that yeah, on the first watching I thought that meant it was a dream. But somebody pointed out to me that they’re pretending not to know each other on the plane; if they’d all been high-fiving after the heist went off, it would have alerted Fischer that something was weird. The house and the kids are more suspicious, but them not growing I could chalk up to the simple requirements of film; we don’t know how long Cobb has been away, so unless it’s enough years to justify casting totally new actors, you use the same kids. And they sounded about that young on the phone at the beginning of the film. If it was a dream throughout, you have to explain why the totem fell over in the phone scene but (maybe) not at the end, and none of the explanations I can find for that are convincing.

          • shadowkindrd

            Yeah, there’s a reason that I think there’s an editing problem in the final kick sequence, and not as much of a writing problem. The way the ending sequence is put together is problematic in terms of the kick.

            No, the people wouldn’t be high-fiving or anything else at the end. However, they’d be checking in with different mechanisms, including concern, flip-flop hand motions, etc. The dream sequence wasn’t an unqualified success. Too many things went wrong. But the reactions didn’t reveal all those mixed emotions. Esp. Ariadne. She looked way too peaceful and happy given that she didn’t know if he’d dispelled his inner demon wife-dream. He said he would, but she didn’t see it, so…

            As for the kids–in the last scene, the kids were posed in exactly the same manner doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same clothing as they were when he left. Then they did exactly what he wanted them to do; turn around and see him so that he could see their faces. The odds on that? No, that scene set is a deliberate message. Plus, good make-up and costume can age a kid a year, and at the budget this film had, they can afford to hire a couple of kids that were aged a year or more. No, the filmmakers were saying something there at the end, a deliberate message about Cobb’s state of awakeness, IMO.

            I don’t think the entire movie was a dream. I just don’t think Cobb woke up at the end.

          • catlinye_maker

            In fact they did cast different children for the final scene of the movie. Ref. cast and crew credits:

            Claire Geare … Phillipa (3 years)
            Magnus Nolan … James (20 months)

            Taylor Geare … Phillipa (5 years)
            Johnathan Geare … James (3 years)

            Interesting that they chose siblings, for the resemblance one assumes. IIRC the children’s final pose in the garden is not quite identical with the earlier pose, but it’s real close. “Count the differences in this picture” close. I think the ending is deliberately ambiguous, in part to foster discussions like this, but after some thought )and heated discussion with DH) agree with Swan Tower that the external layer is reality.

            And thank you, Swan Tower, for an elegantly argued essay. DH’s main point was more on the lines that if the whole thing was a dream then the movie is an enormous cheat, and it was too carefully crafted to just be a cheat.

          • Marie Brennan

            As I just said in a comment to , I’ve come around to being willing to accept that Cobb might never have left Limbo. I’d been reading so many more complicated analyses wherein the whole thing was a dream — and I’d gotten that suspicion planted in my head while watching it for the first time — that I was making it more twisty than it needed to be. (It’s twisty enough on its own, god knows.) I don’t think the movie settles it either way, and I don’t think it wanted to, but the end can be a dream without the whole thing having to be.

          • Marie Brennan

            Ah — I’ve figured out where my thinking got stuck. I began to suspect, early in the movie, that “reality” was a dream, and that was the model of the analyses I read immediately after, too. So I wasn’t considering that the dream-idea didn’t have to be a setup from earlier; it could just be that Cobb never leaves Limbo.

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