Posted on July 23, 2010


After finally making it to the movie I’ve been salivating over since I first saw that bare-bones, secretive teaser trailer nine months ago, I can’t help but react first and foremost to what it seemed like everyone was talking about in the days after the release: how difficult the movie was to follow. Owen Gleiberman for EW wrote an entire blog post called “Am I the only one that didn’t get it?” and Lisa Schwarzbaum, for the same publication, wrote, “Beware the critic who claims the ability to analyze Inception thoughtfully after only one viewing.” Countless others tweeted or blogged that it was so confusing, such a puzzle, so difficult to not get lost.

I sure didn’t think so. And I say that not in order to gloat, “I’m so cool, I definitely got it,” I say it because I wonder if a lot of the people railing about confusion may just be rushing, thinking they’re supposed to say that, not taking a moment to reflect and realize it’s pretty straightforward.

I felt the logic was easy to follow, if you just pay attention and let yourself accept the sci-fi rules of the movie’s world. There are basic guidelines that make sense within the realm of the story. They hook people up using sedation and the wires and shit in suitcases. One person is the dreamer. Within that, others can enter, but everyone in the dream runs the risk of bringing projections of their self-conscious into play. You can wake up by dying, or from a “kick,” but you cannot just choose to wake up. Outside events in reality can affect the world of the dream (i.e. the train rattling, the bathtub Leo is pushed into, etc.).

So, to get to the meat of the movie, to the heist scene [which is what confuses people]: regardless of your view of the ending (which adds a 5th dream level if you believe everything that happened was within one dream of Cobb’s) there are 4 levels visited by the heist team. A.O. Scott, in a recent article about the criticism of the criticism of the movie, incorrectly stated that depending on your interpretation, there are either 3 or 4 dream levels. I corrected him, kind of pompously, you can find my comment in the readers’ comments section, #17.

They begin on the plane, and the 1st dream, in the rainy city, is Yusuf’s. He remains ‘awake’ within that dream, driving the van. The 2nd dream, in the hotel, is Arthur’s. He remains conscious within that one, organizing the ‘kick’ of the elevator shaft, and the rest go into the 3rd dream, the snowscape, which is Eames’ dream. From there, Fischer, Cobb, Ariadne, and Saito all go down to a 4th level, the limbo area, where no one really has dominion or owns the dream, but which Cobb can navigate well because he’s been there, so, in a sense, i think of it as pretty much his dream. 4 levels. Whether there is a 5th is up to each viewer, more on that shortly.

Then, the perceived ‘problem’ with the scene between Cobb and an aged Saito, the one we are teased with at the beginning of the film. Not too complicated either. We are told that duration of time in dreams is different, and the further down you are, the longer it feels. Essentially, an easy way to think of it: you can sleep for 25 minutes, but if you are in a dream within a dream within a dream, you could perceive it as 25 years’ time (or whatever the exact conversion scale they give was). Saito “died” and went to Limbo first, before Cobb, so he’s older, but they both have aged (people have complained the movie has a crack because Cobb hasn’t aged, but he has, look closer). Cobb tells Saito this isn’t reality, pulls him up, they shoot back up through all 4 levels (granted, after the others already have) and wake up on the plane. Boom.

JGL upstages DiCaprio. (click for image source)

Of course, what people are talking about now is the ending, and what it all meant. The thing to dispute, then, is the final conclusion. Was it all a dream, or what? Which of course, depending on what you decide, does change the whole movie. But it still doesn’t change the events that occurred, and the fact that it shouldn’t be too complex to order and make sense of them.

The way I see it, there is indeed significant evidence for the entire movie being a dream, if that’s how you want to take it. I just don’t like that option. The “it was all a dream” ending has been done, repeatedly. Twin Peaks, countless books, stories, movies, and even in a way, Lost (sure, it wasn’t all a dream… but half of the sixth season was). If it was all Cobb’s dream and he’s still under sedation at the end, it’s almost like, what was the point? Yes, people have said that having it all be a dream isn’t necessarily so boring, it doesn’t have to mean there was no point, it still speaks certain messages and delivers a profound statement, bla bla bla. Fine, but it would still be weak. That being said, if it wasn’t a dream, then having ruminated over the possibility that it was, it almost makes the movie look boring by comparison—a linear action film, albeit with exciting sci-fi content.

So, that explains why Nolan leaves the top spinning. He wants to mix things up a bit just to make it so that it wasn’t a conventional, wrapped-up Hollywood ending. He gives you the option, much as David Chase did with the infamous Sopranos ending (you choose whether Tony gets shot or not) to decide for yourself. But that also reminds us, or me at least, that anyone who says their interpretation is definitively correct is wrong. That’s the point—there shouldn’t be definitive evidence one way or the other. Someone over at, who has argued that the entire movie is a dream, has done so eloquently, and forcefully, but ruins it for me by writing: “I think that in a couple of years this will become the accepted reading of the film, and differing interpretations will have to be skillfully argued to be even remotely considered.” Too far. Your view is possible, perhaps, but so is the other view.

Nolan wants it ambiguous. I choose to view it as notbeing all a dream. It’s still an immensely entertaining, thoughtful, inventive movie without having an M. Night Shyamalan-style obligatory last-second twist.

But, still. The “dream” theory is plausible. The idea would be that Mal, when she jumps from the ledge to wake herself up, was correct, and she was still in a dream, and she wakes up. Ever since, Cobb has remained in that dream. This would be the “Mal was right all along” theory. Afer all, they had been deep in limbo, they were heavily sedated, perhaps many levels down. The evidence: The surreal moments throughout the movie that occur in what’s supposed to be reality. Specifically, the best possible example, in my mind: the fact Saito can just pull up and magically be right there when Cobb squeezes through the walls (another surreal, dreamlike moment) while being chased. Yes, he’s a rich, powerful businessman, but come on. How could he know where Cobb was? Then: certain key quotes from Mal, like when she tells Cobb his world is hardly real, his world of corporate people chasing him. Or when Cobb tells Ariadne “It’s only after we wake up that we realize anything was strange” (he’s actually speaking to us, under this theory, dropping us a hint, much like the way people who believe Tony died in the Sopranos finale refer as evidence to a quote from Bobby Bacala a few episodes earlier, when he tells Tony “you never see it coming”). Then, there’s the fact that when Cobb gets off the plane and walks past his team members, no one makes any verbal indication of what happened. Not that they would, sure, but there’s the chance he doesn’t even know any of them. Finally: When Cobb returns home at the end, the kids look to be seated outside in the exact same position, same age, same clothing, like they’ve been frozen in time and he can only see his children in that one memory he has. Then, finally, of course, the top. When the screen cut to black while it was still spinning, everyone in the theatre where I saw it collectively went: “AGGH!” Does that happen at every showing?

Now, against the “one big dream” theory: the top does start to wobble, indicating it’s going to fall. The children, in the credits, are listed as two different sets of actors. So the two kids at the end are meant to have aged. And if every character is an extension of Cobb’s self-conscious, how to explain someone like Ariadne, a fully-formed human being from out of nowhere, based on noone Cobb knows in reality? Of course, this brings us back to the question of the real reality, i.e. if the entire movie is a dream, then how much of it is based in fact? That is, is Cobb an actual dream extractor, or that’s all a fiction? Does he completely invent that entire idea within his dream? Did his wife really kill herself? Does he even have kids? Is he a normal businessman just coming home from a routine trip at the end? It just seems a bit much for me.

I see those past two as the main two theories, with the biggest followings. It’s either “straightforward, the inception worked, Cobb reunited with kids” or “all a dream, Cobb hasn’t woken up.” But there are now additional, even more nuanced suggestions and theories along with the big one. I’ve seen theories that perhaps it’s all a dream, but a dream starting from when Cobb visits Yusuf’s lab and tries out the sedation, because after that he goes into the bathroom to spin his top and we don’t get to see if it stops or not. Those people are relying too much on the totem thing. It’s over-the-top (no pun intended) to use every single time the top is spun as a sign of potential movie-altering meaning just because we don’t see whether it stops or not.

Another theory is that the entirety of it is a dream up until the plane ride when he wakes up, but the dream is not Cobb still dreaming from when he went under too deep with Mal, it’s an inception, and Cobb is the subject; his friends, or coworkers, or whatever, have designed this entire scheme as a way to plant the idea in Cobb that Mal’s death wasn’t his fault, and to get over it. Also a bit much for my taste. As I’ve said, my choice is that Cobb is a dream extractor, he performs the inception on Fischer successfully, wakes up, Saito makes the call, he reunites with his kids. Call it the easy way, but I believe the film backs it up. And I have to add a point I haven’t seen made elsewhere: if it was all a dream but he wakes up on the plane, and he doesn’t know those people, then why does Saito nonetheless look right at him and then make a call? It’s too much of a coincidence. If you’d counter “Oh, well, the call is unrelated” then how did Cobb know, within his dream, enough to imagine that Saito was going to make a call? He looks at Cobb, picks up the phone, and Cobb gets past security. Seems pretty cut-and-dry to me.

Okay. So that’s handled, now I can get on to the more typical fare of movie reviews when the movie isn’t open to about nine different interpretations. In case it’s not clear, I loved Inception. It’s a puzzle, sure, there may be holes, according to some, and it sparks debate that can get obsessive and annoying. But all of this just makes it a grander achievement, and if we evaluate it strictly on how entertaining it is to watch, it’s an ‘A’ movie, it has to be. Even people who aren’t satisfied or impressed by it overall can’t try and claim they were bored or miserable watching it. I’ve heard “clunky,” I’ve heard “messy,” and even, “goofy” but it’s never not compelling. The varying interpretations do make it more difficult to champion as a “favorite movie,” but it’ll be interesting to see whether, like the Sopranos finale, it always remains a “up to your own interpretation” film, or if the general cinema public comes to a consensus one way or the other (as everyone eventually did with Memento).

In terms of the cast: for me, it was all Joseph-Gordon Levitt, all the time. He steals the show. I’ve read that DiCaprio is “wooden” in it, and I suppose that’s fair, but not even necessarily in a bad way. Leo is fine in the role, he does what he needs to do, but we need to acknowledge that it isn’t the type of role that calls for any Oscar-worthy expressiveness. He’s supposed to be an emotionally cut-off, private guy, and he plays that well. Also, it’s a movie in which the characters are dreaming 60% (or the entirety, depending on your view) of the time. So really they should all be rather “wooden,” and in fact JGL does it best. The kid has grown up since 3rd Rock, Brick, and 10 Things (all fine shows and movies, don’t get me wrong) into an adult actor. He’s a star, and in Inception he’s alluring and believable without his usual mainstays of cute, boyish charm. Arthur is pretty deadpan, and it’s perfectly mature.

The supporting men are all great, too. As Eames, Tom Hardy is fine, and Cillian Murphy, who I’ve always liked, also doesn’t have to do too much. Of course, we can never say enough good things about Michael Caine.

The women are terrific. Ellen Page seems to get a lot of shit for being a “tomboy” or “asexual” but I don’t see it. She’s quite good-looking, her character is very real (she strikes me as the only person on the “team” who is rooted in the real world, perhaps another argument against the notion that she’s just a projection of Cobb’s subconscious), and there is good chemistry developed subtly between her and Arthur — though the movie does a terrific, restrained job of not wasting any time with that beyond the cute, exciting moment when Arthur says “quick, give me a kiss” to distract her. As for Marion Cotillard: wow. She’s breathtaking, isn’t she? Mal—despite that obvious name—is the central person of the movie, in a sense. She’s the most important figure, since the entire question of what is real and what isn’t rests on her. Inception won’t get any Oscar noms for acting, I expect, but if it does it should be Cotillard.

It’s not the acting that makes a movie like this compelling, anyway. It’s the action, the intellectual challenge, the twists and turns. In The Departed, Leo is terrific because of the tension and turmoil he brings to the character. It is quite literally his performance that makes him so good to watch. In Inception, all of the history and misery comes from the character already, or his backstory, not the performance. Any glib leading man type could have played Cobb (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Ethan Hawke, Matthew Fox, Adrien Brody, Affleck even) but Leo does it as well as could be expected. Again, it’s not a role that provides much chance for wowing us. What wows us is the story, the ideas presented, the psychology of it all, and the ride.

On the negative side, I must say, the similarities to Shutter Island are uncanny. It’s okay to borrow, sure, but it’s a bit too much. Leo is playing virtually the same character—troubled past, wife who died questionably, guilt over the death, he even has the same facial hair. And there’s even—groan—the same exact shot of him looking into a mirror, hunched over the sink, splashing water onto his face to try and pull himself together.

All of the spirited, engaged fervor over the ending, and praise isn’t to suggest that this is a movie everyone should love, and if they don’t, they don’t know good cinema. Quite the opposite— I’m not surprised at all there have been some tired, unimpressed reviews. When we walked out of the theater, I was giddy with excitement, wanted to parse it all out, but my buddy that went with me was silent. I said, “What did you think?” and he said, “Eh.” I kind of couldn’t believe it, but then later he wrote this in an e-mail: “What bothered me was that they stretched this huge scene [he means the heist, the 4 stacked levels] for about 75 minutes. you couldn’t catch your breath and digest what was happening. it almost seemed elitist, like, Well, we’re too important and this story is too amazing to even stop, so keep up or we’re leaving you behind, cause this shit is so awesome.”

He makes a good point, though I don’t feel as annoyed as he does, and I clearly liked it a great deal more. But the movie is so flashy, so slick and eye-popping and wondrous that it’s easy to get wrapped up in it and just conclude that it was terrific. Then, afterward, you digest it and think, Well, what did it actually give us? If it was all Cobb’s dream, then what was the point? If it wasn’t, then it was just a linear popcorn action flick (granted, an extremely gripping one) that, once you’ve taken it all in, was an entertainment but leaves no lasting questions or lessons.

Regardless, I loved the movie and I’d like to see it again, though with ticket prices at a steep $12 I’m not sure I’d feel good about paying twice. We’ll see.

I do have to say that a special bonus was the preview for the Affleck/Jeremy Renner/Jon Hamm upcoming Boston crime flick, The Town. It instantly replaced Inception as my new movie to pine over until it comes out. Nice timing.

So, before I go out, to summarize my general thoughts once more: Ending: Could go either way—Nolan gives you that choice—but my choice is that it was all real and Cobb is in reality at the close of the movie. Acting: JGL steals the show, but everyone is good. DiCaprio is passable. Best scene in the movie: JGL’s gravity-bending fight in the hallway of the hotel. Originality: High marks. It borrows stylistic devices from The Matrix, 2001, and scores of movies, sure, but it’s still something very new and exciting to watch. Something terrific.

Posted in: DBR Blog