Inception is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Ocean’s Eleven with a few sequences directed by Michael Bay – in other words, a heist movie that involves sneaking into someone else’s dreams, but with lots of guns and blowing shit up. The first two parts are clever and pretty tightly done, but the movie’s gradual devolution as the heist progresses, combined with a hero/antihero protagonist, cut off the film’s upside for me.
Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an expert “extractor,” a mercenary spy who can infiltrate the dreams of other people and extract critical information. Cobb and his partner in crime, Arthur (an impressive turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) employ a dream-within-a-dream trick as their specialty but fail to extract information from Saito, a Japanese executive who then hires them for the biggest job of their careers – an “inception,” or planting a new idea in the target’s mind rather than extracting an existing one. Cobb returns to his father-in-law, who originally trained him in the field, to hire a new dream architect, (Ellen Page, largely wasted as a prop whose “architect” skills come up once in the final heist), and then travels to Kenya to add a chemist (Dileep Rao) who prepares the powerful sedatives used to put the target to sleep, also allowing for a crazy and somewhat pointless chase scene. When the team is assembled and begins attempting to extract the information, however, they encounter two problems: The target has been trained to fight potential extraction, and Cobb himself isn’t fully capable of leading the mission.
Neither my wife nor I found the plot confusing – everything’s pretty clearly explained, but never at such length that you want to go get a cup of coffee till they finish – but the very short cuts in the final third of the movie are incredibly distracting, and a horrible choice of colors made the final battle within the target’s mind impossible to watch. For some reason, that final dream level takes place in what looks like a military facility in a tundra, and everyone – team members and the armed “defenders” who are projections of the target’s subconscous – is dressed in white, usually with hats or hoods up. Other than Ellen Page, whose long hair identified her, everyone else looked alike.
Other decisions with the visual and sound effects brought far more benefits to the finished product. When the characters are falling in the first dream level, they lose gravity in the second, meaning Arthur first must fight the defenders in zero-G conditions (I cannot imagine how much fun that was for Levitt to film) and then concoct a solution to wake his comrades up without the benefit of an in-dream “kick” (usually a fall). The team also uses music to signal an imminent kick within the multiple layers of the dream, and the use of ever slower music the deeper the dream-level helped build tension while also clarifying the varying speeds of time within each dream.
The film seems to skirt the major problem with its central character – that is, that Cobb is no hero, but actually a selfish ass. He takes his team into a high-risk venture where the main reward is primarily his and the risk to the remaining team members is terrifying. He doesn’t inform his team that he’s having a technical problem that has a significant negative impact on their chances of success. Even within the mission, his personal motivation to reach the goal causes him to stay on course even when the risk of failure is increasing. We have to root for Cobb to succeed because he has two young kids at home who have lost their mother and have no immediate hope of seeing their father, but that alone can’t whitewash the fact that he’s put four other people at great risk to achieve his own personal ends.
Of course, the main question about Inception is how to interpret the ending – once again, spoiler alert – although my wife and I both found it fairly unambiguous; her remark after the film was that she was “waiting for the big twist” that never came. The director, Christopher Nolan, has refused to clarify the ending, stating instead that the important part is not whether the final scene represents reality or a constructed dream, but that Cobb has chosen this scenario as his reality, to leave his fugitive life behind and “return” to his children. He’s also pointed out that parents who see the movie are far more likely to accept the concluding scene as reality than non-parents because of our deep desire to see Cobb and his children reunited, which is undoubtedly true. However, we both felt that the only hint of ambiguity in that final scene was the fact that the camera goes black as Cobb’s totem wobbles but before it falls – and unless you want to argue that it’s a dream where Cobb has altered physics but didn’t show it to us until that very point, I don’t see how the totem wobbles without eventually falling. (I admit it was a visually arresting shot, however.) Had Nolan wanted to make it truly ambiguous, he could have ended the film before the kids turned to see Cobb, which would have made it consistent with his other dream-states in the film. Nolan took care of some superficial stuff to try to create confusion, like keeping the kids in similar clothes (although in different shoes), but somewhere along the line, there was a decision to give the ending a little bit of Hollywoodization so the audience at least gets the cathartic moment of Cobb and his kids reunited, but for us that airbrushing pushed the ending past any question of whether it was real.
I’m shifting my standards slightly here, however, to the detriment of Inception; by the standards of mainstream Hollywood films, Inception was intelligent and thoughtful, well-acted, and sharp-looking. But if you remove the frippery of rampant gunfire and chases and the sentimental ending, there’s a smarter movie underneath that had an action film grafted on to it – a successful commercial decision that kept the film from reaching its full artistic potential.
If you like the concept of entering another’s dreams or thoughts, check out the film I mentioned in the first paragraph, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the two or three best movies I’ve ever seen, where two ex-lovers attempt to forget each other by having their memories of their relationships professionally erased – until one changes his mind during the procedure.