Last Wednesday, on a whim, I decided to watch a movie in a theater (crazy, I know). I wanted to see what the fuss was about this new Christopher Nolan film exploring the fuzzy line between perception and reality,
Inception is a good movie that has a somewhat complicated plot and very impressive effects. But I completely failed to understand what people seemed to think was so “whoa” about it. I also have some thoughts about the closing shot. It’s hard to say much more without giving away the plot, so…
If you haven’t seen either or both of these movies, and you don’t want to know what happens, you should probably stop reading.
Here is a space so you can avert your gaze.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
I think the main shortcoming of Inception (this is not to say that it wasn’t good, but just something it could have done better) was that it failed to produce any “oh, now I get it” moments. This is because of two things:
1. Dreams in Inception are insanely realistic. Real dreams are utter nonsense when considered in the light of day.
2. Arguably, the realism of the dreams in the film is necessary to keep the audience engaged and convinced.
I think 2 is the strongest possible justification for 1. But 2 is utterly squandered by the absence of any hidden dream layers, except for the relatively brief introduction of Saito. I think the movie would have been much more mind-bending and reality-altering if it had revealed the plot and the shape of the world in a novel way, like Memento did. Of course you can’t keep making the same movie over and over again, but I still feel as though Inception was a charismatic, dazzling movie that happened to be about dreams whereas Memento was a more subtle and careful study of memory and reality.
At the very end of Inception, Cobb spins his totem and greets his children, but we never see if the totem falls or not (which obviously has implications for whether the world is real or not). I think it doesn’t matter whether it falls or not, for the following reasons:
1. It is obviously meant to be a cliffhanger, so that the audience is supposed to wonder. There isn’t really a meaningful “right answer.”
2. The totem might only be useful for distinguishing reality from someone else’s dream (at least, this is all that is offered to us explicitly in the film). If Cobb is himself dreaming all of what we see, the totem might not be diagnostic. However, he does use it after waking in Yusuf’s basement, so it’s not clear what the totem really does.
3. Cobb explained his totem to Ariadne halfway through the film. From this point on, it is no longer safe to assume that his totem is diagnostic. Arthur also mentions how often Cobb does things he tells others not to do, suggesting that Cobb’s totem is a pretty poorly-kept secret.
If we take 1 to be true, then the answer is of no real interest because the movie is not supposed to give us an answer, so anything we come up with is just our own imagination. If we take 2 or 3 to be true, then a world in which the totem falls is indistinguishable from a world in which it does not fall, again rendering the answer meaningless.
In particular, the confusion regarding the totem in reason 2 is representative of the plot holes in Inception. A lot of the questions about the movie seems to arise not from any deliberate secrecy or a particularly rich world, but simply inconsistencies introduced by the insane number of plot devices and machinations. Things like kicks, limbo, and totems are all used repeatedly but inconsistently, which naturally invites a lot of questions.
To my mind, Inception is fundamentally a film about Cobb’s love, guilt, and regret. It is about his struggle to come to terms with his wife’s death. It’s only sort of about dreams, and its treatment of the former topics is better than of the latter, appearances aside. My favorite part of Inception was actually when Cobb explains to Mal that he had realized his dream of living a life with her, and the audience is shown how old the two really were at the end of their time in limbo (in contrast to what was presumably Cobb’s idealized recollections). I heard some people in the theater say “aw.” It was rather touching.