[Image credit: collider.com]

   Have you seen John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink (1986)?  I ask because I want to you cast your mind back to Molly Ringwald’s Andie: the attention that was given to her sartorial choices, her purported design talent, her quirky fashion statements—and then the heart-stopping horror when you realised she had taken not one, but two perfectly nice dresses (one was even a little vintage number), ripped them up, and turned them into a formless high-collared sack, that dripped from her shoulders at disturbing angles, and which was frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, hideous.  Perhaps this crime against fashion did not outrage you in quite the same way that it did me; for me, that dress has served as an important lesson that sometimes films are unable to visually deliver on the promises they make.

   So what about the promise made in Inception?  The one about “the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that have never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world…”  Inception has been called out for using “architectural clichés, dredged up from Hollywood’s collective memory bank”12; for promising a world of pure creation and delivering a collage of hand-me-down compositions—artfully stitched together, but pre-owned nonetheless.  Dream levels composed of downtown L.A., a bland hotel, a Bond-esque snow fort…  Even Cobb’s home in limbo would be ‘impossible’ in the real world not because of any physical limits, but more likely because of residential zoning codes.

(You must admit, the brutally modernist skyscrapers in Cobb’s limbo are a tad unimaginative.)
[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]


(‘Ascending and Descending’ (left) is MC Escher’s famous rendition of the Penrose steps optical illusion.
'Waterfall' (right) is based on a similar illusion.)

[Image credit: Jill Britton]


   But assessing the inventiveness of Inception based on the creativeness of its architecture is hardly useful.  What is more important is how this architecture has been used.  While Arthur’s Penrose stairs may be a neat trick—as is Ariadne’s Möbius strip Paris—there is a reason why Nolan doesn’t indulge in fantastical architecture: the dreams need to feel real.  “We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism,” Nolan says.  “We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being the real world.  So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real.”13  Naturalistic lighting, familiar settings, contemporary clothing… even slow-motion is used not as a stylistic device but as a narrative element and for world-building.  “It’s fantasy,” explains actress Ellen Page, “but instead of feeling like some strange surreal world it feels very honest.”14

(Cinematographer Wally Pfister prefers a naturalistic approach) [Image credit: collider.com]


   Of course, this honesty only goes so far: the film never tries to achieve perfect verisimilitude—that would be at odds with its carefully-constructed ambiguities.  “When you’re in it, it feels real,” warns Cobb, and while Inception may seem honest on the surface, it does not try to hide its artfulness.  Costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, tried to create a timeless corporate atmosphere which was “definitely forward thinking, without being futuristic”15.  Even in the waking world, the characters can’t be pinned to a specific time, or even a specific place; events could be unfolding either years or just minutes from our current time.  Each character also has his or her own palette that follows them into the dream: Ariadne’s bright red jacket, Cobb’s sultry greys, Eames’ loose-fitting colour-combos, Mal’s bruised purples and deep reds.  In the final scene, Cobb’s children may have aged but they are still wearing similar colours to their younger selves, keeping the ending open to interpretation.

   Kurland’s costumes are also important visual clues for distinguishing the dreams layers: rough-and-ready leather jackets in the first layer, crisp suits in the second, camouflage snow-gear in the third.  “We decided early on that we didn’t want to do any sort of formalist differences, tinting of the image or this, that or the other,” Nolan says, talking about the difficulties of distinguishing between the intersecting layers.  “So what we decided to do was construct visual differences in each actual world, so it’s raining or it’s a night interior or a snowscape.  The whole movie rests on a massive amount of cross-cutting in the last act, so you want to be able to identify, from a close-up that you just jump into, exactly where you are.”16

(Dreams; now colour-coded for your convenience.) [Image credit: screenshots from Inception (2010)]

   You also get a sense of character from each of the dream levels in the Fischer job: the crumbling decay of Cobb’s inner world; the clean efficiency in Arthur’s dreams, with their geometric patterns and sharp lines; Eames’ snow-clad fortress, where the thief proves he always has an ace up his sleeve.  Early in the film, Mal comments that a Bacon painting “Looks like Arthur’s taste”: our first clue that dreaming is immersive, subjective—it’s also possibly a clue that Arthur, if only unconsciously, understands the fragility of Cobb’s psyche.  The dream worlds lend themselves to poetic storytelling without disrupting the hyperrealism.

   Beyond the necessities of storytelling, the mise-en-scène in Inception teases the viewer.  The more subtle nods to famous con-artists and chess-masters may go unnoticed by the majority of viewers, but other clues were meant to be found.  Hans Zimmer’s reverberating score mimics the slowing down of time experienced in dreams: “Just for the game of it,” he says, “all the music in the score is subdivisions and multiplications of the tempo of the Edith Piaf track”17 used throughout the film as a countdown to the end of the dream.  While early viewers were patting themselves on the back for noticing, Zimmer was surprised how long it took them to figure it out, claiming it “wasn’t supposed to be a secret.”18  Likewise, the conspiracy theory about Cobb’s wedding ring was effectively confirmed by Kurland in an interview.19

   The ‘realness’ of the dream sequences, the characters’ spatiotemporal ambiguities, the aspersions cast on Cobb’s totem—all of this draws to a point in the final shot, where the questioning of one man’s existence takes the shape of a silver top spinning, spinning, spinning in place.  It is an image that has become famous.  Above and beyond any gripes about missed opportunities to showcase architectural prowess, this is the visual crux of the film, the throwing down of the gauntlet, the moment that prompts fascination, frustration, admiration and analysis.  This is where the game begins.  Rather than produce a surrealist vision of dreaming, Nolan concretises the dream state, playing with perception until the lines between reality and dreaming appear as seamless as Penrose’s infinite staircase.  He masterfully keeps us guessing, purposefully holding off on giving an answer one way or the other right to the very end of the credits.

[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]

   Inception, Nolan maintains, is “a movie that doesn’t try to bamboozle the audience continuously….it really tries to draw the audience into the logic of the world and lets the audience in on the joke, if you like.”20  While the visual mixed messages may be confusing, they do not inhibit meaning; rather, they open the film to multiple readings.  Rather than considering the film as a headache-inducing infinite loop of contradictions, another metaphor might be Escher’s rendering of a grinning skull nestled in a dark pupil: both obvious and oblique, in the end it is up to you to decide what it means.


» “Just be back before the kick.”



12 Hawthorne 2010, ‘‘Inception’ dreams big, unlike its architect’, Los Angeles Times.

13 Heuring 2010, ‘Dream Thieves’, American Cinematographer.

14 Boucher 2010, ‘Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’- Hollywood’s first existential heist film’, Hero Complex, Los Angeles Times.

15 Laverty 2010, ‘Inception: Jeffrey Kurland Costume Q&A’, Clothes on Film.

16 Strauss 2010, ‘10 Years After its ‘Inception’ Leonardo DiCaprio Personifies Director Christopher Nolan’s Dream Manipulator’, Daily News, Los Angeles.

17 Itzkofe 2010, ‘Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score’, Arts Beat, New York Times.

18 Itzkofe 2010, ‘Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score’, Arts Beat, New York Times.

19 Laverty 2010, ‘Inception: Jeffrey Kurland – Follow Up Costume Q&A’, Clothes on Film.

20 Itzkofe 2010, ‘A Man and His Dream: Christopher Nolan and ‘Inception’’, Arts Beat, New York Times.

[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]

   I think perhaps the biggest problem people have with Inception is that they over-think it.  It’s easy to do, harder not to do, but it’s not necessarily the best way to approach the film.  Inception poses a lot of questions that it’s not interested in answering, and that frustrates people: they expect answers, and don’t like it when they aren’t given any—or worse, are given too many.  And Inception has many possible answers, all with something to support it, and something to refute it.  That’s what makes it so much fun.  It’s personal, because it’s malleable; it’s malleable because it was made from very personal ideas.  We all dream, we all grieve, we all question.  You take what you want, because you put in what you want.  If it’s nothing more than a romance tragique, then what of it?  If it’s an elaborate therapy session, then it’s well-done.  If it’s a treatise on the art of filmmaking, then it’s well-played.  If, in the end, it’s just a heist film, then it’s a fun one.  But I think, au cœur, it’s the emotions that make it work, the strength of guilt we feel when we fail others, and fail ourselves, and the lengths we will go to to put it all back together right… And maybe that’s where the frustration lies: if we can argue that none of it was real, then what was the point of it all?  Who won?  Well, at the end of the day, Cobb won, no matter what.  Because he didn’t turn around to watch whether the top fell or not.


“Come back.” «


[Image credit: collider.com]

   Since its release critics have been fumbling for the right words to describe Inception.  “Cerebral sci-fi”1.  “Dream-noir knockout”2.  “Surrealist heist-thriller”3.  “Dream invasion action epic”4… The list goes on.  My personal favourite is “the thoughtful popcorn movie”5.

Some loved it.  Some despised it.  Some smiled nervously and said, ‘But gee whiz, weren’t those special effects something?’

(Don’t worry Cobb, even I’m not sure if ‘thoughtful popcorn movie’ is a back-handed compliment or not. [Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)])

   Yet, whether you adore it, hate it, like it but aren’t sure why, or still haven’t quite figured out where you stand, there’s no doubt that Inception has become a household name. It has spawned catchphrases, internet memes, two books and numerous parodies.

(Let’s face it: once The Simpsons makes a parody episode, you know you’ve made it in this generation’s pop-culture.[Image credit: indiewire.com])

   Praise and censure for the film abounds.  The weeks surrounding its release were awash with pun-encrusted reviews, mostly flattering.  Then came a second wave, full of doubts and disappointments.  Alternatively labelled visionary and original, or derivative and nonsensical, it remains to be seen where Inception stands now that the waters have calmed.

   Inception is certainly a complex film.  The narrative alone is a bit of a doozy. (For those of you who don’t venture out often from under your rock.)  But it is the ideas lying underneath which have prompted much tongue-wagging and head-scratching.

   Legend has it that Nolan first came up with the concept as a sleep-deprived college student.  Sporadic light sleep led to experiments in lucid dreaming.  He tried his hand at manipulating his dreams: “I would do something like take a book off the shelf,” he says, “and open it to see if I can read the page. And I can.”6

   Eschewing scientific research, Nolan based his work on his own experiences and experiments with dreaming.  It seems that if he hit on anything scientifically ‘accurate’ (such as the unconscious mind’s incorporation of stimuli, the emotionality of dreams, or the muscle spasms known as ‘hypnic jerks’ that are capable of waking a person from a dream), then it was because these are familiar human experiences.

[Image credit: collider.com]

   This is a common link amongst the many ideas that Nolan has pulled into this film: they are very relatable.  There is no quoting of scientific theory or philosophical concepts.  References abound to the highs and lows of cinema, art and literature; and yet the audience need not consciously recognise any of these undercurrents if, in Nolan’s words, “they can feel from their own experience.”7

   Thus, the ultimate climax of the film occurs in the romantic subplot.  Dipping in and out of Cobb’s tragic past creates an emotional thread, weaving between the cons and concepts.  The question of whether the whole movie has been a dream, or not, becomes moot in the face of Cobb’s catharsis.  Letting go of old regrets and beginning again is an easily graspable sentiment, perhaps more so than any Cartesian anxiety provoked by the film.

   This doomed romance, déjà disparu as it is, has developed into a marked feature of Nolan’s oeuvre.  Indeed, he is an auteur of specific themes: the fallibility of the human mind, dream-states, fractured and embedded narratives, grief, puzzles.  These ideas occur again and again in Nolan’s films.  Yet, while Inception may not be saying anything original, this does not mean that the film isn’t presenting itself in an original way.

   Select critics have panned Inception as derivative and genre-bound.  Melodramatic.  Cold-hearted.  Too complex.  Devoid of scientific fact.  “A movie devoted to its own workings and to little else.”8

   Whether it is worthy to be studied as a glorious example of the septième art is hardly within my bounds to say.  I must state: I love Inception.  This is a love that has grown over time, with frequent care and regular watering.  I was slightly underwhelmed after my first viewing in the cinema, completely enraptured by my second, and after that it was a slippery slide into cooing over the shooting script and pre-ordering the limited-edition Zimmer score on transparent vinyl because, well, how could I pass that up?  Yet even I would never dream of calling Inception a perfect film.

   What I would call it, instead, is an intensely ‘fun’ film.

   Nolan has likened it alternately to a puzzle, a video game, and a rollercoaster.  It’s a film that is playful and which demands to be ‘played’ with.  Self-conscious in its deceptions, Inception blurs the lines of fantasy, realism, and cinematic ‘reality’.  Its detailed mise-en-scène acts as breadcrumbs on the trail, pointing to clues and hidden answers.  Yet it leaves enough gaps and uncertainties for myriad interpretations.  Ultimately, meaning-making is left to the viewer.

   Like the dreamer who brings his subconscious into the world of the dream, the viewer has an active role to play in Inception.  But the scope of that role is left to the individual.  You can sit back and enjoy the rollercoaster ride; or you can step off the map and let yourself get lost in the maze.

   ”You’re in the head of characters who are getting lost in what they’re doing and getting lost in the complexity of the activity they’re engaged in,” Nolan says. “[T]he people who [watch Inception] trying to understand everything or feeling like they’re meant to understand everything — like the film is some kind of test — they are the people who understand the film the least and get frustrated with it.  As with any other film, you just let it wash over you and carry you along with it. Then you’ll get everything you need to get.”9


» “It’s time.”



1 Russell 2010, ‘How Inception’s Astonishing Visuals Came to Life’, Wired.

2 Thill 2010, ‘Is Inception the Sci-Fi Film of the Year?’, Wired.

3 Puig 2010, ‘You definitely won’t sleep through complex thriller ‘Inception’’, USA Today.

4 Puig 2010, ‘You definitely won’t sleep through complex thriller ‘Inception’’, USA Today.

5 Hart 2010, ‘Review: Smart, Sinewy Inception Injects Action Into Dreams’, Wired.

6 Breznican 2010, ‘With ‘Inception’, Chris Nolan’s head games continue’, USA Today.

7 Taubin 2010, ‘Dream Work’, Film Comment.

8 Denby 2010, ‘Dream Factory’, The New Yorker.

9 Truitt 2011, ‘Christopher Nolan keeps bending moviegoers’ minds’, USA Today.


[Image credit: screenshots from Inception (2010)]

   There is a strange mutability in Nolan’s neo-noir mind-bender: it tilts between a shallow plot-driven caper film and an emotionally-scarred romantic tragedy, spinning from fast-paced action to drawn-out melodrama, from dry humour to overwhelming grief—both a chart-topper and academically respected, it refuses to be pigeon-holed, shifting restlessly between genres and moods.  While the cleverly-crafted plot is in part to blame, the more significant proportion of its changeable nature lies at the feet of its characters: half-formed and shadowy, they allude to pasts that are never explored, provide vague motivations for their actions, and generally seem bound in archetypal role-plays that service the maturation of the more multifaceted protagonist, Dom Cobb.

   These gaps in the diegesis, the sense of stories unknown or untold, is reflected in the naming of the characters.  Of the eight principle characters, only two are given full names and fragments of a past—three, if one includes Mal, though her name and past are only really known in relation to those of her husband.  The rest are identified by single-names only, often ambiguously identified as a first name or surname.  The information that can be gleaned about their pasts and personalities is minimal; mostly it is left inferred, hinted at through their attire, symbolism in their dreams, or the idiosyncratic totems they have chosen to keep themselves from losing grip on their reality—and even these can’t always be correctly identified, as in Eames’ case.  Furthermore, all of the principle characters have a secondary identifier: a moniker based on their role in the heist, which introduces clearly their functionality within the dreams, over and above their persona.  Indeed, it was these titles—the Extractor, the Point Man, the Architect, the Forger, the Chemist, the Tourist, the Mark, and the Shade—which were used on the promotional posters for the film, cementing early on in the viewer’s mind the more abstract natures of these characters.

[Image credit: inception.wikia]

   This conceptual underpinning is reinforced by the thematic ‘meaning’ behind many of the names.  Ariadne is glaringly obvious: the mythological heroine leading Cobb, and the audience, through the labyrinths of the dream levels.  Mal is similarly laden: anyone familiar with a Romance language—be it French, Spanish, Italian, even Latin itself—would recognise that calling a character ‘Mal’ is almost equivalent in menace as ‘von Doom’.  Though her full name is Mallorie (and with DiCaprio’s pronunciation you could even end up thinking he is calling her ‘Moll’, as I confusingly did upon my first viewing), the hint of danger is still there; taking a cue from the character’s own linguistic heritage, ‘mal’ in French can alternatively mean ‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘sick’, and  ‘wrong’.  Eames shares his name with a pair of brothers: designers, who made contributions to both architecture and fine art.  Robert ‘Bobby’ Fischer was a renowned chess player.  There is some contention over the meaning behind Cobb’s name, but it is interesting to note that he shares it with a character from one of Nolan’s earlier feature films, Following (1998), which also featured a thief.  These are only some of the connections which suggest that these characters are playing larger roles than merely those of a team executing a heist.

(Eames & Arthur) [Image credit: screenshots from Inception (2010)]

   If the characters of Inception are taken as embodiments of abstract ideas, then a whole new wealth of meaning concerning their interactions, and particularly their interactions with Cobb, is opened up to the viewer.  Often remarked upon is the polarity between Arthur and Eames, and their relationship can be read as a metaphor for right brain/left brain interactions.  Eames is the right-brain: creative, intuitive, emotionally-attuned, and concerned with the ‘big picture’ ideas.  Arthur is his opposite: analytical, logical, detail-oriented and capable of deductive reasoning.  These two play active roles in developing the strategy of ‘inception’, with Eames taking the more creative approach and Arthur focusing on the details of the plan, leaving Cobb to play opposite them as the referee.

EAMES: All right, well, try this, um… "My father accepts that
I want to create for myself, not follow in his footsteps.”

COBB: That might work.

ARTHUR: Might? We’re gonna need to do a little better than ‘might’.

EAMES: Thank you for your contribution, Arthur.

ARTHUR: Forgive me for wanting a little specificity, Eames.

COBB: Inception’s not about being specific. When we get inside
his mind, we’re 
gonna to have to work with what we find.

   Critics have noted that the characters in Inception have few motivations for their actions beyond those which help Cobb on his way to confronting the ghostly form of his late wife, Mal, the projection of his grief and guilt.  While their initial involvement in the Fischer job is blithely waved away with assumptions of self-interest (greed, loyalty, a desire to create, etc), within the final mind-heist, the impetus changes. “Their actions all arise from the need to keep doing what they must to sustain the dreams and later from the need to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems that seem to violate the rules they have previously known.  Why they need the money, whom they go home to when off-duty, how they got into this business, and all the other conventions of Hollywood characterization, are simply ignored.”21

     Curiously, Inception contains no villain.  The mooks the team fights in the dream levels are faceless ‘projections’, mere snippets of emotional intent; likewise, Mal, the more persistent threat, is a manifestation of Cobb’s own emotional unrest.

[Image credit: screenshots from Inception (2010)]

  In fact, it follows that Cobb himself is the true enemy, or at least the parts of his psyche that he is trying to repress—the film’s climax is reached not when Fischer is successfully incepted, but when Cobb admits to the guilt that has been tormenting his sleeping mind and relinquishes the poisoned memory of his wife.  This action mirrors almost exactly the process of individuation in Jungian psychoanalysis; hardly a coincidence in a film about dreams.  Mal is the femme fatale Shade: a wild and lawless embodiment of Cobb’s darkest traits, weaknesses, desires and shortcomings.  The rest of the characters fit almost perfectly into the other core Jungian archetypes22: Ariadne is the anima, a female representation of Cobb’s ‘true’ self; Arthur is the Hero—loyal, selfless, honest—who possesses all the traits that Cobb wishes to possess; Eames is a Trickster, a shape-shifter and deceiver; Fischer is a Child; Saito a Father; even Miles plays the Wise Old Man who first steered Cobb onto his path and later helped to put him back on the right track.  Following this reading, the entire film becomes a single elaborate dream, simultaneously created and experienced by Cobb, a psychological journey of self-acceptance and emotional maturation.

   The remarkable thing about Inception is that it does not matter whether you accept this interpretation.  While some critics have argued that the ‘all a dream’ hypothesis provides for the ‘better’ movie, negating criticisms about one-dimensional characters, quick-jump editing and cheesy genre tropes in the ‘real world’23, the gaps in the story really allow the viewer the build their own interpretations, to fill the dream world of the film with their own experiences and resolutions, validating both the film as a science fiction crime thriller as well as a psychological odyssey.  Nolan was careful to preserve Inception’s ambiguities: he creatively balances visual clues with the deliberate redaction of facts, creating a complex world in which the viewer must actively construct their own meaning, their own story.


» “She wants me to be back down there with her.”



21 Bordwell & Thompson 2010, ‘INCEPTION’Or, Dream a Little Dream with a Dream with Me’, davidbordwell.

22 Knight 2010, ‘What If Inception Were Analyzed By Dream Experts?’, CinemaBlend.

23 Johnson 2011, ‘Inception and Philosophy: It Was All Just a Dream’, Psychology Today.

[Image credit: collider.com]

   After watching Inception once you could be forgiven for thinking that you had seen it a hundred times before.  It’s a film that reverberates, both within the confines of its own world as well as with everything that has come before it—all those texts that buttress the walls of its labyrinthine narrative.  Inception is as much a film about setting up expectations as it is about disrupting them, inviting the viewer to recognise the film’s conceits before poking gentle fun at them.

   Nolan has always maintained that Inception is a heist film at its core, and it certainly has all the generic trappings of one.  Cobb is the Danny Ocean of a rag-tag crew of specialists who plot out an intricate confidence trick in order to crack a safe; the twist, of course, is that they’re not trying to steal anything, but rather leave something behind.  Like Humphrey Bogart stepping out of a grimy noir thriller, these slick heroes are unafraid to cheat and con in order to achieve their goals.  Any qualms about the shaky moral ground of Saito’s proposal to incept Fischer are quickly glossed over with a ‘for the greater good’ subclause.

   Indeed, taking into account the car chases, explosions, casual bloodless carnage, and the fact that all the black-hats have been taking lessons from the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy (except where plot-convenient), you could have been forgiven for walking out of the theatre feeling like you’d just seen a Bond film.

[Image credit: collider.com]

   Inception contains many an eyebrow-raising action cliché moment: from the opening ‘Pants Positive Safety’ shot, to questionable ‘silencers’, quick bloodless deaths, even Saito’s teeth-pin-pulling stunt with the grenade in the snow fort dream layer.  Inception does not shy away from the improbable and unrealistic action tropes that have made household names of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  They’re all there, all the action blockbuster moments that we know and (depending on personal taste, I suppose, but who doesn’t get a kick out of watching bad-ass action heroes?) love. 

   Yet, they are there precisely because we, as an audience, expect them to be there.  They are familiar, comfortable, and time-worn.  This does not mean that we do not notice them, just that most viewers are happy to suspend their disbelief and let their eyes slip over such disingenuousness—just like the unwitting mark, Fischer.  Thus the film’s cyclical playfulness with generic convention: the film contains these tropes because they are expected, and they are familiar because we have seen them countless times before on the silver screen.

COBB: “Dreams, they feel real while we’re in
them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we
realize something was actually strange.”

   The entire film teeters on the edge of cinematic reality, leaning back on generic expectation before tipping forwards into the void of playful deconstruction.  Nolan may be shameless with his tropes, but he is not uncritical.  Take a gander at the Inception page at TVTropes.com—almost every trope is undercut by a short disclaimer: ‘exaggerated’, ‘played with’, ‘subverted’, ‘surprisingly averted’, ‘played straight-ish’.  Conventional tropes, which we are used to ignoring while watching films, become the indicators of the ‘unreality’ of dreams (Although, depending on how you argue it, the film’s moments of ‘reality’ are just as trope-laden. The Mombasa scene is a particular fly in the ointment).

   This constant setting up and falling back comes to a head in the final shot.  Are we to believe that Cobb has woken up?  Or is he still dreaming?  Where do we draw the line?  Is there a line?

   I would argue that there is not.

   Leaving aside Cartesian anxieties about reality and existence, Inception plays with the notion of dreams and reality by presenting the film as itself another dream: one shared by the director and the audience.  Dream-reality and film-reality are interchangeable.  The confluence between dreams and cinema is a notion that has been around since the invention of the moving image and many filmmakers have tried their hand at creating dream-states: Luis Buñuel, Alain Resnais, David Lynch.  Yet, rather than presenting the surrealism of dreaming, Inception’s pet notion is that Cobb’s team creates dreams in the way a director creates a film: making it just real enough to be believable, but leaving room for artistic licence and the inclusion of emotion-triggering symbolism.

(Critics have compared Inception to Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961), a film which Nolan claims he did not see until after Inception's release.)

                                                                                             [Image credit: lisathatcher.wordpress])

   “I think there are a lot of connections between what Leo [DiCaprio] is engaged in—what his character is capable of doing and how he puts the team of people together to do it—and the process of making a largescale Hollywood film. There are a lot of striking similarities.” says Nolan.  “They’re not things I tried to be aware of when I was shooting it, because I didn’t want to be self-conscious about making a film about film-making.  But in writing about a process that interested me, it naturally became analogous to my process.”10

[Image credit: collider.com]

   Critics were quick to hiss at Inception’s clichés, borrowed from countless films across a variety of genres.  While some have argued that “being original by creating a pastiche made up of individual clichés is the whole movie”11, I think it is more interesting to note how Nolan has cleverly incorporated these clichés into the logic of the film.  The notion of ‘reality’ becomes rolled up in ideas of cinematic verisimilitude and the feel of authenticity, more than any hypercritical quest for veracity.

   While wandering through the dream-streets of Paris, Cobb lets the audience in on the tricks of the trade.  Inception thus becomes self-conscious of its deception, inviting us to suspend our disbelief while at the same time asking us to be critical of the artifice involved in dream-weaving and film-making.  After all, understanding the rules is the first step in playing the game.


» “Sweet dreams.”



10 Taubin 2010, ‘Dream Work’, Film Comment.

11 Yglesias 2010 ,  ‘Cliché and Pastiche in Inception’, ThinkProgress.

[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]

   With Inception, Nolan brings the audience-dreamer into his shared dream, and they populate it with meaning.  Riddled with ambiguities and deliberate silences, it’s a film that shapes itself to the viewer; a film that can be twisted and prodded to fit any of the numerous interpretations posited, providing the viewer a participatory role—you can sit back and enjoy the ride; or you can step off the map and let yourself get lost in the maze.

   Artfully crafted, its playful visual style leaves a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed.  Nolan’s approach to dreaming is almost tongue-in-cheek, rendering the surreal concrete: getting your own thoughts becomes a tactical protection; dream symbology accommodates theft; and Jungian archetypes are the crew in an elaborate mind-heist.

   And all the way through, it is teasing the viewer, blurring reality and dreams.  It makes an art-form out of juggling clichés and conventions, ultimately turning them into something breathtakingly novel.

   It’s the kind of film where leaving the theatre is only the beginning.

[Image credit: collider.com]

   Inception has received its fair share of praise, with a healthy dollop of criticism.  Alternately lauded for its introspection and derided for flashy action tropes, it rests on uneasy ground as an exercise in un-pretentious existentialism.

   Nolan himself has always maintained that Inception is an action heist movie at its core, “roller-coster ride, [where] the point is to be on that ride, enjoying it.”24

   Is it deserving of such censure, or even such praise? Does it warrant the deep introspection that certain scholars of philosophy and psychology have given it, or can it be dismissed as another genre-bound action film that does little more than paw against the glass window of bigger issues?  Does it go deep enough?

   At the end of the day, Inception is a carefully-written, thought-provoking, visually-pleasing film.  Why does it need to be anything more than that?



24 Howell 2010, ‘Howell: Relax and enjoy the rise, Inception director says’, The Star.

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