Inception ranks top in my personal list of favourite movies. It is the one and only motion picture of my adult life that I have seen twice in cinema. I’ve watched my share of movies, and I’ve watched my favourite ones over and over again, of course. But with Inception it only took an instant to decide there would be a re-watch soon. Of course, when I could purchase it on DVD (which was only several weeks after my second time going to the cinema for it), I couldn’t hesitate, and that allowed me to take a deeper look at several details of it.
Over the last couple of years, I have thought long and deep about what actually happens on screen, what is a deception and what is real. What does it mean for our perception of reality, or of dreams? And what is the nature of inspiration? Actually, I myself have had a moment that I described to some of my friends as “my inception”, something that started with a small and simple idea and that influenced me deeply for years to come.
An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.
Now, what is this fuzz all about? Inception comes across as a heist movie, but this is just a facade for a (literally) very deep story that unfolds. You have to pay quite close attention in the first 10 or 15 minutes to make sure you don’t lose the threads before they even start. You will encounter a tremendously good Leonardo DiCaprio playing Cobb, an “extractor”: he links into other people’s dreams to steal their secrets and sell them. One day, he is hired to to the opposite thing: inception. His job is to implant an idea in the mind of the heir of a big company: the company shall be split up and their monopoly be brought down. So, Cobb hires some co-workers and they start building several nested layers of dreams. At the deepest level, they place this idea, transformed to a very simple and very emotional appearance; the target person will embrace this idea, wake up from the dreams and remember having had a very inspiring dream that results in splitting up his company.
This will sound quite technical and sterile, if you haven’t seen this movie. I have only sketched the first layer of the story here, there’s a lot more to it that I can’t even begin to describe here. Cobb, for instance, has a vast experience about sharing dreams and the dangers of this – most suspense comes from the interaction with his mind’s manifestation of his late wife. There is a detailed backstory of how he lost the distinction between dreams and reality, and how he can only dream by dream-sharing now, which drives him near madness and desperation. The audience’s counterpart is Ellen Page, playing a character that is appropriately named Ariadne, who is new to dream-sharing and allows us to follow in her introduction to all of this. It is her, who gets to know Cobb and his troubles about the death of his wife. And this death has led Cobb to leave the country and work in this illegal area: he mustn’t return to his children because he is accused of murder. This torments him, all over the place he will see the last memory he has kept of his children. He has directed each and every one of his actions to the goal of seeing his kids again.
One of the reasons why this movie will stick to your mind is the images. Because large parts of it take place in a dream-world, the usual laws of physics do not apply. And even when they do, the scenes are shot in a highly innovative way, using many unconventional techniques. I believe the last movie that had been that innovative was The Matrix. Particularly, I find the zero-G scenes in the second layer of dreams wonderful to watch. I would have to compare this to the scenes of Sandra Bullock’s performance in Gravity, which I, sadly, have not been able to watch yet. But Inception sets many standards, not only in this case, but also in the instances where dreams collapse and in the many small details that will remind you of classical dream-images. The first of which is a fine use of never-before-seen special effects, the other scared me ever since I got aware of them – seeing images of anxious dreams on the big screen makes them even more anxious. For instance, in one chase-sequence, Cobb is trapped between two walls that seem to narrow down. Dream images like this can be found in many scenes all over the movie. Besides, note the Penrose stairs – what a fine sequence there.
Finally, I loved the sequence about bending an entire city to make it U-shaped and walk upside down.
Apart from all this, the movie is not attached to any time period. It takes place in the present or in “the not too distant future”, but there is no reference to this. It has potential to be still good-looking twenty years from now (as opposed to most James Bond or Mission Impossible flicks – just to name a few – that have technical gimmicks which already look weird when the film is played in the theater).
Somewhere, I have heard things like “this is beyond convenient”, regarding some of the events in the movie. I am afraid, whoever said that hasn’t understood the concept of this. It is dealing with dreams – when we are dreaming, some things will happen that appear strange after we wake up, but while dreaming we will hardly be startled by anything. This is one of the stylistic devices that writer and director Christopher Nolan has placed all over the place. In a throughly constructed story like this, those things are most probably intentional, they are quite surely no mistakes (of course, there is some plot-hole or other… I won’t be picky on this movie, though).
When they need a wake-up-call in their dreams, the people in the movie will use Edith Piaf’s song “Je ne regrette rien”. It becomes a recurring theme in the movie, in more ways than one. I have had long philosophical discussions with myself about the way in which regret and starting a new life are mirrored in the actions of the movie. In addition, there’s the katharsis topic: you have to free yourself of regrets and ties to your past in order to move on; this is something that Cobb does accomplish during the movie, inspired by Ariadne (and thank God, not in a romantic way that many other Hollywood movies would have used). Actually, there’s a theory to this movie that Ariadne does an inception on Cobb in this movie, placing the idea of letting go his late wife deeply down in his mind. This also implies that everything we see is a dream, we don’t actually get to see reality. I have to say, it fits so extremely well; but the movie wants to be ambiguous, there’s no way to prove anything there.
The other great thing of this movie and the use of “Je ne regrette rien” is in the overall soundtrack: The paradigm says, you mind will work faster while dreaming, five minutes of waking-time equal one hour of dream-time. Thus, the music of the wake-up-call will be slowed down when they hear it in their dreams. The most amazing thing I have encountered in this movie is explained in this clip:
Apart from this, I can recommend the soundtrack in its entirety – it captures the story beautifully, including many acoustic associations to dreams.
A short search will give you many, many websites where you can find theories on the interpretation of Inception. Personally, I believe the movie wishes to be ambiguous: You’re not supposed to be able to find a coherent and definitive view. I will therefore not give my two cent’s worth about this, apart from what I said above. Pretty much everything has been said on this already, and there’s a lot of truth in it (even though some theories are less far-fetched that others). Only so much: I deeply admire the idea for this script, and I have loved the final result of Christopher Nolan’s effort with this movie. This has been an inspiring movie for me, and some of it’s basic ideas have influenced me in many ways.