3rd Revision: final (for now) 7-20-10
Of course I mean an exception from(or to) the rule, but in the logic of this wildly illogical movie, it makes no difference. The only way I can possibly begin to enjoy Christopher Nolan's latest movie INCEPTION is by establishing a suspension of disbelief tied to the assumption that we are seeing some sort of BRAINSTORM-like or UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD- like dream transcript, and not reality at all-- ie: the movie does not begin or end in the real world as we know it. If this is so, then BRAVO!, the clues littered along the way worked! But If this is not so, then the movie is the most egregious display of fuzzy-thinking I have ever seen.
What follows ought to be read AFTER seeing the movie. That way it will make a little more sense (but not much), and your pristine viewing experience will not be spoiled.
You might ask of the movie: “Whose dream is this anyway.” There seems to be several answers. In part, we are presented with dreams of the “designated dreamer” of the movie. But it might seem that the movie as a whole is also the dream of the protagonist, Dom, as played by Leo. The director is so assertive in this movie I think we are very aware that it is Nolan's dream too. Last, it is really our own dream because we are the ones actually witnessing the dream enactment: the sets and actors that are supposed to be “the dream.”
I fancy that Nolan's intention was to give the world the most lucid dream they have ever had. It is often said that watching a film is the most dream-like experience we have while awake. A central issue of the movie seems to be whether Nolan has embraced the film-dreamworld with a heretofore never obtained totality, or whether he has gone too far and severed the final ties that would allow us to be affected by the movie, to believe it? It is as if Nolan attempts to prove that dream logic alone is enough to make a movie seem like a “real movie.” He does this by referencing only our previous film experiences for the validation of his dream logic. Each viewer will have to decide if it is “real enough” on their own. Some will say it is a “magnificent movie experience!” But is an experience of any true value if it's structure includes an Escher-like impossibility? Is it then essentially a pretty hoax to which we ought to have no business surrendering our common sense?
I am one of those people who does not enjoy being on the ignorant audience side of magic acts. I am interested in how the illusion is, or is not, made effective. INCEPTION has much in common with the magician's world of THE PRESTIGE in that it operates heavily through misdirection of attention, manipulated expectation, meaningless explanations, and bedazzlement. It is essentially a trick that tries to disguise itself long enough to keep us seated to the end.
For my own part, I struggled to believe to the very end, but the illusion was buried by the weight of nagging, serious questions that were given no more than dream-logic or movie-logic answers.
Dr. Johnson once said something like: I read your book and found it both original and good; unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.
The same sort of thing might be said about INCEPTION. It seems composed of large chunks of previous movies. From THE MATRIX, for instance, comes the idea of a reality constructed by someone else (an Architect) that multiple consciousnesses can plug into, all thinking and interacting as though they inhabited a real world. In the case of INCEPTION this world is a single person's dream into which everyone else plugs in.
I found myself also thinking about WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, which, though an exploration of the after-life, was very similar in look and feel to the "deep limbic" realm of INCEPTION ( that was also referred to as "limbo"). There is also a parallel between the obsessions of the lost wives in these two movies and their husbands following them to remote, unearthly places.
More recently, in SHUTTER ISLAND Leo portrayed a character who is deluded, and suffering over the loss of his wife and children. It is hard not to see the Leo of INCEPTION as having just gotten off the boat from SHUTTER ISLAND when this new adventure begins, suffering over his only slightly dis-similar wife and children-- another delusion? The plot of SHUTTER ISLAND revolves around creating a role-playing game for the deluded Leo to become immersed in-- to think that it is real. This is the same scenario that Leo unleashes on the target capitalist in INCEPTION, except that he does it in a dream. I almost expected to see DRs Kingsley and von Sydow haul Leo back to the madhouse in the last reel. “Now Leo, it's not nice to delude others just because we showed you how!” These last remarks are made only in dream logic. Obviously Chris Nolan was unaware as he developed his film that a viewer of it would find it had parallels with another film almost contemporaneously released. I wonder what was going through Leo's mind though? Something like: “Will this nightmare never end?
More possible antecedents come to mind. Could the original pitch for INCEPTION have been: THE STING meets DREAMSCAPE? Certainly it is cliché for movie sequences to be dream sequences from which the character then awakes. So what if he never awakes at all? In this respect it also does homage to SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK a movie that delves so deeply into the fabrications of a playwright's mind that, by the end, reality can no longer be determined.
If nothing else, INCEPTION is a destabilizing tour-de-force that shakes up our comfortable relationship with movie viewing, and generates some real doubt about our personal grip on reality.
There was a test given by Leo to the capitalist to prove whether he was dreaming. He asked him to remember what he was doing just before he arrived, and how he got to the place where they were talking. If he couldn't remember, he must be dreaming. Again, this may Nolan's way of signaling to us the whole movie is a dream. INCEPTION itself starts in a dream, thus we never know who the people really are, where they came from, or how they got to that moment, and so we cannot know if they (or we) ever exit the dream. It made me do a self check. Yes, I could remember driving to the cinema buying a ticket and sitting down. Thank God for that! The film ends just as we might find out whether the top will stop spinning. Again Nolan provided us with the information that if the top does not stop spinning, Leo is still dreaming(and we are too).
Original things not good: The supposed psychology of dreaming as presented in the movie is a tissue of sheer dramatic invention that, even with my small knowledge of the science, causes me to see visions of dream study scientists tearing their hair and leaping from ten-story windows. Abandon science, all who enter here:
To me, the most outrageous invention of the movie is the idea that other minds can somehow be plugged into someone else's dream. Let's suppose that minds might be able to experience a shared environment together if the dream world were mediated by an artificially projected world inside a computer, ala THE MATRIX. Ok, the movie logic works here because we've already made peace with that idea. But I always thought that the people interacting in the matrix where somehow awake and having a normal day, but that all their sensory input was co-opted by the matrix so they could not comprehend their true physical state?
So, in what sense can the dreamer's experience in INCEPTION be understood?
How can it be that only one member of the team ("the Dreamer") is having the dream, and all the other participants are merely "in the dream?" If they are asleep too, then they must be dreaming too, no? If they are all connected to the same box, why does it treat any of them differently? There must be some fancy wiring in that box! What possible combination of wires and chemicals would allow the various dreamers to have the ability to "see" each other in the same dream-- talk to each other in the same dream? Nolan uses a dream/ movie logic here that conflates mentality with a physical place. If everybody shows up in the same dream (a place) surely they will be able to communicate. Well, they are not using voices, so what are they using-- telepathy? The idea that an apparatus carried around in an small aluminum case can effect this mind-meld between a half-dozen minds just doesn't convince me at all the way THE MATRIX did. Finally, how is that sleepers can act with such intentionality and teamwork while dreaming? Have they not read Jung? Clearly, the less we know about the black box the more believable it is. Don't tell, don't ask...
I suppose idiotic brain science can still make gripping cinema, and thus, dangers lurk for those bold enough to enter into the dreams of others. An intruder exerting any kind of control over a dream alerts "Projections" that function rather like white blood cells sniffing out and destroying the intruders. Apparently the "projections" can come from the single dreamer's mind, or any of the other minds within the dreamer's dream. When Projections are triggered they may take the form of ordinary dream people who function like the artificially intelligent NPC's of an adventure game who begin acting hostile. The Projections can also strike with heavy weapons and the ferocity of a swat team. At one point Leo makes a completely nutty assertion: "These aren't ordinary projections, these guys have been trained." For several minutes my movie experience was completely suspended as I pondered how this might be true. Even now, it evokes in me the same awe as "Why doesn't the tail pass?" and "What is the sound of one hand clapping." This is one of several places where the script failed to remember which reality (or dream) it was in.
The idea that you can use concurrent action levels in a movie like a set of Chinese boxes for a big payoff at the end is brilliant staging, but applying it to the concept of "dream-levels," is reckless and laughable. True, it is exciting to see the characters cascade back up through each dream level for the finale, but I was no longer thinking of the characters at this point, only of the craziness of the director. What reason could there be for the time distortions as you go down through the dream-levels, except to achieve a dramatic linear experience on the way back up?
Devilish details: Even in the "dream logic" of the movie, seeming inconsistencies in the level-logic kept coming to my attention. In one instance, though some team members went to third-level dreaming, the dreamer himself stayed at level two. How does that work-- having members of his dream going off doing things without him? Another instance occurred when the sleepers in the level-one dream were getting thrown from side to side in the van. It would seem true that events in the real physical world of the dreamer ought to be subliminally experienced by a dreamer(as shown). But why would they feel anything if the speeding van were, not at the real world level, but just in the previous level of the dream? After all, on the real world level, they were comfortably asleep in first-class airline seats! One could spend many viewings trying to hash out all the logical issues raised, and no doubt the film will be viewed multiple times by folks wanting to grasp its "secrets," such as they are...
Attempts to make it appear that reality could be assessed by dreamers within dreams by use of "totems" made me overflow with laughter. What? If you are dreaming of the totem, it is not the real totem, so whatever it does means nothing. When you are awake, the totem would behave normally yes, but that could not prove to you that you were not merely dreaming that the totem behaved normally. Leo's spinning top totem supposedly kept on spinning if he were dreaming. But what did the weighted die or chess piece do? That whole "totem bit" caused me to smell some of my logic brain cells frying.
At the bottom-most dream level-- the "deep limbic"--sloppiness abounds (Whose? Mine? Nolan's? Leo's? Everyone's?). The second biggest threat to the dreamers (after the 'Projections" is the chance they may not be able to awake from a dream properly, and "fall out of the dream" altogether into a vegetable-like state. At least in the real world they would appear vegetative. In truth, they would be experiencing the magical 'deep limbic" realm, where time is so extended that one waking day here is experienced at that level as a life time. Leo and his wife have experienced nearly an entire second life dwelling in the "deep limbic." How they got to the "deep limbic" or which was the dreamer was never explained. Leo returns to the "deep limbic" to find a team member who died before being able to awake, thus being lost there muddled and confused. Leo stays dreaming while the other team members wake up. Without the dream of the dreamer how can Leo possibly find his way into the mind of the lost team member-- go to the same place? Is it that they are both still connected to the box? Leo's rescue mission again creates a conflation of a mental place with real geography that only works for the short period of time you are seeing it.
To "top" it all off, the top that Leo carried in his pocket was the same object his wife stored mentally in her secret safe in the "deep limbic" dream world. It was never explained how the object had both a real existence in Leo's pocket and a symbolic existence as his wife's secret. Either the top was always real (and she just imagined it as a symbol for her secret, or Leo imagined that the real top represented her secret and so carried it around with him as his "reality" object). or the top was not real. I think the latter was true, that it was never a reality object at all, but a mental one-- and the final indicator, as mentioned before, that we must still be dreaming.
For me, Nolan's movie is engaging in the same way that an explosion in a meringue factory might be. Wow! Stupendous! But thirty minutes later all that is left is a residue of sticky goo. Some will say "yummy" and some will say "yucky." Me, I'm just wondering now who is going to clean up the mess in my brain?
Or maybe I will have to watch this movie over and over until I wake up and get it right!