By: The Grouch on the Couch
Welcome to this sample installment of Grouch on the Couch. Unlike my more positively slanted brother, I’m not really here to review Inception. I’m here to tell you why it’s calling you an asshole. This particular entry was inspired by my listening to the “Show Me the Meaning” podcast on this movie by Wisecrack (love their YouTube channel). They addressed an interpretation of this movie that I’d heard before, but hadn’t put much thought into. Specifically, the one confirmed as being present by Christopher Nolan in this interview with Wired, and then spoken of again in this interview in Entertainment Weekly. Namely, that Inception is about making movies. However, if the characters in the movie represent filmmakers, what’s it saying about audiences?
Okay, so, quick summary of the movie (skip if you know it. Or if you don’t; I’m a writer, not your mom): Cobb (Leonardo “Donatello is better” DiCaprio) is a professional thief who uses a newly-discovered technology to enter people’s dreams. He is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, to go into the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a rival business, and “incept him,” or to plant an idea within his mind. Cobb assembles a team: Ariadne, the one who designs dreams (Ellen “turn the” Page); Eames, an identity thief who can become other people in dreams (Tom “Party” Hardy); Yusuf, a pharmacologist who specializes in dream-sleep drugs (Dileep “Superman Joke” Rao); Arthur, his partner who researches and manages the missions (Joseph “I don’t get a joke” Gordon-Levitt); and, in an advisory role, Stephen Miles, Cobb’s mentor (Michael “It’s Nolan, so I’m in it” Caine).
The team, along with Saito, go into Fischer’s mind, but their plan is undermined at every point by Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is just a projection in Cobb’s mind, as well as Fischer’s own internal mental defenses. The team keeps going deeper and deeper into the “dream levels” of Fischer’s subconscious: Each level represented with a different aesthetic, and in each level, time passes faster. During the mission, Saito is injured, resulting in him “dying” within the dream which sends him to “Limbo,” a mind-space in which time passes extremely quickly compared to the real world, such that an entire lifetime would be but a few minutes/hours. Limbo also is completely unstructured, which can result in any person there becoming lost and forgetting what was real before they get there, and then believing that Limbo itself is reality. Cobb incepts Fischer, saves Saito, deals with Mal by confessing that he feels guilty about her death, allowing Ariadne to kill the projection. Cobb comes back to reality and quits his dream-thievery to spend time with his kids. The movie ends with Cobb’s totem (a top that spins forever in dreams, allowing extractors to know if they’re in the real world) starting to wobble.
A lot of people theorize about this film, especially about whether or not any of it is reality, what parts are, who is real, etc. This movie was basically made to be talked about and discussed, and, as you’ll see in a moment, I mean that extremely literally.
This particular theory just happens to be one interpretation that the director agrees is part of the movie, though he denies it’s intentional. Unfortunately, even if it’s unintentional, there are a few negative implications about the movie-going public.
First, a breakdown of this interpretation: Under this view, the art of crafting dreams is the same as the art of crafting film. This idea was going to work its way into the movie no matter how hard they tried to avoid it, because dreams and films are inherently linked. They’re both escapes from reality. In both, we suspend our belief in what’s possible. In both, people can be multiple personas (like that dream where you’re talking to your father who is also Abe Lincoln. One is the actor, one is the role). In both, we are accustomed to having time jumps and to not seeing the whole story leading up to a scene. The very idea of making a movie about shaping dreams invites the comparison. Hell, motion pictures are entirely generated by your mind: You’re seeing a series of still images and your mind is treating them as if they’re moving naturally. If you’re asking how that differs from real movement, well, that’s a different paper, but the explanation involves calculus. I’ll write that later.
The scene that most directly compares films and dreams (as mentioned in the podcast) is the scene in which Cobb and Ariadne are at a café. The two are talking and Cobb points out that people don’t ever remember the beginning of a dream, because dreams always start at a place and begin happening immediately. He then asks her how they got to the café, at which time she realizes that she didn’t know, she just took it for granted. Well, so did we, the audience. In most films, we don’t see HOW people get to places, or what steps they took. Sometimes, if we actually thought about it, we’d realize that some scene changes are logistically impossible (like all the globetrotting within the series 24). We just go with it, because if not, well, as the movie demonstrates, it destroys the illusion. The café of the mind will be blown up.
So, within this dream to film analogy, each member of the heist team represents a different area of a film crew. Cobb is the director and the writer. He is the one who is crafting the story and adapting it to his vision. The reason he’s a combination of both roles is because Christopher Nolan is frequently both, and all art is somewhat biographical (this movie especially). Arthur is the producer/cinematographer. He’s the one who works out the logistics of how to make Cobb’s visions real. Ariadne is the production designer, the one who makes the look come to life. Eames is the performer, the one who directly interacts with the audience as someone else. Cobb himself later briefly takes on this role. Yusuf is the special effects guy, the wizard who controls how far reality is suspended. Saito is the studio, the one who bankrolls the movie and expects to profit. Miles is an older director/film theorist, the one who crafted the art before Cobb got onto the scene and established certain themes (or, within the movie, methods of extracting). This doesn’t really have to be a 1:1 breakdown of roles, and they shift a little within the movie (just like they do in a production), but the central idea still stands.
The movie itself is also a little more dreamlike than many films, which helps the theme but hurts the movie. That’s actually why I don’t really like this movie that much. The structure can be confusing because dreams are confusing. The movie takes imagery, themes, and plot points from other films, like dreams contain recurring images or actions. The rules of the situation keep changing, most famously in the “dream bigger” or “impossible stairway (Penrose steps)” sequences where it seems that the extractors could just do whatever they want and solve most of the problems instantly, but in dreams the rules can constantly change without notice (also, it would make the movie short and might give Fischer a psychotic break).
So, within the film crew analogy, what is Fischer, the guy being incepted? Well, he’s the audience. He’s the one who is living, temporarily, within the dream that’s being crafted for him. His experience is being shaped by the team coming together and each doing their parts to make him feel as if he’s actually within this world. This seems like a pretty solid interpretation of it, and, again, it’s one that Nolan seems to confirm. The problem is, he’s not the only audience in the movie. He’s the audience for the fairly typical heist/Bond-style film that we’re watching, sure, but there’s another audience analogue within the movie.
Mal, the last person incepted, is also the audience.
Here’s Mal’s story: She was married to Cobb and they had 2 kids. One day, she and Cobb are experimenting with the dream sharing technology, and they go too deep into the dreamscape, ending up in Limbo. They spend 50 years there in the span of a few hours real time, but Mal ends up refusing to return to the real world. Cobb incepts her by reactivating her totem, planting the idea in her subconscious that the whole of their reality is a dream (which it currently is). They end up leaving Limbo the only way they know how: By killing themselves. But, when they wake up, Mal is still convinced she’s dreaming, even though she’s now in the “real world.”
Mal then becomes obsessed with this idea and ends up deciding that the real world isn’t real and the dream world is. She kills herself to get back to “reality” and frames Cobb for her murder so that he’ll follow her, resulting in him never being able to interact with his children. This ends up creating a resonant image of her within Cobb’s mind, and this projection is obsessed with sabotaging Cobb’s plans. In the first heist we’re shown, within Saito’s mind, Mal alerts Saito of the theft and shoots Arthur. Later, when Cobb introduces Ariadne to lucid dreaming and she starts to change the dream in a series of artistic alterations of reality, Mal stabs her. It’s revealed that while Mal is somewhat restrained by Cobb, she still comes forward when he’s under stress and tries to destroy everything, usually with violence or a giant effect like a literal train appearing in the middle of a street. She ends up shooting Fischer, sending him to Limbo, before Cobb confesses to what happened, allowing him to stop feeling guilty for her death, and killing her for good.
So, let’s incorporate that into the framework. Mal was the audience for Cobb’s most important film prior to the current one, but it all went wrong. Why? Well, a few reasons, and all of them speak to parts of the creative process and the opinion of the director of the audience.
When Mal and Cobb first went under, she and Cobb were in Limbo. Limbo here is a blank seascape and a shoreline when you first enter it, but you can fill it with basically whatever you want. It’s described as “infinite raw subconscious,” which, weirdly, dialogue suggests is shared by all people even if they’re not part of the current shared dream. In fact, it’s not really a “dream” at all, for that reason, but a separate plane that can be shaped to resemble dreams.
Essentially, Limbo is imagination. You are unrestrained by social norms, themes, or tropes. You can let your deepest desires come forth in any structure of your choice. Now, it’s notable that the things that Cobb builds are mostly images from his own past, because all creation is somewhat biographical. Also, nothing there is truly “unimaginable.” You can make impossible figures as long as they can still be visualized, just like you can in films, but you can’t create a new color. Limbo is literally just a blank slate for the imagination to fill, without any of the pre-set structure that comes in the dream levels.
For Christopher Nolan, operating without “traditional” film-making rules is pretty much his bailiwick. Especially with story structure. Memento subverted traditional narrative structure by doing the movie backwards, constantly forcing the audience to re-evaluate their assumptions. The Prestige is literally a three-part trick on the audience, treating them as the subject of a magic show. This movie is a dream. While Interstellar came after this, that movie tries to show the inside of a 4-D structure. Nolan loves to punch traditional film restrictions in the nut-sack. Limbo is the birthplace of Nolan’s unconventional style, raw and unbound.
However, because Limbo doesn’t need to have any kind of logical structure and the rules and locations can change at any moment, it is harder to keep your bearings while in it. Mal and Cobb start getting lost within the project. They have no structure that they need to work within, so they are unable to find a point to end the film, thus they start wandering aimlessly. The source of structure that Cobb had at the beginning, his own life experience, has now been exhausted (they’ve been in Limbo longer than either of them have been alive). Eventually, however, Cobb remembers his role (and his children) and tries to bring the dream to a conclusion. Mal, however, doesn’t want this to end. The creative process is now her reality. So, Cobb decides to incept her, and therefore really transforms her into his audience. Now that he’s going to shape her perceptions, Cobb does the one thing that he knows will stop the dream: He asks her a cerebral question.
Cobb plants the idea within Mal’s head that the world is all a dream. That reality may not be real. Now, the nature of reality is a question that has been debated throughout history, and if you would like some opinions on it, I do, again, recommend checking out Wisecrack’s YouTube Channel, as well as some books on ontological philosophers. Maybe read Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. The fact that the person asking this is a fictional character makes it all the more interesting, but I’m not going into that discussion here, because it’s irrelevant to what it does in the movie. The point of the question is that it doesn’t have a simple answer and that it’s completely unemotional. And it ends the film, because the audience, Mal, doesn’t want to think about it.
But, that doesn’t stop the fallout. The impact of Mal’s reaction to the question follows Cobb back out of the film. Then, it follows him into all of Cobb’s subsequent projects. However, this Mal is no longer the audience; now she’s just Cobb’s internal issues manifesting themselves. She represents Cobb’s attempt to correct for the action that killed his first film by adding in what he thinks audiences want: Violence, dramatic tension, emotional plot points, massive special effects sequences, and a hot femme-fatale.
When Mal shows up, she disrupts the movie just so that THERE WILL BE A REAL MOVIE. If everything about Fischer’s inception went correctly, the film would be boring. Sure, it could have contained a ton of great questions about the nature of reality and the collective unconscious, but who the hell is going to show up to that? Audiences hate those movies. That’s why The Dark Knight Rises made $1 Billion, but Memento, a literal game-changing film, didn’t make $40 Million. The more unconventional a film is, the less likely it is to make money (just ask Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, and Edgar Wright, whose careers combined can’t equal Michael Bay’s Box Office… for the first 3 Transformers movies). That doesn’t mean that “conventional” films are inherently worse (they’re not, and they can be enjoyed thoroughly), but it means that your audience is just more likely to reject things that make them think a lot or see something too unusual. They need to connect with the movie.
Cobb, like Nolan, learned from this, even though it tortures him. That’s why in the movie, Cobb explicitly states that the core of “incepting” Fischer has to be an emotional concept and that Fischer’s mind will reject a cerebral core. Audiences can’t handle a movie without an emotional core. Appropriately, Mal’s relationship to Cobb, Cobb’s desire to return to his children, and his internal journey serve as the emotional core of the movie. If you combine the movie and the meta-movie, it means the emotional core of the movie is accepting that there has to be an emotional core to the movie. There has to be a character’s journey that you can connect with on a personal level in order to get the audience to accept the film’s message.
But what does that say about us, as the audience within the movie? Well, it’s saying that we just don’t want to see what Nolan really is dying to show us: A completely cerebral film where we’re engaged and constantly questioning our perception and our understanding of structure. And, he’s probably right. Hell, Brazil, a very inventive and introspective film that is constantly questioning convention and has inspired countless other films (and is one of my favorites), didn’t turn a profit.
Instead, we want to see a heist film with some kickass special effects that focuses on the emotional connections of the main character and contains a bunch of elements that have been pulled from other films so that we’re already conditioned to accept it. Now, parts of that movie can question the nature of reality or the nature of our suspension of disbelief or how dreams have conditioned us to accept the illusion of film, but ultimately, we still need a bunch of relatable stuff to grab onto. Next time, you might be able to go a little further, but, for now, we need something we’ve already processed so that we aren’t lost when the movie talks about those issues. People aren’t gonna want to put forth the effort to make up much of the difference themselves, and, even if they did, they might not be able to.
This is why Hollywood is sequels and remakes: Because we feel more comfortable dealing with things that are similar to what we have already seen, and they only want to fund what audiences want to see. If you talk to an experienced film analyst, they can tell you what book the writer read to learn screenwriting, because there will be certain things that happen at certain points of the movie. There’s even a running gag with some reviewers about the overuse of the structure from the screenwriting guide Save the Cat!
Luckily, people eventually start noticing similar themes and structures in their films and start to think about them, which causes the end of certain genres or franchises after they get tired. Cliche/Trope recognition is like Lucid Dreaming: You really only gain the ability to control the action, and thereby analyze the movie, when you notice recurring themes and elements. If every night you have the same dream, you are more likely to start to recognize that you’re dreaming. However, once you’re aware of it, it’s not interesting to have the same dream all the time. On a completely unrelated side-note, the Transformers franchise needs to die.
But, take a step back, and realize the implication of this message about audiences within this movie. It’s basically a preliminary defense against criticism. It’s not that the inconsistent abilities of the extractors are annoying and pull you out of the movie, it’s that you don’t get it. It’s not that the mechanism by which this dream-scapery works is overly complicated and completely misused by the society that has access to it: It’s that you don’t get it. It’s not that parts of the movie are confusing with all the cuts not only to different characters but also to different dream levels and relative speeds: IT’S THAT YOU JUST DON’T GET IT. You’re Mal, and your inadequacy to accept the novelty and brilliance of the message of the movie as it’s being presented is not the fault of the director. After all, he’s already putting emotional crap and a train into the movie just so you’ll watch it.
Ultimately, if you watched this movie, you just sat through 148 minutes of a director saying that he’s likely wasting his time by trying to provide you with an interesting idea to contemplate, so he’s wrapping your “what is reality” pill with a nice thick slice of “action sequences and relatable emotional plot” bacon.
Now eat it.
If Mal represents Nolan’s frustration with audiences not being super open to new ideas or concepts, that’s a sentiment I can completely understand. Nolan worked on this for a decade, during which he saw Memento and The Prestige get absolutely dominated by the box office for, well, The Incredible Hulk film. Not a lot of people were seeing his movies. It feels awful to work so hard on your vision only for most people to dismiss it. So, this movie that he’d put so much effort into, and that seems so autobiographical and personal, really has a lot of emotion invested in it. So, it’s natural to get defensive about the possibility that people might reject your vision for being too nebulous. But, the movie made a ton of money and was loved by critics, so clearly it didn’t turn out too badly, even if it was “compromised” by being a neat idea wrapped around a heist film wrapped around an old story of a guy wanting to move on from his own guilt.
Understand, also, that none of this was intentional, if it’s even accurate. In fact, Nolan denies that he consciously put the filmmaking analogy into the film, even if he acknowledges that it’s there. And sure, subconscious or not, Nolan is calling out audiences, because we need to be called out a little. The more a film challenges us, the less likely we are to watch it. That’s just human nature. We should work out, but it’s easier to watch TV. We should cook healthy meals, but it’s easier to grab a burger. We should open ourselves up to having our minds changed in engaging, challenging, debates, but it’s easier to call the other guy a cuck (granted, he’s usually a cuck). We’re more like Fischer: The change we experience at the end of the film is based on emotional appeal, not intellectual contemplation. The change is of the heart, not the mind. And that’s not inherently bad, by the way.
Emotional appeal is typically the strongest because emotions are the things upon which we base our values. Why do you want to be alive? Because of emotions: Fear, excitement, love, hate, etc. Why would you want to stop an innocent person you’ve never met from dying of hunger by donating to charity? Empathy. Priorities are based on values, which are typically based on emotional responses. Now, from those values, we can create logical reinforcements for those beliefs, or entire logical systems to contemplate how best to express or empower those values, but the values themselves are generally based on feelings. Nolan, unconsciously, is pissed off that you can make a worse film that uses emotional appeals that will be more successful than a “better” film that uses a cerebral approach to make you question perceptions (and yes, excitement at an action sequence is still an emotional response. So is hearing a John Williams score and feeling that inside of his soul is a complex universe we will never be able to comprehend).
And maybe we’re reading too much into this film. Maybe this entire interpretation is just an ass-pull. I think it tracks logically, but it’s always a little speculative to try to dissect someone’s subconscious from their work. Maybe this is us inserting our own opinions into Chris Nolan’s mouth. But, I don’t think so. Nolan loves movies. He’s one of the most vocal proponents of film being an art form. The fact that such a relatively small number of people want to really sit down and think about what the film is saying and what it means to them and grow from it is probably really hard for an artist to deal with. So, maybe his solution was to try and embed a message to audiences to be better. We shouldn’t be upset by that. He wants to help, and the first step to helping someone is to get them to acknowledge that there’s a problem. So, maybe, we should be more willing to go outside of our comfort zone. That’s my two cents, anyway.
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