Review: Inception

Inception
a Christopher Nolan Film
Arbitrary 5-Point rating: 5 out of 5

Inception is a weird, ambitious, action-packed sci fi thriller-cum-heist flick.  It is, in its own way, as ambitious as The Matrix and suffers from the comparison only in that it didn’t come first.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Tom Dom Cobb, a thief of a singular kind: He can enter the dreams of others and “extract” information they’re trying to keep secret.  On the run for (at first) unspecified horrible crimes, he parlays his skill into a lucrative, if high-risk, lifestyle.  But in the end all he really wants to do is get to go home again and pick up the shards of his former life, including two small children.

More detail, and spoilers, to follow, but in short, this is a fantastic film that’s better than it has any right to be.  The pacing is superb, the acting is above-average, and the setting and technology are remarkably well fleshed out.  Although everyone draws comparisons to The Matrix, the real spiritual ancestor of this film is The Thirteenth Floor (which, ironically, came out at the same time as — and got lost in the glare of the hoopla of — The Matrix).

Spoilers ho!
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Any movie that involves dream technology is going to mess with the audience’s perceptions, and this is no exception.  By the end of the film, we’ve delved three levels “deep” : a dream within a dream, itself within a dream. And the film ends by (of course) going one further and asking, Is this the real world?  Or is Tom Cobb just locked within another nested level?  Has he returned to reality?  Was he ever there to begin with?  By transparent design, the question is left open.  Within the movie, we are told that every dream adventurer must fashion his or her own “totem”, an object he/she can use to assess whether the current setting is real or someone’s dream.  Arthur uses a loaded die, whose balance only he knows.  Adriadne makes a chess piece (a bishop). Cobb uses a peculiar top.  (It belonged to his deceased wife Mallorie, and would keep spinning forever in a dream world but flop over in a real one.)  You can’t share your totem because then someone else could simulate it in one of their dreams and you’d be lost.

The totems raise a couple of questions.  For example, while it might tell you you’re in someone else’s dream, could it tell you if you were lost in your own?  Cobb warns Adriadne that one must never use whole memories in building a dream world, because you might lose grasp of the distinction and never find your way out.  But you can, of course, perfectly dream your own totem — so it must be useless in distinguishing your dreams from reality.

Adriadne’s totem never comes into play, oddly enough, considering the screen time spent on explaining its purpose and on her fashioning it.  But the top is crucial.  At several places, after Cobb begins to get drawn more and more obsessively into the dreams they are making, he uses it to reassure himself that he’s still got a handle on reality.  There’s something almost heartbreaking about this process, because by the very rules of the game, he must check his sanity alone.  You can never share the thing that keeps you anchored.

But the most important — if most glaringly telegraphed — use of the top comes at the end of the film, after Cobb has rescued the sponsor of the last job and so gotten his life back. He sets the top to spinning, but is distracted by the arrivial of his children.  For the first time he (and we) can see their faces, and he moves off to their embrace.  Behind him the top keeps spinning.  Just before the camera cuts, it starts to wobble, but we never see it fall.  So… is Cobb in the real world?  Or has he fled into yet another dream, one he fashioned himself, so that he can have the life he’s been missing?  (This is even set up by a projection of Mallorie, that asks him whether his actual life — chased by shadowy agents of an unseen conspiracy — is true or just another psychological immune reaction.)

To me, the far more interesting point is:  The top was Mallorie‘s totem.  That fact is mentioned repeatedly, in important scenes.  But you can’t share totems … so why does Cobb think it’s valid for him at all?  Every one of his reality checks is suspect, not just the final one.  We might be far more than one level “down” at the end.  There are hints, I think, that the nesting is infinite.

It’s been a while since a movie had me thinking this hard after the credits rolled.  I heartily recommend it.


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