Inception is that rare movie that comes along once every ten years or so that becomes the genre defining moment of the decade.
Shortly after posting an exegesis on dream interpretation, WordPress automatically tagged the post with a review of a new movie that has been out for some time now. The film is called “Inception” and it’s directed by the same guy who did “Dark Knight” and “Memento”. So I decided to see it – and let me tell you, I had to see it twice, because it utterly blew my mind.
Let me start out by saying that my write up on dream interpretation was not intended to coincide with the release of Inception. The timing of my post and the release of the movie are pure coincidence. I’ve been working on that post for several months, making sure I got my research right before I published it. So that post wasn’t inspired because of the movie at all.
True story. Swear to god.
I admit that I had in fact seen the trailer before, but I had positively no idea what it was about. I figured it for another Matrix ripoff, judging by that one city folding scene they kept showing all the time in all the trailers that came out for it. So to be quite honest, I wasn’t particularly excited to see the film until I saw the rave reviews, and who it was directed by:
Who is Christopher Nolan, you say? Only the single greatest young director to appear on the Hollywood scene since Stephen Spielburg unleashed “Jaws” in 1975. His mind is the source of some truly amazing films such us “Memento” (2000), “Batman Begins” (2005) and then most notably, “The Dark Knight” (2008) – now recognized as one of the greatest films of all time.
All of Chris Nolan’s films are works of genius. He is a guy who shies away from indulging in computer generated imagery (CGI), and leans more towards practical shots. He is more of a character oriented film maker, well known for writing plots centered around men who are on a mission, but whose obsession borders on madness, thereby threatening the mission itself.
But Nolan is probably most famous for his non-linear story telling techniques. Memento and The Prestige are probably the best examples of that. But what is most interesting about Nolan, is his propensity for writing brain warping plots. Memento was wickedly complex in and of itself, but his new film has by far the single most sophisticated, ambitious, cohesive plot yet.
While the real purpose of this post is to breakdown the plot of the film in ultra-fine detail, I believe there are those of you who haven’t seen it yet. This part of the post merely exists to whet your appetite in case you haven’t seen it yet. However, if you’ve already seen the film and you’re confused about the plot, then jump ahead to the Explanation section of the post.
This is basically a heist movie that takes place inside the subconscious mind. This allows the plot to twist recursively into itself to the point where even the characters in the film need some clarification on what is going on. Then when you think you finally understand what is going on, we are treated with a final shot that forces the audience to re-evaluate the film they just saw.
To say that the plot is complicated would be a gross understatement. Some have even gone as far as to say that the film is too cerebral to be enjoyed. I do admit that if you are not paying attention, then by the middle of the second act, you will be totally lost. But aren’t audiences already tired of seeing the same rehashed plots in movies? Thankfully, Inception fills that void.
In a world where corporate espionage has taken on deadly qualities, stealing ideas from your competitors has to be done using more subtle techniques. Using a device intended for US military training, a new kind of thief has emerged among corporate giants. These thieves can literally break into someone’s mind through their dreams and thereby steal their trade secrets.
Now when the film’s obsessive protagonist, Cobb, (as aptly portrayed by Leonardo Dicaprio) attempts to do just this to a Japanese magnate named Saito (played by Ken Watanabe), he is foiled by his own mind. Cobb’s failure means that he now has to hide from his employers, a major competitor of Saito’s company, who will now be gunning for him to keep him quiet.
However, Saito offers him a deal. In exchange for giving Cobb the ability to return to the United States to see his children again, Saito wants Cobb to do the very opposite of stealing thoughts through dreams – he needs to plant a thought instead, ergo the film’s aptly fitting title: Inception. This is what sets up the mind boggling events over the next 140 minutes.
While Cobb and Saito have ultimately set up the premise for the plot to unfold, most of the film actually unfolds in the mind of Robert Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy). Fischer is the new heir to the only other company that is a threat to Saito’s empire. Saito wants Fischer to break up his father’s company. That’s why he needs Cobb and his team to plant this idea in Fischer’s mind. It has to seem to be originally Fischer’s idea, even though it was planted in his mind.
Exactly how they go about doing this is what has both wowed audiences and has made this film an obsessive talking point for the last three weeks. From the point they enter the mind of their target, almost nothing goes according to plan, which makes the original plan even more complicated and yet delightfully disorienting. That is the key to making this film so intriguing.
Needless to say, the very nature of the plot is what provides the intrigue. Since Cobb and his team have to dive into someone’s subconscious mind via a shared dream state (and they have to do this through several layers of recursive dreaming to get the final desired outcome of genuine inception), this obviously poses some very real, very dangerous risks to the invaders.
The most obvious risk is knowing when they’re still in a dream – and that is central to the entire plot. This is why the plot is pure genius. We all know that we cannot differentiate between dreaming and reality, since we believe the dream until we wake up. This is stated repeatedly for effect throughout the entire movie. So how do they know when they wake up?
When the characters are playing around in someone’s subconscious at the depth that they are, the audience becomes just as confused as the characters in the film sometimes do. Now that the audience is along for the ride, they are experiencing the same level of immersion as the onscreen characters. So when the final scene trails onward in suspenseful expectation, the sudden cut to black that jolts the audience out of the film’s dream world is quite powerful.
I’ll explain why in a subsequent post, why this tactic is profound genius.
Not only is the plotting of the film’s story a work of pure genius, but it is also quite a brilliant marketing strategy as well. It is designed in such a way, that to truly understand the movie, you have to see it more than once. Nolan’s mysterious finish would have naturally caused people to want to see the film multiple times, thus relying on viral marketing strategy that would have been perpetuated by audiences. No advertising is better than word of mouth.
Word of mouth advertising is even more powerful than paid advertising because people are much more likely to believe their friends than a movie trailer. The film’s marketing team obviously understood that. This would concordantly explain why the film’s trailers were so deliberately vague. As I said in the outset, I would not have seen it without rave reviews.
Needless to say, it worked.
So we already know who the main players are. Cobb is the dream thief. Saito is now Cobb’s new employer and Robert Fischer is their target. However, Cobb’s team plays an important role in the whole heist, as it is their dreams that facilitate the recursive dives into Fischer’s mind. After his first architect blunders with the Saito job, Cobb sets out to hire a new one, Ariadne (played by the diminutive Ellen Page), a student of his dad, Miles (Michael Caine).
Then there are the technical members of this team. First is Yusuf (Dileep Rao) who supplies the powerful sedatives needed to induce these dream states, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who operates the dream machine and Eames (Tom Hardy) who operates as a forger – someone who uses reverse psychology to become a character from the subconscious mind being raided.
All of the characters, with the exception of Cobb and Ariadne are relatively two dimensional archetypes. This isn’t a fault of the film. In fact, this is quintessential to the final scene in the picture – which means their lack of depth was intentional. However, it is Cobb’s wife Mal (who is played by French actress, Marion Cotillard) who defines Cobb’s third dimension, and is the key to unraveling the mysterious finale. She actually explains the finale in the second act.
More on that in the next post.
The Special Effects
This is probably Chris Nolan’s first movie that used any kind of CGI – and even then, I’m not entirely sure that’s what was actually used. We live in a world that is so heavily defined by CG rendered films, that we forget how powerful the use of camera tricks, compositing and detailed miniatures really were. Nolan predominantly uses physical effects to render the dream world.
With that said, the film’s special effects are all well done and actually reminded me of how believable non computer generated effects could be. Every special effect seen here had an epic scale, and I could easily see how they could have been rendered using sound stages. From the folding city of Paris to the zero-gravity fight sequences in the hotel, Nolan uses a mixture of optical layering, with high speed cameras to render a disorienting, dream world.
What was particularly well done was the use of wires to suspend the actors (or were they just wax look-a-likes?) in the hotel fight sequence with what appeared to be a specially rigged sound stage. It actually reminded me of a similar fight sequence from The Matrix: Revolutions. The final effect was truly remarkable. In fact, I can easily smell an Oscar in the books for this.
While the sound editing was certainly ramped up, it is the film’s score that has me excited. I’m something of a music geek and I collect the scores of films that I believe are particularly well done. Inception’s use of blaring Tubas playing whole notes, layered with background violins works exceptionally well in selling the sense of dread in many of the film’s action set pieces. The final theme from the film’s finale however is what really makes this one a real keeper.
If you enjoy brain gymnastics, love a good suspense / puzzle oriented thriller, are a fan of non-linear plot lines and do not mind walking out of the auditorium with a well deserved headache (I can guarantee that your brain will expand just a little after seeing this), then Inception is certainly right up your alley. It was good enough for me to want to see it thrice.
Don’t listen to the negative critics. Inception is pure masterwork. The only people who are complaining are those who didn’t get it. These are the same people who hypocritically rave about boring predictable films that are more about art and less about entertainment and escape. Inception works brilliantly at incorporating both, as technically, there is no escape.
Inception is that rare movie that comes along once every ten years or so that becomes the genre defining moment of the decade. Inception did for storytelling what The Matrix did for special effects ten years ago, what Star Wars did for escape twenty years earlier. The pure imaginative genius permeates not only the film’s multilayered plot, but also succeeds at the audience’s complete immersion as deeply as its protagonist so it becomes their dream too.
If you haven’t already done so, go and see it. Now.
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