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Review: Inception

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(Warning, possible spoilers)

Before I say anything about Inception, you should know that I recommend going into this movie completely blind, with as little expectation as you can, so that you can get the full experience and be able to lose yourself completely in the world that Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige) created. I recommend you watch the movie, preferably in IMAX (as portions were shot in 65mm, standard is 35mm), before you read this review. You will not be disappointed, I consider this the best movie of the year. There will almost definitely be spoilers below.

There is a movement in the Film World (as well as the Art World) called Post-Modernism. Inception is a textbook example of this movement. It’s more subtle than say, a Woody Allen or a Charlie Kaufman movie, but it is definitely Post-Modern. Any Post-Modern film can be characterized by a “self-referential stance” that cues the spectator “to read the narrative as something other than a sequential development toward some transcendent truth.” (Schatz, Thomas. “Annie Hall and the Issue of Modernism.” Literature/Film Quarterly X (1982): 180-187.) In other words, the film will constantly provide clues to cue the spectator to the fact that many of the subjects within the movie address the movie itself as well. This is often done to pull the viewer out of the movie at specific points in order to allow the viewer to question or analyze the subject at hand. The more the viewer realizes that he/she is watching a movie, without leaving the movie world, the more he/she is able to control the viewing experience and bring something valuable out of it.

When training Ariadne (Ellen Page) in the clip above, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) states that we never really remember the beginning of a dream, that we always end up right in the middle of what’s going on. Nolan does the same thing with Inception, he throws us right into the middle of a two layer dream, instantly transporting us into his world, only allowing us to question it at specific points. Nolan is the architect. His goal is to plant a single idea in each viewer’s mind, that they will take with them upon leaving his world.

Ariadne’s training provides all the clues to decoding this world. In it, we are told that only subtle familiarities are allowed when constructing a dream. Too many or too much, will cause the dreamer to realize he or she is dreaming. Inception is littered with these subtle familiarities. The cast is dotted with actors and actresses Nolan has worked with before (Michael Caine, Cilian Murphy, Ken Watanabe). The music used to “kick” the dreamers out of their dream state is “Non je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf, who Marion Cotillard, Mal in the movie, played in La Vie en Rose. Even the suspenseful “Braaaahm” sound played before each “kick” is just a slowed down version of that song. This is all on purpose. It serves to make the film world familiar to us without taking us out of the movie altogether.

In the training, Cobb also states that the architect must be sure not to break too many laws of physics in the dream world as that too will make the dreamer aware of the dream and in turn, pull him/her out of the dream world. Nolan applied this to his world by limiting the amount of CGI used in the film. A large majority of the effects in the film were done in-camera by the amazing Wally Pfister, also a familiar from his past work. The train that came barreling down the road was simply an 18-wheeler with a train facade. The elevator scenes were done by constructing a horizontal elevator shaft in an old airship hangar. The bar in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) 2nd dream level was built on a hydraulic lift, allowing it to be raised up to 30 degrees. The hallway where Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) fights a security guard, jumping from wall to ceiling to floor and back was an elaborate set built to rotate a full 360 degrees. No wires were used in that scene, the actors had to just time their jumps with the rotation of the set. (American Cinematographer, Journal of Motion Imaging, July 2010) All of this was done to make the viewer aware he/she is watching a movie, without pulling him/her completely out of that world.

The acting is superb. Each actor is at the top of his/her game. Even Leonardo DiCaprio, who I have been known to despise in other films, is completely convincing as a beaten-down Dream Architect. The writing, editing, and music combine perfectly to envelop the viewer in Nolan’s worlds. The very base of editing is the juxtaposition of two images used to convey an emotion not present in those images. Nolan uses this simplest form of editing to create an even more heightened suspense as the van careens towards the river in slow motion. Image after image is flashed before the viewer’s eyes of level after level of the character’s dreams. It was enough to practically give my wife an ulcer. The 10 years Nolan spent writing this movie shows completely in his execution. The world of Inception is real as far as my mind’s concerned.

So what’s the point? Post-Modernism is a tool used to bring more awareness to an artist’s central theme. In this case, I believe Nolan is attempting to bring awareness to the theme of his complete body of work. By using elements from previous films and from Hollywood in general, Nolan is constructing a world that will bring the viewer to an awareness of this central theme. It is embodied in the final words of Mal, “You’re waiting for a train; a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter – because we’ll be together.” Relationships matter most to Nolan. If you look at his past body of work, you will find this to be the common thread between them all. Relationships are the most valuable part of life. Nolan is an Auteur in the truest sense of the word.

The movie ends with a bit of uncertainty. Was it all a dream, or did Cobb actually return to reality? I believe that Nolan’s stance is that it doesn’t matter, because he’s together, with his kids. As the credits roll through and the “Braaaahm” sound intensifies, “Non je ne Regrette Rien” plays one final time, cuing the viewer to the fact that the “kick” is coming and he/she will soon be returned to reality, left to ponder the meaning of this dream world they just experienced, leaving only with the subtle clues implanted by Nolan himself. Whether or not he/she comes to the same point Nolan wished to impart on him/her depends on the success of his Inception.

Cobb: You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.
Ariadne: How could we acquire enough details to make them think that it is reality?
Cobb: Our dreams, they feel real while we’re in them right? Its only when we wake up then we realize that something was actually strange.

5,342,421 arbitrary stars

  • Facebook User

    I'm fairly certain at one point I thought I would vomit. But it was SO SO great. I'm glad you wrote this so I could process it better.

    Bring on the IMAX experience.

  • Rebecca H Stay

    Great post. I loved the show and now, after reading this, I know more about WHY I liked it so much. So, thanks!