Thursday, July 22, 2010
Inception Complete Spoiler Post (Beware!)
Yeah, don't read this one if you haven't already seen the film (which is very good and will play better on the big screen), 'kay?
Just some quick thoughts...
Inception isn't just the title of Christopher Nolan's new film; it's a description of what the film attempts to do to its audience. The film is extremely intricate and ambitious in its plot and structure, but also its meta-narrative games. It's commenting on and dissecting storytelling as it goes along, most of all in terms of audience members' reactions. Nolan throws so much at us that it can be confusing, dizzying. At times, film may seem too complicated, trying to be too clever for its own good and thus losing the story. (I was debating that occasionally while I watched the film, even though I enjoyed it.) But for good or ill, that complexity isn't just artistic vanity or ambition – it's both very intentional and, I believe, integral.
For an audience that's not consciously trying to predict the ending, the complex rules of the dream world and the discombulation of the elaborate, multilayered heist set up the finale: an open ending created by the final shot in a final mindfuck move. (Whoa, dude.) However, with narrative-savvy audiences, Nolan's playing an even more diabolical game – and just like the cons to the marks in the film, he tells us exactly what he's going to do first, all to psyche us out. We think we know what's going on, but he lets us think that so he can screw with us on a deeper level and plant an idea in our heads. A movie is in some sense a shared dream of audience members in a theater. At least twice, Cobb (DiCaprio) says that once an idea is planted in someone's head, it can be very hard to shake and it keep growing. The film handles most of the exposition pretty elegantly. Within the first 10-20 minutes, Nolan gives us shots of limbo and one of the final scenes in the "future" (presumably this is the case, looking back at them), shows us the idea of pulling a heist in someone else's dream, and also gives us the concept of a dream within a dream. This all might seem unnecessarily complex – but Nolan's setting up the idea that we can't trust what we see, and specifically the idea of a dream within a dream. If you're a narrative-savvy audience member, at this point, and at several points throughout the movie, you'll be wondering how the film will end, and what any twist will be. At some point, you will likely consider whether the entire damn film is a dream – or whether at least the ending will be. (Inception bears some striking similarities with another movie released this year starring DiCaprio, Scorsese's Shutter Island, most of all the unreliable narrator/what-is-real aspect, and a crazy wife.) Some of the elements in Cobb's seeming "reality" are intentionally odd – he's chased as he is the dream world, he encounters an improbably small alley, he has flashes of memories and a dream world, we never see the children's faces or Mal's mother, etc. Saito starts as an enemy or mark and then becomes an ally and employer.
Nolan is performing an act of inception on narrative-savvy audiences. He's planting the idea, early on, that the whole film may be a dream, or that some scenes of "reality" may be, making us wonder, like the suicidal Mal (Marion Coitillard, a great femme fatale), what is reality. In one sense, the last shot, the open ending, the mindfuck, is fairly predictable. In another sense, Nolan's anticipated that we would anticipate that ending, and the mindfuck is more subtle or devious, because we're now doubting something that we shouldn't. Again, as with the mark in the heist, he's used our own defenses against us. (Intelligence jujitsu, as with hypnosis.)
Now, maybe Nolan just constructed a good ride with an open ending and some ambiguous elements to set up the finale. I think that's all true, apart from the "just." Nolan is a smart guy and says it took him 10 years to write the script. He's also very ambitious. Given that and the subject matter, the themes, I don't see how he could avoid the meta-narrative angle. Put another way, I think at the very least Inception is very deliberately crafted, and the ending isn't just a tag – it's the entire point.
On one level, the whole heist is a MacGuffin in the vein of Hitchcock, who's still probably the master of playing with audience expectations. On another level, it's pretty important. Although Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) is fooled in that vault, he does actually experience catharsis, and he's still rich as hell, so breaking up his father's empire may really have been worth it, in addition to being a benefit to Saito and the world. If we accept what we see in the film's seeming reality world as reality, then Cobb similarly experiences a catharsis and a fairly happy ending by the film's end. He's finally let go of Mal. Is this a real release, or does this release, as with Fischer, make him vulnerable to a bigger con, whether pulled by someone else or his own mind (which has fucked with him throughout the entire film)? Has Cobb finally found some peace, both internally/subconsciously and in the real world, or has his subconscious finally outwitted him? The grief/guilt was his compass for reality, and now it is gone. For some audience members, briefly buying the happy ending and then being left uncertain by the ending is the mindfuck. For other audience members, anticipating that mindfuck and rejecting the happy ending because of that is the real, bigger mindfuck. (Both types of audience members do feel some brief relief before the ending regardless, though, because of the change in energy and pacing after the heist finally concludes. Nolan wisely gives a moment to catch our breath.)
Narratively, Inception reminds me the most of Philip K .Dick's short story "I Hope I Will Arrive Soon." Complete spoiler here – a man is in suspended animation on a long spaceship voyage. There's a malfunction and he stays conscious, and will stay conscious for many years as the ship makes its voyage. This might drive him insane. Trying to help, the ship's computer puts him in a series of virtual realities so he can pass the time. But the man rejects each of them as unsatisfying. The computer asks him what he really wants, and he responds that it's to be done with the voyage, to be home. So the computer (unwisely) creates a virtual reality where the man has completed the voyage and is home. However, the computer leaves out some details, and the man, still skeptical, will, for instance, take off the back of the virtual TV set and see that it's empty, proving that he's not in reality. The computer adjusts and improves its virtual world, and keeps trying. The man stays skeptical, and if anything grows more paranoid. By the ending, the man does arrive home in the real world, but now questions reality, and does not accept it. He'll take off the back of the TV set, and say, see, it's empty, and not notice that it's not. He sees the painting he and his ex-wife bought together, and not accept that it's real because they sold it. In the real world, she re-bought it, but he views it a tell, a mistake the computer's made in designing its virtual reality He won't accept the affection and reconciliation of his ex-wife (I think they're divorced or estranged, I need to re-read it) because it's a trick. Happiness itself is a con, not to be trusted. He was always a bit paranoid, but in trying to outwit a (well-intentioned but misguided) deceiver, he's broken himself. Inception is quite similar in its layers upon layers of reality, unreality and mindfuckery. Spin us around like a top until we get dizzy, and we won't know which was is up anymore. (Mal says something very similar.)
There are some odd things about the last scene, such as the absence of Mal's mother, heard before, and because we've seen the same setting and lighting before in dreams. However, the top teeters, as it did not in limbo (as I recall). Nolan cleverly ends when the top teeters but is still spinning fairly strong, leaving us guessing. (Rife with symbolism, Cobb lets the top go and doesn't check it himself.) We finally see the children's faces, which have been (in a brilliant move) denied to us throughout the film. This device sets up serious anticipation and dread in the late limbo scene with Mal and Ariadne (yeah, there's a mythologically-symbolically named character for ya) and in the final scene. If Cobb is in someone else's dream, whose is it? We're not really given many options there (possibly Ariadne). He could just be dreaming normally, if elaborately, with his dream his way of finally expunging his guilt and finding some happiness. He could be stuck in limbo. Maybe he never got out. Or he could (as with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its countless descendants) be dead or dying.
Nolan intentionally makes the finale open-ended and ambiguous, and I'll have to see it again. I think a few elements point toward it being reality (the teeter), and that the slickest mindfuck of the film is on terribly clever film viewers who reject the happy ending outright, who are convinced that's it's all a trick or illusion. There's not enough proof of that, either; it's not certain. The ending can simply be seen as a litmus test, more revealing about an individual viewer than anything else. Of course, since Nolan screws with really everyone in the audience, he's undermining a straightforward happy ending for everyone. Whether or not we anticipated the ending - we really want to see whether that top falls or not. We want confirmation. He's planted that idea, that questioning of reality, in everyone's heads, regardless of whether they anticipated it or not. And, of course, we can find that denial of certainty very satisfying as an audience. (Most audiences have, and I enjoyed the film a great deal.) Nolan has played with our expectations, frustrated them and satisfied them and around and around again, slyly grinning as he spins the top that is Inception and we watch, rapt.
Bonus: Here's Nolan on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell. I intentionally only listened to it after I saw the movie, but they're careful not to give much away. I found Nolan's discussion of Memento especially interesting, because while I love the film (and wish I had written the damn thing), I think it's an impeccably crafted but cerebral work, and there's an emotional core missing in the final scene that could have made it much more tragic and moving. But I'm overdue for watching it again, too...
Update: Via Drioxbie, this:
During the film I noticed the rhythm in the Piaf piece, and how (ironically) it made things tense, but I didn't consciously make the direct correlation. Neat!