FEATURE, Film Analysis: The shortcomings of representing the unpresentable in Inception

Image source: The First Post

Spoiler alert: this is a film analysis, meaning an in-depth review that gives away key  moments of the film.

Written by Eduardo Navas

Inception is defined as “The establishment or starting point of an institution or activity.”  In the film Inception, the term means “the introduction of an idea in someone’s mind.”  Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at manipulating people’s dreams.  He is able to introduce an idea deep into a person’s unconscious.  The idea will take over the individual’s reality and perhaps even push him or her to the edge of sanity. The individual may question actual reality and consider the dreamworld real, not the material world.

Inception was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who consistently plays with the concept of time in multiple parallels of reality.  He did this with Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.  But Inception, as original as it may appear, in effect, is far from being itself an introduction of a new concept that may take over film form and ask that film as a medium be redefined.  Nolan by no means may be claiming to do this with Inception, but serious filmmaking is at its best when it becomes that which it proposes.  This is known in the arts as the sublime: to present the unpresentable–to present the possibility of comprehending the incomprehensible.  This is the ultimate space of exploration in aesthetics.  Inception, as respectable as it may appear, falls short in this important aspect.  Why this may be so is worth considering.

Inception is pastiche.  The film is, in effect, a mashup, a megamix of not only Nolan’s earlier explorations, but  also of other films that have pushed the concept of reality and existence.  In other words, Inception is far from the introduction of an idea, but rather the reinterpretation of many ideas, which, if they had not been previously familiar to the audience (and almost immediately recognizable, and designed that way, apparently, on purpose), would make the film difficult to engage with and understand.  The film is a clever combination of current media principles found across the networked landscape, beyond film.  It is the effective incorporation of such elements that make possible the amazingly abstract yet very comprehensible storytelling.

Inception is the story of a man who lost his family, and becomes a hacker of information.  He jacks into people’s minds during lucid dreams and extracts information for different clients. (Here is the first reinterpretation: the concept of jacking into a network, in this case dreams, to steal or transfer information is a basic premise of cyberpunk novels, pioneered by William Gibson. It was introduced in movies with Johnny Mnemonic and has become a recurrent element in action films since Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1984.) Cobb turned to a hacker-like lifestyle after the death of his wife, of which he was accused; he lost his U.S. nationality and had to run away, leaving his son and daughter behind.  His goal becomes to rejoin his children, and for this, he has to do one last job: to perform an inception in a corporate man’s mind.  Cobb is able to extract information, but to introduce ideas is much more difficult for him, especially because he has a growing problem with his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) showing up in his dreams, often leading to unsuccessful missions.  For this reason, Cobb will need help from a dream architect who can be detached enough from Cobb’s own dream reality and achieve inception.  And so goes the basic set up of the first half of the film.

The story makes the most of the generic action hero, and the special agent who needs to assemble his team to accomplish an extremely difficult task (Mission Impossible is the obvious reference).  Working in a team is also a major element borrowed from comic books turned into major blockbuster films, and in effect, at times one feels as though one is watching The X-Men, who use their respective mutant powers to accomplish their mission.  With these premises as the backbone for the narrative, Cobb is hired by Saito, a corporate mogul who wants to get rid of his dying competitor’s empire.  Saito offers Cobb the reinstatement of his citizenship and the possibility to be reunited with his two children if he successfully implants in Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), his competitor’s son who is destined to take over the business, the idea of dismantling his father’s empire.  Cobb accepts and assembles a team that will aid him in the mission. His team includes Ariadne (Ellen Paige), the architect; Earnes (Tom Hardy), the forger of identities; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who searches the dream targets; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist in charge of drugs designed to enter different levels of the dreamworld; and Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to make sure that the job gets done.  The action begins, and the film takes on the montage Nolan is known for, in which he cuts back and forth between different spaces to create a crescendo that resembles the basic quick montage as originally defined by D. W. Griffith.

But prior to the culminating ending, we enter the world of The Matrix remixed.  Similar to Morpheous introducing Neo to the world of the Matrix, Cobb has to take on an apprentice, Ariadne, who he introduces to the workings of the dreamworld.  The resemblance to The Matrix in this scene is not only conceptual but also formal, as many of the shots of people walking in this dreamworld and the camera movement are quite similar to the Wachoski brothers’.  Once Ariadne accepts to be the dream architect, Cobb decides that the best way to succeed is to perform the mission in multiple dreamworlds, one inside another.  Yusuf makes this possible with the proper dream inducing drugs, Ariadne shapes the dreams, and Arthur makes sure everyone finds the proper dream reality.

Time elapses exponentially in relation to real time as one enters a dreamworld within a dreamworld.   This last concept allows Nolan as writer and director to explore time in film form.  In fact, this may be the one notable element that he is able to contribute to film language with Inception.  Nolan explores this possibility in his last multi-layered scene, which takes place when Cobb’s team joins Robert Fischer in an air flight to enter his mind during a lucid dream.  Once the team enters Fischer’s unconscious, they encounter mercenaries, who are Fischer’s defense mechanism.  The plot takes on the expected twists and turns of the average action film: Saito is injured and Fischer does not completely cooperate (as is expected to create more drama), to the point that they have to enter deeper dream levels as pre-planned with the aim to manipulate Fischer into finding the idea that Cobb is trying to incept.  The result is three dream levels: in the first the team and Fischer end up driving in a van, in the second they are in a hotel room, and in the third on a snowy mountain, in which Fischer is killed and thrown into limbo.

Once the third level is reached, the concept of time becomes overtly emphasized when Ariadne proposes to Cobb to follow Fischer into Limbo where they will have more time to work with Fischer and try to get him back to the third level.  Time then becomes a key element in the story as Nolan makes it the one variable that will define the final outcome in the narrative.  His focus on time in different dreamworlds also allows Nolan to play with the concept of memory and multiple time spaces as he did in Memento.  In this way Cobb can ponder his guilt in the fourth level (Limbo), while Fischer is killed in the third; and gravity is lost in the second, as the van in which all the characters are driven while dreaming falls off a bridge into deep water on the first.  The montage of these four settings takes a substantial amount of time: the entire culmination of the film.

At the end of the film, Cobb wakes up along with Fischer and his team on their flight, which we learn is to the United States.  Cobb  lands and is welcomed home by the immigration officer.  Cobb then joins his two children; but before he does this, he spins a top on a table.  Cobb used the top to know if he was awake or asleep (if the top stopped it meant he was awake).  Predictably, the viewer is unable to see if the top falls, which would mean that Cobb’s reunion with his family is a dream.  In this last scene, ambiguity is introduced, and the viewer has to wonder if just about everything seen since the very beginning is nothing but a series of dreams within dreams (matrixes within matrixes).  And a last film lurks in: Existenz, a game space where players move between game levels, and games within games.

As complex as the film may sound when described, in experience it is almost too familiar and does not challenge much about storytelling, or filmmaking. At times when Nolan jump cuts from dream space to supposed reality throughout the film I felt I was watching Memento. The film also resembled The Dark Knight–especially at the end, in which Nolan uses almost an identical timing to cut quickly between the different dreamworlds, as he did in the notorious Batman and Joker fight at the top of a building.

In summary, Inception falls short of being a great film for a basic reason which drives all artistic forms to push their own boundaries: to attain a unique position in a realm where the audience already knows that there are no originals, just incredibly creative recombinations of ideas and forms previously introduced.  And for this reason, while one should cherish the remixing of previous material, the problem with Inception is that all of the references made to previous films are too obvious (there are many more than the ones mentioned above).  This may perhaps, and quite unfortunately, even be deliberate for the sake of selling a recognizable film which would otherwise be incomprehensible to the average moviegoer.  The result is that the film is unable to attain a position as a well-informed and creatively independent film which does justice to its predecessors, while being a great work on its own right.

But from the media point of view, it is amazing to think that a film like Inception was impossible just ten years ago, prior to The Matrix or Existenz.  The concept of networks, social constructs, jacking information, constant connectivity, understanding of multiple layers of information, gaming, and augmented reality, all had to be introduced for a film such as Inception to be possible.  Inception then is a reflection of the complex forms of communication and representation currently at play and in constant development in the world.  It is a film that, unfortunately, comfortably pushes the boundaries of how networked culture redefines reality.  It tries to bring cohesion to spaces understood in life to be incomprehensible (the manipulation of dreams), and in this sense it is an expression of culture’s obsession with control of nature, human destiny and all in-between the symbolic and material world.  For this reason the film is sure to be studied for what it really is: pastiche of a multi-layered culture that is fully digestible as layers of information, by people who consider text messaging as a thing that has always been and always will be.  Inception is the result of the ongoing naturalization and extension of networked media to all areas of human experience in the material world–nothing less.