Forget the fine Batman catalog, if forty year old Christoper Nolan had absolutely nothing else to his credit except Memento and this film, he'd still qualify for legend status.
The action meant little to me. The crumbling buildings; the sideways, gravity-defying hotel machinations, I'll forget. What will remain is the same cognisance of memory, loss, guilt, and self-delusion that Memento explored.
We often long for moments past, wishing we could have them back. But Nolan's movies reveal that even when time can be shuffled and rearranged like a deck of cards, pulling the past forward, bringing it back, causes more pain than it heals. And the funny thing is, the happy memories hurt just as much as the sad ones, when all they do is remind you of their inaccessibility.
Inception played into a long-running obsession of mine with the novel Time Traveler's Wife. I've spent hours wondering how, wondering if, Henry and Claire could have met again after his death and before hers. They met in her past. Could he have found a path into her future? I reasoned that because time passed slower when Henry was time-traveling. If he disappeared for 2 months in "real time" he could have been time-traveling in the future (with his mourning widow) for up to 10 years. I used this fantasy to give myself the happy ending that the book itself denied me.
So, I was immediately fascinated with the idea that the dreamers in Inception, could spend years in a dream, while a mere hour passed in the wakened world. Of course, there's always a price to pay for the time you lose here and gain elsewhere, as anyone from Jack Finney to Daphne Du Maurier (The House on the Strand) can tell you.
As the movie began, switching from one dream to another, I was afraid it would be another Mulholland Drive or Vanilla Sky, where excessive fantasy minimized your interest in the "real" characters, to the extent they even existed. However, in Inception, even if you don't know much about their lives, these people have defined personalities, concerns and motivations which remain static, even if everything around them constantly changes. Even if you lose sight of the physics, the emotion keeps you grounded and gripped.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb. He has mastered the art of extraction, the practice of entering someone's dream and stealing their deepest secrets. It was a technique first developed by the military, but it now used in the private realm for more opportunistic purposes. Cobb organizes teams for his dream heists. They design a dream to be inhabited by their victim's subconscious projections. While an architect can design the building and places in a dream, the dreamer is the one responsible for creating the people who populate it, through his subconscious imagination.
Once the dream thieves enter the subject's dream, share it, playing roles to dupe the dreamer into divulging his deepest hopes and fears. It's a class con, not unlike what you'd expect from David Mamet. It simplty takes place in the psychedelic realm.
After a job goes bad, the company that hires Cobb puts a hit out on him. But that's the least of his worries. He was already a wanted man. He had to escape the United States, after being charged with the murder of his wife Mal (yes the "bad" connotation is intended). He went on the lam to France, leaving his two small children in their grandparents' care. He longs to return to them. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a shady businessman who actually thwarted Cobb's most recent mind theft attempt, was nonetheless impressed. He offers Cobb the chance to return home. He asks Cobb to reverse his extraction talents. Instead of taking information from someone's dream, plant an idea, create the seed of thought. Commit inception.
Cobb's right-hand man Arthur (Jordon Gordon-Levitt, making anyone who watched him for years on 3rd Rock from the Sun immensely proud of his career growth) immediately declares that inception's impossible. It can't be done. Cobb knows it can. He's done it before. Once.
Saito promises that if Cobb's successful in doing it again, he'll pull strings, make the criminal charges disappear and leave the customs door open for Cobb to return to his family. Despite its enormity, Cobb accepts the assignment. All he has to do is use a dream to implant the idea into the brain of Saito's competitor (Robert Fischer, Jr., playing by Batman's Cillian Murphy) that Fischer should sell off the company that he inherited from his father, rather than continuing the family empire.
Cobb and Arthur get to work assembling their dream team. Cobb is not as nimble as he once was. Recently there have been psychic stumbles. He's haunted by his dead wife, who plagues his thoughts (and thereby every dream he has, enters or shares with others) and methodically sabotages all of his dream schemes. Consequently, Cobb can no longer design dreams himself, because everything he knows about the dream environment, Mal (in his subconscious) also knows and she will use that information to destroy the dream world and alert Cobb's would-be victim to the intended theft.
Cobb needs an outside architect and goes to his father-in-law Miles, a professor, to find one. Miles selects a architectural student who is even more advanced than Cobb was at her age, Ariadne. On their very first trip into dreams together, Ariadne discovers that Cobb has as little control of his dreams as he does over his life. As they share a dream, Mal enters and immediately tries to kill Ariadne. Usually being killed in a dream only wakes the dreamer up. So, Ariadne was not in mortal danger from Mal, but she quickly realizes that anyone who dreams with Cobb (literally and figuratively) is at risk and tells him she wants no part of the Inception.
But Cobb knows that the lure of the dream world is addictive. Now that Ariadne has been exposed to it, she won't be able to stay away. He is proven right. Ariadne joins Arthur as part of Cobb's dream team. First job is to make a totem for herself. It's the definitive "pinch me, tell me I'm not dreaming." After all, dreams feel real when you're in them, right? How do you tell the difference? How do you identify reality? You use a totem. An object that Ariadne knows inside out, texture, weight, dimension. An item that she can feel in her dream, test for substance and detail. If it feels false in any way, she'll know she's dreaming. Cobb's totem is a metal spinning top. In a dream it will spin indefinitely. When it topples over, he knows that he's awake, in his real life. You aren't supposed to let anyone else handle your totem, because that defeats the purpose, doesn't it. Cobb uses his dead wife's totem. Our question is, will always be, whether that makes it a less accurate totem for him or not.
Ariadne fashions a chess piece as her totem. She is a PAWN.
Ariadne's choice of totem suggests that Cobb has used her from the beginning, not for the Inception job, but to design a dream that is so real, he won't be able to distinguish it from reality. The ones he creates himself are too familiar to serve this purpose.
Next, Cobb finds a chemist who can make a drug strong enough to produce the ultimate hat trick: three dreams in one. Cobb wants to use a dream within a dream within a dream to get deep enough inside of Fischer's psyche to make Fischer think the idea of selling his father's company originated from so deeply within, he'll never suspect that it was the product of dreamwork. Cobb recruits Eames to act in the dream with him and Arthur (whom Eames deems unimaginative). Finally, Saito himself insists on joining the band of con artists, because he wants to make sure his job succeeds smoothly.
The quintet then devises 3 complex dreams to share with Fischer, all to further a new form of corporate espionage: changing your rival's mind. Cobb's inception techniques are not like brainwashing. You don't indoctrinate or train. You use what's there already. The need and insecurity. The Freudian desires. Instead of exploiting, you satisfy them. Instead of breaking Fischer mentally, you build him, patch up the broken pieces. Fischer's relationship with his father was troubled. He never had dad's approval. Cobb aims to make Fischer think he will somehow gain that approval, the affection he craved, by selling his deceased father's company. It could be argued that the dream team is not stealing from Fischer, so much as giving to him.
Before they embark on the dream plot together, Ariadne insists that Cobb be honest with her. Why does he use drugs to dream, even after working hours. Why is Mal, his subconscious, out to kill him? He and Mal went dreamtripping together once and they got trapped in the dream, for what seemed like 50 years. Who wants to be in a dream for 50 years, Ariadne wonders?
Cobb explains that he discovered that she had a secret she wanted to escape. Something she'd repressed. When they finally emerged back into reality, Mal didn't believe it, didn't want to face it. She thought reality was the dream and she wanted to awaken from it (to escape back into the world of dreams and repression). She wanted to kill herself, to end the life she perceived as a "dream" and she wanted Cobb to join her. He refused. He tried to convince her that by killing herself, she would be ending her life, not ending a dream. She'd be leaving him and their children. She didn't accept it. She killed herself, but framed Cobb for the crime, so that, facing life in prison, he would choose to kill himself too and they could then return to their dream world together. Cobb did not follow her in death. He continued to live a life haunted by her and that's why she terrorizes him in his dreams. Mal is his guilt. She's the part of him that refused to die when she did.
Ariadne is determined to stay with Cobb, throughout their schemes on Fischer, to protect him and everyone who shares the dreams with him, from the violence his mind projects as Mal. She gives Cobb an ultimatum. Either she stays with him or he has to share with the others, everything he's told her. Apparently, Cobb is not willing to do this. So, he allows Ariadne to stay by his side. Yet, I'm not convinced that Arthur doesn't know everything already. He's been working with Cobb a long time. He's been in Cobb's dreams when they've turned violent, invaded by a Malicious Mal. In fact, Arthur has suffered as a result. Although, when you die in a dream, it only causes you to wake up, when you're hurt in a dream, you feel pain in the dream, just as you do in real life. Arthur was physically tortured when Mal broke into Cobb's last dream scheme. Arthur suffered because of her. Yet, he continues to work with Cobb. Why?
Arthur's totem, the symbol he has chosen to identify his reality, is one loaded DIE.
Our band of six merry men (and woman) assembled, when Robert Fischer boards a plane to travel to America for his father's funeral, they are on it with him. In fact, Saito has purchased the entire airline, so they can easily impersonate fellow passengers. Once the flight takes off, Cobb deftly drugs Fischer's drink and the dreams begin.
In the first dream, the team kidnaps Fischer. However, Fischer is not a stranger to extraction. It was Arthur's job to conduct all of the background research, but he somehow failed to discover that Fischer is not your average dreamer. He's a veteran. He received military training on the extraction technique and his mind knows how to defend against it. His subconscious wages an attack on the people who have invaded his dream and Saito is injured in the gunfire that results.
At first, the team doesn''t think Saito's wound is significant. After all, if he dies, all that will happen is that he'll awake from his dream, right? Wrong. Apparently, the drug that Cobb has used for this plot is so unusually strong, that if you die in your dream, you're too far under to wake up. Instead, you enter a dream limbo. You can remain there for years, decades. That's where Cobb resided with Mal for 50 years. Once you finally do wake up, even though only a few hours have passed in reality, your brain is so scrambled from all of the time that you spent in the dream realm that you lose sight of reality. You go insane as Mal did -- as Cobb may be.
If Saito dies in this dream, his body may live on, but his brain will be dead when the dream is over.
The others wonder why Cobb and the chemist did not tell them that there was the risk of being trapped in a dream limbo for a life time. Cobb retorts that he didn't think there was any chance of them dying in the dream, so he had no reason to tell them about limbo. After all, Cobb didn't know that Fischer's defense projections would be shooting at them in the dream. It had been Arthur's job to find out everything about Fischer and Arthur failed. The danger they're in can't be blamed on Cobb, can it?
The team fears they'lll all be killed by Fischer's psyche, but Cobb decides to outsmart it. Using a maneuver that has failed before, Cobb plays "Mr. Charles" a character who alerts Fischer to the fact that he is indeed in a dream. Charles convinces Fischer that his god father (played by Tom Berenger) is the enemy trying to learn the combination to the Fischer family safe. The god father has hired extractors to steal that information from Fischer's brain. But what is inside the safe, Fischer wonders? Fischer himself has no idea.
Fischer isn't consciously aware of possessing secret information, but Cobb promises to help him uncover it. Essentially, by assuring Fischer that he is on his side against the bad guys who would steal his secrets, Cobb (Mr. Charles) convinces Fischer to join the dream team and to actually help them to get inside of Fischer's subconscious. Id, ego, superego? They'll lift the layers of Fischer's mind together, delving deeper into his subconscious, until they find the combination to his safe -- the key unlocking Fischer's troubled relationship with his father.
The team works against time (or the drug that will wear off and wake Fischer before Inception has been completed), to get Fischer to the point in his dream where he will "sponataneously" come to the conclusion that he should sell his father's company. The players are scrambling through 3 levels of dreams simultaneously. They all encompass the same time span, but it moves at different paces per dream. Two minutes = 20 minues = 2 hours. The farther you sink into a dream, the more time it seems has passed.
Arthur's efforts to synchronize the equilibrium trigger (sense of falling) that will force them all to awake from each of the 3 dream levels, is visually arresting, as he works without gravity. But if you've seen Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, you've seen this. To me, the film's action elegantly decorates the drama, but is not what propels it.
As they rush to beat the awakening, Ariadne demands to know the basis for the guilt that spurs his subconscious Mal to continue tormenting him. Why did a train appear out of nowhere in the dream they were sharing and threaten to crush them to death?
Cobb confesses that he's succeeded with Inception once before. He succeeded with Mal. There was a secret from her past that she repressed. When it was uncovered, she didn't want to face it. Reality was too much. To help soothe her, he is the one that convinced her that their dream was a reality. He thought it was just a coping mechanism. They killed themselves in their dream. They lay on a train track and as the locomotive approached them, he told her that it didn't matter which rain the train was headed, the destination was unimportant as long as they were together. The train then ran over them, but death didn't make them wake up. They were too heavily drugged for that. So, death in the dream left them in a dream limbo that lasted for 50 years. They grew old in that dream together, an old couple walking down an empty world, hand in hand. When the drugs finally wore off and they returned to reality, after decades in the dream, Mal had lost her grip on sanity. Because of him, because he told her the dream was real. She killed herself to keep from returning to the waking world as a result.
After revealing the truth to Ariadne, Cobb faces the Mal of his subconscious. He tells her he loves her and misses her more than words can say, but he won't join her in death, because he owes their children more. She has already abandoned them. He will not. Mal won't accept this. She struggles with Cobb. He stabs her, killing the wife of his dreams. Does he kill the guilt that has crippled him along with her?
Ariadne believes he has. She thinks Cobb will be fine now. He has stared down his demons.
Meanwhile, Fischer has opened the safe. He has found the combination that will unlock the relationship with his father. In the safe are a will and a wheel. The will states that Fischer should sell his father's company and chart his own life, rather than being imprisoned by his father's legacy. The wheel is a pinwheel, a souvenir from the one happy moment that Fischer spent with his father in childhood. His father saved that pinwheel all of that time, just as Kane saved Rosebud. This proves to Fischer that his father loved him. Loved him and wanted him to sell the company. Inception has succeeded.
Mission accomplished we return to the plane, where everyone on the team is prepared to awake. But first the flashback that opened the film is repeated. Cobb is at a table with a lonely old man, full of regret. He raises his ancient head to look at Cobb and it reminds him of someone from his past. Someone he knew as a young man. Someone who was an expert at extraction . . . Cobb recognizes the old man too. It's Saito. Saito has been stuck in dream limbo for decades. It is Cobb's job to rescue him, by making Saito realize it's a dream and giving him the means to wake himself. The old man reaches for a gun and kills himself, allowing Saito to return to reality and wake up on the plane with the others, mind intact.
Saito is so relieved that Cobb returned to help him escape from ages of dream limbo, that his mercenary scheme to have Fischer sell his company seems irrelevant at this point. Saito hurriedly picks up the phone, pulling all strings necessary to allow Cobb to return to the United States with the threat of criminal prosecution no longer over his head.
They all enter the airport. Cobb nervously submits his passport to customs. He is cleared, "Welcome back, Mr. Cobb," the agent murmurs. Cobb's father-in-law is waiting for him at baggage claims. They go home. As they enter the house, Cobb reaches for his totem. He spins it to make sure it topples over, to make sure he is awake, but then he sees his children. He calls out to them. They turn and he sees their face. Something he never lets himself see in dreams, because he doesn't want to get lost in the illusion. He runs to them, leaving his totem spinning on the table. It does not stop. Fade to black.
The opening credits fill the screen, crowning such a cinematic accomplishment that you want to stand and applaud, as you do when the cast takes its final bow in a play.
Was Cobb dreaming? I think so, because his kids happened to be wearing the same clothes that they wore in his dreams. The same clothes that he wore before escaping to Europe to avoid prison. He broke his own rule. He used his own memories to build his dreams and that's why he was able to so fully lose his grasp on what was real and what was illusion. He may even have done this on purpose.
So, yes the reunion at the end was a dream, but does it matter? Not if Cobb had finally found peace, not if he could live in that dream happiness for another 50 years. If a dream is as real as life, but without the stress and sadness, then why should we ever try to leave them?
Ariadne had Cobb convinced that he had faced his guilt over Mal's death. But maybe the guilt he conquered was that caused by the thought of leaving his children. Maybe he finally let himself abandon them to a fatherless reality, so that he could succumb to the dream in which Mal was still alive and they were raising their family together.
Of course, that begs the question: why did Mal need to run in the first place? What was in her past that she did not want to face? It had do with her childhood, because the secret resided in a dollhouse, because when Cobb and Ariadne passed the house where Mal grew up in a dream, he quickly, curtly assured Ariadne that Mal would not be in it. What happened to Mal when she was a girl and did it involve Miles, her kindly father (Michael Caine)? Or was it related to Mal's mother, someone who is never seen in the dream, but only heard in the background of a phone conversation, after which she abruptly cuts off Cobb's call with his children.
Was the real crime that Cobb committed leaving the children in the care of the same parents who may have permanently scarred their mother?
Guilt and its nature, it's origiin. The questions persist. Could Cobb have been more directly responsible for Mal's death than he told Ariadne. He stabbed her in his dream? Could he have killed her in reality? After all, that's what he was accused of, that's why he was a fugitive from justice. Cobb told Ariadne he was accused of killing his wife and then thanks her for not asking if he did. But we should ask.
Oh, Cobb takes us back to the same place where Leonard left off in Memento. It's Nolan's infinite loop. Ten years between the two movies, but we end up at the same place. Memory, dreams. Cobb and Leonard may be lying to themselves more than to anyone else. Yet, where subjectivity and perception exist, there can never be one truth anyway.
Truth is an illusion and reality . . . is everything we see and seem, but a dream within a dream? Once you remove consciousness of time and space, everything you've been, are and will be, exists at once. Everything lost is restored (Cobb) -- or lost repeatedly (Leonard). The choice is yours.