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Come Back To Reality – (Inception: Analysis, Answers, and Spoilers)

2010 August 7

I defy even the smartest and most observant of moviegoers to walk out of Inception with complete confidence in what happened in the final scene. By trick and by trap, Christopher Nolan’s latest film requires that you either search through the digital ether – like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb searching through his dreamscape, trying to piece his life back together – or that you keep going back to the theater before you can be certain about what exactly happened. Any lesser film that committed to confusion in this manner would have been run out of town, the way today’s audiences laugh at the name “M. Night Shyamalan” when it appears on the screen. So, how exactly did Nolan pull this off?

The structure of the film lets Nolan’s inversions on standard tropes shine. Little time is wasted establishing frames of reference for the audience. They’re on their own. The film starts off mid-dream, as dreams tend to start. There is no time to give the audience a “How.” Hard Sci-Fi be damned, we focus on the action, and the writers are allowed to raise the stakes to suit the progression of the film at will. Oh people can’t die in dreams? Drop in a risk such as … I don’t know … becoming a drooling brainless vegetable.

Standard heist films revolve around an artifact worth risking everything to procure, and as the film starts, Nolan leads the audience to believe that this movie will follow in those footsteps. Extraction, it seems, is Cobb’s skill set, and through the task of retrieving the secrets in Saito’s [ø] mind, we learn the primary rules of play. It’s only after our introduction to the characters (mostly chess pieces to the script, imbued with emotion thanks to the skills of the cast) that we hear the title of the film, and learn that it is the goal. Inception, to plant an idea.

The first time I saw Inception was on opening night. I was not feeling all that well, and about half way through the movie, I started into a cyclical process of nodding off and waking up. As disorienting as this experience was, it did not make me feel any more positive or negative about the film. Afterwards, one of the people I saw the film with came out in a state of mind that I think can be called Shook. A number of times he’d say, “There’s no way you can prove that that can’t be true or isn’t already happening.” The film had thoroughly implanted the idea of dreamwalking into his head and he was obviously affected by it. He hasn’t mentioned this to me since that night, so he may have moved on, but that Inception had performed an inception on a member of the audience was quite a moment.

Aside from the trains and planes that serve as holding cells for bodies whose minds are submerged in dreams, there is no technology in the film that ties it to a specific year or era. Again, the film walks right past the How question. Mobile phones are used sparingly, they are not tied to the day’s technological limits or brands and manufacturers.

Tom Hardy plays the grifter Eames, and his skill of duplicity (Forger, is the title Cobb uses to reference him) is presented as a sleight of hand. When he learns enough about someone, he can become them in the dreams of others. When this parlor trick is trotted out, think of the elevator scene with Saito, it’s integrated with a seamlessness that has the audience reacting with thoughts of how clever the movie is, and not “how did he do that?” Through these moments, the audience is allowed to follow along, while still carrying their confusion. This seamless transitioning, which hands incomplete morsels of information to the audience, are shot so well that they do not require exposition. This is not to suggest that you’re being mislead, or that the ending is an insult to the crowd’s intelligence. The ending is just something that they’re not trained to be ready for yet.

Did you remember learning that Dileep Rao’s character’s name is Yusuf? To most of the audience, he’s remembered simply as being The Chemist [1]. He provides nameless sedatives, only known by their potency, which as I said above, is a device Nolan mentions early so that he can up the stakes later on.

Having seen it once through already, and after being at loggerheads with coworkers about the ending (don’t worry, I’m saving the conclusive evidence for last) I had to go back. During the subsequent viewings, I took notes, a lot of notes. The more I saw the film, though, the more I admired the moments where the film decides it has to be more complicated than it needs to be.

The physical Kicks that bring dreamwalkers back up a level serve at least two purposes to the film by my count. The first, to force the writers to be less lazy when navigating the layers of dreams. The scene where the absence of gravity forces Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Arthur to jerry-rig a Kick out of wire and explosives is a marvel. It’s shot with such precision that even though the physics might not make immediate sense, the audience understands [2] Arthur’s goal. On a more subjective level, the kicks help provide the film with one of its better comic moments: Eames and Yusuf repeatedly giving Arthur a Kick, to the delight of everyone in the audience, and everybody in the film who isn’t Arthur. It’s one of the film’s lighter moments, and since there aren’t many moments when they go for comedy, it’s helpful that it works.

When things go wrong throughout the film, there are mostly good explanations. There’s a runaway train in Fischer’s mind? Well, that’s because his subconscious was trained to defend itself. Saito’s been shot, but Cobb says that he shouldn’t be killed? Well, that’s because the super strong sedatives that allow three levels of dream walking change the rules. They missed a kick? Well, they can somehow time things so they go upwards with the next kick. The audience is so used to the problem being quickly explained that they aren’t ready for the ending to be anything less than tidy.  Cobb returns, sees his children in the same pose he’s imagined and remembered them throughout the film, and spins the top. It spins, wobbles, and then it’s the Sopranos finale all over again.

Some claim that he might have been unable to make it out of limbo. Cobb and Saito don’t emerge from the van with the rest, they could be trapped in limbo. Another theory suggests that somewhere off camera, he gave in and accept false reality, either because he didn’t believe he could make it out or that he had lost touch with reality the way that Mal was undone by locking her totem away. These are interesting arguments, and clearly, Nolan wanted to provoke the audience to think about how we as a people decide to live in false realities (social networking, Second Life, World of Warcraft, Live Action Role Play, The Tea Party).

I’m sorry to break the news to the people who don’t want to hear this, but the film’s ending is the Hollywood ending. It’s not all a dream, it’s not a tacit statement about the current evils of society. This is an ending where the hero gets to go home to his kids. Where a monolithic Corporation is fractured into smaller entities[3]. And I say that with confidence because the movie is all a buildup to the top dropping on the table.

Reminder: the two times we see the top spin and not fall are in the limbo scene with the elderly Saito which bookends the film. The times we see it fall are both in Reality: firstly when he’s grazing a gun along the side of his head, alone in the French hotel room, and then after he doses on Yusuf’s sedatives and dreams of Mal with her head on the tracks.

To start, Cobb walks away from the spinning top, his personal reminder of the part he played in Mal’s death. This was the first time he hasn’t stared intently into the top after he spun it onto a surface. Every other time he spins the top, he can’t help but stare into it. That he walks away from the top means he truly has gotten over Mal’s death and has returned to reality, as Miles [Michael Caine] implored him in Caine’s first scene in the film. That scene, and that line, delivered after Cobb tells Miles he can’t be an architect anymore because Mal won’t let him, sets up Cobb’s dramatic arc of the film: return to his kids and to let go of his dark past. Performing inception upon Fischer is only a means to that end.

It’s a convenient coincidence that the process it takes to get close enough to limbo – where he experienced all of these decades with Mal – is the same process that the Fischer job centers around. The film is a series of events that pushes Cobb to finally stop his addiction to keeping her memory alive in his mind. With her in his arms, after Ariadne and Fischer have fallen back through the Kicks, he lets go of his grief, revealing their experience of growing old in limbo[4], and declaring that it was enough. With this done, he can finally construct the architecture of dreams and limbo without the fear she will haunt him. He can find Saito in the temple, and bring him back to the plane, to rejoin the team.

There is another argument to be made for how we can tell that Cobb is awake and in reality at the end. You can look this up and there will probably be evidence to support me on this, all I have are my statements, because I don’t take photos of the movie screen or buy bootleg DVDs. If we can establish that some scenes do not take place in dreams, but in reality, then I can definitively argue why the ending of the film is not in a dream. There’s a crucial difference between the two kinds of scenes: he’s only wearing his wedding ring in dreams.

Watching the film, looking for this detail, I realized it was not only completely intentional, but it was meant to be something you wouldn’t know was there unless you had thought to look for it. The film is framed, knowingly, so that the spot on his hand where ring is or is not worn is frequently just off camera, obscured, or otherwise not shown. As the movie gets further and further along, the frames of film that let you see the ring or the absence of the ring are fewer and more far between. In the final scene, it seemed as if there was only a single frame of film to prove it, but there is no ring.

Additionally, when I first saw the movie (in it’s totality) I thought that Cobb’s children were wearing the same clothing throughout the film, in flashbacks, dreams and his memories. That too, upon my most recent viewing, turns out to not be true. The boy wears different shirts (either plaid or stripes) throughout the film, and in the final scene, there’s a white shirt under the girl’s outfit that was not there before.

Reading into this misdirection is what Nolan wants, and his placing of the children in their few appearances serves a larger purpose: eliciting a reaction from the audience, because we are so happy to see them turn around as Cobb has repeatedly says he needs to see them. The slow reveal is beautiful on screen, and the gasps of the audience upon seeing their faces and the cut to black are equally strong. Nolan truly is the master architect of dreams, with filmic Penrose Stairs, he has placed trick on top of trick, and succeeded in making one of the smartest Hollywood films of this, or any recent, summer.

[ø] Ken Watanabe is only asked to be sly, snarky and mumble half his lines, and he follows through on these chores perfectly.

[1] He’s either going to be remembered as the Chemist, or the only dark skinned person in the film.

[2] That this is accomplished while Arthur is silent is a testament to both Levitt’s progress as an actor, and the skills of Lee Smith, the film’s editor, who I’m assuming will have an Oscar by the end of the next telecast.

[3] Can’t we do an Inception on all the major bank CEO’s? It seems like Inception figured out how to convince CEOs to fix things and end the “Too Big To Fail” climate.

[4] Which, until now, we never saw and had we already known about it would have made it harder to justify Cobb’s dilemma.

6 Responses
  1. August 13, 2010

    I’ve never been able to pay attention to film details myself. I never would have guessed that about the shirts or the ring. Even if I were taking notes. Unless I’ve seen it 100+ times. And there are only three movies that fall into that category.

    So as someone who reads sci-fi (and indian romance novels) pretty exclusively, I’m going to bring us back to the science fiction aspects of the ending. As a sci-fi film, I think Cobb has returned to reality. Movie details aside, since we’ve established I can’t pick them out unless it’s Star Wars, in terms of the plot as a science fiction social commentary, I agree that Cobb has returned to reality. And unless it’s a space opera, I think that good science fiction is supposed to leave you in the dark (see: Blade Runner), and force you to think. Inception may seem like a movie with a lot of twists, but to me, it’s straight up “straightforward” science fiction that does have an ending, and allows you to draw your own conclusion. But that’s the other point, I want to make. It ends. And that only ending is reality.

    While that in itself is maybe a weak argument, I’ll have to see the movie again (aka wait till it’s on dvd) before I can draw more conclusions.

  2. August 13, 2010

    Yeah, Meg, after seeing it the number of times I have (more than the maximum levels of dreams) I ‘m going to wait until dvd or Blu-Ray. And I didn’t even get to how beautiful the film is, which was so distracting from little things like the ring. This might be one of the first movies I say there’s no question I’d pay for in ultra high res.

    thanks for the comment!

  3. Oliver permalink
    August 13, 2010

    My interpretation of the ending is that it’s the director asking you “How much does it really matter if the top falls or not?” He’s wanted to be with his kids for so long, that the sight of them causes him to stop caring if it’s real or not and look away from the top.

    I think if Nolan wanted it to be a standard Hollywood ending, he wouldn’t hide it under enough layers that the only people who could figure it out are the people who don’t care about or for Hollywood endings. He clearly wants people to think about it after the leave the theater, which is both what a movie should do and a good way to create buzz for the film (mission accomplished)

  4. roughie permalink
    December 3, 2010

    Any thoughts on this interpretation ?

  5. December 3, 2010

    Admittedly, a lot of time has passed since I’ve seen the movie. I’ll return to this theory once I get the movie on DVD.

    • Shawn permalink
      March 22, 2011

      One thing to consider is that when Cobb spins the top in that bathroom after the dream with M al on the train tracks… he doesn’t actually see the top spin and fall down… as he spins it it falls off the sink and he gets distracted.

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