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Inception

August 11, 2010

this is all Spoiler.

Last night, I dreamt I went to see Inception again. It seemed to me I sat in the auditorium, and for a while I could not understand what was happening on the screen for the story was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The movie wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as I had expected. But as I advanced, I was aware that a change had come upon it…

I reckon Hitchcock would have liked Inception. Hitch enjoyed allowing you time to concentrate on something you thought was properly important (Marion’s stolen cash, for instance) only to batter you with an unseen sucker punch at the end of the second reel. Personally, I don’t think he particularly cared for his audiences and was just happy to get his jollies knowing he’d cruelly misdirected them to buggery and back. The movies were a shared experience, but it was all on his terms. Well, Inception is all one massive misdirection, and I really do mean all of it.

The plot’s as Big Concept back-of-a-postage-stamp simple as it gets; some people can go into others’ dreams and steal secrets.

Only they can’t because…woah…overlapping thread. Yes, sorry, no, they can. They really can. Probably.

It’s called ‘extraction’. It’s a form of extreme industrial sabotage. Specifically we’re talking Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (brilliant support from Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who set up dream scenarios so that they can enter a person’s subconscious at their most vulnerable – when sleeping – and rootle around looking for goodies. These scenarios are actual living worlds, designed to the finest detail where the victim will feel comfortable enough to act naturally. Then, there’s ‘inception’, where you go in and plant the germ of an idea, so that the target believes it to be his or her very own spark of inspiration.

Stop and think at this point. What sort of half-assed straight-to-video Eighties shit is this? It’s a Jeff Fahey film. It’s a Ben Cross film (as a priest, I expect). It probably has an ex-Bond girl in it. None of the words in the title would ever be Inception, but one would definitely be Dream or Dreamer. It would have a scantily-clad blonde on the cover with wires attached to her head by blue suckers.

But it’s none of those things. Inception is a masterful account of how, if you can get people to accept one bold concept then, fuck, why not add another? And another. And another. And this paragraph could go on. Christopher Nolan, as he proved in Memento, is strikingly adept at giving us any number of balls to juggle, and then sending us spinning as we try to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the patterns we think we’re seeing. At which point you decide to do something else entirely. That he does this so easily and manages to throw in some genuinely beautiful visuals is testament to a) a major imagination and b) a skilled film-maker.

Thing is, Inception‘s misdirection is to have us thinking about dreams and dreams within dreams (and dreams within that, and then that) but actually it’s about love and obsession. Specifically, Cobb’s for his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who pops up in the dreams as a subconscious imposter that he brings along with him and who almost always tries to ruin things. Why does she do this? Is she working for another agency? Is it something altogether darker than that?

Now, Inception works – that misdirection, above, works – because of a neat little trick that should really be too cheesy to be allowed; the fact that it does illustrates just how well the game is being played. You see, there is no such thing here as reality. Not a second of it. Maybe when the titles go up and we step out blinking into the foyer, but in the film? No. I won’t try and convince you that I got that as I watched. I didn’t. It took one break in the dream I’d just witnessed, one crack that nagged as I thought of it later – in the movie the dreams breaking up are represented by buildings crumbling or the elements going crazy – and once I allowed that in everything followed. It was a tortuous night; this is a movie you take home with you.

For me, it was a name that did it. Ariadne. I’ve always loved that name, and it was a delight to hear it. So unusual, poetic. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is Cobb’s architect, newly acquired to design the elaborate and labyrinthine dreamscape where they will stalk the mark they’ve been given. I wondered why they’d named her that, it seemed such a bold thing to do. It was a go-check moment. So I went and checked. 3am, I hop out of bed (I really want to say I knew this, but I can’t) and look at wikipedia. Ariadne, you’ll find, has form in helping people through difficult environments, because there she is in the Theseus myth, “she fell in love…and helped him by giving him a sword and a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning, so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.”

Ariadne isn’t a smart throwaway reference. She first appears in what we feel comfortable believing is the movie’s reality base world, Our World if you will. It seems logical. Cobb’s in dead schtuck and needs a new architect, along she comes. Then he’s suddenly sent to Mombasa, to meet a new member of his team, whereupon, in a vast and confusing city he stumbles upon not only some men sent to capture him (Cobb is living under threat of extradition and cannot see his children), but also, just at the right point, an ally who can save him. It seems logical. This ally, it turns out, can resolve all his problems. It all seems logical. The way it’s presented, it all seems logical. We’re in Reality, so it must be.

Back to Ariadne, because she’s the key, remember? Was this just a nod and a wink, a literary echo to allow the writers a moment of smugness? I don’t think so. Because I don’t think Cobb is an expert in Subconscious Security at all. I don’t think he can enter people’s dreams. Of course he can’t. This is a cineaste’s film, it’s a film-maker’s film, and if that’s the case, I’ll quote another movie: the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick here is that Cobb/Nolan convinces you his world does exist. I don’t think it does. Ariadne’s the clue because she tells you that even at the basest of base levels you’re in a clever man’s head and she’s your way out. She’s your ball of twine, your trail of breadcrumbs, if you like. Cobb’s invented her to show you that the Reality here is his first level of dreaming and that he knows she’s a Classical figure, a knowing acknowledgement of the entire artifice. This base world, as the trip to Mombasa shows, is filled with dream logic, not Real World logic. The entire thing, credits to credits is Cobb constructing a majestic maze in which to hide Mal and then deal with her…

You’re not watching a film, you’re watching a man trying to make sense of reality. It’s the most elegant dupe I’ve ever witnessed.

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