The use of dreams – of the subconscious – as narrative setting, is not an entirely novel idea. Consider Kaufman’s elegant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Lynch’s mind-bending Mulholland Drive. Even Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. The Matrix can be considered a dreamscape, and let’s not forget the entryway to Malkovich’s mind in Being John Malkovich. Synecdoche, New York, with all its beauty and nightmare, can be read as an extended dream, and The Cell features a psychologist entering a serial killer’s mind to solve a crime.
And so on and so forth.
Lucky for us, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do a rehash, and steers away from surreal imagery and symbolism and focuses on the action. After directing the wildly successful The Dark Knight, we know – and he knows – that this is what he does best.
In fact, for a film dealing with dreams and the dark monsters that lurk in troubled minds, Inception is quite literal: important information that we dare not share are found in safes protected with codes (obvious, really), the subconscious are shown as people who stare and attack an intruding consciousness, painful/dangerous memories are kept in “jails” or static environments, etc. In order to wake up, one only has to die, or to fall.
Anyone who wishes to enter a shared dream has to carry a Totem, which can be anything at all. A die, a pawn, a top. It is used to check if you are in someone else’s dream. A top, for example, will continue spinning in dreams; in reality, it will eventually stop and fall over.
The plot is simple enough, as simple as any heist film: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hired by a big bad businessman (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of a rival business’s heir. Cobb usually does Extractions, or the removal of important/confidential information (from safes, inside the mark’s subconscious). But what the big bad businessman wants is an Inception, an operation wherein Cobb has to plant the seed of an idea in the mark’s mind – in this case, “I will break up my father’s empire”.
(I actually wondered if Nolan intended to show Cobb planting an actual seed in some field while in dreamscape. I mean, there are safes, so why not go that extra mile in literal storytelling?)
So Cobb, like Danny Ocean, assembles his team: he hires a Forger, an Architect, and a Chemist. They devise three levels of dreams to do their job: the first level will last for a week, the second level for six months, and the last level for ten years. In dream-time that is, which as we all know is slower than real-time. While Cobb’s team navigates through several dreams for years and years, they are in fact just on a plane, asleep, waiting for touchdown on LA soil.
Or are they? What if everything that has been presented to us is a dream? What if Cobb is the mark of the Inception? What if there has not been an Inception at all?
Cobb’s team emerges from the job successful. He comes home from exile, hugs his kids. On the table the top spins, and keeps on spinning, until the screen fades to black. When I saw the film I believed the top fell, and that Mr. Nolan was just messing with us with that fadeout. Cobb is a tortured character (played beautifully by DiCaprio), and I want him to be happy. Like in that scene where the Architect folds the dream-city unto itself, we can wish to see what we want to see.
(Not satisfied? Check out the links here, with articles featuring discussions about the ending.)