Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception: Multi-faceted Sleight-of-Hand

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is more than the movie that I thought it was when I first viewed it. It is a story of resolution of emotional pain wrapped up in an action-adventure team-heist caper.

I know that, because I watched it twice. In one day. Back-to-back. I saw it, walked out to the ticket counter and bought a ticket for the next show, and watched it again. Transfixed both times, but comprehending the 2nd time.

I'm not a movie reviewer and I'll leave it to those capable folks to describe Inception to you in their inimitable way. For Roger Ebert's stellar review of Inception click here, and for his Journal entry on the controversy of the negative criticisms of the film click here.

But, I do think that my marathon double-feature of Inception gives me perhaps a different insight into the movie. Here's how I described on Roger Ebert's Journal how I perceived the movie in those two viewings.

First viewing: I recognized instantly that this was a movie that I would just have to let unfold in front of me. Hang with it. See how it played out. Enjoy the acting, and puzzle out the plot later.

2nd viewing: Ah, now it's making sense. I'm seeing the setups. Understanding the dream layers. Hearing a couple of laugh lines that I missed in the first showing. Completely understanding the inceptions, both of them. Wow.

Inception is intricate. Layered. Precise. Just trying to keep all of the layers, and their differential timing, in my head was stimulating.

Intricate, yes. Layered, yes yes. But in more than one direction. Not just deep, but wide.

"The inceptions, both of them". The key to understanding the movie.

Let me just cut to the chase. Inception is to me much more than the layered action heist-caper that I struggled to hang with in the first viewing. It is a rich emotional character study, driven by emotional pain. The sleight-of-hand that Nolan employs is keeping you so engaged in the caper that the emotional heart of the movie is the gem to be discovered in the second viewing.

By now you've seen or heard enough to understand the Caper. A techological mercenary team lead by DiCaprio's character "Cobb" excels at dropping in to their target's dreams to steal corporate secrets. Their challenge, to do it in reverse. To plant an idea in their target's mind through dreams, and dreams within dreams, to achieve a corporate end. "Not strictly legal", he says. Will Cobb's team succeed in it's mission, and Cobb achieve his yearned for reward?

It's all you can do to hang on and comprehend this aspect of the plot. To track the layers "deep" into the dreams, each layer with it's own timescale. You are inundated with the details of the reverse-heist. With the makeup of the team, and their various roles. With the other-worldness and physics-defying complexity of the mazes created by Ariadne, the Architect. By the parallel actions in the different layers of the dreams.

Questions abound as you watch. How do they team-dream? Can inception be done? Who is the dreamer at each level, and who are the dream-sharers? Will Cobb and his team succeed in their mission and earn Cobb his payoff? Or will Cobb's increasingly threatening subconscious projections derail his success?

I say "derail" on purpose. But, I'll come back to that.

It is entirely understandable as you do all you can do to keep up with the intricate layers of the Caper plot hold a criticism that I am hearing that the negative critics have espoused - that Nolan's movie lacks emotion.

I disagree. I think that Inception is driven by emotion. By emotional pain to be precise. And, ultimately, the resolution of that pain.

Perhaps it is because I can relate to emotional pain quite well at the moment that I think that. That I'm sensitive to that. But, it is there.

The line of dialogue in Inception that is key to understanding the core of emotional pain in the plot mostly escaped me in the first viewing. Said by Cobb's main teammate to the Architect, it is this:

"He knows it can be done, because he's done it before".

Forget the caper plot. Focus on that. The first Inception. Follow those plot elements. What does Cobb's elevator ride with Ariadne mean? The hotel room? The train? The 50-year limbo? Why does Mal show up so often? Focus also on Cobb's face, which is a character study in emotional pain.

I said "derailed" earlier. Why?

Why did the train suddenly appear in the first chase sequence out of nowhere? Because the train has significance in the emotional core of the movie. Significance that is coded in this oft-repeated phrase that ties layers together:

"You are waiting for a train. A train that will take you to your destination. You can't be sure that it will, but it doesn't matter. Either way we will be together forever".

Or the second repeated refrain:

"I am an old man, filled with regrets, waiting to die".

The movie is filled with emotion. Mal & Cobb's love. Ariadne's wonder at "pure creation". Primal emotions: Loss. Separation. Disappointment. Guilt. Most of all, guilt.

It's a sleight-of-hand of sorts. While you are distracted with the deep up-down layers of the Caper plot, the emotional core of the movie is unfolding in the back-and-forth past-present layers of the First Inception. That's what leads to resolution, and payoff.

What a rich and fascinating movie. Worth seeing, I think. Definitely worth seeing twice!

Note: photo from, via Google.


  1. A good article, someone did need to point this out as I myself hold the same perspective on most of Nolan's work

    I too was arguing with a friend about the exact same points that you had mentioned here. Most of Nolan's movie is criticized because of their lack of emotion. The Prestige is about revenge, jealousy, pride. As you mentioned above this movie is about loss and regret and redemption.

    I would also like to point the sub plot of Jr. Fisher's father's disappointment with him seeing it as a failure. What a wonderful way Nolan uses the second Inception upon that character by placing the little toy inside his locker to free him off his fear as a failure in the eyes of his father. In this way Cobb not only frees Jr. Fisher of his pain but also redeems himself of his own failure of his previous inception.

    Maybe the narration and the story at times gets in the way too much between the actual story of regret, I feel that it is intentional. Nolan is not the sort of director who would use cheap tricks like slow motion to evoke a feeling for the sake of it, in this movie he only uses it to show the relative difference in time passed in reality vs. the dream state (even the scene where he is kicked from his initial dream into a tub full of water), he only makes it dramatic because it adds up to his story. Similarly he uses shaky camera only when they woke up from a dream to make it seem more realistic.

  2. Thank you, Hasnain, for commenting.

    The pinwheel toy in the safe is an important point. I missed it mostly in the first viewing. I miseed the setups, certainly.

    It's first seen in the framed picture that Fisher's dad sweeps off of the bedstand. It's seen again in a wallet version of that pic in the wallet that the team steals on the airplane. The team sees that, and then manipulatively places it in the safe for Fisher Jr. to find. By finding the pinwheel, he does release his pain - which helps the team achieve the positive planting of an idea rather than a negative planting. He now loves his father, and now knows his father was disappointed that he tried to be him. Now he positively attaches to the Will, which will allow him to break up the company to be his own man. Mission achieved.

    But, it is an emotional catharsis for Fisher Jr., manipulated or not.

    That's what I got from the two viewings.

  3. [Note: Some slight spoilers are in this comment]

    Hi Randy,

    I wonder if, indeed, Cobb planted more than those two inceptions (though only those two are successful ones). Certainly there are only two times in which he plants something in someone's safe, but the second of the two refrains above is said to Saito, so when Saito is lost in limbo, this is what he imagines his reality to be, which Cobb said to him at the beginning of the movie. And yet, when he realizes that Cobb was the one who thought up that "reality," as it were, for him, he is able to escape to the real world. In other words, like Cobb mentions, the inception doesn't hold because Saito traces its origin to somebody outside himself.

    Also, I wonder if Mal is short for "malice."

    And now you've got me wanting to see it again.

  4. I was checking on the meaning of the pinwheel in the subsubsubsub(?)dream sequence in Inception because I just had a dream last night of my oldest brother and father (deceased 2009) holding up glasses of wine for a toast. When I looked past them, on the wall was a picture of them together with something abscuring their faces. I went up to it to get a better look and they were pinwheels. Thank you litdreamer for such a precise interpretation. I suppose issues between my brother and Dad are being sorted.