I don’t spend a lot of time writing about pop culture related items like movies and TV shows, but I feel like I’m going to need to be a little more intentional if I’m going to write about anything other than The Captain over the next several months. Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching a movie — Inception — that I had been looking forward to for a while, and it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my writing chops. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and plan to, I’ll give you a minireview right now: If you enjoy complex storylines a la Memento or Primer and fantastic cinematography a la The Matrix go out and watch this movie tonight. Or this afternoon, if you can sneak out of the office a little early. But regardless, stop reading now if you don’t want any spoilers.
The plot of Inception revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, who is a dream thief. He, along with his team, break into the minds of their targets with the goal of finding sensetive secrets that someone else wants. The mission that Cobb and his team face in this movie, however, revolves around an assignment in which they are required to do the reverse: break into the mind of a man and plant an idea. The execution of this plan involves the construction of multiple dreams-within-dreams that Cobb and his team must penetrate, all the while keeping track of how deep they are into matryoshka doll that is their subject’s dream state.
While the plot is certainly very well crafted, it’s the visual elements of the film that are really impressive. Since the bulk of the film takes place in the dream world, Nolan was free to do some fantastic graphic manipulation such as shifting the landscape around the characters, manipulating the gravity, and altering the time scale based on the depth in which the characters are within the dream world. During one of my favorite parts of the film, Cobb’s team was inside a moving van that had fallen off a bridge and was hurtling downward toward the water. During this state of freefall, the gravity in the dreamworld was affected equally and the team began to float around the hotel room that they were in. Similarly, time in the real world relates to time in the dream world at a roughly 1:12 ratio. As the team entered this freefall, the approximately 5 seconds it took to reach the water translated to about a minute in the dream they were having. That same minute then translated into 12 minutes in the dream-within-a-dream the team was in. As the van approached the water, the team knew they basically had about 12 minutes before the jolt of hitting the water would bring them out of the dream, setting up a strong sense of urgency.
On the subject of dream-within-a-dream, a script like this in this particular age of cinema could have easily gone cliche; The Matrix, The Sixth Sense and Fight Club were all released eleven short years ago, and The Usual Suspects was released four years before that. We’re a generation of film viewers who have been conditioned to expect the twist and almost invariably — I’d say 9 times out of 10 — we can see it coming a mile away. M Night Shyamalan is the worst offenders here, as every film since Unbreakable has lead up to a pretty obvious “twist” ending, but there are plenty of “psychological thrillers” that have come in the past decade that fell flat with formulaic attempts to trick the audience. So when I heard all the reports of how “mind blowing” Inception was, I was a little afraid that Nolan had taken the easy way out with the ending.
But he didn’t. The entire two and a half hours of the movie, once it is established that it will take place partially in the dream world, Nolan respects his audience enough to recognize that they will immediately wonder if the entire movie doesn’t take place in someone’s dream. The payoff for this suspicion comes in the final shot in which Cobb spins a top to see if it ever stops spinning, which would confirm that they are not in a dream. As the top spins, it begins to wobble slightly as the scene is cut short just moments before it appears that it may fall out of rotation. Instead of assuming a situation like this would be unanticipated by the audience, Nolan leaves the ending open to interpretation, acknolwedging that this question has been there the whole time.
It’s very rare that I look forward to a film as much as I did with Inception, and even more rare that the payoff equals my anticipation. Inception yet another fantastic film by Christopher Nolan that lives up to the hype it has received.