The Brilliant Deception of Inception
Welcome to a special edition of 8-Bit Philosophy, where we take a look at whether films are dreams. Is the film just using cinematic technique or is it trying to tell us something more? This week – Inception: Are Films Dreams?
Ep.44: Inception: Are Films Dreams?
Created & Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Additional Artwork by: Jacob Salamon
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
The Brilliant Deception of Inception
Hey guys, this is Jared-creator here at Wisecrack. Today we’re talking about a film that seems to raise more questions than answers– Christopher Nolan’s Inception. You’re probably thinking this film has been analyzed to death, and you’d be right: the internet has scrutinized every element of the film’s plot- from infographics that chronicle each dream level to videos that break down visual cues with excruciating attention to detail- all with the aim of answering the pivotal question: Does Cobb make it back to reality at the end? Or was it all a dream?
Although some convincing arguments have been made, truth is, we may never be able to answer this question with any real authority. I mean, the final shot makes it pretty clear that Nolan wanted it to be inconclusive. But what if we’re focusing on the wrong things? What if the answer to the film doesn’t lie in the plot, but in the construction of the film itself? What if we’ll never be able to draw a clear distinction between dream and reality because films themselves are dream-like in nature?
For those of you that are fans of our show Earthling Cinema, you may remember we touched on this briefly, but we felt like it warranted a more detailed explanation. Welcome to this special episode on Christopher Nolan’s Inception- are films dreams?
One of the biggest criticisms we hear leveled at Inception is that the film has WAY too much exposition; the incessant use of not-so-subtle dialogue to prime the audience on what’s going on.
Some have even sarcastically started referring to the film as “Exposition”. And I suppose that’s not unwarranted- it takes over 30 minutes of explaining the rules of the world before the story really gets rolling. Most of this information is funneled to the audience through Ellen Page’s character Ariadne- named after the mythological character who helps Theseus through the labyrinth in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Certainly some may decry the fact that the only female protagonist in the film is nothing more than a passive surrogate for the audience to learn how the logic of the world works. But considered through a certain lens, our identification with Ariadne makes for some of the most interesting insights of the film.
During her training, we see Cobb and Ariadne drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe. The scene unfolds like a scene in any other movie until Ariadne realizes:
This isn’t just a revelation for Ariadne, but for the audience as well. We were also unaware that it was a dream. We don’t see them go jack in to their dream-machine things, so how would we know otherwise? Cobb goes on to explain how it is that she’s been tricked:
What Nolan is really highlighting here is that like a dream, a scene in a movie will often start in the middle in the action- not at the beginning.
We didn’t see them arrive at the cafe, sit down, and order their overpriced percolated drip coffee- because that’s not how movies work. A film can jump forward in time without any explanation of how or why the characters are there and we as an audience ACCEPT it. We ACCEPT narrative ellipsis. Just as we can believe our dreams are real even though we start in the middle of the action, we ALSO become engrossed in a film even though we’re constantly thrown in to the middle of a new scene.
Why is it that movies, these collections of moving images mashed together, are able to immerse us in a kind of reality- one that we’re so heavily invested in? Nolan isn’t the first one to suggest that the way we dream is similar to the way we experience films.
In the book, “In the Blink of an Eye,” legendary film editor Walter Murch suggests that the reason films work is because we’ve been trained by our dreams to be invested in this kind of disjointed storytelling. He says “we accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams… in the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect “this looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.”
Throughout Inception, Nolan is constantly drawing a comparison between the logic of cinema and the logic of dreams. Like dreams, films affect us on a subconscious level.
Let’s take a look at when Cobb meets Eames in Mombasa.We are brought in to the scene in the same way we’re brought in to many scenes- with an establishing shot. We cut from a conversation between Cobb and Arthur to an aerial shot of Mombasa. We have no idea how much time has passed or if Cobb had gone down a dream level- we just start in the middle of the action. One may be tempted to say “Aha! Then it must be a dream. Just like Cobb said” But then again… that’s just how movies function.
Later, when Cobb is being chased through the city streets, he gets stuck in an alleyway that narrows to a point. Now I know absolutely nothing about Mombasa city planning, but this does seem to be pretty strange and … Really unsafe. There are two ways we can interpret this. 1- as an indication that it’s all a dream. Claustrophobia, after all, is a common anxiety found in dreams. OR 2- this can simply be cinematic technique that heightens the tension of the scene. Bizarre and unexplained structures find their ways in to movies all the time for the sake of conveniently allowing the scene more suspense and excitement- like the archetyptal plate of glass being carried through the streets. Yet we don’t necessarily dismiss those scenes as dreams within the narrative.
Then, Saito all the sudden shows up in his limo. What is he doing there? Seems like one of the wealthiest men in the world could have sent someone else. And more importantly, how did he show up at EXACTLY the right time that Cobb needed him? Seems pretty convenient. Perhaps this is an indication that Cobb is dreaming. Certainly such wish fulfillment occurs within dreams. But on the other hand, these coincidences happen in movies ALL THE TIME.
If dreams can captivate us in to believing the most far-fetched, illogical, nonsensical scenarios, then Nolan seems to be making the point that cinema can as well.
One of the most critical examples of this is during Mal’s death scene. Cobb walks in to see Mal sitting on the edge of a window in a neighboring building. Yet, all the furniture has been upturned in the room Cobb is in. Are we to believe that Mal went ape-shit on the furnishings, then rented a room in a neighboring building and sat on the windowsill waiting for her husband to come home? Maybe this is a clue that the whole thing is a dream.
Or perhaps, this is just deliberate cinematic technique.
The physical distance between them heightens the tension of the scene and reflects the disagreement between them that’s at the center of the conflict- Mal insists they’re dreaming and Cobb thinks it’s reality… So once again we are forced to ask ourselves: Does the implausibility of the scene mean it’s a dream? Or is it just another filmmaking technique?
It’s quite common for directors to manipulate spatial orientation for dramatic effect- even if it doesn’t make logical sense. In The Shining, for example, the geography of The Overlook Hotel features some spatial impossibilities that are well… impossible. If these are windows leading outside, then where are these people coming from? But in the case of The Shining, this is consciously done to give the hotel a creepy, otherworldly feeling.
With Inception, however, Nolan adds an extra layer of obscurity to his already utterly ambiguous work. You tricky little devil, you.
If we’re watching a movie about dreams, and the logic of movies works like the logic of dreams, then how the hell are we supposed to know what’s real and what’s a dream? That’s the brilliance of Inception- we can’t.
The other major criticism we often hear is that for a film about exploring the subconscious, the
“dreams” feel more like generic action film settings than the psychedelic absurdities we often associate with dreams.
While some more some experimental imagery might have been nice, doing so would have neutered the film of this clever association with cinema.
For example, the snow bunker chase scene is essentially an homage to
“On His Majesty’s Secret Service,” and as such, feels more like a Bond movie than a film about dreams. But considering that Inception is kind of an ode to cinema itself, it
makes sense that Nolan would draw inspiration from one of the ESSENTIAL film franchises when constructing the aesthetic of dreams.
Given that Nolan’s profound love of cinema and film history is well documented- Inception may be his most personal film yet. Not only does he get to make a mind-bending balls-to-the-wall action film, but he also gets to comment on HOW films capture our imagination in a devilishly clever way.
Which brings me to the first teaser poster- an image of Cobb’s back in front of a city scape. Or is it Cobb? Is it any coincidence that DiCaprio and Nolan have basically the same hair? Or that like Cobb, Nolan is often wearing a suit while directing and giving interviews? So whose back is it on the poster- is it Cobb the dreamer? Or is it Nolan- the dream-weaver? Or is it, like the film itself, deliberately ambiguous? Maaaaybe it’s a stretch.. But interesting to think about.
If you’re one of the poor souls still tortured by the uncertainty of the ending, then hopefully this video has given you some kind of peace. We’ll never really know what’s a dream and what’s not- and that’s the point. Trying to discern if a character is in a dream in a medium that itself functions like a dream is well… kind of a paradox.
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