Monday, July 19, 2010

Spoiler questions, now that we've seen Inception

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 10:01 AM

DONT BE LIKE THAT! WE CAN FIGURE THIS OUT! Joseph Gordon-Levitt (standing) and the cast of Inception
  • Warner Bros.
  • "DON'T BE LIKE THAT! WE CAN FIGURE THIS OUT!" Joseph Gordon-Levitt (standing) and the cast of 'Inception'
Sorting out all the different meanings and implications of Christopher Nolan's Inception could be a task comparable to mapping one of the film's endless, labyrinthine nightmares. Let's take a few steps in, and have faith we can make our way out again.

1. What’s in a name? Hidden meanings seem to be encoded in the character’s names, and some of these are pretty obvious. Ellen Page's Ariadne becomes an architect of maze-like dream-contructs, while the original Ariadne used led the Greek hero Theseus out of the labyrinth. The root of “Mal” (Marion Cotillard) is “bad," as in “maladjusted." The first name of Leonardo DiCaprio's protagonist is "Dom," which sounds like "dorm," a root word for "sleep" — like "Will Dormer," the sleep-deprived protagonist of Nolan's Insomnia. Apparently Dom's last name "Cobb" was also the name of the thieving protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following. Do the other names have implications? Arthur? Eames? Yussuf? Saito?

2. Who’s rioting? The extended dream heist that opens the film cuts between Arthur and Dom's attempted extraction and a rioting mob outside. In retrospect, those may have been projections, the “background players” of dreams, which respond like white blood cells to intruding minds. But if Dom, Saito, et al were all in a seedy hotel room, how did the projections “know” they were there? And if this was all the dream of architect Lukas Haas, anyway, should they really be that hostile? Maybe it was just a dream of rioters.

3. Why would Arthur or anyone else dream with Dom? In that first sequence, a projection of Dom's wife Mal shows up and shoots Arthur in the leg. Given that Mal can (and does) intrude on their heists when least welcome, Dom would seem like a massive liability, and his claims of being able to control her don't seem terribly convincing.

4. Some questions about the dream-rules follow; this interview with Dileep Rao (Yussuf) does a really good job of explaining some of them. Why do characters encounter places like Arthur's elevator shaft? I know they say that the architecture of constructs should be as real as possible, but they also allow for Escher-style "cheats." Did Ariadne actually make an elevator shaft, or is that kind of detail filled in by the dreamer, or the mind of an infiltrator?

5. How much control do the thieves have? When the team fights off Fischer's trained, militarized projections, Arthur uses a Uzi-type machine gun, and then Eames says something like 'You're not dreaming big enough" and whips out a massive weapon. Can they do that? The team shows little ability to manipulate their environment once they're in the dream. Maybe Eames has more skills because of his "forgery" talent.

6. What are the rules of freefall? In Fischer's nested dreams, the van flips and, later, goes into freefall, and Arthur experiences zero-g effects in the next dream down. Why don't those extend to the dream below that one - the snowy commando one? The next dream up, the bodies are floating around like helium balloons. (I also wonder if Ariadne designed the mountain dream to have armed guards, or if it were supposed to be just a ski trip.)

7. How does the slowed-down time thing work, again? The idea that dream-time is proportionately slower is one of Inception's most fascinating gimmicks. Five minutes of dreaming = one hour of real time, and more in proportion for dreams within dreams. This implies that a person's mental capacity is nearly infinite, but I'm not sure why all the dreams aren't just equal, if they're all going into Fischer's subconscious. The best justification is that each time the team goes down into another person's dream: first it's Yussuf's (who has to go to the bathroom and makes it rain); then Arthur's (who's in charge of the team's slumbering bodies), then Fischer's. But if the first two are not really Fischer's dreams, why do his trained projections fight back? I know, that's two questions.

8. Also, why Arthur couldn't just re-arm his bombs to give his team-mates the necessary "kick" in the hotel?

9. Is something funny about Dom’s totem? We’re told that a totem is a personal object you need to keep to remind yourself that you’re in a dream. Dom's totem, a top, apparently used to belong to Mal, and was key to her rejection of reality while they shared decades in dream-limbo. But if you're not supposed to touch another person's totem, doesn't that imply that Dom's totem is compromised?

10. Dom’s still dreaming at the end, right? After the successful Fischer's successful inception, Dom awakens, returns to America, reunites with his family, spins the totem — and it doesn't stop. Now, maybe this is meant to be ambiguous, and the top would've stopped right after the credits started rolling. The children's appearance argues against this idea. They appear to be the same age they were the last time Dom saw them, and I had the impression that Dom was a fugitive dream-extractor for several years after he fled America. Plus, they're exactly the same scene as the last time Dom saw them, so it looks more like a memory or a dream than reality. This probably speaks to Dom's lines about wanting to change his memory, but I'm not sure I followed that detail. An explanation about Dom's dreams vs. memory business would be helpful.

11. So was the entire movie a dream
? In a scene comparable to Total Recall, Mal tries to convince Dom that what he believes is the waking world is actually dream. She has a point, since Dom's allegedly real life is like a William Gibson world of all-powerful, ruthless corporations and larcenous mind-games. In Mombasa, the locals respond with hostility comparable to dream-projections. So do we ever see "reality" in Inception? Or does Dom enter another dream at the end, after leaving Mal and rescuing elderly Saito from limbo? Even if most of the movie can be taken at face value, up through the Fischer/inception caper, we can't say for certain who wakes up on the airplane, if Dom's still dreaming at the end of the movie.

12. Is someone subjecting Dom to inception? I think it’s quite likely, but I can’t sort it out until I see the movie four or five more times.

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