Nolan Makes Us Think Again

August 28, 2010 at 6:55 am Leave a comment

Just got back from seeing Inception finally. The premise that ideas are powerful and contagious was intriguing, as were the layers of dreams within dreams. It reminded me a little of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Of course, in that film, the general concept was to pinpoint the emotional beginnings of a memory to wipe it out. In Inception, the premise is to plant an idea, not wipe it out.

The movie is heavy on the tension and requires you to pay attention if you want to know the level of the subconscious on which the action is taking place. Ariadne (Ellen Page), though not the protagonist, is a powerful foil for the audience to learn more about how the world of idea extraction/inception works. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) invites her to join his team of rebels on a dangerous mission to help disassemble a corporate leader’s entire legacy. It’s the only way Cobb can earn his freedom to return to the USA and be with his son and daughter.

Ariadne learns how to manipulate other people’s subconscious to form worlds so vivid that they don’t suspect that their minds have been infiltrated. She creates worlds of maze-like complexity which are then populated by the subject’s subconscious projections. Cobb, the protagonist, infiltrates these faux-real worlds to steal or plant ideas as necessary. Unfortunately for him, his wife’s recent death has unsettled his own mind enough that projections of her and their children spill over into the subconscious landscapes of the people he has been hired to infiltrate – with potentially disastrous results.

The film explores the fine line between what we know is real and what we perceive as real. And in a closing scene, the film asks whether reality is worth clinging to. Why not embrace the imaginary, if it’s better than the real world? Ultimately, the characters choose reality over fiction — although the ending is ambiguous. We never really know if the final scene of the movie is reality or not. It’s left to the audience to decide for themselves how they think it should end.

Another important through-line is one of guilt and redemption. Cobb clings to the memory of his wife because he can’t forgive himself for having lost her. Her image recurs as he travels into other people’s subconscious, calling out at him like a Siren singing. One might ask why Cobb doesn’t just stay with her in a fantasy world? Why return to the real world, littered with pain and loss? But he knows that he has a responsibility to the children she left behind. He must make his way back to them if he is to ever achieve redemption.

Director Christopher Nolan’s unapologetic belief in the power of ideas to shape people’s destiny is both inspiring and slightly troubling. I say troubling because ultimately the young CEO (Cillian Murphy) who stands to inherit his father’s Energy business, is manipulated to believe his father loved him even though reality seems to suggest otherwise. It raises an important question: can we change our own destinies by reformulating the way we look at the past? Maybe the past isn’t just a dead piece of text, fixed once it has been written. Maybe it is as living as the present and, when it’s re-imagined, maybe it can shape the very way we look at ourselves and our future. But only if we believe our re-imaginings of the past to actually be real.

I admire Nolan’s ambitious refusal to resort to the simplistic story-lines Hollywood so regularly churns out. Like its predecessor The Dark Night, Inception demands of its audience to think deeply even as they are entertained. And I was entertained.

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Entry filed under: Film & Television.

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