Wednesday, August 4, 2010
While I confess I'm not always a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, he has enough solid performances that I'll always give him half a chance. I can find no fault in his performance here. His portrayal of Cobb was convincing throughout and he really seemed perfectly suited for the part.
In the world of Inception, the dream world is much more of a known quantity than in our own world. The military has done extensive research using dreaming, specifically shared dreaming in which one person acts as a host for a dream which others participate in. The military cleverly realizes that it's perfect for combat training as you can be shot or stabbed, and in this world, you wake up when you die. In order to create a somewhat controlled environment, they discover that they can use "architects" who just like it sounds, construct the dream world in the dreamers head. Whatever the architect creates is then filled by the dreamer's subconscious, which includes projections of people to populate the world.
Since the dreaming mind is much faster and infinitely more powerful than the awake mind, an architect can create and perceive their creation almost instantaneously. Cobb is a tremendously gifted architect. However, he doesn't practice building anymore for his own reasons, and can't work in the field in any legal capacity because he's wanted for murder. He therefore turns to "extraction" which is stealing information from someone's mind via their dreams, for corporations. He happens to be the best extractor in the business as well as a gifted dream architect.
At the opening of the movie, we see Cobb washed up on a shore looking ragged. Barely conscious for a moment he glimpses two children with his backs to him, before collapsing into the sand again. He's poked by someone who finds a gun tucked in the back of his pants. He's escorted into a room with an old man, who recognizes a small metal top that Cobb has with him as belonging to someone he knew a long time ago, "a young man with radical ideas" named Cobb.
We then move to Cobb, now well dressed with his associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a room which clearly belongs to Saito (Ken Watanabe) Cobb is trying to convince Saito to enlist his services to protect himself from theft by dream extraction, which Cobb is well equipped to do because he's the best extractor there is. Cobb informs him that to do this, Saito must trust him completely with all of his secrets. He tells Cobb he'll consider it and leaves, which tells Cobb and Arthur that he realizes they are there to steal his secrets. They leave the room and notice a woman, who Arthur is surprised to see, asking Cobb about it. Cobb confronts her and identifies her as Mal (Marion Cotillard.) They clearly have a strong association as Mal asks if he misses her and he clearly does.
Mal and Cobb end up in a room alone. She asks how the kids are and Cobb answers, "I can only imagine." Cobb tells her that he "can't trust her anymore." (which is more significant when we realize what she is) He asks her to stay seated in a chair, (seconds after explaining that he doesn't trust her) which he ties a rope to and uses to hold his weight as he jumps out a window to swing into a lower room from the outside. Partway down, Mal clearly gets up from the chair causing him to fall farther than he'd planned. He nonetheless gets in the room and cracks the safe containing Saito's secrets. He removes an envelope (while holding a duplicate) but before he can leave, Mal and Saito enter the room with guns. Cobb asks Saito if Mal told him. Saito doesn't answer that, but reveals that he knows they are in a dream. We also see Cobb, Arthur, Saito sleeping in a room, hooked to a device with Nash (their architect) watching them, as an angry crowd riots outside.
Back in the dream, Arthur is escorted in as leverage to get the envelope back. Neither Arthur or Cobb is worried, as killing Arthur will just wake him up. Mal points out that pain is still pain and shoots Arthur in the leg. Cobb hands them the duplicate envelope and shoots Arthur in the head to wake him up and escapes the room. Arthur tells Nash to wake up Cobb by tipping his chair over into bathwater, this manifests in the dream as water pouring in all over the dreamworld, establishing that conditions on one plane affect the next. Saito also wakes and he struggles with Cobb, Arthur and Nash.
Cobb is upset that the secrets he got from the vault are incomplete and his employer, Cobol (a massive and shady corporation) won't accept that. Saito mentions that this was a test, which Cobb failed by revealing that they had been in a dream. Cobb states that they'll get the information another way and points his gun at Saito, while throwing him to the ground, mentioning that the place they were sleeping and now in, is Saito's mistress's apartment, which apparently Saito would rather keep secret. Saito laughs on taking a good look at the carpet, which tells him that this is not the place they claim and thus Cobb had pulled them out of the first dream and up into another. He is clearly now more impressed by Cobb, but Saito adds that in his dream, they'll play by his rules. Nash then reveals that it is not Saito's dream they are in but his own. The crowd outside then breaks in and grabs Nash and everything starts blowing up. Arthur, Cobb and Nash wake up on a train, with Saito sleeping next to them. They take off and leave Saito to wake on his own.
Cobb is angry with Nash for missing the details of the carpet in the last dream. He and Arthur make plans to hide out awhile, as Cobol will be unhappy and looking for them now (planning to kill them). They are surprised when Saito shows up in a helicopter with Nash as a hostage. He tells them that Nash turned himself in and sold them out, hoping for mercy. He offers them the chance to kill Nash in retribution but Cobb has no interest, so Saito hands him over to Cobol. Saito tells Cobb that he needs him to do a job and asks if "Inception" is possible. Arthur says it's not, but Cobb claims that it is. Inception is the opposite of extraction, the planting of an idea into someone's mind while they dream, as opposed to stealing it. Cobb claims that he's done it. Saito assures him that if he can do it, he will make Cobb's legal troubles disappear and he can return to the US to be with his kids. When Cobb questions this, Saito asks if he'd rather "die alone, an old man full of regrets" Cobb and Arthur leave to put a new crew together.
The job is to convince Robert Fischer, (Cillian Murphy) the son of Saito's dying competitor, Maurice Fischer, to break up his father's company so that Saito can remain in business. Cobb concludes that for this he'll need a "forger" (who can impersonate others in dreams), a chemist, who knows enough about sedation to make layered dreams possible and a new architect who is as good as he is. He chooses Eames (Tom Hardy) as his forger, although he has to travel into "Cobol's backyard" to get him. Cobol's assassins are soon chasing him and Saito shows up to extricate them both. Eames recommends a good chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) who they pick up next.
Cobb reveals that he is planning to set up a dream in three layers to make sure that the idea is implanted deep enough. Eames and Cobb discuss Inception, Eames revealing that he has also seen it done and the trick is to strip the idea down to it's basics to make it easier for the subject to believe he came up with it on his own. They decide that the focus should be on the son's relationship with his father. Yusuf establishes that the sedative will have to be very strong or the third and bottom level dream will be broken too easily. Saito establishes that he is going with them as it's the only way he can be sure the job is done.
They also decide that "a positive thought always overpowers a negative one" and conclude that rather than convince Fischer to destroy his father's company, they must convince him that "his father wants him to create something of his own" which will result in dismantling his father's company.
Cobb reaches out to his father in law, Miles(Michael Caine) to find a new architect. His father is a professor at a university in Paris and seems to work in a dream related field. Although initially he questions Cobb about being a thief as a profession, he relents when Cobb tells him, that he has a job which will let him come home if he's successful. Miles tells Cobb that he has someone who is better than he (Cobb) is, and introduces him to a young girl named Ariadne. Ariadne doesn't seem to have any knowledge of shared dreaming (which might make you question how Miles knew her talent) but takes to being an architect, according to Cobb, more quickly than anyone he's ever seen.
Cobb and Ariadne are suddenly having lunch at a cafe, when Cobb asks her if she remembers how they got there. When she can't, she realizes she's in a dream. She assumes it's her dream until Cobb tells her that they are in his. She starts experimenting with building, performing amazing feats like folding the city into a cube and constructing a bridge by making two mirrors face each other and breaking them. Cobb warns her that these unrealistic feats will cause his subconscious to attack her "like white blood cells" when it realizes she is an intruder in the dream. This does happen pretty quickly and directly, when Mal shows up and stabs Ariadne, waking her up. This disturbs her severely and she leaves but soon returns, fascinated with what she's learned. (Cobb also continues to see the children at random intervals, we realize by now from Cobb's dreams that they are his children)
She soon discovers secrets about Cobb by sneaking into one of his dreams without permission. Cobb's dreams are entirely about Mal and his kids. He reveals that he and Mal explored dreams together extensively, due to his insistence that they go deeper and deeper into them. At one point they were lost in a dream for 50 years (dream time which is much less in real time) and Mal wouldn't leave until Cobb convinced her, unable to live in a dream anymore. On returning Mal concluded that the real world wasn't real and killed herself to return to the other world they had shared. In order to coerce Cobb to join her, she had him framed for her death, so that leaving the kids would not be an issue (they also had kids in the dream world, who she believed were the real ones) Cobb also explains that it's helpful to have a "totem" to differentiate between reality and dreams. Mal's was a spinning top (which Cobb apparently carries with him) Arthur tells her that his totem is a weighted die, but won't let her touch it , revealing that it's only significance is that he's the only one that knows it's properties (presumably an architect or dreamer could counter them if they were aware of the unique characteristics)
Cobb accesses his dreams through an elevator which opens to different floors, each being a pivotal moment of his life (or regret) associated with Mal, including the moment where he had to leave his kids, not even sticking around to see their faces before he escaped to avoid charges. He reveals that he is no longer an architect because he can't keep Mal out of his constructs. Mal wants him to stay with her, so sabotages everything he does in order to bring him closer. For this reason he tells Ariadne that she can't tell him the details of the dream levels that she creates. Shocked at how big of a problem this is for Cobb, and concerned that this will prove dangerous for others in the group she insists on going along with them on the mission. Ariadne's training also serves as exposition for the audience. Arthur explains the "kick" process of waking someone from the dream by knocking a leaning chair slightly back to induce a falling feeling. This can be produced in a number of ways all of which make use of the falling sensation.
Cobb figures they'll need ten hours real world time to accomplish the Inception (which is progressively longer with each dream level further down) Saito buys an airline in order to take control of the plane which the subject, Robert Fischer, will be taking soon, as this is their only chance to get him alone for ten hours. Once on the plane, they drug Fischer. The flight attendant is on the payroll to monitor them sleeping.
They enter the first level of the dream, which is a rainy city environment (possibly because Yusuf had to pee)where Fischer believes he's landed. Several of the crew hijack a taxi which they use to abduct Fischer. Ariadne and Cobb use a second car which is almost demolished by a train appearing right through a city street, which Ariadne assumes is Mal interfering. The taxi is soon chased by armed security, and they conclude that Fischer has been well trained against extraction, which they were not aware of. They take refuge in an abandoned warehouse.
Saito was shot in the battle and seriously injured. Cobb reveals that this isn't good, due to the heavy sedative they're using, if he dies in the dream, he won't wake up as the sedative will prevent it (only allowing a kick via loss of equilibrium, a safety Yusuf built in) but instead will get stuck in limbo as his brain won't know where else to send his consciousness. Cobb decides that their only option is to accelerate their plan and hope they can finish before Saito dies in the dream. Fortunately his wounds will be less severe as they descend levels, (but time will also be slower so the injury will have time to increase.)
They enact a hostage situation demanding that Fischer reveal the combination to his father's safe. Fischer isn't consciously aware of a safe (or that he's dreaming) and tells them that he's insured against kidnapping and money won't be a problem. They tell him that his father's right hand man and his own proxy father figure Peter Browning (Tom Berenger) has told them that he knows the combination. Eames imitates Browning and acts as if he's been tortured for days. In this guise he probes Fischer about his relationship with his father, Fischer revealing that they were not at all close, and Fischer feels his father was disappointed in him. Eames (as Browning) mentions a second version of the will which would break up his father's empire, and which is what is supposedly in the safe. Fischer's security closes in on the warehouse and they decide to leave in a van, all but Yusuf descending to the second dream level, while Yusuf drives the van toward a bridge over a river, the jumping off providing the first "kick" (or last if judging from the bottom level) to push them up out of the dream.
Three kicks, one on each level, will all have to be coordinated in order to pull them out through all three levels. Each dreamer stays on his own level to perform the kick.
While Yusuf, still on level 1 driving the van, tries to avoid security, the rest of the crew descends to the next level (Arthur's dream) which is a hotel. On this level Cobb presents himself as Fischer's own security, claiming that someone is trying to extract a secret from him (similiar to the ploy with Saito at the beginning) He convinces Fischer he's dreaming by pointing out the odd things that are happening around him, such as glasses shaking and gravity shifting(results of the van's movements in the first dream)
He steers Fischers's already existing suspicion (due to his own natural suspicion's and Browning's -Eames acting as- clumsy questioning) towards Browning, helping Fischer recall the kidnapping in the last dream and agreeing that Browning set it up. They get ahold of Fischer's projection of Browning who claims that he couldn't let Fischer use the will in the safe to destroy what he'd worked for his whole life. We see gravity shifting more severely as the van is in more trouble and the sleeping bodies are shifting as Yusuf drives wildly.
Fischer agrees to enter the third dream (believing it's a second dream) which he thinks is Browning's (but is actually Eame's) in order to uncover Browning's secrets. Arthur puts them under and waits in the hotel dream to deliver the kick to bring them back.
This is complicated when the van jumps off the bridge into free fall early,(intended to be the kick) eliminating gravity which is essential to induce the loss of balance. They have a secondary kick planned however, the van hitting the water. Arthur fights off security and improvises a plan. (This also makes for some interesting zero gravity fighting for Arthur) Since he has to deliver the kick at about the same time for everyone to time it right, he ties the sleeping bodies together and hauls them floating in the air to an elevator which he rigs with explosives in order to simulate gravity. He then waits for the van's signal.
At this point, the van is in the air and will hit the water in 30seconds, which means the second level has several minutes and the third level has about an hour for the kicks to be timed properly in sequence. We flash back up the levels several times to illustrate the urgency, the van steadily moving toward the water.
The third level is an Arctic fortress with heavy security. The team is outfitted with snow gear and sniper rifles. Because the timetable is now rushed, Cobb tells Ariadne she has to inform them of a shortcut to the fortress which Eames had built into her plans. Fischer has to get into the fortress and the vault within, which he believes is the deepest corner of Brooks's mind. He manages to get in safely as the team covers him. Cobb and Ariadne watch from a distance, Cobb with a sniper rifle. Cobb sees Mal appear before Fischer can get to the vault (Ariadne made Cobb aware of the shortcut, thus Mal knew too) Hesitant to shoot her, he lets her shoot Fischer, shooting her only after it's too late.
Cobb, Ariadne, Eames and Saito all enter the fortress. Fischer dies and Cobb assumes that Mal has him in order to lure him to her. Cobb and Ariadne decide to journey to the dream limbo to retrieve him, and for Cobb to face Mal. Eames and Saito stay behind to hold off security. Saito dies just before they leave after Cobb and Saito repeat the phrase from the helicopter, "you're going to die alone, an old man full of regrets" Cobb and Ariadne journey to limbo for Fischer, while Eames is left alone to survive and wait to deliver his own kick, although he has some advantage as it's his own dream.
On the way down, Cobb reveals to Ariadne, that he performed the Inception on Mal. She never wanted to leave the dreamworld they'd built, believing it was the real world. She had locked away her token (the inert top) in her mental safe to avoid facing this. Cobb, unable to deal with existing in only the dream, secretly found her safe, broke into it and set the top spinning inside it (her indication that they were in a dream) This gave her subconscious the idea that "this world isn't real, and can only be escaped by death." This allowed Cobb to convince her to die with him and return to reality, however the idea was resilient and not dependent on which reality she was in, so when they returned to reality, the idea persisted, leading to her suicide.
Cobb confronts Mal, who begs him to stay with her. She tells him to "take a leap of faith" (which is similar to what she said before committing suicide) She also points out that his life of espionage on the run from a faceless corporation is itself rather dream like. She urges him to decide what "feels true" Cobb agrees to stay with her if she'll turn over Fischer. She agrees and Ariadne takes Fischer and tosses him out a window to provide him a kick back to the third level. (The sedative was only designed for three levels deep, so the equilibrium fail safe doesn't prevent them from getting back to level three)She follows suit after Cobb assures her he's not staying with Mal, but must retrieve Saito.
He reveals to Mal, that she is not just a simple projection, but his effort at reconstructing his wife, which unfortunately isn't even close to who she was and her complexity. He reveals that they had lived a full life in the dreamworld, even growing old together before they died, (we see them walking as an elderly couple) now however he is ready to let her go. Mal stabs him and he ends up in Saito's section of limbo, where Saito has in a short time become an old man. (Time is greatly affected by perception in Limbo and Limbo is naturally disorienting. Saito, like Mal and Cobb on their first visit, forgot he was in Limbo)
Up on the third level, Eames has revived Fischer, thanks to the kick Ariadne gave him. He easily opens up the locked door and finds his father there on his deathbed. His father is able to finish the sentence which the younger Fischer had only made out the word "disappointed" from earlier. He says "I'm disappointed that you tried to be like me." Fischer then opens the safe and finds a pinwheel which he had been holding in a picture with his father when he was a young boy. This is the catharsis that they had suggested to him, which he thinks is authentic because his own mind fed it to him helped by their cues.
Eames starts the third level kick by blowing up the fortress, Arthur starts the kick in the elevator, and the van hits the water providing the last kick bringing them all back to the plane, except for Saito and Cobb.
Saito doesn't immediately recognize Cobb, although he does recognize the top (we are watching the beginning of the movie again) Saito asks if Cobb is there to kill him, possibly due to the gun on the table. Cobb and Saito repeat the quote from the helicopter (alternating parts) "I thought I would die an an old man full of regrets" Cobb says he wants to bring him back so they can be young men together again. He also echoes Mal's speech to him asking Saito to take a leap of faith. Saito grabs the gun and there is a gunshot, but we don't see it. (The sedative has worn off by now, so going up through the levels, without a kick is much easier)
Cobb soon wakes, and finds Saito is awake as well. Saito makes the promised phone call and departing the plane we see Miles waiting. Cobb gets through customs with no problem and they arrive back at Mal and Cobb's old house where the kids are. Cobb starts the top spinning but turns away before he can see what it does, so happy to see his kids faces. The top slightly wobbles but recovers, still spinning when the screen cuts to black for the credits leaving a question as to whether he's dreaming or not.
Personally, I think the closest we can get to an explanation is that Cobb has arrived at his emotional reality. Since we are seeing through Cobb's point of view it isn't possible to be more definite, because of several factors. Whether the top continues spinning or not doesn't matter. Whether the children have aged or not doesn't matter (at least it doesn't indicate a "reality") Cobb is a skilled architect, whether he practices or not, and he is clearly not in control of his subconscious mind, which is more than able to use his skills (for example Mal ruining his jobs, a train coming down the middle of the street to attack him)
The team decides early on that a positive thought overpowers a negative one, and I think that is really the happy ending here. Cobb escapes from his negative thoughts (Mal, regrets) and accepts his positive ones, via the help of his own subconscious. Cobb's subconscious has enough control over him that it can create a world that is for all intents and purposes "real" It would also know that the kids not changing at all would clue in Cobb that it wasn't real and so would age them logically. It's also very possible that he can control the top (not necessarily consciously). The top is more of a reminder of his guilt than an indicator of reality, being Mal's totem and not his. It may not be coincidental that it wobbled slightly when he turned his attention away from it and toward his kids.
Cobb has found a "feeling" reality, if that is so, it's doubtful he would ever think otherwise as his subconscious would sustain it. I don't believe that Nolan overlooked any details (he felt compelled to explain why a 747 was the only plane possible to perform the Inception, and he spent over ten years writing this.) Many things don't add up, such as why his wife's parent's would be staying at his old house, which would doubtlessly torture them (Mal's mother wouldn't even talk to Cobb on the phone)
The names of his crew are also too coincidental to not be intentional,
"Mal" (you know, "evil")
"Ariadne" (the girl who led Theseus through the labyrinth)
"Yusuf" (the Islamic form of Joseph, whose story in the Quran starts with keeping a dream secret)
"Arthur" (the mythical hero figure, possibly after King Arthur who was initially called from obscurity, and eventually went away to Avalon (limbo) to be called when Britain needs him.) (Nolan is British-American)
"Eames" (possibly for Charles Eames, originator of the "banana leaf philosophy" in which the banana leaf, the most basic dish for eating in India is transformed into something fantastically ornate due to the man who is eating off of it.)
"Saito" (a name meaning purifying flower, common in Japan and descending from a Head of the Ise Shrine (most sacred of all Shito Shrines, associated with the sun goddess Ameratsu) The goddess Ameratsu on choosing Ise for her Shrine said "the province of Ise, the divine wind, is the land wither repair the waves from the eternal world, the successive waves. It is a secluded and pleasant land. In this land I wish to dwell." Ameratsu was also tricked into coming out from a cave she hid in by laughter.)
"Robert Fischer" (Bobby Fischer, international fugitive and renowned chess player)
These names are even more significant in that Cobb, being an extremely intelligent person, obsessed with all things dream related, would be aware of these significances. That he doesn't notice points out that he is skilled at self deception, perhaps subconsciously not wanting to poke in that direction. The names could still be a coincidence, but Cobb not noticing is not. However, they could (and i believe they are) all be aspects of Cobb's own mind.
There is also the fact that, as Mal points out, his reality, in general, is very dreamlike, on the run from a faceless, all powerful corporation (which Saito clearly has some sway over, although he's presented as an enemy or competitor of the company) His international fugitive status does not match his supposed charges, being a suspect for killing his wife would certainly make him wanted, but when Miles questioned him about being in Paris, and Cobb mentioned a long tedious extradition process, Miles said "In your case they make make an exception" which makes him sound more like a global terrorist, than a murder suspect. There is also the impossibility of Saito clearing Cobb's legal troubles with one phone call, which reaches every airport security person in less than a minute.
It's also doubtful that the top is the genuine top. The original inception only worked because the top was left locked in the vault spinning. I can't imagine Cobb ran off to go get it in the middle of their dream suicide pact and if he'd removed it beforehand the inception wouldn't have worked. Furthermore his recollection of their "escape" clearly changes with his perception (in some memories Mal and Cobb are elderly when it happens, others they are young)
Cobb hadn't been back to Limbo afterwards or Mal wouldn't be working so hard to convince him to return there. Which would mean that either it's a different top or a top he created, in either event, anything signified by the top would be suspect.
There is a scene where Cobb watches the top spinning, contemplating shooting himself in the head. We assume he doesn't do so because the top stops spinning, but if the top is a reminder of guilt, the top spinning or not, may not be as important as we think. Also, if I recall correctly, his kids call at about the time the top stops spinning, which could be an early instance of the positive subconscious working against the negative. The kids (positive) appear in dreams as often as Mal does, after all.
My read, is that the entire film is Cobb's subconscious moving him away from regret and into a positive space and the dream world is every bit as real as a non dream world. (This is suggested when he first visits Yusuf, and the room of dreamers, when the old man attending them says "Maybe they're waking, Who are you to say?") The Edith Piaf, song used prominently throughout the film to cue the kicks is "Non, je ne regrette rien" (No, I regret Nothing)which suggests that regret is what Cobb is escaping, as much as the dream world.
The only thing that matters is that Cobb believes the reality. I don't believe that a detail was missed in this movie as Nolan is the opposite of a haphazard film maker. Of course it's open for other readings, which is really the wonderful thing about it, as dreams themselves are open to many interpretations. But any way you look at it, the movie is very simply a journey away from regret, and dream or not, it isn't easy to get there. It's worth remembering too, that Nolan has never given us the expected happy ending. Every movie, he's done up until now, has ended with his tortured main character lost in a world he created. Which doesn't mean he couldn't change that, but his history lends more credence to not changing that element.
Technically the movie is a marvel. The dream effects are astounding, buildings folding in on each other, endless staircases, reality literally combusting in a Paris diner, to say nothing of the transition effects, like the bathwater rushing in and soaking the whole dreamworld below it. I could really name effects all day (the zero gravity fight sequence) but I'll just say they were breathtaking, unique and all very suited to the dream world. The effects people here are clearly at the top of their game.
All of that of course, would be only disappointing if the story wasn't so intriguing and meticulously layered. Nolan is a master at layered storytelling, and it's obvious that this is the project he's been dying to make happen. What often happens with big spectacle movies, is that they end up being about the spectacle. In this case, the spectacle only serves to reinforce the very personal human story of how very difficult it is to move past regret, and impossible to do if you fight your own mind.
The acting is all very good, if a bit caricaturish at times, but if each character is playing or even suggesting the possibility of a certain aspect of Cobb, then that's to be expected. DiCaprio was great. Gordon-Levitt was terrifically entertaining, and the rest of the cast carried their own weight very competently, giving us a well rounded and engaging ensemble. The only minus I would give it is the score being a bit too loud in parts, which didn't kill anything but was slightly distracting when you're listening for key bits of dialogue. A terrific use of your two hours or so, this is a movie that reminds me, that in the right hands, a movie, is simply a director's chance to create their own world.