Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception: A Second Look

**Spoilers Contained
     This film has more heart and soul than anyone is giving it credit and I deserve part of the blame for that. The general critical narrative for Inception has been that it's a film that features boundless creativity, a great imagination, and a pulse pounding plot; but sadly lacks the emotion to truly involve your heart along with your mind. Upon a second viewing of the film, I think we've got it all wrong. Inception is a film that beams with humanity and features a simultaneous affront and encouragement to its viewer.

     In fairness, I think that Christopher Nolan is partly to blame for such a misinterpretation of his own work. The truth is, there is just too much going on within this film to be fully experienced in just one viewing. I'm not saying that it's too complicated, but perhaps too dense to reward a viewer it's fullness with just a single screening; at least it was for me. While I'm still in awe of the ideas at play and the visuals put on screen, my second viewing was more a revelation of themes and heart. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't fighting back tears, but I was touched by several themes that spoke to me in ways I hadn't thought about in my first viewing. It has helped me to reconsider the film, and I hope that you consider them as well. Let me explain.
     For me, the film's central dramatic struggle was to keep hold of reality. For the most part, this means that our characters want to know if they are in the real world or are in a dreaming state. Although it also stands in for the central idea of inception; are these my real thoughts after all? It provides for great tension in the film, as it's a nagging problem for Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as we see him constantly spinning his top to remind himself of reality.
     Interestingly, there are two people in the film who truly do lose sight of what 'reality' is; Cobb's wife Mal and a group of 'shared dreamers' in a Mombasa backroom. In the case of Mal, Cobb informs us that, "...she locked away a secret, deep inside herself, something she once knew to be true... but chose to forget." In this case, she locked away and forgot her totem (the same top that Cobb uses), symbolizing that she has chosen to lose track of reality; accepting the dream world as her new reality. In the Mombasa backroom, we are told that this group of 'shared dreamers' meets everyday for several hours of dreaming (equaling many more hours in the dream world). The overseer then states, "They come to be woken up. The dream is their reality now. Who are you to say otherwise?"
     Upon first watch, I felt the Mombasa scene was more or less a throw away sequence intended to show how some have become addicted to the dreaming. In retrospect, it provides a sharp contrast and a strong argument against what would become the major theme of the film. With all that 'shared dreaming' has to offer; the extended lifetime, the creativity, and the experiences; it's not reality and therefore inferior, a shade of our real world.
     In Cobb's final confrontation with his wife Mal he must confront the decision of spending a practical eternity with her in their own world ("I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go") and desiring to return to the real world and see his children*. Ultimately, Cobb declares to Mal, "Look at you. You're just a shade, a shade of my real wife. How could I capture all your beauty, your complexity, your perfection, your imperfection, in a dream? Yes, you're the best that I can do. But, I'm sorry, you're just not good enough."
     I particularly like this idea that we deserve better than our dreams, we deserve reality. Risk, adventure, loss, tragedy, grief and imperfection are central to the human experience and isn't worth losing even if it means gaining immortality or 'togetherness'. While enlightening, it's not exactly a groundbreaking insight into life and one could possible even argue (as Mal and the Mombasa shared dreamers do) that Cobb is wrong and reality isn't all its cracked up to be. This is where I think the film really shines in that Cobb comes to this insight and conclusion honestly and naturally. It is faith that is required in order to understand Cobb's arrival to truth. This is where Nolan's humanity shines through and the cold precision is put to bed.
     When Saito offers Cobb the possibility of clearing his name in return for inception, Cobb asks what assurances Saito could give. The reply is "none" that he would have to take him on good faith. Saito offers, "Dare you take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone." Cobb decides to take the job, hoping the reality of seeing his children again would be better than becoming old and filled with regret. Similarly, when Cobb and Saito (now an old man) both meet again in limbo, a remarkable exchange takes place,
Saito: You remind me of someone... a man I met in a half-remembered dream. He was possessed of some radical notions.
Cobb: I came here to tell you... something.
[pause]
Cobb: Something that... you once knew to be true.
Saito: [remembering] Impossible...
     Cobb and Saito have a vague remembrance that their current world is not reality, that reality was awaiting them, but they would both be required to die for it. There are clues, evidence (the spinning top, vague remembrances) and doubts about what is real and not (and ultimately the film still leaves room for doubt), but it will require faith in order for them to meet reality. It's not a math problem or a scientific experiment, but a journey.
     While I think this is a correct interpretation of Inception's central theme, it has reverberated with me so strongly because of its ability to speak to my religious beliefs. As a Christian I believe that there are clues and evidence within our world that points to a creator God and an entire spiritual realm of reality. However, there are still doubts (Man is there doubts!) This isn't a math problem or science experiment, but a journey; one that requires faith. Incredibly, like Cobb and Saito who must give up their world of limbo, (where they have full power and control) and literally die; Christ says that we must also give up our world of power and control and die to ourselves in order find the real truth of our world. I find this incredibly enriching.
     Am I saying that Inception is a Christian film? Certainly not. Both seek to speak to the truths of our existence, and in that way they are indeed similar. The film's acknowledgment that there are not only clues to ultimate reality, but also doubt about our reality, makes it surprisingly relatable (especially in our postmodern context). Even more so, the films embracement of the necessity of faith in order to experience the realities of life, makes it thoroughly human. In that sense, I think it speaks not just to Christians, but to anyone who has experienced life. Appropriately there is room to doubt for those who look for it (does that top keep spinning?), but Cobb's and Inception's embracement of the real and rejection of the dream (making it very Matrix-esque), symbolized by Cobb's journey to his children, is a full on emotion and humanity.
     In fact, taken to its conclusion, the film almost insults the viewer. Like the shared dreamers of Mombasa, we viewers connect and share this dream with Nolan, projecting our own subconscious into the film. In our ever increasing media society where we consume films, television shows, and video games for hours a day, are we not like those living their lives away in a dream world? To that, the film's exhortation to reject the dream and embrace the fullness that reality has to offer is both an affront and an encouragement to its viewer. Of course it's the best type of affront, a warning and a clarion call, that reality waits beyond the doors of the theatre. This to me is the humanity of the film, and it comprises the true contribution that Inception has to offer.

*This also rings true with Cobb's notion that positive emotion always seems to trump negative emotion. Ultimately, the positive emotion of reuniting with his real children has trumped the negative emotion of the guilt he feels for conceiving the idea that would lead to Mal's death.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow - this is one of my favorite reveiws ever. Simply written but with great insight and through provoking statements.

Mom

David said...

Hello,

I'm creating Christian Videos together with some of my friends that we exhibit and distribute via www.hopeanimation.com.

We really believe that 3d animation is becoming more and more accessible and would allow Christians to use the medium of film in more and more effective ways. You might be interested in some of the animations on our site?

All our animations have been created by one man studios in their "spare time". Whilst we would love to do this work full-time, we still have day-time jobs to keep us funded and therefore develop these projects from our bedrooms in our spare time...

Looking forward to hear from you shortly!

God bless,
David

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