Getting this one posted a little late – profound apologies to both of my readers. Continuing through the “Best of” theme for 2023 leads me to interesting places. I backed into this month’s film simply because I wanted to write about it. To that end, we will call it the top-rated recent film. However you classify it, it is a masterpiece – Inception (2010, dir. Christopher Nolan).
To describe the plot of Inception might take weeks, but here is my best shot. It is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who leads a team of extractors – people hired to go into someone’s subconscious while they are dreaming to steal vital secrets. For the events of the film, they have been hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to break into the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) in order to keep Fischer’s company from becoming a global conglomerate. Cobb’s team consists of researcher Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and a new architect Ariadne (Elliot Page). Along the way, we also meet Mal (Marion Cotillard), Dom’s wife who used to design dreamscapes with him until…something happened. We also learn that people with such secrets become trained to defend against it, and Cobb’s team come up against projections of Fischer’s subconscious that are trained to kill them. Dying in a dream forces the person to wake up, but due to the heavy sedation required to achieve this heist, dying in this dream will lead to them being in limbo forever.
What makes Inception such a brilliant cinematic experience is the attention to detail. I will also say that, when it comes to fantasy or science fiction, you can set up whatever rules you want for your world as long as you do not break them. Inception is a master class in this concept. Most notable in this is the concept of exponential time growth as the characters explore a dream within a dream, then add another layer, then another. Each layer deep, time moves slower. Each character is also encouraged to create a totem, which is a unique item that lets them know when they are dreaming or awake as the lines between these two “realities” become very blurry.
Cobb’s totem is of particular note and the source of hours of online discussion. Cobb has a top that he spins. In dream world, the top never stops spinning. In reality, it topples eventually like all spinning tops. At the end of the film, we see Cobb spin his totem and the film cuts away before we see it topple. This leaves us wondering whether what we all saw was reality or a dream – and how much of what we saw was real. It is truly a great debate. I land on the side of the clearest answer the film presents – that it never lies to us and everything we see in reality is reality and dreams are dreams. While this may be overly simplistic, I find it to be the most personally satisfying explanation. But the beauty of an ambiguous ending is that your answer can differ from mine, and we can both be right.
My initial viewing experience is something I have never felt before or since. When the film ended in the movie theater, I just wanted to immediately watch it again without delay. That is a special feeling. I have since rewatched Inception dozens of times – it is for me what The Shawshank Redemption is for many others; whenever I come across it, I watch it to its completion – and it maintains that level of awe and wonder for me. Whether my version of it exists in reality or in a dreamscape is irrelevant to me. I just want more of it.
FUN FACT – Christopher Nolan based the team roles for the extractors on a Hollywood production team (Cobb is the director, Arthur the producer, Ariadne the production designer, Eames the actor, Saito the studio, and Fischer the audience). He is quoted as saying, “In try to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know.”