***Is it really necessary to post a spoiler alert here? I guess if you’ve never read my blog you ought to be made aware that I discuss plots in full. Be warned.***
Much has been made of the recently released Inception‘s similarity to The Matrix. Both portray worlds that exist solely in the mind and both use this concept to depict gravity defying action sequences. Despite these similarities, the two films differ dramatically in terms of the ways in which they resolve issues of intellectual uncertainty. While The Matrix may offer a more satisfying end (sequels not withstanding), Inception‘s ending, like the conclusion of the director’s and final cuts of Blade Runner, provokes more questions without frustrating the viewer.
In my Adventures in Auditing series, I discussed the ways in which The Matrix manifested the idea of a text-based reality through formal elements such as color and vertical motion. I concluded that the ways in which the film distinguished between the false, textual reality of the matrix and the “real reality” of the world beyond the matrix actually reinforce the idea that a reality exists behind what Jean Baudrillard and others calls “simulacra.” As a result, the film fails to capture the essence of postmodernism even as it references these theories overtly.
By contrast, Inception lacks obvious references to postmodernism instead exploring these themes in a more cerebral way through depictions of dreaming. Still, the platonic themes of intellectual uncertainty remain pertinent to the film. The movie follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert in extraction, which is the process of obtaining information by invading a person’s subconscious through his dreams. This task proves dangerous in part because dreams appear so real that distinguishing between dreamed and lived reality requires certain tricks, such as totems. Totems are weighted objects, such as the metallic top carried by Cobb, that feel or behave one way in the dream and another way in reality. If Cobb spins the top in a dream, it never falls; if he spins it in reality, it topples as it should. This allows Cobb to enter and exit dreams for the purposes of extraction without fear of disorientation.
Cobb assembles a team of dream experts to perform a process called inception for a powerful client. Inception involves the planting of an idea into the subconscious through shared dreaming. While inception initially appears to be a theoretical possibility never before tried, Cobb claims to have successfully performed this task. One of his curious assistants, Ariadne (Ellen Page), discovers that Cobb implanted the idea that reality was actually a dream in the subconscious of his wife Mal (the superb Marion Cotillard) in order to encourage her to exit a lengthy shared dream. Once out of the dream, Mal believes that she continues to dream, mistakenly committing suicide as a means of returning to reality.
Or so we are to believe throughout the bulk of the film. The end of Inception, however, seems to suggest that Mal may have been correct. After successfully completing the task of inception, Cobb returns to his family, whom he had been unable to visit as a result of previous crimes. In the final moments of the film, Cobb spins his top, which wobbles slightly but continues to spin before the film ends by cutting to black.
This ending fails to resolve the question of whether or not Cobb actually exited the dream state. The timing of the cut prevents the viewer from knowing for sure if the top will continue to spin or if the top will fall as physics proscribe it should. This beautifully ambiguous open ending elevates Inception to classic status.
Still, Inception cannot be described as flawless by any means. While Dicaprio, Cotillard, and much of the supporting cast deliver strong performances, Ellen Page’s efforts at a more serious role falter. Her character’s presence feels necessary to the narrative (with Ariadne as the dreamer-in-training, we the audience learn the rules of shared dreaming through her tutorials) but awkward and at times unnecessary in the moment of the scene. As a whole, the plot can feel a bit convoluted and the reasons for inception (to encourage a young executive to break up his father’s company) seem trite.
Nevertheless, the film hits its stride about midway through, and these little problems fall by the wayside. The film’s visuals, it’s plotting, its editing, remind you the ways in which cinema defy the spatial, temporal, and physical constraints that limit everyday life. It’s a lovely tribute to the power of film and its ability to mystify the senses and challenge the mind.
While The Matrix most certainly dazzles like Inception with its incredible action sequences and futuristic style, it falters in its attempt at sustaining intellectual uncertainty. Once we know the differences between the matrix and the desert of the real, viewers can feel secure in understanding the distinction. Inception denies us this certainty, instead opting for the discomfort of leaving questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved.
Theorists of postmodernism such as Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard explore the ways that post-Fordist capitalist societies present reality as a replication of that which has its origin in texts. Similarly, the film The Matrix presents a world in which human beings live in a computer-generated simulation designed to distract their minds while artificially intelligent machines use their bodies for energy. The film, then, literalizes the idea of a textual world; however, it does not merely convey this point through plot but also through cinematography and mise-en-scene since the world within the matrix resembles computer code in terms of color and downward vertical motion.
The opening shot of the film establishes the formal elements of the computer code. Green lettering runs downward in vertical lines, eventually revealing the film’s title. This shot signifies the concept of the matrix as text, using a specific color scheme (green on black), motion (vertical), and pattern (lined). Following this first instance, the film repeats this use of code throughout, raising it to the level of a motif.
The film reproduces the formal qualities of the computer code in scenes that take place in the matrix, emphasizing green tones during these segments of the film. The scene of Neo’s first interrogation by the agents demonstrates the use of green tones through cinematography and lighting.
Other scenes bring green tones out through costume and set design. The Oracle, for instance, wears a green patterned dress and her kitchen’s tile and counter tops also display the color. As a result, the mise-en-scene and cinematography align the color schemes of the world within the matrix with the motif of computer code.
On-screen motion and patterns during scenes within the matrix also mimic the vertical fall of the code. One scene in which Neo meets Trinity under a bridge brings the code to mind through heavy rain. Kristen Whissel makes this connection in her essay on contemporary cinema and verticality, stating, “Fragments of marble and concrete, spent bullet casings, shards of glass, and water from a sprinkler system create a constant stream of downward motion that mimics the descent of binary codes seen falling across the screens throughout the film” (850). Hence, the downward vertical motion within the world of the matrix replicates the motion of the computer code.
In essence, the film portrays the world of the matrix as a simulated text through these formal elements, literalizing the postmodern notion of a reality based on text. Still, The Matrix’s aspiration to allegorize the work of Baudrillard falters in a significant way: by so dramatically contrasting a simulated world with “the desert of the real,” The Matrix suggests that what Zizek would call a “real reality” exists beyond the simulation (19). For Baudrillard specifically, “the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials,” and only simulacra remain (2). In many ways, then, The Matrix offers a comforting narrative in which the simulated world can be identified as such, and cinematography and mise-en-scene help make that distinction.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press,1994.
Whissel, Kristen. “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special
Effects.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 834-852.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.