***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.