How Inception Bests The Matrix

20 July 2010 at 17:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***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.

Inception's promotional poster. Image taken from latinoreview.com.

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.

Marion Cotillard turns a stunning performance as Mal in Inception. Image taken from celebrity-mania.com.

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.

A still from Inception featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Image taken from The Atlantic.

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.

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13 Comments

  1. Incept the dream among shit squeaks … « Et tu, Ghost-Runner said,

    […] A collegue and friend of mine writes this whole scene to scene description on imdb. Talk about serious fanhood More dope on the movie is to be found  here and here! […]

  2. Inception regrets nothing « Feminist Music Geek said,

    […] I was intrigued. Caitlin at Dark Room raved about it, arguing that it bested The Matrix. Pioneer film theorists David Bordwell and Kristin […]

  3. Nave Torment said,

    The ambiguous end certainly establishes INCEPTION as a brilliant work of art. We are left speculating amongst ourselves, and that only creates an equally meta-fictional level of understanding. Coming out of INCEPTION (the film) we discuss the ending with our friends, as if we had just shared a dream ourselves. It’s brilliantly put together: a world very meticulously crafted.

    Just like the internal logic that pervades the narration. The totems, in my opinion, are false references. They give an impression of truth, that if a particular totem behaves in a particular way the person is no longer ‘dreaming’. However, throughout the film this is simply assumed and never explained. Arthur (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) explains it thus: the totems help us realize whether or not we are in “someone else’s dream”, not whether or not we are in a dream-state. Secondly, if Cobb’s top, or Arthur’s loaded die, Ariadne’s chess-piece, or Eames’ poker chips behave in certain ways pertaining to its weight, then it relies on gravity. In a dream-state, gravity does exist. It shifts, but it’s there. The totems are therefore inconclusive to anyone and simply provide a sense of closure to the wielder, but they are ultimately misleading. Finally, the top was, as Cobb says, originally Mal (Marion Cotillard)’s totem, not his own. That alone creates many startling facts, leading to exactly this blog’s assertion: MAL WAS RIGHT.

    So, according to the internal logic of INCEPTION, what is a good indicator of dream-states? Cobb explains that it’s trying to figure out “how you got here”. By tracing the origin, so to speak. We know that Cobb does return to the United States and to his family because he (and the moviegoer) knows how he got there. But even scenes in ‘reality’ are jarring at best. The scene in Mombassa (where Cobb does spin the top but is interrupted by Saito in the bathroom) is so much like a dream scene I am confident that reality and dreaming are one and the same. Just look at the way the Sub-Con Militias die – with one bullet firmly in place, they drop without any reaction, a lifeless ragdoll. The agents of Cobal Engineering in Mobassa fall similarly. To be clear, if the only way of knowing whether or not I am dreaming is by ‘tracing the origin’, the best way (and perhaps the Matrix way) to do so is by trying to remember how I got here. How I came to be.

    And for the life of me, I can never know how I was born. The assumption, as existential as it might be, is jarring.

  4. ALex said,

    Inception + Matrix = Smart movies for stupid people

    Fight Club is better than both, that is an actual complex movie. Inception is a schlocky action blockbuster masquerading behind a thin veil of intelligence.

    I did like inception but it does not deserve the praise that it gets due to most characters such as Tom Hardy’s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s, Ken Watanabe’s, Ellen Page’s and the Doctor guy, have no character development what so ever they might as well be made of cardboard.

    • blah said,

      agreed

      • blah said,

        well, except that Fight Club is not a masterpiece either… it looks more like something extremely cynical made by a smart guy, but intended at stupid people as well.

    • zach said,

      Fight Club is close to a masterpiece. If you have a such a large cast character development need to be around the main protagonist which where is a lot of development there. Yes a little more development of the other cast would have been nice but when you only have to character, you better have a lot of development or the movie will flop.

      If you really saying fight club is ‘smart’ than inception, then you need to realize something, I saw fight club and got it the first time no sweat, and have never talk to anybody who didn’t ‘understand it’ but talked to several people who didn’t understand inception their first time around.

  5. Todd said,

    Really like this post c8. Thanks for shining the spotlight on the simulacrum theory 🙂

  6. Ghostwheel said,

    It was a nice writing piece and an excellent production, but since the actual whole plot was “Is he dreaming, is he not, is someone else dreaming…” ad nauseum. I have trouble considering it within immediate “classic” status. I did feel like I was watching Matrix-Rewritten for a good part of the movie, and find the use of gravitational anomalies overused in the “dream/matrix/whatever part of your mind you are using that is not in physical reality”. What I did find most enjoyable were the subtle hints you had to look for: the ring, repeat sequences, the same people showing up in the background, etc. This is what made me think something was off kilter and heightened my awareness during the movie, so I had to pay attention (like seeing something out of the periphery of your vision).

    I will also mention that, as a viewer, I WAS frustrated, whether questions were provoked or not. I was left with the thought “That’s IT? The whole inception idea really WAS just a vehicle for a “Is it real or is it a dream” scenario like I thought after the first 10 minutes?” It doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate the movie for what it was, but a sweeping statement that the movie “provokes more questions without frustrating the viewer” is erroneous unless you happen to have the opinion of every viewer. But maybe I was the only person who figured out it was just a “Is he dreaming, is he not, is someone else dreaming…” within the first 10 minutes of the movie. I kept hoping for more by way of plot, but I did get excellent cinematography, nice editing, good visuals, great directing, some good acting, and a fabulous opportunity to test my observation skills. We take what we can get.

  7. Miika Hannunen said,

    Also keep in mind that Matrix =/= Inception. It’s like you liked a certain aspect of Inception (that you can never be sure if you’re actually dreaming or not) and when the exactly same theme is not present in the Matrix, you declare Inception the winner.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Thanks, Miika, for your comment; however, I feel like the argument I make is a bit more complex than what you’ve described. What I take pains to explain in the post is the way that the use of uncertainty in Inception produces a very different kind of experience for viewers and results in a different ideological meaning where as the Matrix resolves the initial uncertainty in a way that I find less interesting. In the end, they ARE different texts that should be judged on their own merits, but in this particular respect, I find Inception to be a more fascinating.

  8. daarklord said,

    While watching Inception did remind me of The Matrix, the two have different themes, and they provoke different questions.

    Inception’s uncertainty is about people who are enthralled by the dream world, and have a hard time holding on to reality because the dream world is so addictive. In The Matrix, the character Cypher struggles with this theme.

    But The Matrix has more. The spirit of The Matrix is about seeking truth, and questioning your assumptions and your comforts. This theme extends beyond the mind and addiction into realms of statehood and individual power. The Matrix also touches on ideas of fate and self-determinism, as presented by the Oracle, the believer Morpheus, and the doubter but eventual actor-by-choice Neo.

    I think The Matrix touches on as many themes that leave the viewer questioning and intellectually stimulated as Inception, if not more. The fact that it’s also one of the best action movies that delivers gut satisfaction doesn’t subtract from that.

    I found this blog entry on Google search results. Thank you for sparking conversation about to great movies, C8.

  9. daarklord said,

    While watching Inception did remind me of The Matrix, the two have different themes, and they provoke different questions.

    Inception’s uncertainty is about people who are enthralled by the dream world, and have a hard time holding on to reality because the dream world is so addictive. In The Matrix, the character Cypher struggles with this theme.

    But The Matrix has more. The spirit of The Matrix is about seeking truth, and questioning your assumptions and your comforts. This theme extends beyond the mind and addiction into realms of statehood and individual power. The Matrix also touches on ideas of fate and self-determinism, as presented by the Oracle, the believer Morpheus, and the doubter but eventual actor-by-choice Neo.

    I think The Matrix touches on as many themes that have the viewer questioning and intellectually stimulated as Inception, if not more. I do agree with blogger that the end is a service to its action movie aspect, aimed to delivers gut satisfaction rather than uncertainty. If I wanted it to be philosophical to the end, I would cut the movie right when Neo turns to fight Smith instead of running away.

    But instead they got two action movies worth of sequels out of it! And I don’t mind at all because ignoring the philosophy, the Matrix movies were great action movies, too!

    Thank you for sparking conversation about two great movies, C8.

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