Spoilers ahead for Inception.
If The Prestige is the key to understanding the films of Christopher Nolan, then Inception is the apotheosis of his filmography. Nolan’s singular heist movie weaves together his two main dramatic interests: time and lies. Set in a world of dreams, Inception uses the basic premise of a heist movie and then bends it to pursue an exploration of the lies we tell together to create something bigger than ourselves and seek the catharsis we can’t achieve on our own. Nolan does this not just in the heist genre, but really making a movie about movies. He tells a story using his preferred mode of storytelling that allows him to bend time through the edit and find acceptance in the fictions we tell ourselves in order to live.
Inception is not a complicated movie; it is merely a different movie. No one has ever made a movie about dream levels where a heist crew goes into someone’s mind to implant an idea, so a large portion of the film is given over to explanations, but Inception does not need to be solved even with its ambiguous ending. Nolan patiently walks his audience through the mechanics of dreams and the trauma of his protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nolan isn’t trying to trip up his audience or fool them like he does with the dual Bordens in The Prestige. Instead, Inception wants the audience to share in this “half-remembered dream” where we, like Cobb, start to lose the thread of what’s a dream and what’s real not through surrealism or dream logic, but because we’ve come to accept the shared dream. The lie is now the truth because we’ve found catharsis in the outcome.
Much has been made about “what’s real” and “what’s a dream” in Inception, and such distinctions miss the point of the movie. To even argue about whether or not the top topples over at the end misses the more important question of the scene’s intention and Cobb’s focus. Like other Nolan movies, the filmmaker is obsessed with the lies we tell ourselves in order to live. Inception carries this forward to an extreme degree by stripping away the boundaries of reality to make us wonder if the dream has now become Cobb’s reality. This can all be tracked through who has Cobb’s totem, but the how is never as interesting as the why. The why of Inception is what makes it Nolan’s defining work.
When you look at all the contours of the movie and how it unfolds, Inception is far more concerned with how dreams—lies we tell ourselves—shape us rather than reality. While the conflict between reality/dreams may haunt Cobb and his relationship with Mal (Marion Cotillard), it doesn’t drive the plot forward. What drives Cobb is the mission to perform inception on Fischer (Cillian Murphy), which in turn gives Cobb the drive to get home to his family. To create dreams for another and create inspiration is what allows Cobbs to reach his aspiration—reunification with his children. While Cobb wrestles with the nature of his reality (hence the frequent spinning of the top), Mal’s fate becomes more of a cautionary tale and yet one he can’t fully escape. The trauma has become his reality, and we see that dreams are no escape as she haunts Cobb wherever he goes.
The only way to work through this trauma is through a shared dream, which is where Inception basically functions like a movie about movies. Cobb is the director, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the producer, Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the writer, Eames (Tom Hardy) is the actor, Saito (Ken Watanabe) is the studio, and Fischer is the audience (Yusuf’s (Dileep Rao) role is a bit more nebulous, but he represents the work of the craftspeople to make the dream possible even if it’s not glamorous or easy to describe). For Nolan and Inception, lies are what we tell each other and tell ourselves to move forward. Nolan is a firm believer that a lie can tell the truth when it’s presented at the right angle. Fischer needs catharsis from his father’s death. It’s a lie that his father wanted him to break up the company and wanted him to be his own man, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s what Fischer needs to move forward. It may not be his idea, and arguably he’s been manipulated in a fairly grotesque fashion by having his mind hijacked, but the lie brings him peace. This in turn foreshadows what will happen with Cobb.
The intersection of lies we tell each other and the lies we tell ourselves can be seen in Cobb’s journey where he’s constantly breaking his own rules and hiding his secrets from the crew. There’s no room for honesty in Cobb’s line of work (he’s a thief that breaks into people’s subconsciouses) or with himself. He struggles to even admit that he’s responsible for his wife’s death because he performed inception on her to make her believe that her experience wasn’t real. He did it for benevolent reasons—to get them back to their children—but it took root in her mind until she could no longer discern reality from dreams. The benevolent lie turned malevolent. And as Cobb points out, an idea is like a virus, and it will take root in your mind. Cobb is dealing with that infection, and the cure isn’t getting back to reality but to accept that reality doesn’t matter.
This may seem like a bleak ending and a firmly anti-truth position, but as we’ve seen from Nolan’s filmography, he’s not particularly interested in truth as a value. The business of a storyteller is the business of a liar, and the people who operate from positions of power in his movies are either duplicitous (Cobb in Following, Batman and Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight) or they’ve come to peace with an identity fractured by lies (Leonard Shelby in Memento, Borden in The Prestige). Cobb falls into the latter category where he ceases to outrun his lies and wrestling with reality and instead realizes that what he needed to “escape” wasn’t to get back home to his kids, but to face his guilt with Mal. Keep in mind that the interaction with Mal is a lie. He recognizes that she’s just “A shade”, and that no dream could ever capture her in all her complexity, but he has to accept that he’s responsible for her death. The lie he tells himself about her—to keep her alive in his dreams—holds Cobb prisoner.
That’s why when Cobb reunites with his children, the top doesn’t matter. The dreams—lies constructed to work through trauma to reach an important truth—have led Cobb out the wilderness, but not necessarily back to reality because reality isn’t held up as some glorious thing. It’s conceivable that every scene in Inception is a dream, but to argue over that misses the point that what Cobb is seeking and what Nolan as a storyteller is constructing is catharsis. “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time,” Cobb tells his crew, and that’s what we’re left with. The emotions, whether they’re based on truth or fiction, are more important. To debate how close Inception gets to actual dreams or the finer points of the layers and totems misses the bigger picture.
Inception is the perfect blend of time and lies within Nolan’s filmography as dreams distort time and the truth to bring the catharsis he seeks to his audience. The trappings of the film and its heist structure allow it to be good fun and a riveting blockbuster, but the core of the movie and why it endures are due to the fulsome expressions of Nolan’s main interests. For Nolan, the only way to exist is to let go of time and truth, which is what we do when we go to the movies. We accept that we miss chunks of time and don’t have to be constrained by chronology. We accept that we’re being told a series of events that never happened. We accept it because like Cobb and Mal, we can live in a world that we’ve built together.
Tomorrow: The Dark Knight Rises
For all of our retrospective pieces on the films of Christopher Nolan, click here.