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Inception: Deciphering Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece



Inception is an unequivocal masterpiece. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is 150 minutes of non-stop action and intrigue, with an undercurrent of unflinching human drama throughout. The experience is akin to your first viewing of The Matrix, Mission: Impossible, and The Fountain – combined.

Nolan’s $200 million canvas allows him to meditate on the the duality of reality and fantasy, a theme throughout his work. In Memento, Leonard fights to separate truth from lies; in The Prestige, the protagonists toy with illusion; in Inception, the crux is dream versus reality. Furthermore, Nolan continues to twist the narrative structure to reflect themes and meaning. Instead of the non-linear time of Memento, Nolan goes to an even deeper level – a fifth dimension, dream space, where the fabric of space and time folds back on itself in unimaginable ways.

On an emotional level, Inception – like Memento, The Prestige, and the Batfilms before it – is about how we cope with loss: loss of memory, loss of control or loss of loved ones. Some reviewers alluded to an emotional coldness in Inception, a claim I find entirely off the mark. Even in scenes that are constructed by the characters, deep in the subconscious, the emotional resonance is striking. Nolan’s passion project took 8 years to finish, due in part to repeatedly rewriting, strengthening the human element of what is essentially a sci-fi, heist thriller.

But what will make this film linger in the collective consciousness is not just its impressive scope but its ambiguous ending, a cut to black that calls what we thought we knew about entire film into question. As in the finale of The Sopranos – the clues to deciphering the ending are in the text, yet open to discussion and debate. But even when deciphering the ending, it’s important to note that solving the mystery doesn’t end the story. There is value to interpretation beyond a simple, definitive answer. With that said, I’ll give my two cents on the mystery.

Working backwards from the ending, the first key is the finale. The denouement of the action: Dom returns home, victorious, to be re-united with his children. He spins his totem, but we don’t see it fall (perhaps it wobbles?). However – the children that Dom sees are exactly the same as the avatars that have appeared throughout his subconscious. On its face, it would seem that this “too good to be true” ending must be just that.

The film’s antagonist is Mal, the projection of Dom’s deceased wife that haunts his life and dreams alike. As Dom finally confronts her (in the deepest level, limbo), she continues to cast doubt on the nature of Dom’s reality. Dramatic, Bondesque chase sequences? Persecution by a mysterious company (whose name, Cobalt, is suspiciously close to Dom’s last name, Cobb)? Are these the elements of real life, or of fantasy?

The final key is a scene that occurs relatively early in the film. Yusef the Chemist proves the strength of his sedatives by bringing Dom and crew to a drug den of dreamers, reminiscent of the opium houses in Once Upon a Time in America. “They come here to sleep?” asks Dom. “No,” answers the keeper of the dream addicts, “They come here to wake-up. Who am I to tell you which is dream and which is reality?” This philosophical approach to the film’s underlying theme is instructive. Like the sleepers – and like DeNiro’s Noodles in Once Upon a Time… – is Dom’s narrative a drug-induced dream by someone unable to cope with the loss of a loved one?

Whether or not you attempt to “solve” it, the film is still an epic undertaking that takes time to wrap your head around. Nolan is an undeniable master of suspense: with each successive dreamscape – the urban chase, the zero-gravity hotel, the arctic stronghold, the dystopian limbo – he raises the stakes. Yet he also knows when to drop in a well-placed joke, to ease some of the tension. Combine that with Hans Zimmer’s chilling score and cutting-edge visual effects and you have a piece of film art. What makes it a masterpiece, however, is on a deeper level. Inception achieves what its protagonists attempt to do, creating a thought in the viewer’s mind, leaving us with a half-remembered dream – a haunting, virus of an idea: what is reality?