Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Inception (spoilers)

I'm not going to bother with a full review for the movie -- short version: awesome, you should check it out for the whole dream sequence in the hotel if nothing else; I also happen to think that while this was ostensibly Chris Nolan's baby and Leo Dicaprio was the star, it's Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose career will benefit most -- in favor of trying to figure out the ending.


I have seen three options postulated in the after-movie discussions. There are the obvious two: either Dom (Dicaprio) woke up all the way and is finally back with his kids in real life ("the top fell eventually" theory), or he never came back up from Limbo after Ariadne left him down there and the whole sequence of him going to rejoin his kids is his own fantasy ("the top stayed spinning" theory). After I got home and went online, I saw a third theory: that Dom never woke up from his first time in Limbo with Mal, and everything in the movie was a dream.

Proponents of the third "all a dream" theory point out that a lot of the "waking world" sequences did seem a little far-fetched and unreal--particularly the way the Kobal engineering goons in Mombasa seemed to pursue Dom much like the projections of a subconscious mind (something that Dom's projection of Mal points out). However, I find this theory to be both improbable and narratively unsatisfying. Dom was not present for every sequence in the movie: Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) teaching Ariadne (Ellen Page), for example, or Yusuf and Arthur's solo time in their dream-worlds fighting off multiple attackers. And while he had knowledge of those events, we actually saw them as an audience, which would imply that Dom had to have seen them, too. From a narrative standpoint, yes, logically the whole thing could have been a dream, but then what would have been the point of making the movie at all? And what would have been the point of watching it, if all the characters in it are just projections and the whole plot merely the whim of a trapped mind? Like I said, unsatisfying.

So I think it comes down to whether the top stayed up or fell down after the screen went dark. The whole point of the movie was to question reality, so obviously Nolan wrote it to be open-ended, giving hints in either direction. Let's take a look:

The top fell down theory
  1. The top wobbled a bit at the end. Usually when it spun in a dream, it stayed perfectly still, spinning in place forever.
  2. We saw the kids' faces at the end, something that we pointedly never saw in the dreams.
  3. "Ariadne" comes from Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Minos and helped Theseus kill the minotaur and escape from the labyrinthe, a highly symbolic role given her relationship with Dom.

The top stayed spinning theory
  1. We did not actually SEE the top fall down, and Dom didn't stick around to watch, either, despite being visibly nervous about how familiar everything felt.
  2. And anyway, Dom's totem is spectacularly unreliable. First of all, it was Mal's totem to begin with, and second, he showed it and explained how it worked to multiple people. I realize that was to exposit how the thing worked and why he kept spinning it all the time, but seriously, now.
  3. The kids were in the exact same position that we always saw them out the back deck, wearing the same clothes and appearing not to have aged. It was never mentioned how long Dom had been away from them, but in the real world when he spoke to them on the phone from Japan, they sounded older.
  4. Why was Miles waiting for Dom in LAX? Wasn't he just in Paris? Admittedly Dom could have called to tell Miles about the possibility of his homecoming, but still. Seemed kind of convenient.
After I watched the movie the first time, I was adamant that the top wobbled and that he was awake. (Well, actually first I yelled "Sonofabitch!" rather loudly when the screen went black, getting laughs from people around me.) Having watched it twice now, though, I'm convinced that Dom was still dreaming at the end, mostly due to the kids.

If you have other items of evidence to add to the list, comment below.

One last thing, just one: has there ever been a Christopher Nolan film in which a woman wasn't fridged (i.e. killed off in order to give the main male hero a reason to angst)? Think about it. Batman Begins: the mother dies. The Dark Knight: the girlfriend dies. Memento: the wife dies. The Prestige: the wife dies, THEN the girlfriend dies. Insomnia: teenaged serial killing victim dies. And now Inception: the wife dies, four(?) times.



  1. To be fair, in the cases of Batman and Prestige, the woman dying is in the original canon, so. But at least Mal was given an active roll in the film.

    I never even considered that the whole film could be a dream just because it made no logical sense to me, though I suppose I can understand why people said as much. It's clearly intended to tug at your brain, but it is my personal feeling that the end is a dream.

  2. But she wasn't given an active role in the film. The character that we saw wasn't even a person: it was Dom's projection of her, or his memory, or whatever. So not only was one of the two female characters an antagonist who died a whole lot, she wasn't even a real person with any autonomy or agency.

    That's my take on the ending as well.

  3. The third option works if you assume that some of the other characters are real people. Perhaps Mal sent them in to extract her husband! Of course this raises the question of whether the Mal we see in the movie is projection-Mal or extractor-Mal... I am fascinated by the idea that they both exist, that Mal is fighting herself for her husband, or rather fighting her husband's projection of herself.

    I don't believe that is true, because the film has a clear enough through-line that they would have signalled it somehow.

    But I really want a remix that goes that way. (lol too much time in fandom, if only remixes happened to movies)

  4. I need to go see this film again...once isn't enough. And I, too, said "Sonofabitch!" at the ending...I'd been spoiled for it, but it was still a sucker-punch.

    Re. The top stayed spinning theory, point 4: When Dom visited Miles, he gave him gifts to give to Philippa and James. I would submit that Dom expected Miles to see P & J fairly soon (otherwise he could've posted the gifts), and that Miles was still in the States from that visit when Dom called and said "OK, so...I'll be landing in LAX in just over 10 hours, and I might not get arrested. Be there to pick me up? :]?" We're not given a timeframe for how long the job took, but I'm thinking it took place in the mid-year break for whatever tertiary institution Miles teaches at (a long enough time period for the team to plan and implement the inception job, and for Miles to justify the airfare).