So I went with some friends to see Inception at the dollar theater a week or so ago. Then I went the next night and saw it again. I thought it was pretty magnificent. It’s generally taken up residence in my thoughts for some reason, and I’ve been mulling over it a lot and forming a lot of opinions. Now you have to suffer through them!

A lot of people think that Inception is the bee’s knees. Heck, just look at Imdb, it’s got a 9.1 out of 10 stars. A lot of people also think that Inception is overrated, couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, and has a lot of flaws. And these folks make some really good points (which I will tear to shreds in the process of this review, mwahahaha). But really, these are my thoughts and opinions, and I realize they will not be shared by everyone. So, uh, if you hated it…I’m sorry. Here’s a cookie.

Beforehand, I intentionally avoided all trailers, clips, spoilers, and discussion for the movie. I went into the movie not knowing a single thing about it, which I think was the perfect state of mind to be in.

If you are currently in that state of mind and/or have not seen the movie, stop reading this now. Seriously, don’t read this! You’ll wish you hadn’t! You’ll wish you’d never been born! Quit while you still can!

The Plot
Kudos to Mr. Nolan for making a movie that was not a sequel, a prequel, a remake, or a reboot. Kudos for not making a movie based on a comic book, a video game, a book, another movie, a tv show, or a radio show. Think for a minute how few movies made in the past five years actually can say that.

Instead, Nolan wrote an incredibly original and well-thought-out story, one he had been working on for ten years. It shows. As a writer, I can just imagine the nightmare it must have been, checking for plot holes; every addition to one story would ripple through the other storylines, and everything has to work. Even with a narrative as complicated as this one, though, the story makes sense. Yes, on first watching you have to pay attention to follow it, but ultimately it’s a clear-cut story with a rather beautiful simplicity. The worlds hang together nicely.

I loved the idea of the kick, because I very often wake up with that feeling of falling, and there is no better way to go from dead asleep to painfully awake. Nolan is exceptional at creating rules to enforce stability in what would otherwise be a distractingly fluid experience; a complicated plot requires solidity. The idea of the kick ties everything together.

I won’t get into the myriad of possible interpretations of the ending until the end (har har) of the review. Hang on to your hat.

Setting (both literal and figurative)
The story could have been told in a variety of settings. Originally, Nolan envisioned it as a horror movie. I think that could have worked, though I personally prefer it as it stands, not being much of a horror movie person. Another writer would have made the PASIV device, the technology, the motivating force behind the movie, and it could easily have turned into science fiction. I love science fiction, but I’m glad he didn’t do that. He doesn’t bother to explain the details of the device because they’re ultimately unimportant to the story he wanted to tell, and I’m glad he didn’t get bogged down in that.

He could have made it a more deeply psychological work, with more of a trippy, scattered feel. Here’s where my personal bias comes in: I would have found the subsequently scattered narrative to be annoying. The odds of a coherent storyline emerging would be lower, and it would have been difficult to have an ensemble cast with that introspective approach. I am a terrible sucker for ensemble movies, when the characters and relationships are well-done. (Think of Firefly/Serenity, for example—there wasn’t a single character that you didn’t at least somewhat love and understand on a different level by the end.)

Not to say that Nolan couldn’t have made any of these alternate settings work by changing parts of the fictional world, but if he was set including the movie’s elements in a certain way, then I think he picked one of the best frameworks in which to do it.

I liked the idea of a mind-crime setting in terms of the world Nolan created. If such technology did exist, you can bet that it would be used for criminal purposes pretty early in the game. At the same time, he worked in elements of horror, science fiction, and psychological drama: the framework he created was loose enough to adapt to different styles of storytelling, while still pulling it back into a cohesive whole.

I’ve heard quite a few people now argue that, for a dream world, not a lot of crazy stuff happens. I mean, they could be flying, turning bullets into daisies, making a volcano erupt in Los Angeles…why not? Nolan could have done anything! Yup, he could have. But he chose to establish set rules for the dreamworld. I think this was a smart move in terms of writing. If you think of your own dreams, you’ll realize that there is always some kind of dream logic (at least in mine). Weird things can happen as long as they fit the dream logic. Nolan explains this by saying that when you mess too much with the physics of *someone else’s* dream, they notice, and the projections turn on you as an intruder. This makes perfect sense to me. At the same time, because we have a variety of dreams in the movie, we can have a pretty amazing array of locations and events happen. The movie was filmed in six different countries, and we go from pouring rain to Siberia (hey, in my mind it was Siberia) to a crumbling city on a beach.

I know some people were disappointed with how much of an action movie it was. Usually excessive action drives me nuts and bores me. Not so with Inception. The action shows us how the rules of the dream world can be bent (trains in the city, fantastical fight scenes, the Penrose paradox staircases) without breaking them, so we still feel like we have some root in reality. In terms of a heist movie, the dream can’t be too insane either; the entire goal is to trick someone into believing that a dream is reality, and that isn’t really feasible with lava flowing around.

To me, the action was deliciously dream-like. This may be because my dreams are pretty strange, but I had dream déjà vu all throughout this movie. My dreams usually have a complicated narrative, and on occasion I can shape that narrative. I loved how, instead of the usual car chase, they had a car fight, with vehicles playing deadly bumper cars. I dreamed that I did that in a Walmart parking lot one time. Even pulled the “squish the guy between two cars” trick. We did have a car chase later in the movie (with Yusuf in the van), but by that time there are so many other things going on that it’s not even the main focus. The projections felt very dream-realistic to me as well, probably because most of my dreams involve fighting faceless minions in fantastically outlandish ways. I have indeed dreamed a zero-g fight (though we were in space). I’ve dreamed the Molotov-cocktail-bearing crowd advancing on my hideaway. I’ve dreamed the infiltrating an opulent mansion, gun with silencer in hand. I’ve dreamed a ski chase and being caught in an avalanche. I’ve dreamed being holed up in a Russian bunker, using grenades to keep the enemy at bay. Christopher Nolan, you stole my subconscious and made a movie out of it.

The mind-crime setting also enabled Nolan to bring in a wide range of characters. Each has to fulfill his or her role for the job to be successful, but each also plays a role in making the movie work, is individually interesting in his or her own right, and is a realistic person. This is pretty tough to do well with an ensemble cast, because you only have so much time to dedicate to each person, and the temptation as a writer is to give each character a few recognizable features and leave it at that, which has the effect of creating very static and ultimately uninteresting characters. While some of Nolan’s characters are more fleshed-out than others, I ultimately found myself genuinely liking each one.

Cobb is the most interesting character, and the movie follows his emotional arc. As Kurt Vonnegut said about writing, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Cobb wants to get back to his children. You could sum it up as simply as that, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. He wants his wife back, he wants to be rid of his guilt, he wants to make up for the past, and, at least a little bit, he wants the thrill of the crime. He’s realistically complicated, but his emotional arc is, at the core, pretty simple. And Nolan succeeds in making people care about him. Most people don’t learn to care much about a real person in 2.5 hours; I would argue that most of the audience cared about what happened to Cobb by the end. His efforts to retain a grasp on increasingly slippery reality mean more once we know the whole story of Mal; I still think one of the most poignant moments of the film is a quiet, throwaway scene with Cobb spinning the top in his hotel room in Kyoto, ready to kill himself if it doesn’t stop.

Ariadne is touted as being the architect, which is the role she fulfills in the job, but her role in the movie is to be Cobb’s guide. The name symbolism with her is pretty obvious (in Greek myth, Ariadne gave Theseus the red thread so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth), but rather than seeing that as heavy-handed, I see that as being one thing that the audience is supposed to immediately connect. She’s as new to this as we are, so we sympathize with her, but she’s also the viewer’s guide throughout the movie, and we’re supposed to trust her. But she’s also not perfect; she’s brash, over-confident, in over her head, a bit nosy, and occasionally annoying. So basically, Nolan created a really realistic college student. I liked that they hinted at the possibility of a relationship between her and Arthur but didn’t actually show it. In your typical action movie, you can immediately tell which characters going to be a couple by the end of the film, which is both formulaic and unrealistic. Very few movies end with an unattached female protagonist, and I really liked how Nolan resolutely left that alone.

While Cobb may be the most intriguing character, Arthur is definitely my favorite character. His role in the job is the organizer, the point man, and the researcher. His role in the movie is to provide a calm anchor to all of the drama. He keeps people chill and on track, and he’s very carefully controlled. He’s a sort of a relationship anchor, showing loyalty to Cobb, grudging respect to Saito, keeping up snarky banter with Eames, and having a bit of a thing for Ariadne. At the same time that he’s so stable, he’s not a boring or static character. We’re told initially that he has no imagination. Creating a kick in zero-g seems pretty imaginative to me. Also, that hallway fight was wicked awesome. Lead them on a merry chase, indeed. You go right ahead and wear your three-piece suits.

Eames is the chameleon of the group, but even as they identified him as such, they gave him several constants in terms of identifiable qualities. He enjoys trying on personas, male and female, and I think this could be interpreted as being a bit satirical towards actors in general. I enjoyed the subtle accents that everyone brought to the movie (where exactly is Cobb from, anyway? I couldn’t identify the American region.), and I especially liked how Eames was always given a very distinctive way of talking, even when he’s forging another character. He lightens up the more serious members of the team. At the same time, he showed a fast-growing liking for Saito and Fischer, and manages to be quite the action hero, which we feel is sort of a new thing for someone who usually pretends his way out of trouble.

Yusuf had the least amount of development, which was a sad necessity since comparatively little time passed for him in the movie. Yusuf and Arthur are put in the positions requiring the most trust: they dream foundation dreams for the others and have to keep everyone safe on their dream level. Yusuf is the most careful (and least criminally minded) of the extraction team, and it makes sense that he would be the foundation dreamer. His name is probably not a coincidence; Yusuf is Arabic for Joseph, the famous biblical dreamer.

I heartily enjoyed how Nolan played with people’s perceptions of “stock” characters. Saito is the Asian boss who gets killed early on. Except he isn’t. He’s a formidable character, and you actually buy him as the leader of a huge company. He makes decisions quickly, is a quick and accurate judge of character, and works with what he’s got. How did Nolan manage to make us fall in love with a character who spends the majority of the movie out of the action with a sucking chest wound? By the end, I was thinking, “Darn straight you better go back for Saito.” He ties the movie together and ties Dom to something more important than his own guilt.

In the same vein of blowing expectations out of the water, Fischer is not what you were anticipating. He’s the mark: in other words, the faceless and boring target we’re all aiming the guns at. Not in Inception. The entire premise of the movie works only because Fischer is a real, three-dimensional person within the confines of that universe. When he’s shot, you care, and not just because of the job. You want to see his life changed by the dream. You actually care about the guy who is supposedly our victim.

I hesitate to call Mal a character since we only see her as a projection (aside from a few flashes of memory here and there), but she’s a pretty interesting ghost, so I’ll talk about her. From a storytelling perspective, Mal is essential, and not just because her death is the motivating factor for Cobb. We need someone to hate. We’ve already established that we rather like our two potential villains so far, Saito and Fischer. Faceless projections, while upping the adrenaline, aren’t personal or real enough for us to sink our teeth into as a villain. Mal’s projection is. Every good story thrives on conflict–a personal conflict. Watching Cobb struggle with his own issues is all well and good, but Mal is the personification of his guilt, and as such we have no problem at all despising her. At the same time, because we’re following Cobb through all of this, we can love the Mal behind the projection, particularly by the end. This is my own personal bias coming into it again, but I really liked Mal—the real Mal—at the end, when we learn that Cobb is responsible for her delusion. She made sense to me, and her incredibly vindictive projection made sense to me; I often have a hard time knowing what I’ve dreamed and what I haven’t, and that unsettling, about-to-tip-over-the-edge mental feeling of being unsure of reality made me empathize more with her than I would have thought possible. Mal means bad or wrong in Latin, but it’s also short for Malorie, meaning “unfortunate.” It’s easy to see both the real, unfortunate Mal and the evil projection Mal. All in all, I thought the love-hate relationship the viewer has with her was flawlessly done.

I’m madly in love with this. Hans Zimmer did some of the score, and apparently read Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter for inspiration, which is one of the more mind-boggling books in print. I skim-read it a few years ago, and it’s quite fascinating. It weaves music and math and paradox together, and I can definitely see how that affected the score. The dream music is, of course, “Non je ne regretted rien” by Edith Piaf. The main theme for the movie is based on an extremely slowed version of the song. Someone did a YouTube video comparing the speeds of the music in each level of the dream, and each level’s music is slowed down incrementally according to the formula they set out early in the movie. The first time I heard the song played in the movie, I had to chuckle: one of my friends used that song for the first movie he made of the CU crew. (So my entire college experience was a dream?? NOOOOOOO!!!)

Other things I enjoyed
Limited, tasteful use of CGI! They actually built large chunks of Cobb’s dream city. The hallway fight scene was filmed in an ACTUAL ROTATING HALLWAY with no CGI, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did all of his own fighting. The cinematography was perfectly lovely.

I’ve made that Sydney to LA flight, and dude, that is the perfect time to mess with someone’s head. After 13.5 hours on the plane, half-asleep, I couldn’t have told you what I dreamed and what was real either.

The totem was a neat idea, even if it does open up the possibility of some tiny plot holes. A few years ago I had an idea for a story where small objects given, received, or held had different meanings. There’s something about tokens that I find fascinating—as Boromir says, “so much fear and doubt for so small a thing.”

I loved how you couldn’t quite tell what the time period was. Everyone’s clothes look just slightly out of sync with our own time, but the suits some of the guys wear almost look old-fashioned. There are very few instances of technology being shown, and when it is, as when we see Yusuf’s twelve dreamers, we feel more like we’ve stepped back in time than forward. The team works with paper and pencil and models. We see very few computers, and a cell phone is only used once, that I recall. Highly unusual for a modern movie. Maybe the fuzzy time period is why all of the guys had slicked-back hair. Seriously. Cobb, Arthur, Fischer, Eames, and Saito all used incredible quantities of gel.

Initially, at the end of my first viewing, I felt for some reason that Cobb was still in limbo, dreaming of his kids. However, after thinking about it a bit, I changed my mind to go with the interpretation that Cobb really is awake, in reality, with his kids. As a friend pointed out, early in the movie, Cobb says that we don’t remember the beginning of a dream or how we get into the situation. At the end of the movie, we see Cobb on the plane, going through customs, collecting his luggage, and meeting Miles. If it were a dream, it seems like we would cut straight to Cobb in the house.

Also, for the first time, his children are wearing different clothes. Imdb also says that they’re played by different kids at different ages, so time seems to have passed. Art supplies are strewn on the table, unlike the other times we’ve seen the table recreated in Cobb’s subconscious. Throughout the movie, whenever Cobb is awake (thus believing that Mal is dead), he’s not wearing a wedding ring. In dreams, he is. He’s not wearing his ring in the final scene.

That being said, the fact that Cobb spins the top and walks away shows that, at this point, it almost doesn’t matter anymore if it’s real or not. I rather liked that, actually; he’s chosen his reality, and nothing else matters.

I’ve heard the theory that the whole movie is Cobb performing inception on himself in an effort to create new memories subconsciously to correct the past. The evidence for this is the two bad memories from the elevator levels (that the audience is privy to during the film) are successfully altered or given closure. I don’t favor this one since at no point in time are we told that you can perform inception on yourself. The only times it was done (with Mal and Fischer), another person had to do it. I don’t think inception on yourself is possible, if we’re defining inception as the planting of an idea many layers deep into the subconscious. Because it’s your own subconscious, the part of you doing the planting would always be subconsciously aware that you planted it.

Another interpretation is that the movie itself is an idea being created for our minds, not a character in the film. The idea being planted is that Cobb must rid himself of the guilt of performing inception on his wife in order to be returned to his children. That’s the goal and that is what the audience is trained to want and expects to see. By keeping us distracted on a side-plot involving a multinational energy company and various levels of existence, the film is allowed access into our minds, creating in us a desire for stability out of all of this spiraling chaos. How can their be stability? Only if DiCaprio is reunited with his children.

This interpretation has some things going for it. Cobb is reunited with his children (as in the other interpretation, so you can look at it just on that level), and we experience the emotional catharsis that they talked about in the movie as the chaos and our sympathy pains with Cobb are resolved. The dream music plays again at the end of the credits, and this could be seen as our signal that the dream is over, we’ve had our kick, and we’re back in reality. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was what Nolan was going for on the deepest level. Part of why I think this movie is so brilliant is because it can be interpreted on many levels, and possibly more than one interpretation is true. At the same time, I don’t like drawing this interpretation out to its extreme. We spend the movie enthralled by the story and these characters, and to learn that they aren’t real is rather cruel. Obviously, they’re not REALLY real; it is a movie. But I love the reality of them within the movie, and I hope that their fictional world exists. I believe that the movie can be inception itself, but I still want to retain my suspension of disbelief when it comes to the reality of the characters.

I’m sure there are other interpretations as well. I enjoyed the movie and picked out a lot more on my second viewing, and I’m sure I could glean even more from it if I saw it again. There’s a lot more to be explored in terms of love (both as a redeeming force and as a terribly destructive one), age, time, regret, our capacity for delusion, our capacity for imagination, the nature of human thought and idea, positive emotion versus negative emotion, memory, guilt, inspiration, perception of reality, catharsis…this movie has a lot worth digging into, particularly after seeing it more than once. I don’t know what you’re doing waiting around here for. Go give it another whirl.