The object is simple: implant a thought so deeply into the mind of another that the person believes it to be their own. The execution is what proves to be the tricky part.
“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? Virus? An intestinal worm?
An idea – resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
Released in 2010, this film is one that truly requires repeat viewings in order to process all the information and subtleties it presents, as well as the in-your-face complexity of it all. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Ken Watanabe, this visually stunning piece is like that resilient parasite mentioned above, that snakes into your mind and roots itself for future pondering.
The premise is this – through carefully-crafted sedation and the skillful minds of dream “architects”, Cobb and his crew pluck information from corporate executives while they slumber, while their minds are at their most vulnerable. If the target’s subconscious begins to suspect that their dream is being controlled by someone else, it revolts, and this can get quite ugly. But there are also other factors that can creep in and make a mess of what was otherwise a perfect plan. So in order to anchor one’s self, each team member has a “totem”, a special small item that only they know the precise feel and weight of, which they use to assure them they are not in someone else’s dream. Another tool of their trade is the “kick” – a stimulus that makes the dreamers wake up, so that they are not lost in dreams for too long. This can be as simple as a drop in elevation, to wake the body with the feeling of falling. How elaborate this can be is explored in the film, and I won’t try to break it down for you here. It is best watched for yourself, and digested for yourself.
Ariadne: Why do you do this to yourself?
Cobb: It’s the only way I can dream.
Ariadne: Why is it so important to dream?
Cobb: Because in my dreams, we’re still together.
While attempting to win his freedom to return to the United States where he can be reunited with his children, Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is faced with the challenge of implanting an idea into a rich tycoon’s head in order to save the world from an energy coup. Although he is the best at what he does (he was once a dream architect of the highest caliber, but has stopped building forever), Cobb is reluctant to try to achieve this task, known as “inception”, because of past experiments gone horribly wrong. Ironically, the same experiment that went wrong is the very reason he cannot return home as he wishes, and the reason his work is often foiled by the ghost of someone he loved and lost.
Enter Mal, Cobb’s lost wife, played by Marion Cotillard. She is the undoing of many of his current corporate schemes. The one person he has successfully achieved inception with, Mal was driven mad by the idea implanted in her mind, and was lost to Cobb. She now lurks in his subconscious, acting as an enemy in his dreaming work and always a danger to his coworkers. As her name implies, Mal is bad news now, and all due to the guilt felt by Cobb at his failure of her. Theirs is a sweet love story with a tragic ending, inadvertently orchestrated by the man she loved and trusted. Although it is not beneficial for Cobb to hold to her as he does, he refuses to let her go. He visits her privately in dreams made of memories of the places and things they loved, and the times he feels he has to fix. Love is truly a dangerous beast when locked away, and Mal swings from soft to cold to hateful to lethal in the bat of an eye. This is not the way she was, please remember, and do not judge her too harshly. As his teammates tell Ariadne, she was “lovely”. This is the way Cobb’s guilty mind portrays her to himself and others. He can no longer control the beast he has created, although he is warned again and again to do so by his teammates. His love for her and his guilt have created a tragic condition within his own mind.
To achieve his task of inception with the energy tycoon, Cobb enlists the help of one of his father-in-law’s (Michael Caine) star pupils, played by Ellen Page. Caine states she is an even better architect than Cobb ever was, and fittingly her name is Ariadne. Like a spider she spins a most-convincing and effective web with which to snare the mind of those she targets. Her initial fear of the process of building is quickly overcome by her lust for it, and she joins the group and works her magic. It is Ariadne that unlocks the secret of where Mal is kept, and how, and why, and urges Cobb to release her, to let her go from the prison he has constructed. Page is a sharp and witty character, and she plays her role well, but somewhat unfortunately it is with that same self seen in so many of her movies. She is what she is, and that is more than enough at least for this film.
Cobb would not get far without his “thief”, Eames (played by Tom Hardy), who also serves as a very handy strongman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is none too shabby either when it comes to the tough-guy act in this film. Both guys dish out the beatings basically the entire movie, whether it be physically or mentally. There’s plenty of action, explosions, shoot-outs, and thrills in this movie to keep you ooh-ing and aah-ing, along with wit and suspense to keep you hooked.
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
The climax of the movie is a mind-bending dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, that even those aware of the process can become lost in if not careful. This is one part of the movie that especially requires some very close viewing and multiple attempts in order to get all the facts straight, as much as one can in a dream sequence such as this. In order to pull off this feat and gain his freedom to return home, Cobb must drag all of his teammates down with him, confront the pain and horrors he has trapped inside his mind’s darkest depths, and selflessly seek to save another to achieve his ends. Again, don’t take your eyes off the screen, because you WILL miss something vital during this segment. The ending sequence has left many to argue in online chat-rooms but I think it speaks for itself, if you know the details of the story and pay attention until the very end. Yet again I say – don’t take your eyes off the screen for a moment at the end, and not until the very end.
“Do you know what it is to be a lover, a half of a whole? I’ll tell you a riddle:
You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where the train will take you?
Because you’ll be together.”
This film leaves one feeling , on one hand, hollow, dissected, sore from the loss of something you didn’t know you had. On the other, depending on how you choose to see the ending, it speaks of redemption and rebirth, and going home again. The lessons learned here are that love lost can be damning, can kill the soul with guilt if not done right by, in the end; that the mind is a dangerous and scary place, and that ideas can be even scarier and more dangerous when presented with malice or ill purpose, but even so when presented with love. We all need totems in our life, to anchor us and keep us directed on the right path. Those totems can be objects, but so often are people who mean a great deal to us. When those people are done wrong, we lose our totem and lose our way. Sometimes all we can hope for is to be reunited, reconnected to our totem in the better future that we make for ourselves each day. Dreams are not so far from reality as to not influence it, if we believe enough. An idea can define you.
“You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you FEEL?”