Massawyrm loves almost everything about INCEPTION, and goes into detail about what he doesn't
Published at: July 16, 2010, 9:12 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
Let me be absolutely, 100% percent clear about something upfront: I think INCEPTION is a great film. And while I do not agree with many of my colleagues who have ascribed such words as “brilliant”, “genius” and “masterpiece” to it, I do agree that it is likely better than 95% of anything else that will come out this year and is a MUST SEE. It is an incredibly good film that I like quite a bit – the epitome of mind bending science fiction in this day and age, drawing as much from William Gibson as it does Philip K. Dick.
But it is NOT a perfect film.
Nolan makes one, small, somewhat pretentious, mistake in the film that undercuts its power and keeps it from attaining the level of brilliance it stands upon the precipice of achieving. Some will see it as a minor moment and dismiss it entirely – others will find it a profound, meaningful few seconds, and will no doubt define it as existential in nature. It made me angry and drove me up the wall with the implications that one, silly shot had on everything the film works to build. Telling you what it is or where it is located will potentially spoil elements of the film – so I won’t…until after the jump.
What is to follow is rare for me – it is purely an after the fact review. With a film like INCEPTION – one in which almost every piece of it is spectacularly executed – simply heaping more praise on it seems moot. There are already hundreds of other reviews out there detailing the magnificent editing, the soon to be classic score, the wonderful acting and the sharp writing. Read some of those. I agree with them on all but one point. I have no complaints about 99.9% of this film. But there are 2-3 seconds that I will complain about. In fact, I’m going to spend the better part of 1800 words talking about it in detail. So please, see the film, digest it, then pour yourself a cup of coffee or an ice cold Dr. Pepper and join me back here when you are ready to hear how one shot spoiled the film for me.
***************HERE BE SPOILERS********************
So what’s my problem? The film’s final shot. Up until that point I was absolutely in love with the film.
The final shot of the film – the spinning top left by Cobb as he makes his way out the back door – is what I like to call a Schrodinger’s Ending. Rather than wrapping up the film, it instead offers up a series of possibilities of what the film might actually have been about, challenging you to rethink or even revisit the film to figure out which possibility you believe to be the dominant reality. This happened accidentally with the ending of LOST when ABC tacked on footage of the burning wreckage of Flight 815 to the credits, forcing many to wonder if anyone had even survived the original crash at all. In that case, producers quickly came to the rescue, pointing out that this was not part of the story and simply a boneheaded decision by the network that hadn’t thought about what that footage might mean to an audience looking anywhere and everywhere for clues and answers. The ending of INCEPTION is intentional, and it takes a film that is operating entirely with one set of rules and splits it into distinctly different stories – offering multiple possibilities, but like Schrodinger’s cat, making it impossible to know the answer without opening the box – in this case, asking the director.
The spinning top offers us four possible realities. One: that everything we’ve seen is above the board and is a solid, internally consistent film. The top is about to wobble and fall. Two: that the movie has been mostly honest with us, but Cobb never actually made it out of Limbo and, now - lonely from of Mal’s departure - has constructed an elaborate fantasy involving his escaping. It doesn’t matter whether the top falls or not. Three: most or all of what we’ve seen is real until Cobb descends into Limbo to save Saito, but everything after that is an elaborate construct to ease his suffering before he goes mad and scrambles. The top does not fall. Four : most or all of what we’ve seen is a fiction and Cobb is a dreamer in some dream world that may or may not involve dream invasion technology at all. It also does not matter whether or not the top falls over.
The most likely possibility from the evidence that the movie offers is the first reality; the movie is everything it appears to be and the spinning top is just a cheap joke at the end to make you question everything you’ve just seen for the purpose of seeming even smarter than it already is. While the top creates the second, third and fourth possibilities, there is only some evidence to support the second, little to support the third and absolutely none to support the fourth, save the top itself.
Cobb could still be in Limbo and Mal may have actually gotten out – the second possibility - but were this true, the film would suffer from a complete and utter lack of a reality to ground it to. Reality, in this interpretation of the film, never – or barely ever - appears in the film; only the dream world does. This version is most like the ending of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, in which you discover that the entire story you’ve been told for an hour and a half is a lie. However, what THE USUAL SUSPECTS has that INCEPTION does not is a framework story to ground it. Kaiser Souze *does* exist. We see him. And there really was a crime committed on a boat and all of these players really did come together. How much of what we see is actually the truth? That is left to our imaginations. But at the end of the day, the movie is about Kaiser Souze getting one over on the cops and disappearing into the criminal underworld; that story is not nullified even if every word Spacey utters is complete and utter bullshit. If Cobb is still in Limbo, and Mal has gotten out, then the movie is a story of a guy stuck in limbo creating things that don’t matter at all to kill time and quench his loneliness while his mind scrambles. This ending means almost nothing we watched carries any real weight or matters at all – Cobb simply managed to attain the dreamstate equivalent of morphine to dreamily live out his days in bliss. There are no consequences to his actions and he achieved success because he simply willed it – as he does with the rest of the world.
The best argument one could make for the second reality is the complete and utter lack of characterization in the film outside of Cobb and Mal. Each character is an archetype and nothing more. While they have dialog and each is assigned a personality quirk, none of them have any development whatsoever. They exist only to serve Cobb’s story. This is best illustrated by Ellen Page’s Ariadne, who, despite her excellent performance, possesses no character traits outside of those that allow Cobb to explain to the audience the rules of the dream world. She is a student and is excited about learning – and that is all the information you will ever learn about her. What this means is that everyone but Cobb and Mal are either A) underdeveloped for the sake of expediting the story or are B) constructs of Cobb’s dream world. If it is the latter, this actually makes this a better movie. The film’s only other failing is its complete and utter lack of character depth, with some major characters serving as nothing more than plot devices upon which dialog rests; if this is so to serve a much more esoteric story, than it actually does lean closer to the early-earned label “Masterpiece”.
The third possibility is likely, but again, there is little evidence leading us to believe he stays in limbo after the raid on the third level. The film opens there and has the end of its climax there, but little else is mentioned about it. The only way this possibility can exist is if the top never stops spinning. There is no other evidence to support this theory. The fourth possibility – that everything is a whacked out dream in the mind of dreamer Cobb - is an aberration, a terrible idea resulting as a logical flaw from forcing the audience to question the reality of the ending. I give it no credence outside of acknowledging its existence.
Consider a very similar science fiction film, TOTAL RECALL, in which our hero is offered a chance to go on a memory based vacation only to end up saving Mars. Or does he? The film plays out as one thing and ends perfectly, satisfying the audiences’ desire to see the hero win out. But as fans of the film will note, the second time through, a second structure begins to appear – one in which Douglass Quaid lays down in the chair and becomes locked within the fantasy that was supposed to be his vacation. As he begins to believe this alternate reality, people enter his memories to try to save him, but he, now paranoid and delusional, kills them in order to maintain the reality he is very happy with. The film is never clear which reality is the truth – that is up for the audience to decide – but where that film is superior is in the fact that it does not punctuate itself with a question mark. Verhoeven never feels the need to elbow you and go “Hah? Hah? You get it? You’re not supposed to know!”
Nolan does. He punctuates the shit out of this movie.
I love that this film has the structure that it does – that there are two entirely different stories layered upon one another that can exist simultaneously. And I love that we as the audience get to question the validity of each. But this fracture exists long before we see the top. And since we’ve seen the top fall over during scenes of “reality”, we have to assume that the top was going to fall over regardless – that in Cobb’s Limbo state, he has convinced himself that the top actually *can* fall over. Unless of course we entertain the third possibility, that everything we see is legitimately occurring until Cobb goes to Limbo and from that point on everything we see is a construct of his imagination.
What I don’t love is that Nolan feels the need to highlight this structure and point out the layers. The final shot is something of a middle finger to the audience, refusing to allow you, even for a moment, to relish Cobb’s triumph. Instead, Nolan robs all the power of the mainline story by forcing you to question it at all. This type of story is best served as an underlying, quiet, alternate take on the film, allowing less intellectual members of the audience to walk away feeling like they understood it, while those who love to dissect and argue films have something they can really sink their teeth into. There’s no reason to leave an entire audience intentionally in Limbo – it is a wholly unsatisfying exercise, that here finds itself at the end of an incredibly satisfying (up to that point) film.
It is an amateur hour choice made by someone known for making mostly solid ones. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending, but I do mind a last second highlighting of information already present. The top could have fallen over and both the first two interpretations would have existed and made sense, but by leaving us the way it does, INCEPTION creates two unnecessary possibilities to muddle what is, until that point, a fantastic duality. This is where I depart from the rest of the critical mass heaping praise on the film.
I can forgive any number of small things about the movie – from unexplained magical briefcases with chemicals that let you enter other people’s dreams, to strange temporal anomalies involving exponential time dilation in a dream-within-a-dream and the minds ability to perceive it – because it is a wonderfully original framework with which to tell a story. But trying to point out how esoteric it is being only puts stress on the film’s already thin logic and forces audience to ask questions like “Why can’t another person touch someone’s token?” and “If another person can’t touch your token, why is Cobb’s token his wife’s?” and “If Cobb’s token is his wife’s, then isn’t it worthless and the last shot simply cinematic masturbation?” It is okay to create your own seemingly illogical logic as long as you play by your own rules. When those rules are tweaked for the benefit of story, you begin to force the audience to ask too many questions. I’m not convinced these are inherent flaws in the film, but I do think Nolan calls too much attention to these details by focusing too heavily on the top as a device.
I’ve spent more time reflecting on the problems the top creates for the film then I’ve spent reflecting on any other part of it – and I hate that. That’s not what I want to walk away from a film thinking about. But that’s what Nolan wanted us to think about. He put the top front and center. And that’s where I think he went terribly wrong. Every other element in this film is near perfect. This soils it.
In the end, I believe the top falls over and everything that occurs in the story is “real” and “happens”. The top is simply irrelevant in the second option and the third is only supported if the top keeps spinning – which Nolan refuses to show us. The only logical answer, if the top matters at all, is the first, obvious conclusion. But then, why show the top at all?
Until next time friends,