In the same way genealogies provide foundation for expounding upon and explaining the personhood and character of real human beings, so any good author deserves to have any individual work placed into the context and trajectory of their oeuvre. Whether or not Christopher Nolan is a good man, I cannot say, although by this point I think the claim that he is a good director could go unchallenged. Individual entries into Nolan’s filmography beg for comparison to his other films, though. He uses the same actors time and again, not to mention editors and cinematographers, but more importantly, Nolan has emerged in the last decade as one of the most consistent and popular purveyors of the kind of soft nihilism that strikes American moviegoers as profound.
Ten years ago now, we all sat down to watch Memento and for one hundred and ten excruciating minutes we threw our lot in with Leonard Shelby as he struggled to discover his wife’s killer. We agonized with him, suffered with him, took his every blow alongside him, and then, in the final moments, we learned that we had been rooting for a man every bit as perverse, if not more so, than the villain whose identity we had long awaited to learn. Shelby was caught up in a cycle of violence and angst he willingly inflicted upon himself because it gave him purpose. Two years later we slugged through Insomnia, a film whose most palpable character was not actually a character, but a place- a place where the regular life of a day, born in the morning and dying in the evening, was caught in one sustained moment that spun towards itself, over and over again. Four years after Insomnia, The Prestige, perhaps the clearest expression yet of Nolan’s view of the human condition. For glory or a thin moment of happiness, man kills himself on a stage again and again and again, and the difference between the goodness of life and the absurdity of death is rendered indistinguishable because both perpetually feed into and out of one another in a kind of sick dance- and while I know “nihilism” is a tag that reductionist Christians like to stick on the toe of every dead body they see, The Prestige is pretty much just that.
All that, minus one billion-dollar cataclysmic-Heath Ledger-supernova, brings us to Inception. The most basic architecture of the story is obviously, yet blissfully Homeric. Cobb, a man of tricks and cons, has been given a bad name, unfairly exiled from his country, estranged from his wife, and is looking for a way to salvage his reputation, get home, and, perhaps, satisfy the anxieties which exist between he and the missus. The same business that got Cobb into such a bind is also how he chiefly occupies himself while he waits for an opportunity to return, and this business is bizarre indeed. Along with a well-dressed crew, Cobb searches the souls of men, looks for secrets and insecurities, then exposes them. He’s something of a Holy Ghost moonlighting as Satan. When an opportunity arises to do the impossible and win safe passage back to Ithaca, Cobb assembles the requisite crack squad of professional sidekicks (action movies have arming sequences, heist films have crack squad sequences) and they all proceed quickly into Cillian Murphy’s brain; in a twist on the heist film, Inception is the story of people breaking into an empty safe to install treasure.
The exposition oscillates between thoughtful observations on the nature of dreams (most notably that dreams always begin in the middle of things, although those “things” stem from no prior action) and mechanical explanations of the Inception gimmick, which a few critics have charged with incoherence, although I think this unfair. Obviously, the film is made to be viewed several times, and for the level of viewing with which most audiences are going to ascend the first time around, the lucidity of the first act seems more than sufficient to guarantee a basically comprehensible plot. You don’t need to understand the technicalities of the plot devices in the film anymore than you need to understand the technicalities of the film projector. What seems more to the issue as concerns the exposition is that it doesn’t ever really end. The kind of clunky information-dialogue needed to bring the viewer up to speed in act one is needed even in the fourth act in order to keep us abreast of the plot.
This kind of criticism ought to be taken with a grain of salt though, as Inception owns one of the more intricate plots I can think of. What seems of greater interest to me is the way in which the story, up to a point, subverts the common dualistic tendencies of most contemporary films that want to talk about metaphysics. Your typical American film that ponderously deals with “the mind” is happy to hang out in a Gnostic shed. The body is a prison for the mind and the mind must be released from the senses in order to fulfill its highest purpose; whatever the body does while it waits for liberation is of little consequence. However, at times Inception aims more towards the Triad. When Cobb’s team is determining how and where to plant their alien idea within Fischer (Murphy), Cobb tells his team that the mind is not deep enough. He speaks of the place they need to go as a place of “feeling,” which is a simple enough code for the soul. Within Fischer’s body is his mind, and within his mind is the place where his most monumental, character-defining ideas begin. Hence, we have Plato or Augustine’s suggestion of body, mind and soul. Fischer’s mind is hardly a place of freedom and unrestricted happiness. On the contrary, he seems every bit as frustrated on the inside as outside. He responds with sass and violence when he encounters Cobb’s team of intruders. His frustrations, both physical and spiritual, stem from a broken relationship with his father, a motif Nolan has kicked around in his Batman films. Cobb’s frustrations also stem from a broken relationship, however, Fischer’s soul is quickly laid open for the audience, while the narrative is slow and methodical in revealing where responsibility lays for the bad blood between the hero and his wife.
Cobb and his ominously-named wife Mal spent too much in their dreams. Journeying into a shared subconscious, Cobb and Mal spent more than five decades constructing a massive city in which to play. We’re told that within the controlled subconscious, people can imagine whatever they want and see it come to pass. When Cobb and Mal are given such freedom, they don’t exactly make for themselves the palace of Versailles or the Taj Mahal. The world they create is an endless forest of empty skyscrapers, an almost colorless mega-Manhattan. Cobb blandly remarks to Ariadne at one point, while the two are walking the dream-avenues of this city, that “[he and his wife] liked these kind of buildings.” Cobb’s suggestion that the buildings were both of their creations is called into question in the dénouement of the film, but I’ll save an explanation of that claim for just a bit.
Early in the film, the audience is tipped off to the significance of character’s names. Ellen Page plays Ariadne, a young grad student who functions as the architect of the dream world wherein Cobb’s team will encounter Fischer. Prior to Ariadne being brought on the team, Cobb tests her ability to create a sufficiently complex maze, which she does, thus marrying the character to her namesake, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos who helped Theseus navigate the labyrinth which housed the Minotaur. If the significance of the name is anything other than a coy wink to those with a classical education, we can further imply that Ariadne is aiding Cobb to the center of a labyrinth which houses a monster he must defeat in order to liberate a kingdom of some sort. Such an interpretation suggests two possible monsters: Fischer, the owner of a domineering energy company, or Cobb’s wife Mal, who lurks in the deepest recesses of Cobb’s psyche and attacks him, through out his descent, with knife and gun and speeding locomotive. Of course, I go with the latter, as it is Cobb who has tyrannically sequestered his wife in the basement of his own mind, which he has deemed the safest place to keep her while he tries to decide how to go forward.
The obviousness of the Ariadne/Ariadne connection gives us license to question the significance of other names. There’s Yusuf the adept potion maker who allows the team to descend into the furthest realms of Fischer’s dreams, and the simple likeness the name bears to “Joseph”, the most notorious dreamer of all Holy Scripture. But then there’s Dominic Cobb, the hero. Dominic means “of our Lord,” and while a handful of significant Dominics pepper Western tradition, his last name is the real puzzle to solve as it’s the name he usually goes by in the film. I puzzled long and hard over this and the solution came only after dwelling on the film’s most unusual tick.
Dreams are tricky and it is easy to get so deep in a dream that discerning when or whether you’ve reentered waking life becomes uncertain. To combat this problem, each dreamer must choose an object while awake which serves as an inviolable icon of reality. That icon represents the dreamer to himself and when that icon functions as it would in the waking world, the bearer knows for certain that he or she is not asleep. We’re shown three of the character’s icons, all of which share one oddity in common. Ariadne chooses a chess piece, a queen. Arthur (played by an unusually solemn Joseph Gordon-Levitt) chooses a loaded dice and Cobb steals his wife’s icon, a small metal top. While the other characters presumable have such objects, we’re only shown these three, all of which have to do with games. Cobb’s top is the most interesting of the three. While a top is most commonly used as a toy, it is also sometimes used in games of chance as a randomizer, much like a dice. When Cobb is dreaming, he spins the top and it spins forever, ungoverned by gravity. When Cobb is awake, the top spins and then topples over, as per usual. It’s striking what Cobb chooses to represent reality, although it makes perfect sense in light of Nolan’s other films. In the dream world, the top spins in endless cycles with no rest, much like Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in The Prestige, much like Leonard Shelby in Memento, much like Dominic Cobb in Inception. However, even when the top functions as it should, the rest earned is nothing more than a sad toppling over. Clink. Done. Even Eeyore might be moved to offer up a few words of consolation to someone whose ultimate safeguard against madness was a symbol so bleak.
And so the hero’s surname coincides with his icon of reality eerily well. Like a cob of corn, Cobb is a man who has been systematically spun and consumed in that spinning. Nothing is left. While he claims to Ariadne that the city of his subconscious is one that he and Mal created, it’s actually all his own doing and I’m hard pressed to believe that the woman had much say in the matter. In the turmoil of the fifth act, Cobb confronts his projection of Mal and ultimately rejects her because she is nothing like the true Mal. He confesses that the real Mal is a human being of great beauty and creativity, while his projection of her is thin and lifeless. He rejects the dreamed Mal because she is false. Interesting. In the few minutes Ariadne has in a dream world, we see what creativity can do. She creates mirrors which face one another, then shatters the mirrors and produces an endless corridor of pillars and arches. If the real Mal had a say in the creation of her dream world with Cobb and fifty years in which to play, we’re left to believe that world would have been a magnificent thing, but instead, all we get is Cobb’s dull imagination running tame, inventing the same vacant skyscrapers over and over again. It is finally telling that when, back in “waking life,” Mal decides to end her life, she leaps out of the window of a hotel- a perfectly poetic condemnation of Cobb’s steel high-rise dream world.
The twist in the film and the answer to the question which burns in our minds as the credits roll is easily answered in the relationship between author and hero. Christopher Nolan is a writer who prides himself on his creativity. Inception bursts with wildly imagined scene after scene and Nolan’s inventive and original script is a never ending showcase of “Look what I can think, Ma.” I am hard pressed to believe that at the center of such a film is a hero with an honestly-confessed lack of imagination, someone who can think of no better way of exiting his own dream world than by asking his wife to lay her ears next to his own on a train track. On the contrary, I find Cobb to be a man after Nolan’s own heart, and thus the entirety of show is, in fact, within the mind of a true prodigy.
There’s another sense in which bickering over the ending is a waste of time, because ultimately, whether the top falls or it doesn’t makes little difference within the scope of the film. If the top doesn’t fall, Cobb is left in the endless cycles of the dream world, and if it does, Cobb returns to the real world, which, as we know from Nolan’s other work, is the same kind of horrifically cyclical nightmare.
This leaves us just one more matter to clear up: Robert Fischer. The Modern Age idolizes freedom and free will and places little ultimate value on anything other than an individual’s nothing-forbidden right to pursue his or her own desires, unencumbered by the ethics of others and institutions. Yet, the broad plot of the film gives us a hero whose only passage back into freedom comes by way of entering the mind of another man and stealing from him his right to untethered pursuit of self. Only someone as maniacally self-centered as Dominic Cobb could do it. Perhaps the monster Cobb encounters at the center of his labyrinth is none other than himself, given that the alleged-Mal he rejects there is actually his own creation. I hear echoes of Leonard Shelby and Robert Angier here, even again.
Caught in his boundless ego, the Modern hero can find no opponent worthy of himself other than himself. This kind of gallantly self-defeatist narrative is a sad parody of the Christian ideal of heroics, for the Christian life calls us not to gaze intently on ourselves and split our souls in two to set self-hero against self-villain. Rather, Christianity calls us to look forever to the perfect Christ Jesus and recognize that everything within us which does not mirror Him must be destroyed. In truth, the Christian hero is not one who professes to have cut out his own cancer and made room for Goodness. Rather, the Christian hero has opened himself up entirely to God and allowed that Perfect Light to cast out all his sickness. Until Modern man directs his eyes to such a Light, he will only be capable of groping in the darkness, alienated from himself and grasping at his own throat.