Oscar Movie Month: "Inception" Review

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 148 minutes
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Action / Adventure / Mystery

What if it were possible to influence a person's dreams? "Inception" takes this question to extremes, giving viewers a world in which dream manipulation is a corporate enterprise, and dream extractors get paid to hack into people's heads and steal their ideas as they sleep. This 2010 film, with its complicated plot and unresolved ending, prompts discussion among viewers even years after its release.

Although "Inception" is one of the most complex films ever released, the basic idea behind the film is relatively straightforward. In the near future, technology develops to the point where people can enter other people's dreams. This is not presented as magic, but instead explained as a logical development of existing neural technology. To enter someone's dreams, a dream extractor must first physically isolate the desired target, put the person into a drugged sleep, and connect to the sleeping person, brain-to-brain. From this point, the dream extractor can manipulate the target's dreams, creating buildings, characters and scenarios that prompt the target to give up corporate secrets or other confidential information.

Dream extraction is not without its complications. Within a dream, a dream extractor can create a scenario in which the target dreams he is falling asleep, and thus enters a second dream level, or a "dream within a dream." It is possible to die inside the dream world and go to a permanent coma-like unconscious state called Limbo. It is also possible to lose track of which world is a dream world and which world is real, and so each dream extractor carries around a personal totem to perform periodic checks and confirm whether the extractor is awake or dreaming.

"Inception" begins when professional dream extractor Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is given an unusual assignment. Cobb is hired to enter the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and, instead of stealing an idea, implant an idea instead. Implanting an idea into another person's subconscious is much more complicated and dangerous than stealing an idea, and so Cobb builds a team to help him enter Fischer's brain. This team includes his extraction partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as well as newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architect hired to create an in-dream labyrinth that Fischer cannot escape.

If Cobb successfully plants the idea into Fischer's subconscious, Cobb will be acquitted of murder charges and allowed to return to his home and his children. However, Cobb is simultaneously fighting his own subconscious, as his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) chases him through dream after dream, sabotaging his efforts.

"Inception" is a must-see film, if only for its stunning ability to capture what it feels like to be dreaming. Director Christopher Nolan gives audiences the experience of being inside a rich, immersive dream, where buildings can shift at any moment and characters can alter entire scenarios by simply mentioning an idea. Fans of carefully-plotted films will also appreciate Nolan's thoroughness. Every piece in the film's puzzle fits together, and as each new plot element is revealed, it provides an "ah-ha" moment for what came before.

Despite these factors, "Inception" is best known for its ending, which is at best ambiguous and at worst unsatisfying. After completing his assignment, Cobb is shown returning to his children. When he enters his home and sees his family, Cobb pulls out his dream totem and begins to perform a check. If his small silver top slows down and stops spinning, he knows he is in the real world. If it continues to spin indefinitely, he knows he is in a dream. Nolan stops the film before Cobb knows whether he is still dreaming.

This ending engendered ire among "Inception" fans, and many people argued over the "definitive" answer. Is Cobb asleep at the end of the film, or is he awake? Does it matter? Is a happy ending a happy ending if it does not take place in the real world?

Fan groups and film reviewers continue to argue about the significance of Nolan's ending. It can be viewed as an unhappy ending, as Cobb may be trapped in a drugged sleep. It can also be viewed as a philosophical statement on the perceived importance of reality. Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that both reality and dreams are filtered through the subconscious, making them equally real. Or, it can simply be presented as a challenge to the audience, asking them to decide for themselves whether Cobb is asleep or awake.

"Inception" remains a high marker for films about dreaming and the ?subconscious, and is an essential part of any film buff's library. It inspires heated discussion and philosophical conversation after every watching, ensuring its place in the film canon for years to come.

Rating: 4 out of 5