If you imagine in a dream some sort of bank vault, your subconscious will instinctively shove all your secrets in there, typed single-spaced on resume paper with “confidential” stamped across the top in red ink.That’s how it works in Inception, anyway.This is your brain: an empty dining room with sliding doors and paper lanterns.This is your brain with secrets: a combination safe behind a painting on said dining room wall.My, aren’t you clever?My brain, however, keeps its secrets in a hollowed-out coconut guarded by Gilligan. Or is it Mary Anne?I’m not telling!
But where would your subconscious tuck all things sentimental?Let me rephrase that – all things surpassing sentimental and entering obsessive adoration?My subconscious favors an eight-year-old’s diary, the sort that you can pop the lock off of with a pencil, the kind that invites puffy stickers and haiku about the boy who broke his arm rollerskating over trashcan lids.And my subconscious would naturally keep this diary in a ruffled gingham pillowcase.This is where you’ll now find Inception filed away in my mind, but it hasn’t found its home there for the usual reasons.
Just as Inception’s Cobbs determines the best way to make an idea stick is to match it with an emotional catharsis, so it is with an obsession-worthy movie. Platoon, for example.Platoon is in the gingham-pillowcase diary for this reason, the usual reason.When I was sixteen I saw Platoon so many times my family huddled around the kitchen counter and wondered, “What if she starts having flashbacks at school?”I didn’t just re-watch it.I’d re-watch certain moments.Elias’ splayed-arm death in the field to “Adagio for Strings,” for example.I wrote my every term paper on Vietnam that year, each one ending with, “And that’s why they should never have let Sergeant Barnes be in charge of anyone.Bastards!”
One of the big complaints by critics, however, is that Inception lacks emotional weight despite Cobbs’ emotional back-story.I would agree that there isn’t enough, in an already long movie, between Cobbs and his wife and kids to hook me.Maybe because we only ever saw his projection of Mal, never the real Mal, and his projection of her was a bitch.Maybe because the characters were upstaged by the special effects and the ideas of Inception.I mean, check the famous rotating hallway scene.Do you even care which characters are in peril here?Or do you just care that there’s a rotating hallway smack-down for the ages going on?
Yet even without an emotional wallop able to deliver dead-on Inception is in my gingham-pillowcase diary, and to date I’ve seen it three times.At first I thought it was because Christopher Nolan cracked into my subconscious, found the coconut, and scrawled in the margins of my balled-up secrets: “Buy another ticket to Inception.” Actually, I can’t say for sure that he didn’t in some way, but by trip to the cinema number three I figured out Inception’s real obsessive allure for me.
[Fair warning. Spoilers from here on out]
When Nolan cuts to black on the spinning top, this is his big wallop.It says whatever it is you thought you knew about what’s going on might be completely wrong.What’s real?What’s not?Then the theorizing begins.The reality and the dream are inverted (the children haven’t aged, haven’t changed clothes, haven’t moved an inch since he left!).Cobbs and Mal are literally “two halves of the same person” (he uses her token; the room behind the ledge she jumps from is a mirror image of the room across the street Cobbs stands in, and instead of motioning her back into her room, he motions toward himself!).Everyone, including the team, is a projection of Cobbs along with Mal and we are never in a “real” world (the real world and the dream world are equally maze-like and generically presented – do you ever see legitimizing details of, say, his passport when it opens?A license plate?No!).I could go on with the theories.You probably have a few more of your own.But here’s the wallop within the wallop.I’m willing to wager that for every theory you have, you’ve also encountered too many snags to be certain you’ve followed the right thread.I’m willing to wager that every theory dead ends somewhere.Every single one.
Don’t get me wrong.I love movies that leave the audience to solve all of the film’s riddles, but I’ve always strongly believed that if a writer is going to create a riddle the writer should know the solution, even when that solution is never provided for anyone else.It’s cheating otherwise, isn’t it?It’s like writing crossword questions without knowing all of the answers or how they’ll fit together on the grid.I’ve always thought the writer who doesn’t intimately know the story beyond what’s written on the page is a lazy writer.It’s a writer who uses the riddle to cover for sloppy thinking.What?I didn’t explain how the machine could possibly enable everyone to share the dream?Hmm.Well, maybe that’s because the machine possibly isn’t real … because possibly none of it’s real.Possibly.I’ve become convinced that Nolan doesn’t know the answer to Inception’s riddles.I’ve also become convinced of something else that potentially renders Nolan less “sloppy” and more “brilliant.”
You know that scene in which Cobbs asks Ariadne to create a maze in one minute that can’t possibly be solved in two?She fails the first few times and then, bingo, she sketches the circular one that Cobbs can’t beat the clock on.Maybe she simply creates a maze that cannot be solved at all.Maybe every turn of the pen in Cobbs’ grip would have eventually led to a dead end.Maybe Inception is Nolan’s unsolvable riddle, not by the hapless accident of a lazy writer but by the willful design of a shrewd one.He purposefully plants clues that both lead you down the corridor of a new theory and cause another one to dead end, and he does so until every theory is nixed.Nolan is holding you over the widening gap of a pinwheel staircase and saying, “Paradox.” That smart-ass!
As I walked out of the theater after the third viewing, squinting in the full summer sun and feeling around for my car handle, my husband asked me why I’d wanted to see it again.“Because,” I said, “I’m trying to decide whether or not I appreciate being messed with.”But more importantly, I’m trying to decide if I’m right about Nolan.Maybe he does know the riddle’s answer.Maybe there is one to know after all.Maybe I’ve missed something.Maybe I just need to see it again ….