I’ve waited a couple weeks to write a review of Inception because I didn’t want to get caught up in the argument over where the film lies on the spectrum between The Seventh Seal and Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen. Before I get started, I need to admit that I really didn’t like the last Batman movie. I thought it was bad. Memento is good and Following is better, but The Dark Knight didn’t stir me in the least. I found the moral questions it posed shallow and pretentious and the I thought action scenes lacked the levity that makes the best of superhero genre flicks enjoyable. I know I’m in the minority on that one, but there it is. Grudges are bad for the psyche, so I went into Inception with an open mind. My overwhelming reaction was pity for those perfectly nice actors who didn’t get to do any acting, but the effects are awesome, and if that’s what you want, Inception is not a bad use of summer movie dollars.
The analyses I’ve read so far of Inception include a lot of frustration with Nolan for making a movie about dreams with high-brow aspirations that completely ignores Freud. He doesn’t even make a cute joke or inside reference, nada for the poor Freudians who I’m sure were chomping at the bit after the previews. There aren’t actually all that many words in Inception, never mind slips of any sort. The story is about a crew of dream-jumpers or whatever the fuck they’re called that has to find a way to plant an idea in Scarecrow’s mind so that the guy from The Last Samurai will let Leonardo DiCaprio see his children. Also, Juno’s in it. Nolan doesn’t have time to develop his characters, so he uses our knowledge of them from other movies. There’s even an Indian scientist! (N.B. any movie from now on that claims to depict a future America, but contains no Latin@ characters, is officially unrealistically racist.) I’ve contrived a possible defense of these thin characters on legitimate artistic grounds considering the movie is about dreams, where archetypes live, but it’s probably just bad writing. Even if we don’t know them from this movie, we know the characters from somewhere. It’s a perfect vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become typecast in these troubled, haunted roles because it’s the only way to explain why he perpetually looks like he’s about to cry. Anyway, the plot and the characters don’t really matter.
The one scene in which the characters deploy the powers of critical thought (and extended dialogue!) is when the crew has to devise their strategy for planting the thought. They need the rebel leader from The Wind That Shakes The Barley to dissolve his father’s company, which means he has to want to dissolve his father’s company. The Han-Solo underworld forger guy suggests they frame it in Oedipal terms (I lied, there’s always plenty for the Freudians), but Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who may or may not be playing a gorgeously femme robot playing Joseph Gordon-Levitt acting in a movie) says they have to frame it in positive terms, they have to make him think his estranged father wanted him to dissolve the company. The scene lasts around thirty seconds, but it’s the key to the film.
I’ve had multiple friends ask if I thought the spinning top at the end meant the whole movie was a dream – that is, whether what is implied to be dream level one was really dream level two, etc. – but that’s not the point. It wasn’t a dream, it was a movie. Nolan could make that top spin all day long and then turn into the Batmobile if he wanted to. I thought Rian Johnson did it better in The Brothers Bloom, but Inception doesn’t do a half-bad job begging the question of the viewer’s involvement in the film being watched. If Inception is a dream, then we’re the dreamers and Nolan is the architect planting thoughts in our heads. The Disney Channel used to have these segments in which they had experts condescendingly called “imagineers” show how they made effects for movies, and I can’t help thinking they were the inspiration for the scene where Leo shows Juno how to bend Paris on top of itself. Replace the word “dream” with “movie” throughout Inception, and it makes about as much sense. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a neat trick by Nolan, but seeing Inception as a movie about itself sets up a new problem: What is the idea planted in the dreamer? What does the thin plot veil?
There are a number of decoy conflicts: the planting of the dream, some energy monopoly thing and Leo struggling with dream addiction or thoughts about his wife among them. At it’s core, Inception is about Leo’s need to get to his children”s dance recital or baseball game. By making the dead wife a violent distraction, Nolan takes the erotic element out of the question; Leo needs to embrace raw futurity in the form of the Child. Leo’s struggle is to see his children’s innocent child faces; in his dreams, they always turn away at the last second. This is the conflict in a good 20-30 percent of Hollywood movies, and 80-90 percent of Harrison Ford’s movies:
It isn’t clear how long Leo is separated from his children (not long enough for them to age, as they haven’t changed from beginning to end, that is unless…), but they’re not in any danger. His mother-in-law doesn’t like him much, I get that, but the urgency in his rush to his children is artificial. Of course, the question, “Why does he need to get to his children so badly that he will violate the solemn bounds of someone’s consciousness and commit corporate sabotage – not to mention put himself in vague semi-corporeal danger – in order to do it?” is unaskable. Lee Edelman writes about the dominating figure of the Child in No Future:
“On every side, our enjoyment of liberty is eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of a Child whose freedom to develop undisturbed by encounters, or even by the threat of potential encounters, with an ‘otherness’ of which its parents, its church, or the state do not approve, uncompromised by any possible access to what is painted as alien desire, terroristically holds us all in check and determines that political discourse conform to the logic of a narrative wherein history unfolds as the future envisioned for a Child who must never grow up.”
Queer theory darling Buffy The Vampire Slayer handled this excellently in the episode “Gingerbread” during season three. In the episode, kids virtually indistinguishable from Leo’s are found dead on a playground with occult symbols written on their hands. Parents start trying to burn their own children for witchcraft before they ask any questions about the children themselves. The kids, which are not so much children as the Child, are actually a demon who presents himself as a pair of perpetual children in order to incite witch hunts. The Child is here more important than any actually existing children. It doesn’t matter that Leo and his crew they’re using distorting in his mind a man’s relationship to his father, because he must get to his children who must not know that anything is wrong. Their mother committed suicide and their father was charged with the murder, and he’s intent on them remaining unaware of the conditions of their lives. Even if the hegemonic family is shattered with the death of the mother Mal (weird), the protagonist must maintain its illusion so as not to expose his pure children to anything “other.”
Inception counts on our understanding of the Child’s legitimate unconditional need for protection. Nolan assumes agreement with this unstated premise in order to state the idea of the Child in permanent distress below the level of evident conflict, and he camouflages it in enough special effects and formalist play to effectively disguise the real inception taking place. There’s so much visual and plot artifice because Inception does not want you to know that it is secretly Over The Top.
As a closing exercise, imagine this Whedon-esque reading of Inception: the reality is that Leo DiCaprio is a regular guy (the kind who might go see Inception) and the children are a malicious construct. He wakes up willing to do whatever he must to protect his beautiful blonde children, who are in no real danger. If he has to work a job that puts him in a questionable ethical position, he must do it for his children. If his country has to invade another one to protect his kids, or if books have to be burned, if actual children have to work in factories in other places so that his kids might have the best, then so be it; the Child must be protected. Does it matter if the dreamer is childless? Will he not recognize the giggling blondes as his own?