Sunday, July 18, 2010

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN: Spacewoman and I saw Inception last night, and it was probably the soonest we've seen a movie after release since Spaceboy v1.0's beta release. It did not disappoint. It was as vividly imagined and richly styled a movie as I have seen in a long time, set in a noirish future that, like the world of Blade Runner, smells like a seedy past. There were some things I could have done without -- all of the gratuitous exposition that Ellen Page was asked to bear (a studio note, I would guess), for example, or an overly intrusive score that, for the first half-hour, buzzed like a vuvuzela. On the whole, though, it felt like Nolan, like his architects, wanted viewers to inhabit a world that was at once recognizable and unfamiliar, broadly impossible but governed by an internally logical and consistent set of rules. And it worked.

But now come the spoilery thoughts:

We're at the point where we need a name for a particular kind of ending, and I'm going to call it a Sopranos Dilemma. Let me first say what a Sopranos Dilemma is not: it is not a mystery ending that can be answered conclusively with the clues in the work. If you're left with an is-it-or-isn't-it question but, on closer review or with the help of a clue in that final scene, the evidence is firmly on one side of the equation, then it's just a riddle.

The Sopranos Dilemma is when you're left with a question, but the evidence on either side is inconclusive and in equipoise, and the movie (or book or show) is over, so you're never going to get any more evidence. The Sopranos Dilemma is an intentional act. As frustrating as it is to viewers or readers who want to believe themselves to be fictional detectives on the trail of A or B, "none of the above" is an equally valid literary choice. David Chase used it to comment on the relationship between authorship, fiction, and fandom.

The trick, though, is figuring out whether a particular ending is or isn't a Sopranos Dilemma. In Inception, of course, we end with an ambiguity. The top wobbles, but we don't see if it falls or rights itself, and therefore we don't know if Cobb is in a dream. The question is whether it's a mystery that can be solved with the information that Nolan presented to us, or whether we're just left to take, as Cobb and Saito say, a leap of faith.

I could be convinced that this is a Sopranos Dilemma, but right now I'm leaning toward mystery. The evidence on the side of it being a dream:
  1. We start, confusingly, almost mid-plot, just the way that one would start a dream (as Cobb reminds us). The movie itself is dream-like, with dream-like time and plot leaps. It could be, from beginning to end, a Cobb dream.
  2. The unreal quality of the real world. Why would Moll jump out of the window across from the room she and Cobb had rented? The room from which she jumped was an exact mirror image of the room out of which Cobb was leaning -- same flower arrangement, same couch.
  3. The trains. Remember at the beginning, when the original team is trying to get into Saito's secrets on the train? As the team disbands, the train passes a different train going the other way. I'd have to watch again, but I'd bet it's the same train that shows up on the street in LA and in the Cobb-Moll dream.
  4. Cobb's statement that he can't be an architect because "Moll won't let me." If what we see as the real world is a dream in which Moll is the architect -- and Moll gets to make the rules the way Ariadne did in Cobb's practice dream -- that could explain this line.
  5. The mirrors. Same practice dream, Ariadne closes the mirrors under the elevated highway, and Cobb and Ariadne are reflected into the infinite distance (great shot, by the way -- the absence of the camera in the shot recalls that Toulose-Lautrec painting of the bar girl with the mirror behind her, where the viewer or painter is missing in the reflection), suggesting that Cobb is already in an infinitely telescoping dream-within-a-dream-within-etc.
  6. The totems. Cobb uses his totem to figure out if he's in the real world or not. But it was Moll's totem first. You're not supposed to let anybody touch your totem because they could figure out how to manipulate it. If Moll were the architect of a dream in which Cobb continued to be stuck, he could not rely on it.
I don't know if that's convincing, or if anybody has any other idea. Would love to hear thoughts from the smart people here.


  1. Plus the kids were in the exact same position, wearing the same clothes, as if no time had passed. 

    I'm not sure about point 4, though.  I think the problem was that he couldn't design because Mal would be able to find him too fast if he (and therefore she) knew the layout, not that he literally couldn't design. 

  2. girard316:58 PM

    We'll find out in "Inception 2: Was It A Dream?". I thought it was a great movie, the floating fight scene in the hotel must have been a bitch to shoot.

  3. girard317:02 PM

    I just thought of something. Inception didn't really have a Sopranos dilemma ending because the main plot point had been resolved, leaving only a matter of reality to be resolved. I wasn't bummed out by that as much as I was by Sopranos, where the entire series was left hanging.

  4. Michele7:32 PM

    I thought the kids were in the exact same position because the whole thing had been a dream, and barely any time had passed for the kids.

    It's a movie I will really look forward to reading about for a while, and definitely deserves a second viewing.

  5. ....since Spaceboy v1.0's beta release

    Just out of curiozity, Isaac, what version is Spaceboy up to now?

  6. isaac_spaceman8:17 PM

    We call them 1.0 and 2.0, though with the service patches, the .0s are misnomers.

  7. In the same discussion with my wife, I pointed out that the members of the team were all aspects of Cobb's personality; my wife felt that was just shorthand characterization on Nolan's part and should not be viewed as anything more.

  8. I'd rather the movie has a Sopranos ending, rather than a Blade Runner ending.  Which is not to say it's not a mystery.  I think some of the points made here are compelling.  But I would still respond to the points as follows:
    1. I've heard other people say the movie starts mid-plot, which I'm not sure is really true.  I take the point that the flash-forward placement of the first scene is dreamlike, but the movie doesn't seed the idea that time jumps backward and forward in dreams, which you'd think Nolan would do if this flash-forward is so important.  Moving to the next scene, starting the plot in the middle of the theft from Saito -- isn't that how TDK starts?  This minor heist puts the major heist in motion, rather than starting right in the middle.
    2. I think it's interesting that the room behind Moll is identical, but I thought it was a penthouse that wrapped around a courtyard.  Perhaps a face-to-face confrontation was more cinematic.  
    3. I think the first train was a white bullet train, and the dream train was one of those big metal ones with a cow catcher in the front.  
    4.  Well, there's a reason given in the movie for Cobb not to be an architect. It could have a secondary meaning, but you'd have to explain why Mal* is the architect but can't wake him.  
      *Throughout the screening I thought her name was Moll too, which makes a lot more sense, even thematically, than a Parisian named Mal. 
    5.  Could be a suggestion that it is a dream, it doesn't *have* to be, though.  
    6.  This is probably by far the biggest piece of evidence for the idea that this is a dream.  If it's not a dream, though, Cobb has valid reason for carrying around a totem only known to a dead person.  I'm honestly confused about how, if Moll knows the totem, she'd use it to fool him that it works.  

  9. I never questioned if Cobb was in the real world, just if he actually managed to escape limbo at the end.  To me the whole "everything was a dream" thing seems like a cop out that I wouldn't expect from Nolan.

  10. My vote is for Sopranos Dilemma.  But first, a couple additional points in favor of the dream ending:

    A. Saito telling Cobb to take a leap of faith echos Mal on the ledge.  Since no one was witness to the latter conversation other than Cobb and Mal, that seemed a little dreamlike to me.
    B. The problem I see with totems is that they only tell you you're not in someone else's dream.  It seems like you could still be trapped in your own dream and not be able to tell, if your subconscious has a good enough attention to detail.  (As an aside, I thought that if Cobb was still in a dream it was his own.  But everyone above seems to think he's in Mal's dream.  Is there something I missed?)

    Now, and this isn't the best reason, I still think it's a Sopranos Dilemma because I like the idea more.  If the movie's reality is reality, then Cobb's choices are noble and brave.  If reality is a dream, then he's scared and delusional.  I like the idea of the movie supporting both versions of Cobb more than choosing one over the other.

  11. I really hate the Sopranos ending, but I agree with girard.  We know - as much as we can know something in this movie - that at the very least, the inception on the younger Fisher worked and that everyone on the team save for Cobbs and Saito made it out of the dream, as we saw them kicking.  Granted, whether Cobb was strong enough to get out of the limbo is a big plot point, but it is not ~the~ plot point.  If you want to say the entire thing was a dream, then that changes things and makes the non-Cobb plot points less important, but I'm not willing to go that far without some more evidence.

    Regardless, I really enjoyed this.  This is the kind of movie M. Night and JJ Abrams wish they could make - plot twists that actually have to do with plot and more or less play fair with the viewer.

  12. "Inception" actually exceeded my expectations, which were already high. It was definitely the most visually arresting movie I've seen in a while (more so than "Avatar"). There are a couple of images that will stick with me: when Cobb is kicked into the tub at the beginning, with the water going over him both in the dream and in the tub, Paris folding in half, and the fight scenes in the hotel halls.

    I think it's more of a Soprano's Dilemma, rather than a mystery. To me, the most persuasive clue that Cobb's still in a dream is that the kids are the same age at the end, but if it is a dream, I think that undermines the point that Cobb knew inception worked because he did it to Mal (who I also thought was named "Moll"). To your points Isaac, I thought Mal was in the other building so that Cobb couldn't stop her from jumping, and that Cobb couldn't be an architect because Mal would get in and screw up the mission. Either way, dream or reality, I kind of don't care. It doesn't change my enjoyment of the movie, and I'm planning on seeing it again in theaters.

  13. Dan Suitor12:29 AM

    One of the things I never quite picked up was how Moll/Mal was able to intrude into Fischer's dreamscape. It's supposed to be HIS unconcious that populates the dreamworld, but there we had Moll's train in the first layer of the dream (warehouse/van), Cobb's children in the second (the hotel), and Moll herself in the third (snow fortress).

    Assuming I didn't miss some expository dialogue, I see two (at least) possible explanations: A.) Cobb's subconcious guilt is so powerful that it's able to manifest itself in ANY dream state (not just his own); or B.) Moll is working as a dream agent (just like Cobb & Co.), diving deeper and deeper to try and pull her husband out.

  14. isaac_spaceman12:53 AM

    No -- unless the world that we've been watching the whole time is a dream, in which case Fisher and his dad and the whole team could have been projections of Cobb's subconscious, and Cobb (or Moll) was dreaming about extraction.  And the extractions could have been the infinitely regressing limbo that Cobb was trapped in after Moll got out of the dream. 

  15. isaac_spaceman12:54 AM

    I think you're right about this.  Makes sense, and the way I was reading it didn't. 

  16. isaac_spaceman12:56 AM

    They were on a white bullet train, but there was a shot where it passed a different train going the opposite direction, and I remember thinking that the trains were different kinds of trains. 

  17. This confirmed a lot of my thinking, although left a few of Isaac's questions unanswered:

  18. More time to think about it, and two things bother me:
    1. Why did we have the very cool 'Paris-folds-in-on-itself' lesson that the architect can control the physics, then never do anything with it? Every time Cobb said he didn't want to see the designs, I figured Nolan was setting us up for a world that did CRAZY things, but it never came to be.

    2. Regarding Cobb's Totem Top: If it falls over, the world is real. If it keeps spinning, he must be in somebody's dream. But wouldn't most people assume that a top will eventually topple? I've never seen an infinitely spinning top. Wouldn't the dreamer's subconcious, then, topple the top? Won't the top fall over in reality and in dreams, making it worthless as a totem?

  19. Hobart9:38 AM

    As my wife said walking out of the theater, considering this is the same guy who made Memento we should have known he was never getting out of the dream.

  20. spacewoman10:47 AM

    I loved the movie, but as an antitrust lawyer, I couldn't help but think that there must be an easier way to break up an energy monopoly.  Maybe a lawsuit?

  21. Anonymous11:17 AM

    If Mal and Cobb could escape the limbo by dying, why didn't they just kill themselves earlier?  Why did it work that time but not earlier?

  22. My understanding is that those take more than 10 hours.

  23. And why didn't we see the kick out back to the plane from any of the others' perspectives?  Wouldn't the flight attendant have had to tip everyone's chair back, or was the plane's descent enough to give them the sense of falling?  They made such a big deal about that, and showed all the underlying kicks - but never the key one...ergo, another reason I think the last shot is Cobb in his dreamlife.

  24. pfrduke12:30 PM

    I believe (if I remember correctly) that there was a "kick" included in the cocktail of stuff that Yusuf prepared to put them under.

  25. J. Bowman2:45 PM

    At the top level, once the "dream machine" stops administering the sedative, the shared dream ends and you can wake up.

  26. spacewoman3:20 PM

    But possibly less expensive.

  27. Adlai5:06 PM

    That's a good question - how expensive is this project? Clearly each of them are getting paid (at some point they refer to Cobb's "share," which he's giving away because he's in it for Saito's help); Saito buys the airline; unclear how much the sedation systems and their suitcases cost; but the rest of it is free.

  28. bella wilfer8:36 PM

    I'm with (what I think is?) the majority - end is Dom still stuck in the dream but it's not a dream the WHOLE time.  

    My biggest piece of evidence - they set up all this "no one comes back from limbo"/"limbo leaves your brain all mushy" stuff, but then we didn't see one person whose brain was turned to mush from limbo.  Mal got all screwy due to Cobb's inception, not due to being in limbo, and everyone else seemed to come back fine...unless, of course, the end is still Dom's dream and we don't actually know how everyone turned out.

    Was anyone here at the LA screening on Friday night where the screening was stopped 1:45 through due to broken A/C?  A friend of mine was and said the crowd was ready to riot...can't imagine...

  29. That's why they planned three levels of dreams: treble dream damages apply.

  30. Dan's first paragraph goes to what I really didn't get about the movie.  Are all the people in the dream sharing one dream, or are they in the dream of only one person? If they're all in the dream of one person (say, Fischer), how does Cobb's subconscious (in the form of Mal) get involved?  And if they're not all sharing one dream, how does the architect get her world into the dreamer's head?  But if they are all sharing, how does all of Cobb's team know they're in a dream while Fischer does not?

  31. J. Bowman7:51 PM

    Something that's bothering me - and I may be mis-remembering this conversation - is right at the beginning of Eames's dream (and it's his dream, not Fisher's), when they realize they don't have as much time as they thought, Cobb asks Ariadne if she put a shortcut in the maze. She tells him, despite pointing out that that's exactly the thing he's not supposed to know, and he says something along the lines of "tell them (meaning Eames and Saito and Fisher) that."
    Why does he need to get that information, only to tell her to relay it to the others? It seemed like the only purpose that served was to give us the expectation that Mal would show up to ruin things.

  32. Anonymous12:06 PM

    They weren't ever in Fischer's dream.  The dreamer was the one who had to stay behind.  The first level was the chemist's dream; the second level was Arthur's dream, the third was Eams' (?) dream.

    I think there was a part where Cobb explained to Ariadne how his issues were able to come thru.  When they were in the warehouse (level 1).  But I don't remember the exact explanation.

  33. But the kids were different (older) kids, so it wasn't quite as if no time had passed.

  34. Note also Cobb getting stuck by the closing walls in India -- very dreamlike.

    I agree that the repetition of "Take a leap of faith" suggests that this is Cobb's dream -- and that someone is trying to perform an inception on him.

  35. Girl Detective4:03 PM

    I was away and only now catching up on feeds, but isn't the type of ending you talk about a Lady or the Tiger ending? Do we need to give it a new name because it's video?