(WARNING: The following post will contain massive SPOILERS for Inception.)
Inception was my most loved movie of 2010, and in the year since I saw the film for the first time (with help from being able to see it again on television), I’ve noticed that my feelings about the movie have steadily changed in many ways, that I have really come to consider the movie successful and unsuccessful in ways that did not occur to me or bother me at first.
Inception contains a number of powerful action scenes, but those aren’t the film’s greatest strength. Dom’s and Ariadne’s masteries and subsequent warpings of the laws of physics don’t really seem to play as much of a role in the later parts of the film as those elements do in the beginning. That being said, the movie’s use of physics does become brilliant, either through Nolan’s genius or sheer accident. The subconscious mind’s perceptions of “physics” become more pronounced in the deepest layers of dreams, so even slight changes or tilts at high levels become magnified to complete disorientation further down. While this still doesn’t quite meet the potential of the reality-warping “superpowers” that two of the main characters have already exhibited, it’s still a really neat concept.
The film’s greatest strength is how it treats its two central relationships, the first being Dom’s emotional inability to get over his wife’s passing, and the second being Robert Fischer’s fragile relationship with his father. The first of these relationships asks a very difficult question about such an intimate partnership that had never truly grown cold yet was cut so short — “What do we do when our time together runs out?” In the deepest layers of their subconscious minds, Dom and his wife Mal had created their own dream world over the course of figurative decades, which she had slowly become convinced was truly reality. Her own inability to leave her dream layers and acknowledge them as fiction, coupled with her subsequent inabilities to stop trying to “wake up” (by killing herself in one dream layer so that she could move to the next one up) and to distinguish reality from fiction, created the most unfortunate divide between her and her husband, the kind that neither had invited.
Mal, a subconscious personification of Dom’s deep-rooted guilt over his real wife’s death, pursues him inside of his own mind, angry about how they’d never had a chance to grow old together. Dom’s response is interesting on several levels. “We did,” he tells her as the movie showcases the world they’d created over their “lifetimes.” Here Dom seems to exhibit at least some of his wife’s own mental conflation of dreams and reality: he didn’t “really” grow old with her; he essentially had a very, very elaborate dream about doing so, and his children will still grow up without a mother. Nonetheless Dom and Mal got to at least have the “experience” of growing old together, the memories of which will likely stay with Dom for all of his own life. Experiencing something in a dream, however, can never be as valid or worthwhile as living it out and seeing fulfillments of one’s own heart’s desires that aren’t just figments of one’s imagination.
Robert Fischer, the soon-to-be heir of his ailing father Maurice’s empire, is a powerful execution of a classic father-child tale. The movie does not spend exceedingly much time elaborating on the relationship that the Fischers had, other than positing it as a target for the protagonists who are looking to prevent the Fischers’ energy monopoly in any way possible. The Fischers’ own tale, however, is not a complex one of corporate alliances and entanglements but is instead a distressingly simple tale of a child who has never felt “good enough” for his father — with the twist that the father is disappointed not that his son couldn’t be like him but that his son tried to be like him at all. This makes for a quiet but powerful moment in an otherwise loud film, where the action scenes and even the central dream-world conceit feel like means toward the goal of exploring human relationships. In this sense, to a degree the film sacrifices its science-fiction elements in order to become a more mature film than the one it was marketed as. Inception’s greatest strength isn’t its prowess as an action movie, or as a science-fiction movie, or as a crime thriller, but as a relationship drama that explores many different kinds of guilt and forgiveness.
(END Inception SPOILERS)