From my infrequent writings people might justifiably conclude I don’t like much when it comes to modern era movie offerings. Rest assured; there are also few of the so-called classics that fall in the “like” column. Still, throughout my short lifespan a number of movies have impacted the way I think, the way I look at the world, and what I find entertaining.
Like most people, I am unable to quantify what I like until after I see it. In general terms I can point to some things I might like, and other things I would likely hate, but even those preconceptions are often challenged by innovative and interesting offerings. I have written enough about stuff I found laughably bad, shallow, and uninspired. Let me tell you about a few of this year’s movies I did like.
In third place, there is Inception. I am not a fan of DiCaprio, or the Juno girl, but in this offering they are mercifully overshadowed by the source material. The imaginative and fresh premise lets me gloss over the weaknesses of the plot, and the occasionally contrived situations. And yes, part of the attraction is that it required me to work out complex ideas regarding the world it presents, and the rules that govern it.
Then again, I am a sucker for anything related to the workings of the mind, and especially on how it might be manipulated. Once we accept the premise of entering other people’s dreams, Inception regales us with clever juxtapositions of the interaction between the real world and the dream world as events simultaneously unfold in real time and corresponding dream time. That interaction results in a palpable sense of urgency as the action unfolds, and keeps us in suspense.
I’ve heard people express a desire to live in Pandora, but offer me up the possibility of living a thousand years in a world I can control and tailor to my needs, and there is no comparison. In that time my body may be dying in the “real” world, but as humans we already spend all of our conscious time in a construct of our own minds as we inexorably hurdle toward our demise; a construct based on the understanding of the world around us. Not much different than what is offered up in the movie other than the added option of control. Pandora can suck it.
The conflict in the movie cleverly explores that very choice. Di Caprio’s character, Cobb, has an option for an idyllic life with his wife in a dream world; a wife who has already consciously or subconsciously made that choice. All he has to do is let go, and buy into the illusion. Repeatedly his wife asks, and he avoids, for him to look at their children; he knows if he looks at them he will be lost to the illusion. The children are why he can’t buy into the illusion. He knows they are an illusion; he knows the construct is not the real thing. But his wife is willing to live the lie; she allows herself to believe the construct is the reality.
When he does convince her to return to the “real” world, she cannot accept its reality; how can this limited world be what is real? How can this flawed world compare to imagined perfection? Why wouldn’t she rebel against the limitations, struggles, pain, and suffering of the real world?
I don’t know if it was an intended parallel, but it’s one I drew; many people prefer to live the illusion rather than face the harshness of reality; like her character they want to escape the real world. I know many who try to escape it using drugs, alcohol, and sometimes by doing what she does; living in an alternate reality of their own construction. Some eventually make the same choice she does, and choose a more permanent means of escape.
That was also a clever twist; you could escape from the dream world by dying in it . . . except when you are in too deep. You are then forced to handle what comes your way, for if you die when you are too deep, you die in real life. Knowing you are in a fantasy world, knowing you have a life to get back to, offers up a strong incentive to see it through, and get back out. As I said, it’s a clever juxtaposition of real life, where people sometimes choose to make the ultimate escape rather than face the arduous journey. That juxtaposition is what builds increasing sympathy for the motivation of the hero/protagonist, the guilt he carries, and the struggle to resolve his situation.
But, I would not be me were I not to complain a bit. For as good as the movie was, for as entertained as I was, I walked out feeling cheated. Yes, the ending bothered me, but probably not in the way most people think.
I don’t mind not knowing what happens. Indeed, I have my own theory as to whether he is still in the dream world or back in “reality”. What bothers me is the way it was done. For the whole movie we are observers; the action and plot unfold for us as spectators. Then, on the last shot, we are cheated. The spinning top . . . it wobbles, it keeps on spinning . . . the shot fades into the credits.
That shot is a cheat; Cobb will eventually know if the top keeps spinning or topples, whether he is dreaming or is in the real world, but we won’t. Nolan essentially turns to us, gives us the proverbial finger, and closes the curtains.
It needs not have ended like that. In fact, if Nolan wanted us to wonder, and to have us do so without cheating us, Cobb would not have spun the top; he would have laid it on the table and walked away. Having him look at the kids would have been enough to send the ambiguous message; he is either home again, or, tired of the struggle, he buys into the illusion of the dream world. In that scenario we are still a part of Cobb’s story, sharing its unfolding along with him. I can understand both his motivation for not wanting to know, and conversely, his motivation for wanting to believe he is home.
I could have bought into either scenario, working out my own reasons for real or dream world, but the shot of the spinning top removes that option; my data is incomplete. An action has been taken, and Cobb will eventually know the outcome, but I am no longer sharing his viewpoint, living his story. I am left feeling cheated; Nolan promised me a spectator’s seat, but I ended up with an obstructed view.
I saw this movie at the theater, and it won’t be available on Netflix until January, but I already know; that shot alone will keep this from being a movie I will buy. One more viewing ought to do it, and then I’ll let it rest . . . spinning in oblivion, as it were.