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Final shots: In dreams... and waking up

May contain spoilers

Looks like people still feel like discussing "Inception" and its relationship to other Christopher Nolan movies... Among the observations most frequently made in the hundreds of comments here (and they're still coming in) are those to the effect that the dreams in the movie aren't supposed to be particularly dreamlike because: 1) they're controlled, architecturally designed experiences; 2) not everyone has the same dreams; and, 3) they are supposed to be "realistic," so that the dreamer doesn't know he's dreaming.

Now, I've only seen "Inception" once, and I suppose all of these suppositions may be valid, given the world Nolan has created for the film, but rather than mollify my reservations about the movie, they only deepen my sense of dissatisfaction. Why would Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) guide their new architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) through such nifty surreal dreamscapes as the exploding neighborhood cafe, the origami Paris and the Escher staircase if she's not allowed to create any such environments herself? Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie's most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway? Wouldn't it have made for a better story (and better showmanship) if the dreams got more spectacular as the movie went along? Wouldn't a chase through the streets of a folded city be more dazzling than, say, regular old gridlock (even if somebody does throw a runaway locomotive into the middle of it)?

This is what @dcairns gets at in a most illuminating Shadowplay post:

But my REAL Problem With "Inception" -- which essentially I enjoyed, I have to say -- is that the rules set up in the training sequence seem to allow for some fantastic visuals that you couldn't get in another movie: folding Paris, for instance. And the scary, paranoid threat of all the extras turning hostile when you do things like that. And that isn't followed through in the action climax, or not to a satisfactory level. The Escher staircase and its variants are very nice, but shouldn't there be something even bigger than the Paris roll-up? And the way everything explodes when a dream collapses -- shouldn't that have been repeated? Instead we get some well-staged action sequences with guns and explosives. The problem here is that those kind of sequences could occur in any movie -- Nolan could have saved the snow attack for a Batman movie and we'd be none the wiser. [...]

So while I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting on the ceiling like a two-fisted Fred Astaire, I wanted more of that kind of thing. A really interesting story world is summoned up here, but the pay-off is overly intercut action sequences (shades of Lucas) which don't sufficiently exploit the unique qualities of that vision.


In other words, Nolan may have painted himself into a corner with his own "rules." In movies that come pre-loaded with operating instructions for the world in which they take place, there's always the danger that the auteur's self-imposed guidelines won't entirely serve the movie's interests. (Look what happened in the dreadful literalist director's cut of "Donnie Darko," which reduces a mystery with subtext to an arbitrary schematic diagram with too many science-fiction footnotes.) Why would Nolan create rules for dreams (and let's not forget that they are called "dreams" throughout the movie) and disallow the dream-logic that makes them different from reality?

Sure, not everyone's dreams are the same. But Jung identified what he called a "collective unconscious" (another form of "shared dreaming," you might say), consisting of many archetypes that are common across cultures, countries and continents. These aren't just mythic symbols or images (the Shadow, the Trickster, the Divine Child...) but themes and drives that are universal to humanity. They're the stuff dreams are made of. If Nolan had really wanted to tap more deeply into the forbidden well of the subconscious, he might have made more dramatic use of some of these archetypes, to give the audience the feeling that they were really venturing down into the vaults where the dreamer's greatest secrets are locked.

Cobb describes the opportunities of dream architecture to Miles (Michael Caine): "It's the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed -- things that couldn't exist in the real world."

But... is it? This exchange takes place during Ariadne's training in virtual-Paris:

COBB: Now, in a dream, our mind continually does this. We create and perceive our world simultaneously. Our mind does this so well that we don't even know it's happening. That allows us to get right in the middle of that process... by taking over the creating part. Now this is where I need you. You create the world of the dream, you bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious.

ARIADNE: How could I ever acquire enough detail to make them think that it's reality?

COBB: Well, dreams, they feel real while we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize things were actually strange.


Yes. That's quite true. We've all experienced that. So, why would you make a rule requiring your movie's dreams to be "realistic"? Doesn't that negate the most imaginative possibilities of your premise? (And are the action-movie cliches with all the gunfights and car chases honestly supposed to be "realistic" to the dreamer? And, if so, why include a development in which you have to convince the subject that he is dreaming?) Given these restrictions, I'd prefer something more like "Fantastic Voyage," where the intruders shrink down and actually go into the guy's brain and put something there, or take something out.


When Ariadne starts "messing with the physics," bending and folding Paris, and the pedestrians representing Cobb's subconscious start getting annoyed, he explains: "When they sense the foreign nature of the dreamer they attack like white blood cells fighting an infection." But, as @dcairns notes, this concept isn't dramatized effectively in the multi-leveled dreams she builds for the inception mission. I'm not entirely sure if the movie plays by its own rules but, to quote Anton Chigurh, "If the rule you followed brought you to this, what good is the rule?" Why promise "cathedrals... that couldn't exist in the real world," when the movie has no intention of delivering anything more visually exciting than familiar action-movie settings: a traffic jam, a hotel, a ski slope?

[Spoilers for "Inception" and "The Prestige" below.]

All these questions, I think, directly to the common criticism of Nolan as a writer-director who explains plot points and thematic concerns in dialog and narration, but isn't always adept at putting them across cinematically. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, who confesses that he may have been "the last critic on the planet to weigh in on 'Inception,'" (he was away on a remote island), writes:

The final shot of "Inception"? It's a cheap shot, and one that feels like a sop for the most credulous audiences: Laser Floyd stoners and the like. I guess it's the only way Nolan can end things, though. To finally cop to some sort of waking life would wreck the movie's delicate balance; it's only when we come back to reality that we start questioning what we've dreamt. The director doesn't want to let us go, because the moment he does is the moment we'll see that dreams don't actually work like this, that the human subconscious is trickier and less literal than the unstuck genre sequences -- car chase, hotel suspense, Alistair McLean-style mountain assault -- that riffle through Cillian Murphy's sleeping head.

Or maybe -- and I'm more willing to buy this -- that final shot of the top spinning, spinning, the cut to black before it topples (if it does), is just a reminder that movies themselves have been our established communal form of dreaming for over a century now, a sanctioned public trance state to which we surrender with eyes open. If "Inception" is a metaphor for anything, it may be this: The rabbit hole we dive down whenever we buy a ticket into the dark and the wondrous unrealities we've encountered there.


As I said before, I think we need to invoke the Barton Fink Box Principle here and ask where it gets us if the top keeps spinning or if it doesn't. (I'm with actor Dileep Rao, that if you listen you can hear the top topple, or at least wobble, at the very last second.)

The way I look at it, whether the top keeps spinning or not makes no difference to the movie's story or thematic concerns (whatever they may be). The goal of the shot is simply to toy with the audience one last time, to create a little suspense. The movie goes black just as the top stops spinning -- a nice little metaphor for "waking up" from the movie itself. Really, how deeply does it change the movie? It changes the level on which Cobb's story is taking place, but thematically it's still the same story. Rao thinks an ever-spinning top would be a cheap shot that betrays the audience. @dcairns wonders if the letdown (or deflating ambiguity) isn't simply built into "Inception," as it is in "The Prestige":

I liked "The Prestige" a good deal, but had a nagging feeling that the last shot could have crystallized the story a whole lot better if we'd seen clearly the contents of lots and lots of big jars. Instead of a great "Ah-hah!" we get a big "Ah-hah... I think." But maybe he likes that -- the end of the new one could be described as aiming for just that feeling.

Which gets me back to some of my earlier questions about what Nolan's movies mean: What they are about, rather than just what stories they tell. (I'm talking theme instead of plot.) Burr writes:

My immediate response was a dazzled appreciation of the film's fiendishly complicated narrative structure, followed by a slow cooling off period as I realized the movie isn't really about anything beyond that structure. What I genuinely love about "Inception" is not its metaphysics but the way Christopher Nolan visualizes them...

And yet: Dreams within dreams within dreams -- kewl! And? Depressingly, there is no "and," which wasn't the case with "Memento," the Nolan film that's closest in spirit to "Inception."... "Memento" was a tragedy about identity and memory, how the former relies on the latter to string itself into a fragile chain of existence and how easy it is to wipe both away. "Inception" is... a heist movie.

A fascinating heist movie, true, and one that works out most of the variations on its theory before spinning to a halt only because movies have to end sometime. Yet I never felt the wracked angst of Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb the way I did Guy Pearce's Leonard in "Memento," maybe because the awful confusion of losing one's memory has real-world resonances whereas plummeting through levels of another man's dreams doesn't....

Let's rewind. So much has been made of the last shot of "Inception" that I thought it might be profitable to look back at the final images of some of Nolan's other films. As I mentioned in "Following: Nolan in a nutshell," the director's first feature ends on a visually and thematically satisfying note: a dissolve from the stunned face of the narrator/fall guy, to Cobb literally disappearing into the crowd on the street. It recalls the rearview-mirror ending of "Taxi Driver" (and the final images of "The Usual Suspects," "The Silence of the Lambs," and "The Bourne Supremacy," among others), with the perpetrator disappearing into the life of the city, but it's effective:




The last shot of "Memento" may be even more like "Taxi Driver," with Lenny first driving blind to convince himself that, even without memory, the world still exists outside his head: "We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different." He screeches to a halt upon catching sight of the tattoo parlor sign. "Now, where was I?" He looks behind him. That's good. Everything comes together: the tattoos that remind him of where he has been, the mirror reflections in the windows, the glance over his shoulder as if into the past...


I don't remember the last image of "Insomnia" and "Batman Begins" has the Caped Crusader swooping into the lens after telling Gordon that he won't have to thank him, but I don't have immediate access to either, so let's move on to "The Prestige." This one, I think, is less successful, for the reasons already mentioned by @dcairns above, and because it shows us less than the picture that's already been painted for us in dialog. While I think the idea of this shot is a good one, it isn't there on the screen. Did they run out of visual effects money, or what?

Movies are fluid entities, endlessly changeable right up until the moment when the studio (or the producer, or the budget) insists that the last reel has to be locked. Just to show one of the alternatives, here's the ending of "The Prestige" according to the screenplay available at, ending, as the film does, with a reprise of Cutter's (Michael Caine's) opening narration about the stages of a magic trick, but accompanied by a different sequence of images:


Borden STOPS at the ladder. He notices the shadows from the burning oil playing on the walls...

CUTTER (V.O.) Now you're looking for the secret...

Borden turns slowly to look back into the cellar, PEERING into the flickering light of the burning lamp oil.


But you won't find it...

Borden stares back into the cellar. What he sees puts a look on his face that is beyond words:


CUTTER (CONT'D) ...because you don't really want to know...



Cutter spreads MORTAT on the last BRICK of the wall he has built in the opening to the cellar.

He places the brick in the wall, sealing it up.


A cat slinks its way through a pile of top hars, knocking one over as it disappears into the forest beyond.

CUTTER (V.O.) want to be fooled.

We are left alone in the glade, staring at the top hats--




The finished film places the image of the top hats (metaphorical equivalent of the Angier clones) earlier in the sequence, and actually ends with this image of one Angier in the foreground. (The contents of the other tanks, although explained in dialog, are not visible on the screen.):


"The Dark Knight" ends with a terrific image, a living recreation of the "bat symbol" (which we've seen shattered by Gordon earlier in the final montage). Regrettably it is preceded by three and a half pages of overwritten, overexplained dialog and narration by James Gordon and Batman, addressed to us as if we were little James Gordon Jr. asking, "Why, dad? Why?!" This final sequence is the quintessential illustration of Nolan's unfortunate tendency to want to underline and highlight his own writing rather than let his images resonate on their own. It might have worked better if the dialog stopped with Gordon's insistence that he must thank Batman, an echo of the ending of "Batman Begins." This one image is so much stronger than all the unnecessary words:


Which brings us back to the final image of "Inception." The film begins with images of waves (DiCaprio's Cobb waking up on a beach), as if to suggest the vast sea that is the collective unconscious, and ends with a spinning top. What (if anything) connects the opening images with the final ones? I'm not sure anything does, but I'd like to hear your ideas. To me, the first and last images of a movie are like facing mirrors, each reflecting the other, and the movie itself is all the images in between. So, metaphorically speaking, what gets us from the waves to the teetering top? Or is that a question (even in a movie about dreams) not worth asking?


ADDENDUM -- prompted by many theories I've read, including the first comment below, that the entire movie of "Inception" is Cobb's dream: I think you could argue that's the case in all of Nolan's films -- that they take place inside of the primary male protagonist: Bill ("Following"), Leonard ("Memento"), Will Dormer ("Insomnia"), Batman (who dreams he is Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight"), Alfred Borden (who dreams himself a twin and a nemesis in "The Prestige"), and Cobb (also the name of the dream-figure in "Following," in "Inception").

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