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In 10 years, Christopher Nolan's “Inception” has established itself as the beginning of an era of film, from bombastic horn-filled scores to fantastical practical effects. “Inception” explores the malleability of time, the untethering of reality, and the depravity of humanity — all while bridging the gap between mainstream blockbusters and art-house culture.
“Inception”’s premise is that dreams can be constructed, manipulated, and shared, a concept which attracts professional “extractors” who work to exploit these dreams to steal ideas from, or plant them into, a subject’s head. Extractor Dominic “Dom” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) assembles an elite team of six to infiltrate Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind out of a promise from a wealthy client to clear Dom’s criminal record and reunite him with his children. Dom’s team stars a talented ensemble of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe). Dom’s crew designs and populates an incredible three-layered dreamscape into Fischer's subconscious. With each level in this intricately designed heist, though, Nolan peels back a new layer of Dom’s character, slowly revealing his deeply repressed guilt.
The concept of time is essential to understanding “Inception.” Throughout the film, Dom and his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) symbolically serve as figures of the past and future. Unable to change, Dom drowns in his guilt of the past. Dom desires to reunite with his children — to return to a time before Mal's suicide — so deeply that he endangers those closest to him. Dom finds it even harder to let go of Mal herself. In Paris, the projections of his own subconscious seize him and prevent him from retaliating against Mal. And at a critical juncture of the snowy fortress hospital scene, Dom prioritizes Mal's projection's life over completing the mission.
On the other hand, Mal lives in the future. Before her death, when she and Dom lived in limbo, trapped in a purgatory-like dream world, Mal only wanted to grow old with Dom. She literally locked away any vestiges tying her to the real world; for Mal, limbo had become reality. Her present children were no longer real, and her past lover was no longer real, either. Having lost all awareness of the present and the past, Mal embodies death itself. As the future always leads to death, Mal seeks her own demise and tries to drag Dom along with her.
Symbolically, Dom's projection of Mal is also his rejected future; he pushes all his future wants and goals into the subconscious figure that is Mal. Neither half of him, alone, can live happily. As the film nears an end, however, Dom embraces Mal along with the forward-looking hope that she represented. He finally recognizes his real life with his children. Prior to this climactic coalescence, Dom treated and viewed every trouble with a tinge of irrelevance, since he saw nothing more important than his past. When he awakens on the plane of his new reality, though, his eyes bulge wide, receiving light and beauty that had been buried deep in his jaded soul. No longer does he rely on his memory of Mal to keep himself afloat. He doesn’t need to check the top at the end, either. Because regardless of which dimension — dream or not — Dom ends up in, he keeps his eyes trained, open, on the passing of his current life.
In a film about time, Nolan incorporates themes of time — dreams and memories —into the structure of “Inception” itself. On an initial watch, it's simply impossible to understand the full complexity of “Inception.” Yet when scenes repeat themselves from beginning to end, the mystique is gone. And the specific moments are chopped-up and rearranged, like memory itself. It is only with astute attention that Nolan’s thesis becomes clear: Be present, or the gift of life will be lost.
Imagine yourself in pandemic limbo: Do you look forward, or backward? It's easy to become Dom and let sentimentality overcome you and hang onto yesterday. It's also easy to live like Mal, waiting for the issues of today to pass. Yet it's the balance between these two extremes that we must seek. Listen to Saito, who aged decades in limbo:
“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man filled with regret waiting to die alone?”
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