PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Inception': With a Vengeance

It's too easy to see not only that Mal is trouble, but also that Dom will walk right into that trouble she is.


Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-07-16 (General release)
UK date: 2010-07-16 (General release)
You know what? I think I'm gonna use you. I'm telling you now because I'll enjoy it so much more if I know that you could stop me if you weren't such a fucking freak!

-- Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss)

Ten years ago, in Memento, a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) was tormented by con artists and creeps. They took advantage of his "condition," his lack of short-term memory. Distrusting everyone and yet believing almost anyone, Leonard clung to one memory from long ago, his wife's murder. That he might have misremembered did not occur to him as he pursued vengeance with, well, a vengeance.

A similar plot seed lies inside Chris Nolan's latest take on a tormented mind. In the case of Inception, the tormenters are less clearly external, more likely inventions -- here termed "projections" -- by Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio). But again, as in Memento, the hero struggles to recover from loss and dislocation and to rejigger the world so it matches his view. And again, the gigantic maw of trauma that sucks up his energies takes shape as a woman.

As her name indicates, Mal (Marion Cotillard) is bad. It may be that this isn't entirely her doing, that she's been created or projected by Dom, the husband who both needs and resents her, who feels her loss as deeply as his own anger and guilt. Still, her badness is made visible during her first appearance in Inception, distracting Dom from his work. That work is stealing ideas, from inside victims' dreams. (This process, called extraction, entails Dom and his team dreaming alongside the mark, physically nearby, for reasons that are not entirely clear.) At this moment he's making his way through the subconscious of an energy executive named Saito (Ken Watanabe), which is rather too predictably structured as a Japanese-looking mansion/fortress. Dom's sharp-eyed show-runner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), spots Mal first: "What's she doing here?" he hisses, at which point you not only know she's trouble, but also that Dom will walk right into that trouble she is.

As the film unpacks its layers -- dreams within dreams and corporate schemes within schemes -- Dom's obsession with Mal comes up again and again. He thinks he's containing her, keeping her locked away in the lower layers of his own subconscious. His efforts are complicated when Mal pops up unexpectedly, as in the Saito caper. But she's sort of everywhere, as an abstract notion of what's bad (what can go wrong, what might be evil) and an incarnation of Dom's loss, of control and authority. Arthur especially seems bothered by her meta-meanings: his favorite iPod cue to wake the idea-thief-dreamers is Piaf's “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the same Piaf Cotillard played in La Vie en Rose.

Such allusions hint at a larger idea, that Inception is a big fat metaphor for movies, lucrative collective dreams. In these dreams within dreams, plots occur simultaneously and affect one another: a train invades the seemingly straight space of a busy street; Arthur impressively recalculates the very notion of weight in suddenly gravity-less hallways; expert shapeshifter Eames (Tom Hardy) morphs alternately into Talulah Riley and Tom ("I am reality!") Berenger; and Dom infiltrates a stronghold set amid endless snow and ice, beset by faceless shooters in white gear with white guns.

All this makes for a decent summer action picture, as deft and occasionally clunky as Batman Returns. Most effectively, Inception rethinks space, much as Leonard had to rethink the past. Here the film's other girl, a newbie dream-space architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), is key. (Yes, she builds mazes.) On her first day, Dom instructs Aridane on the rules of dream design: don't work from your own memories, watch out for defensive projections, make the space logical. But Ariadne right away gets creative: "What happens when you start messing with the physics of it all?" And with that, she's warping the space around them, using mirrors and literally bending streets and folding buildings onto themselves, so there's no sky, only layers of pavement and windows and traffic crisscrossing. It's a breathtaking moment, just what you'd think a movie about dreams might conjure.

But as soon as it starts, this space illogic shuts down. Dom looks impressed, then confounded, and then Mal appears on the multiplied sidewalk, literally coming at Ariadne, all catfighty and nightmarish.

If Mal's not exactly the overbearing mom or miffed wife here, she's certainly the frantic other woman, raging for her own order, rejecting new ideas. Ariadne insists that Dom get "her" under control, but again it's unclear whether Mal has any volition of her own, or if she's Dom's loss, his projection, or something in between.

Despite the menace of Mal, Aridane goes along with Dom's fixed-space-and-faux-control system, at which point he invites her onto their new job, where they won't extract ideas but plant one. This process, called inception, is by all accounts exceptionally difficult and risky. The strenuously multiculti team must go deep inside the subconscious of energy heir Robert (Cillian Murphy) and leave an idea. In other words, the plot turns rather ordinary. Even if the layers of plots take on a 3D-chess sort of structure, they're still the same basic heist plot, with Dom and his demons at its center.

These demons populate his past and push forward into his present -- at least if you think he's dreaming now, or that his dream shapes Inception. It could just as well be Mal's dream, I suppose. Or even the dream of one of their two super-precious blond children, whom Dom says more than once Mal abandoned and he must "get home" to look after. Their very perfection makes them suspect, of course, as the kids are as likely a collective dream (a movie) as they are his own, as likely an idea once given to you that you now believe is yours.

"The smallest idea is a resilient virus," Dom tells Ariadne, "It can grow to define or destroy you." It might be that Mal is Dom's idea, his very own projection of guilt and fear and loss. Maybe she's Aridane's idea, the risk of "messing with the physics of it all." She might be the sign of endless dreaming or the collapse of dreams. Or maybe she's another idea, the movies as stand-in for collective loss.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.