Longtime readers of the site will know that we here at the Chaos Factory are financed almost entirely by our sponsorships from the hit movie, Marmaduke. This is understandably confusing for some of the junior staff, which is why I feel it is my responsibility as Senior Editor to intercede on behalf of the integrity of this site. Inception is a good movie. By any conventional metric – be it box office gross, critical acclaim, or the ability to remain culturally relevant months after release – Inception has succeeded. And, while we at the Chaos Factory still prefer the convivial voice of Owen Wilson paired with a dog in sunglasses, we can no longer deny that Inception also has its moments. As a token of our sincerity and recommitment to a betrayed public, the Chaos Factory is declaring this week to be Inception week. There will be a competition to see who can expound the longest on their interpretation of the movie in the comments section (with cash prizes!), and all proceeds from Inception week will be left in a purse on the doorstep of director Christopher Nolan. To begin the festivities, I submit an entry from one Bobby Grenadine, who is writing to the Chaos Factory all the way from Brigham Young High in Provo Utah:
“What some critics have seen as the hobbling strike against this last summer’s blockbuster is perhaps the most interesting thing about it – its narrative discrepancies and discontinuities. The script goes beyond mere ambiguity – that is, a disinterest in resolving some element of plot – and employs an even more curious device – deliberate internal contradiction. I say these contradictions are deliberate because they are too blatant to have gone unnoticed by Christopher Nolan and the filmmakers, but yet it is not clear that they serve any purpose other than to support contrary interpretations of the narrative. For instance, when Cobb’s team is in the hotel room preparing to delve into the next level of dreaming (the hospital/arctic fortress dream), it is explicitly stated that, while they have told Fischer that they are breaking into the mind of his uncle, they will actually be inhabiting Fischer’s own dream. Now, this raises a number of difficult questions. How does Fischer dream an environment that Adriane has designed? How does the dream persist after Fischer has fallen into limbo? Why is he populating his own dream with a security team that attacks him? Etc. etc. These are things that might possibly be explained away as inconsistencies that the filmmakers simply did not have the energy to address, but the audience never gets a chance to ponder them because, in the midst of all the action, there is a brief shot of Eames back in the hotel, wearing headphones. The headphones are used for the synchronization of the kick, or exit, from the dream, and in every other instance in the movie, they are worn by the dreamer. That Eames, the English forger, is wearing them, strongly indicates that the arctic hospital is his dream, anticipating a suspicion the audience may have felt creeping after Fischer falls into limbo, leaving Eames still running around in the snow. It does not make good sense for the dream to be either Fischer’s or Eames’, and the two interpretations are mutually exclusive of each other. But yet, the narrative acknowledges and gives some credence to both explanations. This isn’t likely to be a careless mistake. Even the simple shot of Eames wearing headphones on the floor of a hotel takes a group of many filmmakers to prepare for, and it is something the director would see over and over again while editing. The inclusion of both the scene with the headphones and the earlier, incongruous explanation of the arctic dream world has to be what Christopher Nolan ultimately intended. Another example of this can be found at the end of the movie where Cobb comes back home to his two children. The staging of the scene mirrors Cobb’s flashbacks of when he left home, and the implausibility of the similarities (the children look to be the same age, are wearing the same clothes, and are even posed the same) suggests that Cobb has perhaps dreamed both the departure and the return. However, a visit to Inception’s IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/fullcredits#cast) reveals that two sets of actors were hired to play the children, one pair being about two years older than the other. The director has cast actors that reflect the time that has elapsed in the narrative, but then deliberately disguised that difference. Again, some trouble has been consciously taken to confound the prevalence of a solitary rationalization for a narrative thread.
As to why Christopher Nolan has chosen to engineer these internal inconsistencies into his movie; it is open to speculation. Perhaps he did not want to lose some set pieces that would be made nonsensical by a thorough explanation of the dream world’s mechanics. Perhaps he felt that such explanations were acceptable sacrifices when balancing the economy of the script’s energy. Perhaps he is experimenting with the limits of contradiction and elision as narrative techniques (that The Dark Knight uses the same techniques to a lesser extent gives some support to this). Whatever the motivation, the important thing is that it works. Most people, it appears, had no trouble accepting the emotional logic and flow of the story, even if they may have had nagging doubts about the finer mechanics of it. In fact, many people were drawn further into the movie by their nagging questions. This runs contrary to the commonly held assumption that inexplicable plot holes only serve to disengage the audience from a traditional narrative. Inception’s success is good evidence that, under certain conditions, the micro-scale narrative need not be subservient to the contextual macro-scale, and that an airtight plot is not all-important.
The interesting question then becomes, what are the conditions required for the suspension of disbelief when breaks in a story’s internal consistency are permissible? Two possible answers present themselves immediately. First, that the complexity engendered by a series of competing narrative interpretations is in itself a potent benignant force that counterbalances whatever discord it might cause. So, if a story element is sufficiently interconnected, it is still stimulating even though it runs amok of other themes, story logic, character motivations, etc. Alternately, the complexity might be a screen to obfuscate failings in the logic of the narrative, so that, if the story is moving along with sufficient momentum, no one will have time to clearly see that all the backdrops are just painted sets. This willful confusion of the audience may have an inferior or even somewhat deceitful connotation, but in practice, there are things you can do with sets, and maybe their narrative counterparts, that you just can’t do normally. Could Inception have worked otherwise? Also, the proper implementation of this directed obfuscation might not be something that is easily mastered. Exactly how many layers of complexity must a lapse be buried under before a storyteller can be confident it is forgivable? How many seconds can that complexity buy before a new diversion must be introduced? If you are weaving a web of inextricable contradictions, how do you balance the antipodal threads so that one strand does not protrude and make it easy to unravel the whole edifice? Perhaps the process is something comparable to a magician’s act. Perhaps Christopher Nolan is not unlike one of his characters from The Prestige, using misdirection and a continuous showman’s patter to usher the audience past the obvious impossibilities of the performance so they are free to revel in the fantasy and magic.
While a structured defense against interpretative assays has historically been confined to more experimental art forms, it might now be finding a meritorious place for itself as a device in contemporary mainstream narrative. Audience attentions have diminished, and with them, a filmmaker’s allowance of expository dialog. There may no longer be time to take the long road up to the high plateau of novel ideas, so any form of expedited transportation ought to be considered with happy interest. Furthermore, entertainment favors an exotic diet, and it may be that traditional approaches have become too confining for its tastes. Less traditional methods might be what are required to bring tantalizing new prospects within reach.
If it is possible that Inception is only able to access the less-traveled territories of its storyworld so directly because Nolan has conned his way past the genre’s usual obstacles, what other hidden realms might be discovered through such dissembling? It could be worthy of some further exploration. However, even though the appetite of the modern audience for the incredible has increased, their incredulity has not. If paradox is to be substituted for reasoned persuasion, the manner and method in which it is deployed must be given close scrutiny and care, or there’s risk of damaging the entire effort.”