Dream Levels and Spaces [Inception]

Inception, quite obviously, is all about dreams. Dreams so real they consume and become the abstract place you occupy, so well-conceived people can walk through them and not notice a difference from the world, so meticulous they can convince people they are reality. 

These dreams free up director Christopher Nolan to conjure moments in a movie that could never be done in the confines of reality and gives us brilliantly conceived settings and impossible physics with no explanation needed. His mind was his limit. And as Eames told Arthur as he cocked his grenade launcher, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling.” Nolan was free to create whatever he wanted.

So which dream-space was the coolest? Which had the best action? Which was the place where Nolan dreamt the biggest? 

The movie starts out with tone setting scenery in the Japanese Castle, Arthur’s dream. This dream is intriguing because first time watchers have no clue what is going on. Viewers are introduced to all the different elements of extraction- what the point of it is, subconscious projections, kicks, extractors, Mal, dying and waking up- through mere exposure, with further context coming later. It creates an intense desire to know more. To want to figure out how it all works and unlike some questions in film, these have satisfying answers. 

All of this takes place in an awesome Japanese Castle while a swanky party swirls around them. The images feel like they fell from a James Bond movie, and yet they are a bit odd, a bit strange. The scenes are slow, not very interactive, stilted. Working in that space between dreams and reality must be challenging, but Nolan found a way to set an appropriate tone for his dream-spaces as displayed in this first dream. They are not quite reality.

This dream also introduces us to the infinite possibilities of a dream-space, its capacity for action and beauty. We see Cobb at his best when we does that sweet thing where he shoots a dude with a silenced pistol, catches the casing, and then slides under the body before it hits the ground, and we see future conflict possibilities when he interacts with Mal. But that is trumped and forgotten by maybe the best single shot in the entire film, when Cobb looks up at a tidal wave of water, as the kick comes rushing towards him like a tsunami. Nolan has a penchant for opening scenes that immediately get buy-in, and this one is no different (I know this technically isn’t the opening scene, but the one that comes before it is more like a prologue in my opinion). 

This is one of the best dream-spaces because of what it does for the story, however, it isn’t one of the best designed, and the action isn’t nearly up to what happens in some of the spaces in the final dream sequence, so it is terrific, but it is not Nolan dreaming his biggest.

When they kick out of the Japanese Castle, they wake up in Saito’s Apartment, Nash’s dream. This is a quick segment clearly not Nolan’s biggest dreaming, but provides a top-tier moment in the film, when Saito (the second coolest character behind Eames) realizes that the carpeting is not wool like in real life and “that they are actually still dreaming.” A great movie moment that set up potential for a film that wants to mash your reality into a sticky pulp. The viewer thought they were done with the bizarreness, that they had woken up into normalcy. But not so fast, this won’t be that simple.

Then, the movie spends a little time in reality, only to plunge back into dream-space at a Parision Café in Cobb’s dream. This provides another reality bending moment when a conversation between Ariadne and Cobb seamlessly becomes a dream with no break in the action, teaching us that the subject never remembers how they got into a dream, another slight twist that forces the viewer to stay on their toes or they may end up perceiving a dream as reality, just as the characters are wont to do. 

This dream-scene also has some of the best special effects of the film. When Ariadne discovers she is dreaming, the dream-space starts falling apart, not in a boring crumbling, but with giant pops of explosion that create smaller explosions, fireworks of vegetables and shattered glass. These explosions also bend time, starting fast and retracting into slow motion. The effect is technically stunning. Later we get another great special effects moment when Ariadne, flexing her dream-muscles, folds the city in half on top of itself and then proceeds to lead Cobb into the upside down version of their current world (arguably this is better special effects than the dream explosions, but I can’t get over how awkward they look when they step from the flat world to the upside down world, it’s like bad video game graphics). These moments depict what is possible when simple rules of physics no longer apply and a person’s only limitation is what they can dream. So this space has a few really cool moments, but in an action film a scene with no action cannot possibly be Nolan dreaming his biggest.

Another education-dream happens not too long later, this time it is Arthur’s dream of a Lobby. Not much to see here other than a visual representation of the Penrose steps which is clever and cool, but this is more function than anything else, laying groundwork for future moments and conflicts.

The movie takes a much heavier turn next when Ariadne enters Cobb’s Apartment of memories. In a movie that tries to conflate reality and unreality, keeping the audience guessing is paramount. This dream is a shift in expectations and tone of dream spaces, turning them into more than a matrix-like place where anything is possible, into a personal representation of one’s inner self. The words of Yusuf’s assistant in the den of dreamers comes to mind, “They come here to be woken up. Their dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” Powerful words that add heart to the story, making it more about Cobb’s dreams than about dreaming, making it more about overcoming inner conflicts than the external. And this concept plays out perfectly across the face of Ariadne, the character whose learning mirrors the viewer’s, as she watches Cobb break every rule, using dreams like heroine. Preferring to live in his dreams than reality. This may not be Nolan dreaming at his biggest, but it is Nolan dreaming at his best.

Then comes the big finale, the dream sequence, a dream within a dream within a dream and a side of limbo, hold the scrambled brains. The sequence begins in on the Rainy Streets of Yusuf’s dream. Yusuf needing to pee so therefore it rains was a nice touch, because… you know… we’ve all been there. This dream-space is all about how the inception went to shit. The intensity that draws the viewer in is established here, starting with a freight train hitting the team’s car in the middle of a city street (anything is possible) and then Fischer’s subconscious trying to kill them on these same streets. Merely an annoying obstacle at first, until Cobb tells them that they are too heavily sedated to wake up if they die. Now we’re talking… 

In this first dream-space in the dream sequence, the action is fast and furious, the train is an awesome moment, and the story is developed better than the next dream-spaces, but the creativity is lacking. So it is maybe one of the most engaging dream-spaces (it is always interesting to see what’s happening on this level during the inception because of all the action), but Nolan could still dare to dream a bit bigger.

So we descend into level two of the dream sequence into a Hotel, Arthur’s dream. Eames was right, Arthur is a bit of a wet blanket. Both his dreams are very professional lobbies and hotels. But this setting is legit. The rainy streets above are chaos and confusion and the level after this is equally as discordant, so this space feels like the calm in the storm. A breath of fresh air in the story, where characters can interact without their lives being threatened. It’s neat and organized, things go fairly well, the plan gets solidified, Fischer is brought onto their side using the Mr. Charles gambit, all in the neat and tidy brain of Arthur the point man. 

Nolan messes with the viewers brains when the Mr. Charles gambit confuses whose dream is whose, nobody can tell whether Browning is Eames or Eames is Browning. And later on, Arthur needs to figure out how to trigger a kick in zero gravity. There are mind-bending decisions being made, which makes a normal action sequence feel alive and original. We are not just seeing people fight and get shot at, we are seeing humans struggle and overcome.

We also see one of the best fight scenes in film (based on creativity). Arthur fights subconscious hitmen while the van rolls down a hill in the layer above, leaving the hallway he is in spinning during the fight. Even so, Arthur (and his opposition) show immense wherewithal as they punch and shoot it out on the walls and the ceilings and fall through doors that are now floors. This is one of my favorite movie scenes, unforgettable, and another moment of Nolan at his finest, taking a simple trope (a fight scene) and dreaming it into something bigger than ever before. He also flexes those creativity muscles when Arthur must come up with a way to drop them in zero gravity, a terrific problem to force a character to solve, since I would imagine most viewers had no clue where to even start thinking about how to solve it. And it was super tense since he had to do it while beating the clock and slowly floating through hallways at a slower pace than anyone was comfortable with. This dream-space has the action, it has the storyline, it has the special effects and terrific Nolan moments. This may be him dreaming at his biggest, but let’s hold off until we see the other two dream-spaces.

As they dive into the last layer (supposedly) of the dream sequence the pace quickens and the plot intensifies in the Snow Fortress, Eames dream. Everyone must move faster than originally planned because Yusef cues the song too soon, prompting Ariadne to provide Cobb, and by extension Mal, with the short cut that leads to Fischer being sent to limbo. Meanwhile Eames is going ham on the snowy peaks destroying an entire army by himself on skis and jet skis and trooping through snow. He almost single handedly makes the team succeed, but they ultimately fail. The pace is breathtaking, and you don’t quite realize how invested you are until Eames, as he frantically places defibrillators on Fischer’s lifeless form asks, “So that’s it?” Then the music cuts and butt cheeks unclench, and everyone realizes how invested they were. Its top-notch action in a film full of terrific action. Later on, during the kick back up this space hosts the payoff of all this craziness when Fischer finally makes it into the safe to see what his father wanted for him. But this is the least dream-like dream-space. Nothing too crazy happens to bend physics and reality, and thus it doesn’t feel like Nolan is dreaming his biggest, it’s just Eames going ham, which is awesome, but not enough to make this the best dream-space.

There is still one more dream-space. The place no one hoped to go. Limbo. In some ways the opposite of the Snowy Fortress, Limbo is all Nolan’s imagination and no action, another pacing trick, well placed after that frantic action of the previous dream-space. Buildings crumble into the sea, buildings rest inside of other buildings, cottages sit on city streets, and everything shows its rot and decay after Mal and Cobb abandoned their creation so long ago. This dream-space is profound, a visual and internal precipice for the story, and the home for so much backstory and catharsis. Cobb is finally able to let go of the dreams he was holding onto and face reality for the first time since he was forced to run from his children so long ago. He finally had his way home, physically and mentally, and that moment in Limbo, is the ultimate payoff in this film, more than the successful inception or any of the action. For that reason I would like to say Limbo is Nolan dreaming his biggest, and I think I believe it, however when I think of Inception, and I think about the brilliance of the movie, I often find my mind wandering down the hallways of Arthur’s Hotel dream, and I replay the spinning hallway, and I see events in that unique lighting of those hotel rooms. That dream-space seems to capture Inception more than any other. So I guess I’ll just leave it up to you to decide. 

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