Inception in the Age of Tenet
By: Ahmad Hussain
"Come here, come check this out. It's a drawer, within a drawer. It's 'drawer-ception'!" The year was 2012, I was somehow swindled into going furniture shopping with an overzealous friend and proud new apartment tenant. I cracked up as he dropped this gem standing beside a desk in the Ikea showroom that did in fact have a smaller drawer concealed within its main drawer.
Brilliant jokes aside, there is no denying the cultural impact a film that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi heist blockbuster had. Perhaps it’s biggest contribution to the film zeitgeist in the 2010s was its cliff-hanger ending, highly debated by movie nerds and self-proclaimed ‘cinephiles’ everywhere (yours truly included).
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see Inception once again on the big(gest) screen during a re-release at Toronto’s Cinesphere. Perhaps it was seeing Leo’s face stretched 60 feet high by 80 feet wide, or hearing Hans Zimmer’s iconic score on speakers the size of a refrigerator, but the inconclusive ending resonated differently during this viewing.
Is Dominick Cobb dreaming or awake as the credits roll at the end of Inception? During the summer of 2010, this question dominated conversations in movie theatre parking lots, lobbies and bathrooms. For me, the conversation continued, coming up in school hallways, Facebook chats and Tim Horton’s seating areas.
If you had asked seventeen-year-old me for my opinion on whether Cobb is in fact awake or asleep, I’m sure I would have written you an essay (longer than this one) arguing either side depending on what mood I was in that week. Today, my opinion can be boiled down to simply saying, it doesn’t matter.
You’re probably asking yourself why the hell you’re reading this right now. After all I’m discussing a movie released over a decade ago which has been dissected ad nauseam on the internet, and my take on the film’s most debated moment is that it doesn’t matter. However, sitting in the Cinesphere this past January, watching the credits roll for a movie I’d rewatched on numerous occasions, I felt like we had all missed the quintessential point of the movie’s ending.
Let’s rewind. Dominik Cobb is a fugitive, unable to return home to his children after his wife frames him for her suicide. We get caught up with trains plowing through Manhattan streets, rotating hallways, and exploding military hospitals tucked between scenic snowy peaks.
Between these unreal moments and what feels like endless expository world building, the audience loses sight of perhaps the most relatable of anomalies this world has to offer. The culpability a husband feels for his wife’s death is so immense, it bleeds from his subconscious into every waking and sleeping moment of his life. We forget that throughout the intense reality bending sequences our protagonist is undergoing a prolonged trauma stemming from a state sanctioned and self-administered guilt.
His sentence is to roam the world, untethered, on the run from conviction, barred from his home, unable to see his children, and unwilling to look at their faces as they crop up in his dreams. The explosive nature of this film, for better or worse, eclipses the human story of a man coming to terms with his guilt for committing an unthinkable act, resulting in the death of his wife.
Early in the film, Dicaprio’s Cobb alongside Tom Hardy’s Eames and Ken Watanabe’s Saito visit a lab in the basement where a number of individuals routinely spend hours a day sleeping, in their minds, spending days on end in a dreamlike state. Upon inquiring about the group’s need to come everyday just to sleep, in one of the film’s least subtle moments, a nameless wise old man declares,
“They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” Cobb takes this as an opportunity to test the chemist’s sedative, and its dream inducing qualities. The audience then receives a slurry of incoherent images, followed by Cobb jolting awake, rushing to test his reality by spinning his top, unaffected by physics in a dream state.
If we ignore the undercooked dialogue for a moment, the sentiment of this scene is at the core of my argument. The audience is so distracted by the heist, its mark and the theatrics that ensue, that they potentially overlook the protagonist’s narrative and the arc he undergoes.
Now, back to my cinematic “awake”-ning this past winter (pun intended). As the credits rolled this time, I found my mind not going to the spinning top on the table, but rather Cobb’s disinterest in its fate. Rather his interest is captured by his children’s faces, seeing them for the first time in years. Is Dominick Cobb dreaming or awake at the end of Inception? Well, whichever is the case, Cobb doesn’t care, so why should we?
The ending of this story, as enticing as it may seem, is not simply a cliff hanger meant to cause a rift for the audience to pick their own conclusion. As teenager, I was too naive to comprehend this. Rather, the conclusion is that Cobb no longer cares for reality. We see him spin the top to ensure the physics of his world are real throughout the film, but in this final moment he willingly walks away from the the notion of reality altogether. His internal journey is complete, his guilt dealt with and his self administered punishment of waiting to see his children has been lifted. Dream or reality aside, Cobb has arrived at personal resolution. Who are we to say otherwise?
A lot of this movie, from the nameless wise old man to the cheap dialogue has not aged well in the ten years it’s been around. However, there is something to be said about the effort put into the storytelling of this film. Now, you still may be wondering why you should care about this a decade later, or you may have come to this conclusion the moment you walked out of your local movie theatre on first viewing, as I’m sure many of the audience did.
In the age of franchise film, nostalgia reboots and unnecessary sequels, Inception is a film that dares to do more. Not only is the audience treated with mind bending action sequences (most of which shot practically), we also experience the story of a man crippled with guilt, and his journey to find someway to forgive himself and move forward. This human story stitched seamlessly to a rollercoaster ride is what makes Inception special, and is in fact what it’s modern sibling Tenet lacks in my opinion.
Few films these days strike such a balance between edge of your seat action and sincere human connection (I like to call it the Spielberg Factor), and it’s something we need more of. So, ten years later, is Inception a masterpiece or a mess? I believe, with all my heart, Inception is a m-