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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Inception, An Addendum: Emotion

Last week, I reviewed Inception and mentioned that I intended to see the film again and write some more about it. Now that I've seen it a second time, I think there are three things that need to be discussed about the film: emotional maturity, the state of narrative ambiguity, and the music. All three have been discussed by film critics and fans, but I think that they are all important enough to address further, particularly because of what Inception might very well represent for science fiction film (i.e. a revolution of sorts). But because these three things deserve considerable attention, I'm going to break them up into three posts. First up is motion.

Inception: Emotionally Bereft or Misunderstood?

One of the things that Inception has been attacked for is its supposed lack of emotional maturity. Visually, the film is gorgeous and the narrative elements are quite intriguing and complex,
but when you separate those elements from the film's intended impact, it does become somewhat obvious that the emotional overtones are, perhaps, weakened, if not by the very nature of the kind of film Inception is, then at least by Nolan's desire to present a narrative that does not give clean answers. Cobb is really the only significant character that is given a developed emotional narrative, while secondary characters like Fischer display emotion only at key moments, and without actual development. The latter of these scenarios, however, seems to me to be entirely intentional and to serve a point.

Cobb's narrative is our focal point, and we're supposed to assume that his development is linear (to a point); everything else is washed into the background because Cobb is the only one whose emotional relationships actually influence everything around him. Further supporting this is the fact that we know that the emotional development for Fischer is entirely artificial: it is literally created from nothingness, and, thus, intentionally sudden and intentionally non-linear. Depending on how you interpret Inception, you could argue that Cobb's development is also artificial, but the problem with that interpretation is that it relies on an incredible leap of faith based on a handful of narrative clues that are intensely ambiguous. The reality is that Cobb's narrative, regardless of your interpretation, is linear and serves as a counterpoint to Fischer's narrative, which suggests, I think, that when emotion is fabricated, it must necessarily lose its potency.

What I disagree with in regards to Inception, however, are the various claims that the film "emotionally barren." Yes, the emotional tensions are not as high as they could be, but what matters in Inception is that what we're dealing with is a tour into the psyche in the most psychoanalytic/psychological sense. Inception is built like an impossibly complicated wall of layers. The layers bleed into one another; clues lie buried in places you didn't expect them to be, things occur and progress in ways that shatter previously standardized layers, and the narrative progression follows these layers as best it can to the climax, which is, in and of itself, fabricated from the deterioration of Cobb's mental health. What Inception gives us is a psychological treatment for the human psyche, bereft in part of emotion precisely because of the overwhelming quality of the emotions being suppressed. Cobb is a man whose past is mired in mistakes and the most disrupting of regrets, all of which he has tried to suppress within himself to do what so many of us do when we can't cope with what we've done or have seen: divorce ourselves from it.

To say that Inception is emotionally bereft, then, is to miss the point of the movie. Of course Inception lacks emotional depth; the focal point of the movie is a man who is psychologically ruined, who cannot face his past, who cannot hold the same emotional ties to the real world that he did before, and who, inevitably, finds that his psyche is more willing to break down his barriers against emotion and force him to face his reality than he is. The end of film, thus, offers an ambiguous but emotionally clear message by showing Cobb's admittance to his mistakes and rejection of his past. It's an ending that suggests that the uncontrollable parts of ourselves (i.e. the subconscious) have a stake in our actions and our emotions. Inception is not an emotionless film, but a film that is about finding those emotions beneath a suppressive wall of guilt and fear, and about breaking down those walls to find one's way back to "reality."

All of the above is how I view Inception's emotional overtones. But as many have pointed out, this film is open to an endless sea of interpretations.

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  1. Intellectually, I found the film interesting. That's a rather lukewarm word, but it was a lukewarm reaction. And, frankly, I was so bored during the film I nearly walked out.

    Visually, it is stunning. DiCaprio even does a decent job (and I can't stand him for some inane, subconscious reason lurking in my back-brain.) But despite the emotional arc that you discuss, I didn't find the movie emotional enough. The only character who had me feeling for her was the new girl (whose name I forget.)

    I rather liked the ambiguous nature of reality, though, and the ending which implies the opposite of whatever conclusion you hve reached to that point. That was clever.

  2. You're the second person that said they were somewhat bored. I have no idea what it is that you and that other person found so boring. Everything about the movie is complex and visually stunning...and the acting is, generally speaking, quite good. Hell, even the action is impressive.

    And it's not an "emotional" movie, as I said above. It's a psychological movie. It's all cues and layered psychological monstrosity. You can't look for in-your-face emotion. That's too easy and, unfortunately, that's what every filmmaker tries to do when attempting to get a reaction from the audience. In-your-face emotion is simple, derivative, close-minded, and weak. The psychological narrative, however, complicates the whole mess.

    And the ambiguous ending was really fascinating. I'll likely talk about that today at some point (well, I'll talk about ambiguity in general).