Inception’s Emotional Value Proposition

Inception is a film that entertains, but also one that may pride itself on making viewers think. It’s your choice. This art of coupling entertainment with (the possibility of) puzzles, for those in the mood to consider—or crack—them, seems Hollywood's current goal. Or perhaps, the goal of our finest filmmakers. It is not Art Meets Commerce; it is Art Meets Literature, less in the sense that literature provides the best material but rather that the gift great novels give is this: a sensation that you can’t possibly put down a story until it's over while, at the same time, once it’s over, making you feel compelled to read/see it again.


What does one miss in the first viewing of Inception? A lot, if general consensus is a guide. Is it “a Borgesian heist film,” as one blogger proposes? Other references would include Hamlet (see fathers and sons and sons afraid not to become fathers), and Freud (everything in who we are begins and ends with childhood, and family). Yet what about this idea: Inception is an extremely emotional film, masquerading as an intellectual thriller. This is an idea with which the very brilliant David Denby disagrees. Denby closed his appreciative but disappointed New Yorker review like this:

There’s no spiritual meaning or social resonance to any of this, no critique of power in the dream-world struggle between C.E.O.s. It can’t be a coincidence that Tony Gilroy’s “Duplicity” (2009), which was also about industrial espionage, played time games, too. The over-elaboration of narrative devices in both movies suggests that the directors sensed that there was nothing at the heart of their stories to stir the audience. In any case, I would like to plant in Christopher Nolan’s head the thought that he might consider working more simply next time. His way of dodging powerful emotion is beginning to look like a grand-scale version of a puzzle-maker’s obsession with mazes and tropes.

With respect to a writer whose knowledge of film vastly surpasses my own, I would only say that there is, for some viewers, meaning at the heart of this story, meaning which is very powerful--and meaning which was missing from Duplicity: family.

There are many ways to interpret Inception (perhaps Rorschach is the best word to use when considering it), but anyone with children, anyone who has been faced with the threat of losing a child, will respond to at least one of the film’s central threads: a desire to return home to the people you love. Whether or not the film’s ending—or the entire film—is a dream, the hero, (dreaming or awake within a dream) elects to try to live in a place that is/feels real. That place as experienced or as dreamed is a normal home, with green grass, a wood table, happy children. It is a place with things everyone can relate to. And it is a place that cannot possibly compete with the elegance of a dream. Not possibly compete, until it does.

The name of the hero’s wife in the film is Mal, a choice that echoes threats of seizure, of something damaging one's connection to what's real. diCaprio plays intellect so well, but he also plays emotion here. diCaprio (what do I know, but anyhow) deserves a Best Actor nomination for this role.

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