Of Tells And Totems

This post originally was published more than 10 years ago and might or might not reflect my current views.

Having finally gone off to see Inception in an actual movie theater, it’s time for some stray, but hopefully coherent, thoughts, all of which will be after the jump if you’re reading this on the front page. If you click through to the rest, or read past this opening paragraph, you risk contaminating your own experience of the movie if you’ve not yet seen it. This is your only warning.

Not once, I need to say up front, did I notice the film’s run time. This, for me, is a big deal. Shorter movies than this one have lost me to my own thoughts, or to the restroom. I knew going in it was a long movie, and it’s one of the reasons I kept putting it off. Instead, I was engaged from start to finish.

I am confused that so many people seem confused by the movie. I do not think it is anywhere near as complicated as people have been making it seem. In fact, I’m as confused about this as I am because of my next point.

This is not a puzzle movie. There is nothing to “figure out”. As someone said it to me on Twitter: “I really loved that the story was compelling despite the fact they never hid the ball. … I was just so excited about the movie because it was layered without being tricky.” Just so.

That said, I do think the movie deliberately sets itself up (and by this I mean both the movie and the marketing for it) to be initially perceived as a puzzle movie. It wants us to go into it watching the way we would watch a puzzle movie.

It does this in order to create a kind of disorientation. The important thing about disorientation is it means, inherently, that we are engaged in what’s going on, not holding the film at arm’s length. I think the movie wraps itself in the language of the puzzle movie in order to create engagement via disorientation, despite not actually being a puzzle movie.

It goes out of its way to suggest we watch for certain things (for example, scenes starting in the middle of the action). It dazzles us with how strange dreams can be (through Ariadne’s training). In a sense, it plants the seed of an idea in our minds (get it?), and that idea is “this is a puzzle movie”.

If the movie is not a puzzle movie, the final shot is not important in the way that most people seem to think. Which is not to say that it isn’t important. But the importance isn’t in whether or not the spinner falls, and so whether or not this is reality.

Instead, the importance lies in the fact that Cobb isn’t watching to see, the way he does every other time he spins it. Why isn’t he watching? Because he doesn’t need it. Why doesn’t he need it?

Those involved in extraction via dreams each carries a totem, and is made to understand that no one else should ever handle that totem, else it can be faked. It’s important to have an object that is recognizable by its various traits (its weight or heft, how it leans or falls) only to its owner. It is through this item that each extractor can know when they are awake.

Cobb does spin his totem on the table in that final scene. But then almost immediately walks away. He ignores it. Forgets it. Why isn’t he watching? Because he doesn’t need it. Why doesn’t he need it? Because his real totem is his children.

Now, it is true that people other than Cobb have seen his children, heard them, lifted them up, felt the weight of them. Can they not therefore be faked, the way a totem object can?

The movie itself tells us otherwise, when Cobb explains to his projection of Mal that he could never believe (or pretend) she is real because even though he himself creates her, she is just a shade. Even he himself can’t match via her projection the complexity of his actual wife. So, people — or at least those with whom one has an abiding emotional and physical connection — cannot be faked within a dream the way a totem object can.

The moment he sees, hears, and then goes to lift his children into his arms, he knows this is not a dream. Because his children are his real totem, and his children cannot be faked.

The same person on Twitter I quoted above said something else: “I remember how shocked I was watching it because I thought it was a puzzle movie and they were just telling you things.”

Which it does. The entire time. While it performs a kind of inception upon us by planting the seed in our minds that it’s a puzzle movie, it then methodically and as a matter of routine simply states what things are, what is happening, and what might happen next. No puzzles, after all.

It lays out the rules for every step. There might be a new rule that crops up here and there along the way, but they are previously unknown for reasons that themselves, in turn, are then simply told to us. No puzzles, after all.

And if there are no puzzles after all, the final shot itself is not a puzzle. But that’s not the same as saying it has no meaning.

We were told almost from the very beginning that the movie was about Cobb needing to get back home to his kids. In a movie that wasn’t a puzzle, a movie where “they were just telling you things”, they told us this. Flat out, and repeatedly. Cobb’s children always were at the very center of the movie.

And so the importance of the film’s final shot isn’t whether or not Cobb is dreaming. The importance is to show that his totem object isn’t the “tell” anymore. That, in the end, it never really was.

No puzzles. Just a father finding his way back to his children. Exactly what the movie told us all along.

Referring posts