With the task of presenting a film comes the responsibility of forcing its relevance into society, whether politically, socially, or otherwise. Films exist in layers upon layers of allegorical symbols, discoverable only when made adjacent to the goings-on at the time. Though the film Inception is not set in any particular country or even year, the themes it represents and illustrates are not those of the present at all, but of the past. Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film is unparalleled in concept, casting, and execution, albeit the excess of technologically-futuristic films in the market today. From the depths of this uber-cerebral film comes underlying themes of post-war international relations, technological effects on society, and the themes of revolution.
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The film opens up inside an intricately decorated room, echoing classical Japanese artwork. Our protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) paces around a table, conversing with an Asian man across, Saito (Ken Watanabe). As he discretely opens the safe containing the truth he set out to discover, Cobb is accosted by Saito and a gun-brandishing Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s projection ex-wife. A clear power struggle ensues, in which Saito demands Cobb reveal his employer. A subsequent battle breaks out as the dream collapses, and it is discovered that Cobb did indeed steal the hidden secrets. Eventually Saito employs the help of Cobb, promising that should he succeed, he would be able to return to his native country America, from which he is currently on the run as it is suspected he killed his wife Mal. The two partner, each originally working for independent dream-work companies, joining forces against a common enemy.
In the multiple layers of the final dream in which corporate espionage is occurring, Saito is hurt, and eventually gets stuck in limbo. Normally when one is killed in a dream he wakes, but the sedatives the team and their victims are under is too strong to awake. Both Cobb and Saito return to the same room in which the opening scene took place, where Saito is reminded of a man he met in a “half-remembered dream.” At this point Saito is an old man, having spent decades of dream-years stuck in his false world. The shot cuts to Cobb’s totem, spinning ceaselessly, confirming that the two men are indeed in a dream world. Awake, or supposedly so, Saito makes a call, apparently to the people who would clear Cobb of his charges. This is confirmed when customs at the airport stamps his passport and says, “Welcome home, Mr. Cobb.” Cobb’s children are in different outfits than the ones they wore in his dreams and memory, and their faces are shown at last.
Regardless of one’s interpretation of the film, the relationship between Saito and Cobb is worth analyzing. There is an emphasis on the fact that Cobb is not at home wherever he is, in dreams or otherwise, and that he wishes to return to America. Though the men are not physically in Japan in the opening and closing scenes, it can be deduced that Saito is of that nationality. Cobb and Saito play extremely interdependent roles in the conquering of Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious. A possible correlation between these two forces could be reflected in global post-WWII affairs. Saito’s mind was extremely defensive towards Cobb’s projection, proving their advancement in dream-technology. A good match for the sneaky Cobb, Saito battles him for control, a mini-war waged between these two “powers” for control of the virtual realm. Cultural analyst Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980s, defined as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. Nye believed America and Japan were the two soft powers after the Second World War. Reflected in this theory are the reserved but dangerously intelligent men encountered in the first and last scenes. Cobb challenges Saito, boasting that he knows how to search and hijack Saito’s mind. Yet they join forces, which former undersecretary of state Eugene Rostow justifies by saying, “After the Japanese lost the war, they reached certain conclusions, the principle one being that it was infinitely better to cooperate with the United States than to follow a hostile, militaristic line.” Both Saito and Cobb can benefit from each other’s help; Saito financially, Cobb emotionally, and they decide to work together rather than self-destructing. But even though this is an alliance, it is hardly friendly, the men keeping the tone strictly business. Author Benjamin Schwartz of “Why America Thinks It Has to Run the World” makes a note on this superficial friendship, saying, “By providing for Japan’s security and enmeshing its foreign and military policies in a U.S.-controlled alliance, Americans have contained their erstwhile enemy, preventing their partner from embarking upon the independent – and, so the thinking goes, dangerous political and military policies.”
This allegory of dream-stealing is absolutely a commentary on power in postwar society. Cobb says that dream-sharing was originated by an industrial military complex, to train soldiers, introducing a very militaristic tone to a setting that already has no distinct date or location. The penetrating of Saito’s open mind begs allusions to the 1948 Marshall Plan, which gave billions of dollars to a desolate Japan in order to dissuade it from closed economies (Office of the Historian). In the end it is Cobb who saves Saito, embodying the typical Western hero. Michael Blouin, author of “A Western Wake: Difference and Doubt in Christopher Nolan’s Inception”, takes particular interest to this, noting the Hollywood industries and their forced conformity of other regions, asserting American values onto the “presumed victims of the rest of the world” (330). Cobb is the American hero who saves the broken-down Japanese.
Director Christopher Nolan does not at all stop at Saito with the cultural references. The quite diverse cast begs further allusions to international relations. Cobb’s father Miles (Michael Caine) and Eames (Tom Hardy) are both British; Mal is French; Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is Indian. In a discussion with Cobb, Eames offers pointers about creating more convincing dream worlds to keep the subjects from realizing the fraud. At this point Cobb had traveled to Mombasa to find Eames; it is interesting that he makes a comment about failing to persuade his subjects, as Mombasa is a former British colony. Eames could be speaking to the imperialistic empirical powers of Europe. Similarly, Mal works as what Blouin calls a “mouthpiece” for Cobb’s anxiety; she says, “This world is not real…no creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted on? Being chased around the globe by anonymous corporations?” Continuing with the theme of world powers, casting Mal as a French woman was not a random choice. As France, she embodies the frustration of being left out as a world power. Cobb is also blamed for her death, which is a potential commentary on American blame by the French. Even so, Cobb’s totem never belonged to him. The spinning top was Mal’s. Yet Cobb is blamed for her death, a possible allusion to the impossibility of American dreams in a postwar world.
Upon waking up from the final dream, Cobb’s burdens are lifted, his mind is freed, and he exists in a utopia from the moment he steps off the plane to his idyllic reuniting with his children. As viewers we are unsure of how the film ends, because through Cobb’s utter manipulation of his superiors we lose touch with him. There is a distrust that we feel, perhaps in the ambiguity of the ending, but also contributed to by the fact that the entire movie is based on vulnerability of the mind, and we are left feeling as though we might be just as easily manipulated as the malleable victims we view.
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