Inception, or, Leo angsts about family and chicks.

Visually, Inception was spectacular. I want to say that straight out. In terms of plot? It is all right — the twist at the end’s predictable if you’re at all into SF, but it’s still a satisfying conclusion, and offers enough brain-teasers and world-building to satisfy my nerdy sweet-tooth. I’ll do my best to limit the number of spoilers, but there might be a couple.

Basically, Inception is set in a future where you can go into other people’s dreams and get their secrets. I liked the explicit link they made to the military and its involvement in technological evolution. Anyways, Dom, a dream extractor with a past, is approached to do something totally impossible: to INCEPT a secret/idea instead of just extracting it. Saito, a business mogul, wants to incept an idea in his competitor’s heir about the fate of that competitor’s company once his competitor dies.

The characters themselves are quirky and fun. Except for… you guessed it… the two female leads, set as polar opposites. Here’s where I have a problem. The first of these two female characters is Molly. She’s called “Mal” for a huge chunk of the movie because in case you didn’t get it, she’s Molly the Malevolent, a personification of Dom’s guilt over what he may have done to his absent wife. The other is Ariadne, who Dom, our main dude and leader of Our Heroes, contracts to the be Architect, the designer of the dream-world in which they’ll place their client. Ariadne is the youngest member of the team and the most eager to explore the sometimes dangerous world of dreams. Her mythological connection to the myth about Theseus and the labyrinth is constantly emphasized as she designs mazes for members of the team to memorize. Dom refuses to memorize these mazes (IE refuses the maiden’s help in the labyrinth) and is ultimately lost.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed how one’s a Virgin and the other’s a Whore, but hey, I’m known for my observational skills. Plus, the ways in which Ariadne is able to “save” Dom — by counseling him, by guiding him, by pulling him away from the evil Mal — are “girl” tactics, ones not related to her analytical skills (I mean seriously, she’s top of her class) or to her puzzle-making. It’s kinda like those old, semi-feminist SF stories where the heroine saves everyone by being hyper-feminine and like, baking the alien ambassador a cake or exchanging slips with his wife, not through her brains or through stuff specific to her personality. It’s plot advancement through Insert-A-Girl. Both Mal and Ariadne are symbols, not real characters, and I think this is reflected in the kinds of lines and characterization each is offered. In a movie where businessmen are dryly humorous, several million dollars are devoted to a man’s daddy-issues, and Dom’s nostalgic love for family is symbolized through a honey-heavy shot of golden light haloing his young moppets’ heads, the wooden-ness and flatness of the lines offered these characters is startlingly noticeable.

Ultimately, I appreciate Inception for what it is — a very pretty film that pretends to be smarter than really was. It’s like that hot Marxist unable to flirt unless he’s telling you you’re so not like other women. You’re crazier. You’re more pure. You know — that guy whose name and face you’ll ultimately forget, because they’re both generic, who you’ll only remember because of his pretensions of intellectual grandeur and his blanket refusal to acknowledge that there’s something fucked up about his views on women. Inception is not the movie you’d go home with if you wanted more than a series of quick explosions followed by a lingering dissatisfaction.


  1. says

    Well, I could tell you why I liked Inception a lot, but that would be spoiler territory :) I do agree about most of what you said, except for the virgin/whore thing. I don’t know where you got that from. Also about the not listening to Ariadne and getting lost; isn’t it that he does listen and isn’t lost?

    Also, I think the only non-cardboard character was Leos character, and that by design (again, spoiler territory).

    I did notice that the film felt very white to me (despite Ken Watanabe and Dileep Rao) and very male: daddy-issues and dead-wife-issues, plus Ariadne being the only one not fighting, which annoyed me.

    Again, I think it’s hard to talk about this without spoilers.

  2. Maria says

    The virgin/whore thing I got from Mal being pretty consistantly coded as being exotic/sexy/angry/betraying, and from Ariadne being more like a pure maiden. Maybe innocent/bitch would be a better comparison. This review here talks about its treatment of female sexuality:

    LOL and this is everyone’s official warning — there WILL be spoilers in this comments thread!!!

    I think he’s still lost at the end — he’s not back in reality, just in another level of the dream that he likes better.

    • says

      Okay, innocent/bitch I can dig :) It’s just that the one thing I was missing from the whole film is sexuality of any kind.

      My read on the story is it’s all a dream, everything. And diCaprio’s helpers are all projections; so he created Ariadne because his mind needed someone to lead him through the maze(s), a function his friends couldn’t provide (because they were just projections and couldn’t change on their own). In the end, whether he’s still in the dream or not, doesn’t matter – he’s happy now. It reminded me of the idea that we live in the Matrix or similar (“what if the world only began two seconds ago and our memories are fake?”). If there’s nothing to differentiate the real world and the fake one, then we must treat the fake one as real. As someone who often clashes with people of that mindset (“what if God just put the fossils into the earth to make it seem like evolution?”), I like it. And whether Cobb’s in a dream or not, he got his happy end, and we as audience got ours, too.

      That’s why I can go along with cardboard characters and pretty uninteresting dreams because I see all of that as part of my interpretation. But of course, if you don’t agree with that interpretation, then you have problems. I mean, you still have problems in my reading, but not as many :)

      I also like Devin’s take on the film.

      The feminist interpretation you linked to is interesting. I don’t know how much I agree with that because as I said, I saw this film as pretty much asexual. But I think Nolan is analytic in a way that lends itself to psychoanalysis and other pseudo-scientific ideas, so it’s definitely a possibility that we see this kind of fear of female sexuality here. At least the locking up part and the way Mal is not analytic, but emotional, are correct. Reminds me, too, of Antichrist.

      So yeah, definitely a problematic film.

      NB: I loved the score.

      • Maria says

        The score was amazing.

        I wouldn’t agree with you that all the characters but diCaps were cardboard cutouts. I thought each referred to past life experiences and past histories in a way that Ari. and Mal. didn’t. Like Ari never really mentions school/classes/shit she learned that’s applicable/parents/friends/etc and Mal has no past but diCaps. It felt really Insert-A-Girl for characterization.

        • says

          I totally agree about Mal – we never get an inkling as to her character at all. All we see is the guilt-driven figment of diCaprio’s imagination. And yes, Ariadne is only a function. I can understand why that is, but that doesn’t make it good – Nolan could have just as well used a more diverse and gender-balanced cast. That he didn’t might well mean that he even intended to differentiate between female and male “characteristics”, and then we *are* where you and the post you linked claim we are.

          It’s just that, can you tell me anything about the other characters? We have a forger, and a chemist, and a (whatever Joseph Gordon-Lewitt is) – but what are their motivations? Why do they do this? What is their past? Even Saito’s motivations aren’t that clear, all he gives is stock blabla about energy sources and he claims to be able to make Cobb’s problems go away. Saito and the victim are stereotypical characters for this kind of story – again, I think it’s a story Cobb invents himself –, and the other characters aren’t really more refined than Ariadne, all they do is share a past with Cobb.

          But I’m not going to say that this is a feminist or even a female-friendly movie. Nolan doesn’t seem to be interested in that at all, looking at his past films, which is a real shame.

          • Maria says

            The chemist is running a shady dreaming business, and is in part getting blackmailed to administer the sedative, I think. He doesn’t normally do the field, and seemed kinda bookish. And sweaty!

            The forger is in part in it for the lols and the challenge. He’s worked with a couple other extractors, but has worked with Leo often enough that they have set routines/tactics (like that wallet thing). He’s also got a past history with two other characters (the sedative/chemist guy and the guy that was kind of a douche) that seems to exist outside each of their relationships with Leo’s character.

            I feel like you can pull out for characters like them, and the victim, that they exist in a network of friends/family/colleagues, whereas Ari and Mal don’t. I don’t think you even see Mal on her own with the kiddles.

  3. Savannah says

    I gotta disagree with you here.

    I can see where you’re drawing the Virgin/Whore contrast from, but I honestly didn’t really get that from Ariadne/Mal. In fact, I think Mal caught a lot of Madonna/Virgin worship herself. The only real glimpses of her actual personality are Arthur’s succinct “She was lovely,” and Dom’s memories of her in which she’s, of course, gilded and angelic and smiling with their children. We know that she was amazing enough that Dom is tormented over the loss of her, but the only real insight we have into her persona is that she was really, really good-looking. (It would have been nice if Dom’s lip-service to “all [her] perfections and imperfections” had been backed up.)

    I really liked Ariadne and her relationship with Dom. I like that an obligatory romance didn’t blossom between them. Maybe it’s just because of Ellen Page’s presence, but I got a pretty “masculine” vibe from Ariadne much moreso than a virginal one. Yeah, she was the wide-eyed rookie, but she has a very good head on her shoulders from the moment we meet her until the end of the movie, wherein she’s instrumental in helping everyone get out of the dream. I thought it was actually pretty subversive that she steadfastly approached Dom with rationality (usually a “masculine” trait in movies) while he was being dangerously ruled by his emotions (usually “feminine”).

    I thought Inception’s main offense where the female characters were concerned was that Mal was, quite obviously, another refrigerated woman. She had no agency at all because she was literally nothing but Dom’s memory of her. It would have been nice to see what she was actually like as a person.

    • Dom Camus says

      I like that an obligatory romance didn’t blossom between them.

      I liked that too, but was then irritated when the other dude gratuitously kissed her.

      (Aside: It’s weird that everyone’s calling his wife “Mal” though. Throughout the film I heard it as “Mol” – short for “Molly”. Which also makes way more sense.)

      • Neev says

        Likewise, I heard Mol, not Mal. Perhaps that was intentional…I dunno.

        Either way, I too was delighted when there was no romantic subplot with Ellen Page’s character and quite annoyed when Arthur kissed her for no damn reason. Honestly, I felt that over all the movie had incredibly poorly defined characters, both male and female. I suppose that could point to them all being projections of Cobb’s subconscious, but I just assumed it was lazy/bad writing. Part of this may simply be because the dialogue felt very stilted and inhuman in a lot of places.

        I actually liked Mal/Mol at the beginning, she seemed interesting and potentially bad-ass and then…nope, she’s crazy and obsessive and…augh, this AGAIN?

        Really, it felt as though the whole movie would have played out better as an HBO show or something, where they could take the time to develop everyone and really do a lot of world building. As it was they had a lot of legwork to do in a short amount of time and I think the movie suffered for that a bit.

        • Maria says

          THe kiss WAS gratuitous and it basically made her part of that character’s development (Look, he’s impulsive cad! or whatever) but didn’t actually do anything for hers…

          As a show it’d be AMAZING. Going and messing around with people’s dreams? Dom getting more and more crazy? Ari getting over everyone? That’d be amazing!!!

    • Maria says

      The refridgerator point is a really good one — is there a word for when it includes kids? I mean… his kids don’t age, he never reminisces about them, and I’m not sure they even have names…

  4. Quib says

    I’ve read that a couple different actresses were approached before they got Ellen Page. Over all, I get the impression they didn’t know what to do with her. More than being a female stereotype, her character was mainly there to ask obvious questions and listen to obvious answers. A female audience place holder could potentially be an interesting development, but the really give her nothing to do.

  5. says

    They’re saying “Mol”, but the credits say “Mal”. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be French pronunciation (I mean, it isn’t, but maybe it’s supposed to be) because of Marion Cotillard’s background?

  6. Katran says

    I finally saw this movie and this was the only feminist review that I had remembered seeing on my feed, so apologies for the late comment.

    I had a couple of thoughts while watching the movie that did not get brought up here. I was intrigued by Mal’s character–what little of her that we saw early on–and her madness. Not because of the mad-woman stereotype, but because of the twist that this brought on. The typical mad-woman character had her madness brought on by love or family, and in a way Mal’s is similar, but there’s another level in which her madness (as related to us by Dom, anyway) is an existential question, and that sort of Deep Questioning of the Universe is normally left to dudely characters. So all that being said, my take on it before the end of the movie was that maybe she was not mad, but correct–so I was annoyed when later Dom declared that it was his idea that he planted, not hers. Can’t a woman have her own existential thoughts? (This holds true for either reading of the ending.)

    I got a sense of Ariadne being a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland character at first, when she and Dom went into his dream, particularly in the elevator. So when she became part of the team, it was a twist on that: What if Alice created Wonderland, and instead of questioning the various characters, she was one of the guides? Even though she was not one of the designated dreamers for any level, she’s the one who designed everything, and while she knows less about the mechanics of going into dreams than the more experienced members of the team, she knows the outs, and that’s relevant, like when they need to find another way into the snow fortress and end up going through the air duct. Inasmuch as Ariadne is playing a role on the team (and I didn’t get the sense that she was less developed than the Forger, Chemist, or Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s character, whose title was forgettable–although she was less developed than Dom, Saito, or Fischer), having her as the architect, a somewhat masculinized profession, a really a Creator of sorts, put a twist on various stereotypes for me: Men are creative, women are passive; Girls play with dolls (people, feelings), boys play with inanimate things like blocks or trucks. Particularly the latter one, as Ariadne designed all the buildings and most of the inanimate stuff except in Limbo, while in every level, the projections (people, feelings) and all their irrationalizations were designed by men.

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