Movie Review: Inception

The plot of Inception is deceptively simple: a tale of corporate espionage sidetracked by a man’s obsession with his dead wife and complicated by groovy special effects and dream technology. As far as summer blockbusters and action/heist/corporate espionage movies go, it’s not bad. Once you get beyond the genuinely beautiful camera work and dizzying special effects, however, you’re not left with much.

One thing that really bothers me about the film–aside from its dull, lifeless, stereotypical, and utterly useless female characters (which I’ll get to in a moment)–is that nothing is at stake. Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) and his team take on a big new job: one seemingly powerful businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants an idea planted into the mind of another powerful businessman, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Specifically, Saito wants Fischer to believe that dear old dad’s dying wish was for him to break up the family business, so that, we assume, Saito wins the game of capitalism. Should the team go through with the profitable job? We aren’t supposed to care about the answer to this question or what is at stake in the plot.

It’s assumed that, of course we want Cobb to win because he’s really Leo, and, you see, Leo is talented but Troubled. What troubles him? You guessed it: a woman. A woman whose very name–Mal (played by Marion Cotillard, an immensely talented actress who’s wasted in this role)–literally means “bad.” Who or what will rescue Cobb/Leo from his troubles? You guessed it again: a woman. This time, it’s a woman whose very name–Ariadne (played by Ellen Page in a way that demands absolutely no commentary)–means “utterly pure,” and who is younger, asexual (a counter to Mal’s dangerous French sexuality) and without any backstory or past of her own to smudge the movie’s–and her own–focus on Cobb/Leo. So, it’s not a stretch here to say that Cobb needs a pure woman to escape the bad one. Virgin/whore stereotype, anyone?


So, what makes Mal so bad? In life, she was his faithful wife (for all we know) and mother of his two children. In the film, she’s not even a real woman, but a figment of Cobb’s imagination, haunting him with her suicide. (Note: For a better version of this story, see Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or the crappy Soderbergh adaptation starring George Clooney.) Her constant appearances threaten Cobb’s inception task, and while we can imagine a suicide haunting this hard-working man, we learn the much uglier truth later: while developing his theory of “inception,” Cobb used Mal as his first test subject–planting the idea in her mind that reality was not what she believed it to be. Now we have a main character who exacted extreme emotional violence on his wife, driving her kill herself–yet she’s the evil one.

What makes Ariadne so pure? It’s simple, really. We know she was a brilliant student of architecture, and…and…and…that’s it. The film needed an architectural dream space that wouldn’t be marred by trauma, or memory, or the like, so the natural choice would be for a computer program to design it, right? But a computer program couldn’t also counsel Cobb through the trauma of his wife’s suicide and, ultimately, coach him through killing her apparition. She is invested in getting through the job, as her life depends on it, but why does she give a damn about Cobb? Because she’s a woman architect, and women are nurturing creatures, right? So, we have a main character who exacted extreme emotional violence on his wife and threatens to kill his entire team through self-sabotage over guilt, but luckily he has one good woman to pull him through.

Is it possible to look differently at these two characters? Even if you read the movie as an allegory of filmmaking/storytelling, we’re still left with women who are sidekicks, and who serve merely as plot devices. Maria of The Hathor Legacy writes

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.

In other words, even if you refute the realism of the film and its characters, you’re still left with some major gender trouble. Is Cobb a sympathetic character? No. Do we want his big inception job to work? Don’t care. What I care about, for the purposes of this review, is that we have–yet again–a successful mainstream movie that relies on tired tropes of female characters.

Other interesting takes on Inception:


  • BB
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen Inception (and your review makes that prospect far less likely), but it seemed from the beginning a big, glossy bunch of nothing, vaguely coat- tailing Shutter Island and suggesting Dark City. Nor did it seem to represent the tenor of actual dreaming (as Shutter does so well), but merely the Hollywood version of The Power of Now run amok. If it comes to the public library and I can see it for nothing, perhaps I’ll check it out. The economic downturn is sending many people to the library for movies, and libraries–i order to stay relevant in these times–are bringing out movies. Wherever you may be in the U.S., head to your local public library. You may help keep it in business.

  • Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Deceptively simple indeed! David Bordwell finds the need to trace all of the complicated formal elements and cinematic allusions in the movie here: But what’s the point? No matter how complicated an artwork’s form, it still harbors a content, ideological or otherwise (Bordwell, to his credit, does note that complicated does not equal complexity). Your review focuses on the ideological content of the film’s sexual politics. Why praise a film for all its clever formal tricks if it’s content is so poor and regressive? Aren’t “good films” supposed to be complex in both form and content?

    As a social critic, I have to add the almost laughable vision of political economy that this film tenders to your critique. Does Nolan really believe that the capitalist global economy is determined by the simplest forms of the Oedipal drama? Ha! If only. Then all we’d have to do is send our C.E.O.’s to the couch for analysis to avoid the next financial disaster. What child’s play, or to put it in terms of formal analysis: a pure plot ruse.

    I just can’t stand when movies that should be better aren’t better.

  • Posted May 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I like the interpretation that Ariadne is pulling an inception on Cobb to get him to get past his grief over his wife. There are some very distinct hints that she is there, in collusion with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Caine’s characters to help Cobb move on. So the Inception is not about capitalism subplot but about Ariadne’s scheme to set Cobb free.

    I like that interpretation because it gives her some more agency then just the audience surrogate.