Because what the internet needs, clearly, is another post about this film. At least it should be relatively short, since at this point all I really need to do is stake out my position relative to those of other people. Matt Cheney links to a post arguing that Inception is “not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie” which seems fair enough, allowing for two quibbles: (1) it assumes the conventional fictional representation of dreams as incessantly surreal is the representation of dreams to which all such work should aspire, and I at least found the fragile normality of Nolan’s dreamscapes quite familiar, and refreshing (though I should say I’m not a great one for remembering dreams); and (2) these are entirely neutral descriptions, and we all accept that a “dreamer’s movie” is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a “clockmaker’s movie”. I dislike, for instance, Annalee Newitz’ contention that Inception offers an “intellectual high” but is “emotionally cold”; that intellectual buzz is itself an emotional reaction, and for me Inception is a powerful film.
That said, these are only quibbles, because I would have no trouble substituting “idea-centred” and “character-centred” into Newitz’ piece, and because I don’t really think Christopher Nolan is particularly interested in dreams as dreams. One thing that doesn’t particularly interest me, then, is whether Cobb ends the film in “reality”, because in a trivial sense he doesn’t – he’s still a character in a film – and if the clever tricks with the music mean anything, I think that’s what they’re intended to signal: that Inception is ultimately the dream we are sharing with Nolan. No, where I think Nolan’s interest lies – as in Memento, as in The Prestige — is in the mechanisms of narrative, and in constructing models through which to explore the workings of those mechanisms, which is why the ending, although delicately handled, is never less than expected. The excitement of the film for me, from about half-way through, was simply watching Nolan keep his various plates spinning, and tension came not from whether the characters would achieve their goals, but from whether Nolan would allow the characters to achieve their goals. Another way of putting this is that I think Inception is essentially Nolan showing off.
This, I think, puts me largely in agreement with Brian Francis Slattery, over in the comments of Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and I do take Nolan’s purpose to be the same as that of his characters, to place the seed of an idea within viewers’ minds. As in the film’s plot itself, I think this is done obliquely, not explicitly; so the answer I’d suggest to Abigail’s question, “what is Nolan saying about storytelling?”, is: don’t trust stories. Remember that stories have a storyteller. Realise that our responses to the stories we’re told shape the stories we tell. The ambiguity of the ending, in this view, is necessary not to set up a simple question about whether or not what we’re seeing is “real”, but as an expression of scepticism: we shouldn’t take the catharsis we’re apparently being offered without thinking about it first. For this to work, you do have to find the film well-paced — have to be convinced by the stories being told all the way through — which I know is the stumbling block for many; fortunately, it was all balanced just about right for me, and I enjoyed watching the tumblers of the various dreams click into alignment. Like Martin Lewis, I’d say Inception is lesser Nolan, if only because it doesn’t push as far as it could, but I’d say it’s still very much worth seeing.
EDIT: And now I’m mulling over Adam Roberts’ take.
EDIT 2: And Abigail has some further thoughts here, including discussion of inception as a model for storytelling.