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The Treacherous Architecture of the Mind in Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Over the last decade, Christopher Nolan has built quite a reputation as a filmmaker. After gaining some recognition for his film noir in reverse Memento, he went on to revive the Batman franchise, which he did quite successfully – the last two installments, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, each brought in a billion dollars at the box office. In between those two films, Nolan came out with a more offbeat, but still massively expensive blockbuster movie, Inception. Compared to the overburdened Batman epics, it is a more personal project, with Nolan taking sole credit for both writing and directing.
Nolan brings a fairly recognizable style to all his movies, often described as “dark” or “gritty.” The tone is relentlessly serious, and the narratives are infused
with the ambiguity and pessimism of film noir. His protagonists are, without exception, tortured, obsessed men, struggling with the loss of loved ones or past mistakes. Not only do these men face an uncaring world with murky morality, their sense of self is also unstable. To go along with the faulty memories and self-deceptions of his characters, Nolan also has a knack for misleading his audience with convoluted narratives. As Fisher puts it, he specializes in puzzles that can’t be solved. Inception, to my mind, makes an excellent showcase for all these themes. Therefore, through an examination of its use of space and architecture as metaphors for the mind, I aim to determine the concept of the malleable self that underlies all of Nolan’s movies.
Inception deals with Cobb, head of a group of highly specialized thieves who use a fantastic piece of technology to invade the dreams of their targets. They typically use this ability to steal business secrets on behalf of nebulous international corporations. After a job gone wrong, however, Cobb is hired to instead implant an idea into the mind of businessman Robert Fischer in order to split up Fischer’s vast energy empire. The untraceable implantation is referred to as “inception”, hence the movie title. Cobb, of course, has plenty of issues of his own: he’s wanted for the alleged murder of his wife, which means that he can’t see his children back in the U.S. As a result of extended dream-time, he’s also pathologically insecure about the reality of his environment and keeps checking if he’s in fact dreaming. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Cobb’s ability to work as a dream-thief is also impeded by a projection of his dead wife Mal that keeps sabotaging him.
In the typical manner of heist movies, Cobb assembles a team of specialists, and since he is compromised by his personal issues, he includes an architecture prodigy
named Ariadne. The gang plans a complicated scheme, consisting of three levels of dreams folded into one another. First, the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, second, a luxury hotel, and third, a snowed-in military base. Needless to mention, the execution of the plan runs into trouble thanks to Cobb’s unresolved issues, but with the help of Ariadne, Cobb journeys to yet another – deeper – dream level, where he finally manages to get over his guilt and complete the task. In the end, Cobb returns to his children, but the audience is still teased with the possibility that it was all a dream.


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