This dream sequence shows a distinct Escher influence. My dreams are never that cool looking, and instead are usually along the lines of me showing up at my high school wearing my pants on my head.
Say you’re playing connect the dots with a movie plot, going from A to B to C (see Avatar). You accomplish this goal, and feel a slight sense of accomplishment afterwards. Now, say you’re watching a different movie and go from A to B to C, when a character walks into the room and starts spouting exposition, saying something like “maybe you shouldn’t be so hard and fast in the acceptance of your own reality. Did it ever occur to you that maybe that “C” is ACTUALLY THE LETTER “U” FLIPPED ON ITS SIDE?!?” Holy mackerel Morpheus, that is some deep stuff right there!
So, you go from U to the letter V, eventually arriving at Z. Now you’re stuck. Suddenly, another character walks into the room and says “you know, you can wrap around from Z back to A! Dude...it’s called thinking outside the box”. Well, so on and so on, until you finally reach C. Mission complete. Not only do you feel like you've just had a fun afternoon well spent, and that you've really accomplished something, but YOU JUST HAD YOUR FRIGGIN’ MIND BLOWN! What you thought was reality was really just a mirage that sits on top of the real reality. Here is a film that managed to do all of these things. It must be a super masterpiece. I give it infinity stars.
However, as the resident devil’s advocate (when I’m not Satan’s little helper), I might suggest that all you are left with is a connect-the-dots puzzle that is completed, coupled with merely the illusion of accomplishment and profundity. A cynic, when confronted with the same puzzle, might pull out the answer key at the back of the magazine (Highlights for Children, I guess) and gone on with his life. You know, like dealing with shit in the real world. Look at it this way; if a film is a Rubik's Cube, albeit one that is more complicated than most, all you are left with after completing the puzzle is a cube with different colored sides. It doesn’t actually do anything; I mean, you can’t use it to improve your life in some way. I guess you could roll it like a die, or maybe bounce it off somebody’s head for a laugh.
If a movie like, say, Inception (or The Matrix movies, or Unbreakable, or whatever), is so profound, such a peeling away of the onion that is reality, what are the fans of this film doing with all of this new found knowledge? I see a lot of “this is the most profound masterpiece in existence, and if you don’t agree, you are a big stupid dummy.” Saying Rex Reed should be shot out of cannon and into a brick wall for not liking Inception is hardly the product of an enlightened mind. I don’t see Matrix fans, having been inspired enough by the “deepness” of these films to become Buddhist monks, or professors of philosophy. They complain about people who don’t agree with them, and then go about their daily routine exactly as they did before (i.e. World of Warcraft supplemented with internet porn). The only real effect, it seems, is that they enjoy being part of a group that proclaims them smarter than those not worthy; the dummies that don’t “get” a certain film. This is the very core of “pretension”; that is, waving around your membership card for the smarty pants club.
Inception has one sorta great scene, where Leo is explaining the various dream rules to Ellen Page in Paris, when she realizes that they are actually in a dream. There’s a cool mirror image of the city folding in on top of itself, and then a bit with a series of (literal) mirrors. The film initially seems interested in the real exploration of dream states, the problems of separating your reality from how your brain processes this reality, and how dreams and reality can mirror and influence each other. Unfortunately, the scene, in retrospect, is really just exposition coupled with some rad special effects.
Inception wants to combine a heist film and a Matrix-y action film on top of one another, not a dream within a dream, but an action scene within an action scene. In order to achieve this, they need characters to walk into frame and explain magical rules to the audience, including how physics can be defied for some “awesome” Neo-esque action scenes that can’t be done in the “real” world. The film has little to do with dreams, and even less to do with reality. Christopher Nolan knows that the film would be called idiotic if, say, the characters drank magic potions to defy gravity or to teleport between separate crosscutting realities (or three). This “reality vs. dream” paradigm sounds profound and interesting, but it’s really just an action scene enabler.
A film I thought of while watching this one was Dreamscape, which takes a complicated dream conspiracy plot and plows through it in 90 minutes (instead of 150), embracing its ideas through a sci-fi pulp aesthetic. Inception could have ditched its faux-ideas (and cut out a half hour) and just gone the action thriller route. However, as it stands, I didn’t find the action scenes particularly interesting or exciting. The long finale has a heist dream within an action dream, but they remain fairly separate from each other, undercutting the excitement of the individual scenes. There is also little suspense since these sequences don’t have to follow the laws of the real world. A character does make up some rule that a person will slip into a coma or something if they are killed in a dream within a dream, but you can’t just force in an invented element of danger and expect a scene to become compelling.
I guess even the ideas spouted as gobbledygook plot points might stick in the minds of the viewer, therefore arousing their curiosity enough to seek out actual knowledge on these subjects. That's fine, but if I made a movie and had a character yell out “Bertrand Russell totally kicks ass!”, I don’t think I should get credit if someone is inspired to seek out his works and eventually learn some profound lessons. You know, stuff that relates to the actual world around us, rather than a movie only interested in relating to itself.