The film Inception takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride through Dom Cobb’s complex mission to implant an idea to break up an energy conglomerate in a businessman’s mind, blurring the lines between dreams and reality. Cobb works as an “extractor,” trying to discover secrets about companies by infiltrating the dreams of their employees and conning them into revealing certain things. However, he is enlisted to try a new tactic of “inception,” or planting an idea rather than extracting secrets. In order to propel this story forward and create the crazy, dreamlike aspects of each “layer,” the film uses paradoxical, mind-bending special effects.
The first scene I will explore is the scene in which Arthur, Cobb’s partner, shows Ariadne, a graduate student, the Penrose steps. The Penrose steps are an optical illusion in which a set of stairs seems to loop, seeming to go up the entire time. However, as Arthur explains, it is a paradox, and the camera suddenly shifts, showing that the stairs are not connected at the top. Rather, the way they are built makes them look to the naked eye like they are, until one reaches the top and finds a dropoff. Here, the film used camera angles in order to create a special effect. To the viewer, it looks as though the stairs were in one continuous loop, until the camera pans down and shows the distance between the first and last flights of stairs.
The Penrose steps are an example of ethos in the film, since it is a real optical illusion many have seen or heard of before. This allows the viewer to see Arthur as credible when describing the illusion and its paradoxical nature. Arthur is supposed to be the “smart” counterpart, researching and managing the missions, so by using a real illusion and explanation, the viewer is more likely to believe that he really is intelligent. According to Andrea Lunsford, we look to “knowledgable individuals to guide us,” which rings true with Arthur’s character (Lunsford, 57). This is exactly what we look to Arthur for, since he establishes credibility as a smart character capable of explaining paradoxical aspects of dreams. However, the steps can also represent a lack of credibility, since the camera angles are deceptive. The viewer quickly learns not to trust everything they see, which is an important theme in the film. By confusing the audience and making them question their eyes, the film is able to reiterate the concept that in the world of inception and dreams, nothing is supposed to make sense.
Another interesting scene is when Arthur is attempting to fight his enemies, with one small catch: gravity has ceased to exist in this dream. Arthur floats around the corridors of a hotel, trying to take these men down. The most interesting part of this scene is that there is no use of CGI. Although CGI is able to “create fantastic, brave new worlds, where the magical is commonplace,” Nolan, chose to use a rotating set instead (Giannetti, 33). This plays on the viewer’s sense of logos, as there is little logic throughout this scene. I believe this is an effective tactic, because the film is supposed to take place within dreams, where, as we all know, logic is rarely present. It’s also an example of pathos, since the viewer can relate to the confusing nature of the dreams, thus evoking an emotional response due to the commonalities between their dreams and the dreams in the movie. Although we may not have a dream of fighting our enemies in a zero gravity hotel corridor, we know that dreams have a tendency to take on a nonsensical aspect. This scene parallels the dream many have in which they try to run but feel as though they’re moving in slow motion. Because of this, we feel Arthur’s frustration and determination to take down his enemies, knowing the limitations sometimes put on our bodies in dreams, like zero gravity or moving in slow motion.
Overall, I believe the special effects helped the film. Although the film was very confusing at times, the special effects were a constant reminder that the film takes place in various levels of dreams. By utilizing optical illusions and a lack of gravity, Nolan’s use of special effects threw the viewer into the dream world of Inception, leaving them confused yet mesmerized when it’s all over. I would rate this film a 3, because it was confusing, but the effects were unique and helped to keep my attention amidst the drama of the film.