If you have not seen both of these films, please do so before you read this short essay. In other words, SPOILER ALERT!
Along with the majority of the rest of the U.S. movie-going public, I totally enjoyed Chris Nolan's latest offering "Inception". The mind-bendingly complex plot plays with one's senses like a cat with its injured prey; it's just a fun ride trying to keep up with what is going on. Plus the zero-G fight scenes reminded me of several dreams I have had.
But that's all stating the obvious. As you no doubt guessed from the title, I am going to do a little film-to-film comparison between this movie and Nolan's 2nd feature film, "Memento". This subject is rich enough to fill a graduate thesis paper, but I'll just touch on some of the surface ripples and leave you to think deeper about the whole matter.
Both movies play with your mind and perception of time & reality. And when the lights come up, you sit there with more questions than answers for a long time. They are like puzzles that you spend days trying to sort through. But that's not what makes them great stories. They are both examples of great storytelling. But the meat of what is at the center of the tales is more than the pinball journey through your cerebral cortex.
At the heart of both of the films is a love story. Tragic love stories, to be sure, and both with very similar themes and conflicts. In some ways, they are the same story. Cobb and Leonard are both fighting the same demons. They are both driven, almost unknowingly, by grief, guilt and regret. So strong are these emotions that it alters their perceptions of reality. On the surface, they each have a goal, their conscious desire as some screenwriting books call it. Leonard seeks his wife's killer while battling his short term memory loss. Cobb seeks to plant an idea in someone's head without them knowing. But their subconscious desire in both cases is the relief of the guilt they feel for the death of the one they love the most. And since these stories deal with memory and dreams, the idea of their subconscious-driven motives is pulled to the forefront.
In both cases, the protagonists' choices and decisions are ultimately controlled by their subconscious desires. They make poor choices at times because of the selfish nature of what their inner turmoil longs for to be quieted. Cobb simply needs to apologize, to tell Mal he loves her. Leonard just needs to face what he's been running away from, his own mistakes that led to his wife's death. Both men seek redemption. They want forgiveness.
So whether or not "Inception" is all are just partly a dream, doesn't matter. Cobb has found the redemption he sought. Meanwhile, Leonard will likely keep floundering in his suffering for a long time. His search continues.
The story guru Robert McKee is not impressed with "Memento". At his lecture some years ago, he called it a "young man's script" and said "it means nothing!". He thought it was just style over substance, flashy storytelling with no real meat. For all his smarts, I think he may have simply missed it. Obviously I respectfully disagree. True, the film's meaning was buried deep within a very high concept motif of storytelling and filmmaking. And many people were so taken with the reversed structure of the film that nuances of the core story remained buried. But they are buried in our subconscious, where they should be.
These films are indeed like puzzles. But once we fit all the pieces together, the bigger reward is not merely to be satisfied that we assembled everything in a logical pattern, but instead to step back, look at the picture and see what is tells us.