Why am I comparing these two particular films? First, they are two of the best studio films to be released in 2010. Second, both films are from highly loved and respected directors, and both films were highly anticipated by film lovers. Third, both films feature Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading role. It doesn't stop there, however, and the more interesting similarities began to resonate with me while watching Inception and while thinking about it over the next few days.
In Shutter Island, Leo plays Teddy, a duly appointed Federal Marshall who is supposedly sent to an asylum on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient. We learn during the course of the film that "Teddy" is actually a patient, Andrew, at the asylum and is really trapped in an alternate persona, which is his way of escaping the horrific memories and the guilt he feels for the death of his wife and children. Before the death of his family and his admittance to the asylum, he had actually been a Federal Marshall. He had seen obvious signs of his wife's derangement when she had nearly killed them both by burning down their apartment, but he had chosen to ignore them out of fear of what would happen to her and denial. He loved his wife, and he convinced himself that she only needed a change of scenery, and that she wouldn't really ever hurt herself or her family. Obviously he was wrong, and the result of his lack of action was his wife drowning their children, and he, in a fit of despair having found the children drowned, killing his wife.
Everything that takes place during the film is an elaborate facade put on by the head doctor, played by Ben Kingsley, the staff and the inmates in hopes that Andrew will snap out of it and be cured permanently. There are a few different views, but my interpretation of the ending (and I believe the film supports this, although it is different from the book's ending) is that the experiment worked. Andrew snaps out of it and then fakes a re-lapse, because at this point he wants a lobotomy. He knows that this is the only way to be released from his overwhelming guilt and painful memories.
In Inception, Leo plays Cobb, a criminal "extractor" who earns a living by infiltrating peoples' dreams and stealing their secrets. His ultimate goal is to find a way to return to his kids in America without having to go to prison for the alleged murder of his wife, Mal. He was supposedly framed for her murder, by Mal herself, before she committed suicide. Cobb is now haunted by his wife in his own dreams and subconscious because of the guilt he feels for her death.
According to the film there are multiple levels of dreams (dreams within dreams) and eventually you can enter what they refer to as "limbo." While in limbo, the person feels as if enormous amounts of time have gone by, while only a few moments have elapsed in the real world. While exploring how far they could go in their dreams together, Cobb and Mal entered limbo and spent what felt like fifty years together. The only way to get out of limbo is to realize that you are not in "reality," and then essentially kill yourself. This is where "inception" comes in. What this essentially means is that an idea is placed in the subconscious of a person, through the infiltration of their dreams. The trick is making them think it was their own idea. Leo found a way to make Mal doubt that limbo was reality (by messing with her "totem," more on that later), and together they killed themselves by letting a train run over their heads. The problem is, that even when back in reality Mal doubted that it was, in fact, reality. The inception performed by Cobb had infected her mind so that she could no longer distinguish what was real or not, thus her suicide, and Cobb's guilt. This is another glaring similarity with Shutter Island: The character having to overcome the guilt causing (directly or indirectly) the death of his wife and being separated (permanently or impermanently) from his kids.
So, the owner of a large energy corporation hires him to perform inception on the leader of a larger competitor. The purpose of this particular inception is to get this guy to dissolve his corporate empire, and their way of achieving this is by changing his perception of his recently deceased father. OK, but who cares about competing energy corporations? I know I don't. Well the crux of the matter is that the man who hires Cobb for this "one last job" has promised that he can make a phone call and clear Cobb's name completely, so that Cobb can be with his children again in America.
Another important plot point is that Cobb has a top, which he refers to as a "totem," the purpose of which is to let him know if he is in someone else's dream or not, because only he knows the weight and feel of it, and evidently the top spins forever while in a dream. At the end of the film, Cobb is seemingly rejoined with his kids according to plan, but Nolan teases the audience by having Cobb spin the top on the table, then walk out to see his kids (whose faces he can finally see) without looking back at the spinning top. Nolan then shows the top spin and barely start to wobble before cutting to the end title screen. Was Cobb in "reality?" Was he still in limbo? There are more theories on this film than I care to discuss, but a popular consent is that it doesn't matter if he was in a dream, limbo, or reality. The fact that he obviously experienced catharsis and was able to let go of his crazy, guilt-ridden, sub-conscious "projection" of his wife and focus on being with his kids; this is supposedly the point.
My problem with Inception is that through all the rules and mazes and back stories and trickery, I never felt emotionally invested in Cobb, his mission, his relationship with his wife, or his connection to his kids. It's not for Leo's lack of acting prowess, but I just don't think it was ever there on the page. Nolan is a master of giving the audience moments of awe and by developing intricate narratives that are like mazes. He also creates some incredible visuals by using mostly practical effects and blending them seamlessly with limited amounts of CGI. There is one scene in particular, in which he creates the illusion of zero gravity, without CGI, and it is, in my onion, brilliantly filmed. In his craft I do not doubt him, but in developing characters with real, human emotions that are open to empathy from the audience, I simply haven't experienced it in any of his films, save possibly Memento. The fact that he himself wrote the script undeniably contributed to it being even more noticeable in this film.
Shutter Island on the other hand is not nearly as intricate as Inception, but I felt Andrew's struggle and I felt his pain, and I felt his catharsis at the end. It is certainly a result of the quality of the source material (a novel written by Dennis Lehane), but let's not sell Scorsese short. He gives us some incredibly dark hallucination/dream/flashback sequences that I found much more effective in their simplicity than the elaborate dream worlds of Inception. Scorsese and his brilliant director of photography, Robert Richardson, give us some of the most haunting and well shot scenes I've seen in a while, such as the flash-back to the firing squad in which the American soldiers execute a long line of German soldiers. The most haunting scene in the film is towards the end, when we see what happened the day that Andrew came home and found his kids' dead bodies in the pond and his wife acting as if everything is fine. It's shot is such a clear and steady manner, contrasting the earlier hallucinations and flashbacks, letting the audience realize the awful truth of what happened as Andrew confronts it again for the final time.
There was no scene like this in Inception, nothing to let the audience in on what is real or a dream. This leads many to believe that the entire film is a dream, that nothing is "reality," as we know it, but rather an analogy for film making and each member of the team represents a a collaborator on a film crew. While I find this interesting on a certain level, I still do not relate to the story in the way it is presented on a visceral level. Great art is not just spectacle and illusion, but comments on the human experience and affects us on an deeper level than mere thrills and trickery. For my money, Shutter Island is a better film and more affective work of art. However, both of these films deserve to be seen and together would make a fantastic double feature once Inception comes out on Blu-ray.
I'll leave you with my own interpretation of Inception: Cobb is merely another alternate persona inside Andrew's head (yes, the same Andrew from Shutter Island), although instead of acting out his elaborate plots in reality, he is forced to entertain his illusions in his subconscious, having been subject to a violent lobotomy. Even in his damaged mind, he still battles with the guilt of his murdered wife and seeks any way possible to be reunited with his children. At the end of the film, he truly does achieve catharsis and closure, the peaceful release of which allows him to let go and ultimately die. Walking through that door to his children is his entranceway into the afterlife, where time does not pass, and where he will no longer feel the pain of guilt, loss, or disease.