by Gary Westfahl
Like the architects of dreams in his film Inception, writer-director Christopher Nolan has constructed a world in the form of an intricate labyrinth and challenges his viewers to make their way through its many corridors and dead ends to finally escape, having solved all its mysteries. With only twenty-four hours of real time to explore and ponder this convoluted creation, I cannot say that I have completed the journey through Nolan’s maze; but I have gone far enough to be sure of one thing: that this film is not really about what it claims to be about.
What Inception claims to be about requires no critical acumen to discern, given its subject matter and numerous lines of dialogue. Nolan envisions a world in which individuals can employ a device, carried in a silver suitcase, that enables them to enter into and impose patterns on people’s dreams; although the technology was initially developed, we are told, as a way for armies to train their soldiers, it is now used by surreptitious operatives who are hired to either obtain information from people by manipulating such “shared dreaming” (“extraction”) or, more rarely, to plant an idea in someone’s brain (“inception”). An influential tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), has allowed such a team, headed by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), to attempt to get data from him through dreams as an “audition,” and then recruits Cobb to make Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of rival Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), come up with the idea of breaking up his father’s business, thus allowing Saito to continue competing. With the help of his regular partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a new dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy), a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and Saito himself, Cobb proceeds to develop and implement a complex plan, involving dreams within dreams within dreams, to give Fischer the idea to destroy the powerful empire he is inheriting.
Since the story involves constant shifts from reality to dream worlds, the film raises and articulates some obvious issues: with the ability to regularly create or enter desirable dreams, some individuals might prefer to spend all of their time dreaming, so entranced by “things that couldn’t exist in the real world” that “The dream has become their reality.” Others might have trouble telling the difference between dreams and reality and, like Cobb’s late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), might stop believing in “one reality” and become convinced that the real world is only another dream. The reiterated lesson is people must stop living in dreams and remain in reality, as indicated by the facts that the chief character advocating living in dreams has a name which is Latin for “evil” and that, to parallel the silver suitcases that contain the dream machines, the deceased Maurice Fischer is placed in a silver coffin, equating living in dreams with death. Now, perhaps there are still some people who will find such ideas novel or intriguing, but they have been explored countless times in science fiction stories about scientifically manipulated dreams and have even penetrated into popular culture; as one example, scattered intimations that reality might only be another illusion were the only authentically Dickian elements that survived the transformation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) into the Arnold Schwarzenegger epic Total Recall (1990).
Thankfully, one can deduce that such tired conceits were not Nolan’s central concerns, but penetrating more deeply into this labyrinth does require one of the most challenging critical skills, which is to notice what is not there. Begin with a simple question: this film features a scientific device that does not exist today, not widely known to the public but familiar to numerous insiders, and it is has been available for some time, since we are told it was Cobb’s father Miles (Michael Caine), apparently a professor of architecture, who first taught him “to navigate people’s minds”; so, one’s first assumption would be that this story takes place sometime in the near future. But when? Films about the future usually identify a specific future year (but Inception does not) and, whatever their focus might be, such films usually incorporate some random futuristic touches (but Inception features nothing unusual other than its dream machine). So, these events must actually be happening in our present. Yet if that is the case, one must account for a number of curious omissions.
To be specific: we first see Miles hard at work in a lecture hall, his desk covered with papers and books – but there is no desktop computer, surely an essential tool for any contemporary architect. Well, perhaps this elderly man is just an old-fashioned individual. However, come to think of it, I cannot recall a single moment in the entire movie when anyone was observed sitting in front of a computer, which would certainly be odd in a film about contemporary western culture; even the simplest sort of computer, a digital clock, never appears, as we instead only see clocks and watches with hands clicking around to six or twelve o’clock. (Granted, on this point and others to follow, some attentive viewer might notice an exception or two, but if they occur, they must be fleeting and rare.) Further, one ubiquitous feature of today’s homes, hotel rooms, and bars is a television set, always turned on and regularly observed in the background of other films; but although there are scenes in people’s homes, hotel rooms, and bars, I cannot recall seeing a single television set. It is particularly striking that Cobb’s small children, whenever they appear in memories or dreams, never seem to watch television or play video games. Finally, given a growing tendency for films to be self-referential, we are used to seeing characters walk past movie theatres or refer to famous films, but in all the real cities and dream cities visited in Inception, I cannot recall seeing a single movie theatre or hearing a single mention of a movie. So, how can this be a film about the present when people rarely if ever use computers, watch television, or go to the movies? And one cannot answer that the film might be taking place in the past, since all of the cars and weaponry seem modern enough, Cobb’s team flies with Fischer on a 747 jetliner, and Saito has and uses a cell phone.
At this point, we arrive at a fork in the labyrinth. To explain the incongruous absence of these common items of contemporary life in an otherwise convincing depiction of contemporary life, one may observe that dreams often involve incongruous features; by this argument, through these strange omissions, Nolan is setting up viewers for the thoroughly predictable “surprise ending,” given the film’s theme, that what we have thought to be the real world is only another dream. However, while it may sound promising to many, I am guessing that this is a dead end. The other alternative, which science fiction readers might prefer, would be that Nolan’s story is an example of alternate history, describing a modern world somewhat like our own in which people never developed movies, televisions, or computers, but instead focused their energies on perfecting the creation and manipulation of dreams as their preferred form of entertainment. Walking down this corridor, one encounters another choice of paths that is central to all critical debates about the value of the alternate history subgenre: either Nolan is simply playing around with historical facts to add a veneer of novelty to an otherwise commonplace narrative, right out of the Mission: Impossible television series, about spies who engage in an elaborate scheme to deceive an adversary (only now, instead of masks and fake sets, they are using dreams), or he is altering what actually happened in the past in order to create a different reality that provides stimulating commentary about some aspects of our present world.
Following this second path, one next might be faced with several different possibilities as to what Nolan wanted to comment on by means of this story, but I will opt for the idea that occurred to me halfway through the film: that Nolan’s dreams represent the experience of watching filmed entertainment in general, and movies in particular. After all, one can call attention to something by leaving it out, and as a director who has been making films since the age of seven, Nolan is manifestly someone with a strong interest in movies. Many commentators have noted that the standard experience of watching movies while relaxing in a dark room, surrounded by others, is essentially similar to “shared dreaming”; and when Cobb explains to Ariadne that the dream architect creates the overall pattern of the dream world, and entices the dreamer into filling in the details that make it persuasive, his comments also relate to what happens in films, which may relate stories taking several days, years, or decades to unfold in scattered scenes that do not trouble viewers since they can draw upon their own experience to fill in the gaps. The film’s recurring images of trains may be paying tribute to the innumerable westerns and action films of the past centered upon the destructive power of trains. Furthermore, when filmmakers shoot actors against blue screens and later add other footage or computer imagery, or simply tell stories about people who make or watch films, they are effectively offering viewers movies within movies, akin to Inception’s dreams within dreams. As for the absence of televisions and computers, this is explained by the fact that, while theatres still exist, these small devices increasingly represent the way that most people see films.
And what does Nolan have to say about the experience of watching movies? He first demonstrates that what people usually want from these shared dreams, and what filmmakers usually provide, is a lot of gratuitous, consequence-free violence. After all, as her “first lesson in shared dreaming,” Cobb sits at a sidewalk café with Ariadne and proceeds to cause a series of explosions, surely the most common special effect in action movies. Also, in order to protect their dreams against intruders, individuals can be mentally trained to create “projections,” human figures that attack the invaders. But this isn’t particularly logical; to immobilize someone in their dreams, people could surely be trained to, say, turn sidewalks into quicksand or (if they are fans of Warner Brothers cartoons) to drop a ten-ton safe on the interlopers; why send out people driving cars and shooting guns, who (as the film repeatedly demonstrates) can readily be killed or eluded? The answer, of course, is that this technique provokes an endless series of thrilling chases, gun battles, and fistfights, which have always been mainstays of cinematic entertainment. Further, it is such events that make these dreams, and similar films, so attractive to their vicarious participants. The key clue here is that while we observe, during the film, numerous scenes of team members in the real world and in dream worlds sleeping and dreaming, only one of them – Arthur – is always smiling while he dreams. Why? Well, the other men on the mission have the physique and attitude that would allow them to act like action heroes in real life, but the geeky, frail-looking Arthur can perform such feats only in dreams (and he does get to punch out and shoot down some projections), which is why he may find them particularly enjoyable, and perhaps even addictive.
The ingenious thing about Inception is that Nolan contrives both to satisfy the expectations of his financial backers and audiences by providing more than enough of this exciting action and to criticize the people who crave and relish such entertainment. This is most evident, I think, in the scene when Cobb has an intimate meeting with the projection of Mal who haunts his dreams and explains why, despite his still-fervent love for her, he cannot agree to join her in her dream world. But this touching moment is regularly intercut with scenes of white-clad soldiers with guns running around the wintry fortress that purportedly represents the secret locked within Robert Fischer’s mind, intent upon either attacking or defending the compound. These superfluous scenes are completely unimportant to the story – indeed, most of the time, we can’t even tell if the men are the good guys or the bad guys – but they seem to be there to make the point that many filmgoers will be bored by quiet, emotional conversations unless you also include some exciting images of gun-toting fighters.
Thus, all of the film’s protestations about the need to escape from dreams and embrace reality can also be regarded as calls for people to stop watching movies and devote more time to real experiences. Certainly, movies and other filmed entertainments have become the major engines for planting ideas in people’s minds, and the intended impact of the planted idea on Fischer – the self-defeating destruction of his own empire – indicates the dangers of embracing planted ideas. When Cobb rejects a life with his dream projection of Mal because she is “just a shade of my real wife,” lacking her complexities, he may also be making the point that in contrast to actual, complicated people, films generally offer only simplified stereotypes. And this posited rejection of movies also relates to Nolan’s preference for filming real events in real locations instead of relying entirely on computer-generated effects; as the credits attest, Inception was filmed in six different countries, so when characters visit Paris, you are actually seeing Paris, and when the team approaching the Fischer fortress is threatened by an avalanche, you are actually seeing an avalanche caused by an explosive device set off in wintry Canada. You are still watching a film, in other words, but never a film within a film, making Inception less illusory than other films.
To argue that Nolan’s true subject is making and watching films, one might also examine the one scene in the film that explicitly references an earlier film: when she first visits a dream world, Ariadne creates two enormous mirrors and positions them so as to create an infinite series of images of Cobb and herself. This is surely intended to recall the scene in Citizen Kane (1941) when Charles Foster Kane walks past two facing mirrors and we see an infinite series of images of Kane. I doubt very much that Nolan wished to suggest any similarities between the character of Kane and the characters of Cobb and Ariadne; however, the scene in Orson Welles’s film underlines the notion that films are capable of creating many different images of reality, as shown by the memories of the different people who knew Kane, each offering their own perspective on the man. But all of the images in films are ultimately unsatisfactory, as the reporter who heard all of their stories concludes in the end that he hasn’t really learned anything at all about Kane. The man is described as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, which is not unlike an unsolved labyrinth. So, Nolan’s visual homage to Welles suggests a parallel intent to convey both the appeal, and the inadequacies, of cinematic illusions.
Whether one accepts or recoils from this interpretation, Nolan offers one other important clue to consider. In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the woman who gave Theseus the thread that enabled him to escape the minotaur and get out of the labyrinth; the clear message is, if you want to figure out this film, follow Ariadne. Arguably, she is the true protagonist of the film, since she is the character who changes the most. For, whatever Cobb might be tempted to do in the course of his adventures, he begins and ends as a man who is determined to be reunited with his real children, in the real world, with no interest in seeing his dream children in a dream world. Ariadne, however, is initially disinclined to become a dream architect and walks away after her first experience; but Cobb correctly predicts that she will return, because “reality’s not going to be enough for her now.” Then, after she spends some time in the dream worlds she helped to create, she again recognizes the perils therein and becomes the chief voice urging Cobb to reject Mal’s pleas and return to reality. And at the end, while the other veterans recruited by Cobb are undoubtedly prepared to do it all again, one senses that this young newcomer to constructed dreams will instead return to conventional architecture.
Again, I cannot be sure that I have found the best route out of Christopher Nolan’s labyrinth; other paths may lead to equally satisfactory, or even more satisfactory, interpretations. But there is one conclusion about Inception that everyone can agree on: while one might complain that Nolan’s story is little more than a pretext for scene after scene of pointless violence, it is also true that there are some genuine, non-trivial ideas lurking within its interstices. And this film proclaims, as another one of its dominant themes, that an idea represents the world’s “most resilient parasite,” something that “can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” So, if a certain quota of inane fistfights and car chases is necessary to get a film with ideas produced and widely released, I say, that is a price worth paying.