Wednesday, July 21, 2010


"What's the most resilient parasite? An idea."
-- Dominic Cobb, protagonist in Inception

If you buy the basic premise of the new film Inception, most of our ideas (perhaps all of them) begin deeply in our subconscious, in our dreams. There, they are born and grow, fertilized and fed in a world in which they are bound-- not by logic, not by physical laws, not by morality, nor by possibility or practicality, nor even by death-- but only by the limits of our imagination. In the futuristic sci-fi world of Inception, technology has advanced to the stage where the secret ideas that we keep locked away in our minds can be stolen by thieves who visit our dreams. But the film suggests that to have the deepest recesses of our minds invaded and plundered is not the most grave danger. Worse than having an idea stolen is having an idea planted, a complex and difficult task called "inception." At least according to the film, our minds are hard-wired to detect ideas of foreign origin, and the challenge of inception is to plant the simplest seed of an idea so deeply in the target's subconsciousness that he or she comes to believe that it was self-generated.

The film's creator and director, Christopher Nolan-- who brought us Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), The Dark Knight (2008), and one of my favorite films of all time The Prestige (2006)-- makes his trade in (more or less) high-concept, sci-fi adventure movies, and Inception is entirely in keeping with what we have seen from him before. Inception is reminiscent of the 1984 thriller Dreamscape, which was also centered on the idea of invading people's dreams for nefarious purposes (and which scared the living bejesus out of me when I watched it as a kid). Unlike Dreamscape, though, no one needs special psychic powers in Inception, as advanced technology and pharmaceuticals make it all possible. Nolan's dreamworld is complex, multi-layered and labyrinthine-- at times, too much so-- but it has its own rules and its own logic that remain, however precariously, just this side of plausible. To its credit, Inception is a visually stunning film and paced well for its 2-1/2 hour length. There are a few too many shoot-em-up action sequences for my taste, and the characters can be a bit one-dimensional, but the real problem with the film is... well... Nolan himself.

Here's what I like about Nolan: he's got some really good ideas. All of his films, including Inception, are in some way explorations of the fragility of the human mind. Nolan has a knack for pressing on those weak spots in our gray matter-- memory, pathology, dreams, obsessions, imagination, delusion-- and seeing what balance of order and chaos ensues. His two best films, Memento and The Prestige, straightforwardly dramatize interesting philosophical questions. We're given characters, a story, a host of twists and turns, and we are left to parse the meaning of it all. In his worst film, The Dark Knight, Nolan stepped in and ham-handedly attempted to parse all the meaning for us, as if he was afraid his audience might be too dense to get the (overestimated) brilliance of his concept. Everything is made obnoxiously, redundantly, explicit in The Dark Knight, even to the point of staging-- and then didactically narrating-- a straight-out-of-the-textbook moral dilemma. (The ferry boat scene in that film is a variation on the prisoner's dilemma, a staple of every introductory Ethics class.) Unfortunately, Inception suffers from the same just-in-case-you-don't-get-it Nolan hubris. It's terribly over-narrated, unnecessarily so, and the frequency with which the characters feel compelled to engage in explanatory dialogue feels forced and more than a little patronizing. What's worse, Nolan really gives us two separate and poorly integrated films here, both of them more or less dramatizing the same idea. The story of the protagonist Dominic Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempt to plant an idea in the mind of his target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is a complete and coherent story in itself. The story of Dominic's planting of an idea in the mind of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) is another. Nolan desparately needed to choose one or the other, as the coincidental development of both stories felt like another just-in-case-they-don't-get-it insurance policy.

I don't think Inception was a "bad" film. It was a good film done poorly, in my estimation. But one thing that I find interesting about the particular manner in which it was done poorly is that Nolan's mis-execution of his idea did (ironically) serve as an effective demonstration of that same idea. The premise of the film is that "inception" is a very difficult, if not impossible, task. To "plant" an idea in someone's mind such that it feels home-grown requires circumventing all of the security features of human consciousness that are designed to reject infiltration by foreign assailants. And so, despite my incessant sighing and eye-rolling at the limpid implementation of Nolan's concept in his film, I nevertheless still found myself compelled to think that Inception was, at its heart, radical and visionary. Almost as if someone planted that idea in my head! Whoa.

Go see Inception. It's a bit like someone telling you that they're about to tell you the funniest joke ever, and then laughing hysterically after they deliver the punchline, such that you can't help but think to yourself: yeah, that was hilarious. For all of its faults, Inception is a perfect metaphor for itself.


Lelyn R. Masters said...

There is, it seems to me, a very interesting thread that ties the Cobb storyline to the Fischer storyline: Paternity. For Cobb the question is how to be a good father, how to get back to his children. For Fisher the question is how to be a good son, how to honor his dead father. Each has to face their own inner demons in order to come to the same conclusion: the past must be let go of in order to move forward.
The easiest comparison I could make in this regard is to Ullyses, Fisher being an analog to Stephen and Cob being our Blum.
How does one let go of the past? How can one hope to overcome the feeling of having failed to reach some ideal? How does one recover from the loss of a loved one? What if one's partner loses faith in the story the two have been telling each other? How does one become one's own unique self if the paternal shadow is too heavy?
I was particularly moved by the metaphor of a train, used to illuminate what it is to fall in love and choose a life mate. "Mal: You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don't know for sure. But it doesn't matter. How can it not matter to you where the train will take you?
Cobb: Because you'll be together."
There are strong incentives today against having children and starting a family, particularly for the young and ambitious. The struggle between Cobb and Fischer could be read in that light: as a discussion about values. What good is it to be successful if in the end you die "a lonely old man"? It is no coincidence that the "lonely old man" is such a constant leitmotif throughout the movie.
I agree that the shooting scenes were excessive; but then again, what would the Id look like released from its Superego? It would certainly involve aggressive forces. Further, Cobb and Fischer make a kind of paranoiac's pact-a subtle nod to game theory. Inside the dream where Cobb is trying to plant an idea, Fischer's unconscious is fighting to stop Cobb. So Cobb convinces Fischer that Cobb is one of those defenses, effectively turning that paranoia against itself.
We may not agree with this map of the Psyche, but this movie does present some striking insights, and challenged me, at least, to think about my own life in a new way.
Finally, if one goes to all the trouble to make a machine that can put you in other peoples' dreams, one might as well make it wireless. I'm just sayin'.

steventhomas said...

I watched it last night, so I was happy to see your review this morning. SPOILER ALERT--I know you're always so careful when you review a movie not to give too much away, but I'm not as good at that.

I disagree with you that Nolan should have focused on one plot or the other. One reason is the parent-child theme that Lelyn notices in his comment. In addition, the whole tragic irony of the film is that Cobb's guilt and his monstrous superego (that takes the form of his wife) invades Fischer's dreams at every turn, and by the end, we can't tell who is really producing all the "projections" (Cobb? Fischer?... what about Ariadne?), and that's the point. And of course we are left guessing whether the planting of the idea in Fischer's mind will go as tragically awry as it did with his wife.

At the beginning of the film, I was annoyed by how contrived the plot was and how incorrect and goofy its understanding of the human psyche. But then I realized that wasn't the point. This isn't really a movie about the human psyche. It's really a movie about movies. Or rather, it's about the illogical logic of Hollywood cinema. Think about what movies do--they create worlds with their own set of rules that defy the laws of physics and human nature, but these movies make sense given their own internal logic, the internal rules established at the beginning. This is why Inception has to be so over-narrated as you point out, because without a clear understanding of the absurd logic that governs the dreamscapes, the movie would make no sense to us at all.

Nolan's Inception layers all these internal logics and various dreamscapes one upon another, and notice that these internal logics are not the logic of the psyche. There is little Freudian condensation or displacement. No psychologist would recognize any theory of the mind in this movie. What happens in Inception is not what dreams are like at all. Rather, the logic of each dreamscape in Inception is actually the logic of an action-espionage thriller flick. One example of this is the importance of timing for this film (e.g., all the dreamscapes have to end at the same moment, and isn't it true of all action movies that they have an abbreviated and jumpy sense of time in which all aspects of the plot have to get resolved at a single moment, what we literary critics call the denoument?) There is something uncanny about all the various levels of dreams that we see, because we've seen all these dreams before--but they weren't dreams. They were Hollywood movies. Ultimately, by the end, we don't care about how contrived and basically silly Nolan's idea and plot are; we just enjoy following the internal logic of the story, wondering how the characters will excape the maze that they have themselves created. In all action movies, isn't that what keeps us watching? Isn't it our expectation that the characters will escape the labyrinth that Hollywood has invented precisely for that purpose. (Remember the scene when Cobb asks Ariadne to make mazes for him to solve.)

In a sense, what the movie does for us is deconstruct the standard plot-lines of Hollywood movies by showing how these plot-lines are so contrived. And I like this about Nolan's movie, because the scariest thing about Hollywood movies is that sometimes politicians actually seem to interpret reality through their plot-lines (e.g., Reagan and Bush, Jr.). In other words, the illogical logic of movie plots (i.e., what makes sense for much filmic story-telling such as the conflation of "girl" and "resolution of conflict" but makes no sense in reality) plants absurd paranoid ideas in our heads. What I like about this movie is that instead of projecting that paranoia onto a contrived reality, it reverses the direction of the projection by putting all these stories inside the heads of the characters, thus asking us to come to terms with our own paranoia. (Or maybe I'm just really paranoid.)

jlotz said...

It looks like the previous poster beat me to the punch, but I'd be curious to hear what you, Doctor J, think about this interpretation (allegory of moviemaking):

I have to agree e that Memento and The Prestige still resonate much more strongly with me as well, but I'd definitely be curious to watch Inception again with this frame in mind.

anotherpanacea said...

I've gotten used to the idea that "high concept" blockbusters are going to be over-narrated, so I didn't find it as jarring as you apparently did... well, maybe once or twice, when something that was obvious was "revealed," like Cobb's role in his Mal's death. (Duh.) I also enjoyed the gun battles and chases.

To me, the philosophical problem this film takes up but fails (in much the same way as Dark Knight's prisoner's dilemma) is Nozick's Experience Machine. Nolan just assumes that reality is preferable to fantasy (Cobb tells Mal she's just a shadowy fantasy of the "true" wife) which really fails the theme of ontological uncertainty the film is aimed at.

Then the theme totally falls apart in the ending: it ought to have made us wonder whether Moll was right, suggesting that the world he had been fighting and fleeing in was a dream that could be escaped. (This would have required some level of uncertainty about whether the "team" were people or projections.) Instead, his totem serves as an absolute anchor, and we're only left wondering whether he escaped with Saito in the end by narrative gaps and the final cutaway. Meh.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks for the comments. Although I still feel less-than-blown-away by Inception, I haven't stopped thinking and talking about it since... so, well, there you have it, I guess.

re: the more-or-less "connection" between the subplots:
Yeah, I get it. Paternity and superego and really-real-reality and the like. I didn't mean to suggest that the two stories in the film were disconnected, but only that telling them in tandem was unnecessary. (And, furhter, that if he had split them into two separate films, I think he would have had a better film... TWO better films, even!) I'm not convinced that anything was accomplished by the both that couldn't have been accomplished by one or the other. And, again, having both of them just heightened what I called Nolan's "just-in-case-you-don't-get-it" pretension (and condescension).

re: the "Inception-is-a-movie-about-making-movies" thesis:
Steve's rendering of this argument is very clever and convincing. As I've read more accounts like it, I am finding it a more and more persuasive interpretation. To that end, I think that Inception might even be a better illustration of this whole Cartesian-doubt/Platonic-cave/brains-in-vats-technoparanoia idea than The Matrix. Though, I am still partial to the old Jim Carrey film The Truman Show here, if only for its beautifully and masterfully executed simplicity. The questions and issues raised by that film are just as complex and multi-layered, only-- unlike its competitors-- The Truman Show renders the whole "reality vs. dreamlike/filmlike/alternative-world-like projections" quite literally. The complexity of its themes is intensified by the simplicity of their presentation, in my view. And the opposite is true of Inception and The Matrix-- all those bells and whistles make for necessary explanations, which make for more bells and whistles, which make for more explanations, ad nauseum.

hanum said...

cool action movie ^^. Like this!