Inception as a Post Modern Text
Inception and the postmodern sublime.
July 21, 2010 pm31 4:09 pm
by Tanner McSwain
Disclaimer: Keith S. Wilson and anyone else who hasn’t seen this (excellent) movie should
skip on down to the next post. Spoilers aplenty lie ahead, as well as the revelatory endings to
a couple of decade-old movies that you’ve almost certainly seen and a few video games you
may or may not have played. You’ve been warned.
The other day, Keith asked what the hell Inception was about, and after seeing it last night, I
can say that I’m not entirely sure. Like Christopher Nolan’s best films — Memento,
Insomnia, The Dark Knight — Inception is going to require repeat viewings. It’s a dense little
mindfuck with the philosophy embedded in the action and enough interstitial ambiguity to
keep you unsure of what you just saw even as you wobble out of the theater. Which is to say,
it’s one of those rare films that, just for a second, makes you question your own reality.
Which is to say, I loved it.
Inception deals a lot with lucid dreaming, multi-layered false realities that are almost
indistinguishable from the real world — think The Matrix, but less sinister — that are damn
complicated, and unnerving in the way they play with the form of film. Because movies
themselves are tricks; viewers become temporarily lost in the world onscreen, willingly give
their subconsciouses over to the filmmakers to manipulate, and then return to their real lives
when the lights come up. Any emotions we feel while watching movies — joy, empathy, fear
— are obviously illusory, but they are no less resonant, and some of us carry them with us
long after the movie itself is over. Which is why Inception works on so may levels — it
thrills us with action, but its themes and images are designed very specifically to lull us into
the “reality” of the movie, only to startle us at every turn with a fresh reminder that the
characters are dreaming, that none of this is really happening for them, and it makes us pinch
ourselves, remind us that none of this is really happening for us either.
Someone I used to know called it the postmodern sublime: art that breaks the fourth wall in a
subtle and startling way and makes us question, if only for a moment, whether our life is real
and that is illusion or that is real and our life is an illusion. Like the Chinese philosopher
Chuang Tsu’s famous quote about dreaming he was a butterfly and never again being certain
that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a Chinese philosopher. Blade Runner and The
Matrix did this to me the first time I saw them. The ending of The Ring is probably the best
theatrical example of it — the static screen and white noise that gives you that half-second of
“Oh shit, I shouldn’t have watched that movie because now I’m going to die.” As other media
come into their own, we start seeing examples in surprising places — Alan Moore’s
Watchmen comics and the video games Braid and Bioshock, and even Metal Gear Solid (if
you fought Psycho Mantis in the 90s, you know what I’m talking about), each of which will
probably inspire grad student theses for decades to come.
What makes it a postmodern sublime as opposed to a regular old Hegelian force-of-nature
sublime is its self-awareness, its knowledge of the limitations and particular quirks of its
medium. You could never achieve the power of The Ring‘s ending in a book. Watchmen was
long considered unfilmable because there was just no way that the apocalyptic ending would
translate to the big screen. It’s too meta. Last year’s film version (which is probably the best
possible film version of that book, which is to say it isn’t very good) changed the ending
drastically to give it more resonance, but it still doesn’t quite work. Possibly the most
gripping example, though, is the third act twist in Bioshock, a game that is until this point just
an eerily beautiful third-person shooter. I won’t completely spoil it, but suffice it to say that
nothing else I’ve ever seen uses the mechanics and mindset of playing video games against
the player this way. It toys with your very notion of free will.
Which brings us back around to Inception, a labyrinthine story that takes place in dreams
within dreams within dreams within dreams, and which may be — here’s the big spoiler,
folks — an actual dream itself, Newhart-style. While the film never explicitly screams
“LEONARDO DICAPRIO AND/OR MARION COTILLARD MIGHT BE DREAMING
THIS WHOLE THING,” there are subtle hints throughout: like the dreams the characters
invade, the film begins in media res with almost no context of who these people are, how
“dream extraction” works or came about, when this is happening, or what it all means. It’s
deliciously ambiguous, especially the final shot of DiCaprio’s top spinning and wobbling
slightly, but cutting out before we can see if it falls or spins forever. We know from earlier in
the movie that the top falls in real life and never stops in dreams, and although there’s some
instability in that final shot, it sure does spin for a mighty long time. And if it is a dream, if
the illusion is that elaborate, how can we be sure that we aren’t dreaming our whole lives?
Of course there’s way more to Inception than high-falutin’ philosophizing. The entire
ensemble cast is filled out with ringers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ellen
Page, Ken Watanabe, and even brief appearances by Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite.
The pacing and action sequences are impeccable, as they were in Nolan’s Dark Knight (the
anti-gravity hotel has to be seen to be believed), and the writing is sharp, dense, and
suggestive of a far deeper story. The ending is a conversation-starter and the climactic
confrontation between DiCaprio and Cotillard certainly casts everything that preceded it in a
new light, but what makes Inception such a joy is its ability to function on so many levels at
once: a crisp action flick and special effects dynamo on the surface, a human drama about
obsession and risk below, and an eye-crossing piece of experimental art underneath all that.
Other thoughts? Who else has seen it?
Rejects Jameson's theory that Postmodernism is "depthless" because characters are complex and develop
throughout the film. The plot develops and raises the question what is reality? The ending adds to the
philosophical questioning by not clearly establishing whether Cobb (a character) was dreaming about returning
to his children or not, the top is left spinning on the table however screen goes to the credits so the audience
don't see it fall. Postmodernism is usually against interpretation but the ending is clear, which leaves the
audience questioning; the reality portrayed in the film with Cobb returning home, the reality portrayed in the
film - is the director hinting to the audience that it is fictional, hyper real story, or whether life itself is "real" in
the sense is life actually just a dream and we wake up when we die, like Mal believed.
Inception - Analysis using Postmodern Theory
The ending scene of Inception is very open-ended, allowing
the audience to come to their own conclusion.
The film 'Inception' is a post modern film, which is already evident through its' use of the narrative - it's not a
linear narrative, as it includes a more circular storyline and also has a very open-ended closure, in which the
audience can almost decide and create their opinion of the possible ending. It also includes characters which
feel alienated from the 'norm', and this film in particular does explore this even further, and the idea of "stories
within stories" is also looked at, and creates a more dimensional approach to the film and narrative.
The different genres in which this film reflects a postmodern aspect is:
Hyper Reality - The ability for a mind to be opened into another reality is intriguing and could also be
deemed as a lot more desirable than reality, creating this sense of a new and better world which almost
convinces the audience that it's authentic.
Time-Bending - The manipulation of time plays an essential part to this film, and also creates "What
If?" scenarios within this film - i.e. "What If this was our reality? What If minds could be accessed?"
These questions can circulate the audiences mind, drawing them further into the film.
Posted by Lelly at 22:16
Journal 44 Postmodernism in Inception
A lot of the characteristics of Postmodernism can be seen in the recent movie staring Leonardo
Dicaprio and Ellen Page Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan. Postmodernist tend to rely on
opinions rather than facts and scientific ideas. This is obvious with this movie as it is about being able
to access the dreams of different people to steal or implant ideas. The entire movie is about being
able to put an idea into the mind of a powerful man. Most people don't believe that it is possible, but
Cobb believes it to be possible even though scientifically it shouldn't be. Another concept of
Postmodernism is that morality is personal and defined differently from person to person. Technically,
all of the members of Cobb's team are criminals as they are stealing but to them, it isn't really
anything bad. Their concept of morality is much different than those that would say that it is unethical
to access the mind of another human being through their dreams. In Postmodernism, it is said that
reality is created by those in power which could be very true for this story. It is never really said if
everyone in the world was aware of the technology that they used, but if they weren't, then the
government could have been creating reality. Ethically, maybe everyone should have access to the
technology they use for different purposes, but the government could have regulated that so it was
only criminals that were actually using it. The characters of the story are actually avoiding falling into a
false reality, but eventually no one can really tell if they have gotten stuck in a false reality or not.
Overall there are a lot of characteristics of Postmodernism that can be seen in the film Inception. It is
just a great movie with great acting and a great story, but there are some things to be learned about
literature from this great movie. Inception is an awesome movie.
Ideas on Inception and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
I watched Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) for the first time this last week.
After two viewings and looking at some of the theories that have been discussed on
the internet as to the meaning of the whole thing, I think that I’ve got a pretty good
idea of what it all means.
One of the most interesting articles I found was at CHUD.com. The author of the
article, Devin Faraci, suggests that the whole movie was a dream, including the
parts where Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor who performs corporate
espionage by penetrating people’s dreams and stealing their thoughts. He goes
further to suggest that the movie is an autobiographical work about Christopher
Nolan and his work as a director, similar to Fellini’s 8 ½. In this case, Cobb, who
breaks into people’s dreams, represents the director. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt),
who is the researcher, represents the producer who sets everything up. Ariadne
(Ellen Page), the architect, represents the screenwriter who creates the world that
the dreamer will enter. Eames (Tom Hardy), referred to as the forger, represents
the actor, who assumes the form of other people in the dream world. Yusuf (Dileep
Rao), the chemist, is the technical guy who furnishes the chemicals necessary to
create the shared dream state. I would go even further to say that Yusuf is the
cinematographer – where the camera is the dream-sharing “apparatus” and the
sedatives used to facilitate the dreaming could be considered the actual film in the
camera. Finally, Saito (Ken Watanabe) is the financier of the dream (or film) and
Mark Fischer (Cillian Murphy) - the corporate guy being targeted - represents the
With all that being said, the movie is the dream. The shared “dream” is the
collective consciousness we all share as the audience, while the dream represents
the director’s dream, which he seeks to share with the audience, and the ideas
implanted in our minds by the movie represent the inception taking place. Walter
Benjamin talks about this concept in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction. He says that: “thanks to the camera… the individual perceptions of
the psychotic or the dreamer can be appropriated by collective perception. The
ancient truth expressed by Heraclitus, that those who are awake have a world in
common while each sleeper has a world of his own, has been invalidated by film –
and less by depicting the dream world itself than by creating figures of collective
dream.” The movie, therefore, could be considered a metaphor for the filmmaking
process. On the psychoanalytical level, one could say that the catharsis achieved
through the shared dream state represents the catharsis achieved for the filmmaker
in sharing his vision with the world as well as the catharsis achieved by the masses
in the reception of the film as distraction.
On another level, I would suggest that the subplot involving the penetration of
the corporate mogul’s dream to implant the idea of the will, which dissolves the
corporation into smaller companies spread equally among the investors, could
represent the studio system’s control over the film capital and the capitalist
exploitation of the medium of film. The will would represent the property relations
that Benjamin speaks of, and the inception of the idea to change the will to split up
the company could represent the revolutionary change of property relations
(redistribution of wealth) that could be attained through the use of film. Benjamin
puts forth this idea and says: “there can be no political advantage derived from this
control until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation.” So,
Christopher Nolan, represented by the extractor, is using the film (the dream) as a
means to reclaim control of the film capital in favor of the proletarian masses
through the use of collective consciousness.
Obviously, there are many more levels to the reading of this film, however, I felt
like this was one level that hadn’t been explored yet. Analyses of the dream within a
dream, and whether or not the whole movie was a dream have been described at
length many times in message boards and other blogs. As a result, I don’t feel the
need to explain these theories. I do believe, though, after having read The Work of
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that Benjamin would have come to
Inception and Postmodern Tragedy?
I’m still trying to clarify how to explain what I see in Inception, which I see as a postmodern tragedy, a
phrase that is oxymoronic, yet captures for me the qualities of the film. It has that postmodern focus
on fluidity in reality, the failure of humans to discern an externally situated reality and the even more
significant fluidity of the internal self-story, that seems to “ground” it. The impossibility of humans to
come to terms with the condition of “fluidself” seems the heart of postmodern tragedy, and the film
does offer a series of gestures—perhaps more accurately a series of stories—aimed toward that
sublime moment when the self—in this case, both character and viewer—has moved through some
sort of liminal zone of dreamscapes and stories within stories into an understanding of what? The
inapproachability of self? Impossibility of becoming?
By virtue of this story the viewing self only sees the shimmer of a self in a slightly warped scene—or is
it a mirror image staring back, mirror within mirror, receding mirrors and stories and truths—and . . .
and the whole scene-of-self converges on this single story theme, that singularity of story is
impossible. This is the moment of the anagnorisis that may not be, the sublime impossibility of
anagnorisis. This is the gesture of self in a scene both folding inward upon its set and collapsing
outward at the same time. This is the gesture of self in a plot that must be believed yet is implausible,
a mere gesture moving toward something profound at the same time it falls off . . .
All this is too too abstract to make any real sense. Let me root it in that which is sensate, the body
rather than the mind. My mind has no idea which narrative, if any, the filmic framework asserts as
real. Dom’s top may have stopped spinning . . . or be spinning still. But does that matter? What if I
embrace the anagnorisis that may not be? Then I am physically, vertiginously drawn toward a
collapsing cliff, to sit upon a vertical structure about to be sliced away. This urge to construct a single
story up and through all other layers of story falls away. I like that feeling of free fall toward nothing at
all, not being so “Romantic” or “Modern” as to need either externally-formed top-layer narrative or
some sort of deep-buried core-story.
Sliced away from the scene, looking down upon it, I cannot help but imagine the self/story as a set of
grainy film frames in an eternally looping oroboros. As if I am a character (an object looking like a
human) seeking the pleasure of the fall, and my story is of a fall forever nowhere toward the never
enough of story. This sounds like tragedy, this condition of having no self/story—not even a loop of
film—to cut away or splice into.
Only the gesture of a sharp collapse—collapse of meaning language image story―cutting viscerally
through . . . that’s the postmodern gesture. An ever imminent evisceration of an immaterial cliff face.
The sublime frame of a human face of cliff always ever crumbling away. Katharsis in freefall toward
indefinite shimmer. The Inception of postmodern tragedy
Monday, July 19, 2010, 1:56 PM
My wife and I went to see Inception Saturday afternoon. I don’t have much ‘good’ to say about
the film other than I liked it. It was way to long, and the film itself seemed intent on providing
images of some college sophomore’s perspective of T.S Eliot’s “Waste Land.” No one involved
with the production seems to have really explored the idea of a nonexistent reality whether one is
explicating the various “levels” of a dream, or a second reality where both are a unique
phenomena defined by the original experience, the dogmatic exposition, and finally, skepticism. I
couldn’t help but think that if the dude who did the screen play for The Book of Eli had written
this, it would have been a whole lot better. I did like, for the first time, young Mr. DeCaprio in the
lead and his excellent portrayal of a young man who loved a young woman so much he was
willing to do anything to exist in that love. Sadly, it never occurred to anyone involved with the
film to move that concept toward the transcendent. Had they done that, they would have
produced a film that would have challenged The Book of Eli as the finest film ever made. And,
finally having sacrificed my ear in years of “hard service,” I have trouble with films where the
background music raises to a crescendo during a crucial explanation, in this case of the dream
phenomenon. Add to that the fact the actors inevitably begin to whisper at this time and bingo-
bango I miss stuff. So I have to confess I’ll have to buy the film and watch it at home.
By covenanter on Saturday, February 19th, 2011 | 1 Comment
Christopher Nolan’s worldview is dangerous because he shrouds it in an incredible plot.
[Warning: Contains Huge Spoilers!]
To understand the film Inception (2010) one must understand the postmodern worldview. To
analyze this film properly we’re going to have to get philosophical, and take a look at the
worldview of Postmodernism. The term “post-modern” refers to a paradigm shift in philosophy. It
is the logical succession of Existentialism. While in the past, philosophical views believed in
objective reality and that people must operate on the basis of what that reality is, Existentialism
created a world where people cared more about experience than truth and what is real.
Postmodernism, like Existentialism, is an atheistic and relativistic system of beliefs, but it differs in
that it is basically the view that there is no such thing as objective reality. To the postmodern, life
has no meaning, and we cannot be sure what we perceive as truth or reality is actually real. You
cannot judge whether something is real or not, so absolutes and morality are dispelled with. Brian
Godawa, author of the book Hollywood Worldviews explains the difference between Existentialism
“The two worldviews agree that… there is no underlying objective reality… no absolute reference
point to judge true and false, right and wrong, real and unreal… But whereas the existentialist
idolized the individual as supreme, the postmodern posits the loss of identity for the individual in
favor of collective groups of people (cultures) constructing reality through their own interpretations
and imposing them on others.”
The postmodern refers to this
collective coercion as a “prison house of language”. Because, in a world of no right and wrong, the
current opinions or views of the culture is all there is. Reason is thrown off, so you can never
discover real truth, you can only impose your beliefs on others.
Postmodernism, boiled down, denies epistemology because it denies absolute truth. Epistemology
means, as defined by Doug Phillips: “The study of the nature, sources and limits of human
knowledge. To be epistemologically self-conscious is to be aware of your worldview and its
implications on life. It is to know how to get from point A to point Z.” Basically it means
knowledge; or as Francis Schaeffer put it, “how you know what you know, and how you know you
can know.” This worlview will thus blur the lines between reality and fantasy.
This is getting very, very confusing and complex (if your head isn’t hurting yet, stop and think
about all this for a minute – and it will!) Postmodernism, in the end, will deny all other worldviews
because they are all simply stories we tell ourselves, and others, in order to shape the world we
want to live in, (apparently we are all extremely self-deceived – except for the postmodern that is!
He somehow knows that there is no way to know anything, despite that his very statement is in
fact, knowing something! The relativist and postmodern cannot live consistently within their own
worldview because without epistemology there could be no true existence at all – think of a world
where you really didn’t know –couldn’t know – anything at all! It would be nothing.) Now, I bet
your head hurts.
But back to the matter at hand: Inception.
Nolan spent somewhere around ten years writing the screenplay alone, so this may prove difficult
to unpack. Hang on!
It took me three times watching this film to see it for what it was, a testimony to a postmodern
world. The intricate web of plot that is woven so masterfully by Nolan is so easy to caught up in,
especially because the ideas are so perplexing and philosophical. In the film we are introduced to
Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) who is a rogue specialist in a field known as “dream
sharing”. This technology, apparently created by the government to train soldiers, allows people to
go into other people’s dream and do whatever. They can simply walk around inside this world
created by this person’s subconscious or they do something else, something illegal – they can steal
information from that person’s mind! Dom is running from the law, and so he gets work in high-
tech corporate espionage, but we have “sympathy” for him because he’s really just trying to get
back to his family. A rich businessman offers Dom a guarantee that he can return home, if he will
perform an impossible task: inception! This involves going deep into a man’s subconscious, down
many levels of dreams, and actually planting an idea in his mind so carefully that he won’t know
that it was planted! (Sound like a imposing your views on others via a “prison house of language”
to you?) The businessman says he wants Dom to perform inception on an industry rival and make
him give up his dying father’s business. To do this, the band of rogues that Dom assembles to help
him, have to manipulate the man’s emotions, knowledge and relationships to finally plant the idea
“your father would want you to be your own man”.
This seems straightforward enough
(not!) until things get even more complicated. The process of dream sharing is so real seeming,
that you need to carry an object with you that tells you whether you’re in the real world or not.
(Dom carries a top that will only stop spinning in the real world.) At one point in the film, Dom
ends up in a room where people come to sleep and go into the dream world, because “the dream
has become their reality, who are you to say otherwise?” Is there objective reality or isn’t there?
That is a thesis that the film battles out between Dom and his dead wife. You see, in the dream
world, Dom’s guilty subconscious haunts him in the ghost of his dead wife, Mal. What?! To answer
that, I need to explain another facet of the plot; I told you this was complex. When you are dream
sharing, you are put to sleep and the effects only last awhile. However, in the dream world, five
minutes can feel like a week (or more), and it gets longer the deeper down you go. So, unless you
want to be stuck in the dream world for years (though only minutes in reality) you need to get out
sooner. This requires a “kick”, a dropping sensation that jolts you awake. Getting killed in a dream
will also do the trick, except when you’re too deep in the subconscious; if you get killed then, you
end up in “limbo” where you wait for years and years until the time runs out and you wake up, or
you kill yourself. This ending up in “limbo” thing happened to Dom and Mal. They happily built
their own world, down in limbo (sounding very postmodern), for decades (in “dream years”) until
finally Dom can’t take it – he needs to get back to reality. But Mal has convinced herself that the
dream is reality. Dom then performs inception on her to make her realize that “her world was not
real, and to get home we needed to kill ourselves.” This they do and they wake up in the real
world, happily home. But, the idea that Dom planted was still there. Dom refers to ideas as
“parasites”, this is because in Postmodernism, as Dom says, “a single idea can grow and grow
inside someone” shaping who they are. Mal believes that she is in a false reality and so she
commits suicide again, only this time for real! Dom, torn by guilt because of the idea he planted,
and being blamed for her death by the authorities, runs away.
Now, to get safely through this last mission, and thus home to his now parent-less kids, he must
confront his guilt about Mal. They have a final confrontation inside the dream. Mal (or Dom’s
subconscious projection of Mal) wants him to stay in the dream with her. He insists he must get
back to the real world for their kid’s sake. To this she responds, “you keep telling yourself what
you know, but what do you believe, what do you feel?” This is explicit postmodern belief:
knowledge is impossible, what do you want reality to be? What Dom told Mal as they committed
suicide was, “you’re waiting for a train; a train that will take you far from here. You hope you
know where this train will take you, but you can’t know for sure – but it doesn’t matter!” If there is
no reality or truth, then suicide is a valid and logical choice: maybe you’ll end up in a better non-
reality. However, Dom seems to stand up against Mal’s enticement to forget what he knows for
want he wants. He leaves Mal, they finish the mission, and he makes it home to the kids that he
loves and missed! Maybe there is objective reality? A happy ending disguises Nolan’s final
statement, right before the credits roll: Dom is so overjoyed to see his children that he spins his
top on the dining room table, to make sure he’s not still dreaming. But he doesn’t care anymore.
He walks off happily with his family, and the camera pans down to the top, still spinning. The
audience all lean forward in their seats, a hush falls over the room, people hold their breathe – is
he in the real world? Will the top fall? It looks like it just might be wobbling when – black. The
credits roll and the audience lets out a groan.
When you really think about the
worldview that was just preached to us in a very impacting, exciting, emotional and thrilling
manner, we should be shocked. Christopher Nolan was able to make everyone say, “That was
awesome!” about a film that tells us that there are no moral absolutes; no way you can know
anything; no objective reality and that suicide is an option, though Nolan balances that by showing
just how awful it would be in a “real” world. Still we are left wondering, does Nolan uphold his
worldview? Well, while the ending might invert his main thesis “there is no reality”, the majority of
the film affirms it.
I’d like to point out another inconsistency with Postmodernism. Nolan, in an interview with Script
Magazine, said, “… subjectivity is key to my cinematic approach and it has to start with the writing
– the structure, the point of view.” Yet the very process of writing a screenplay requires
objectivity, rules and guiding principles based in truth and logic; all of which are incompatible with
Postmodernism. Then, to even be able to show us this idea that there is no reality, the filmmaker
must assume objective reality: a real one in contrast to the false one, a true world and the illusion
of the dream world. By simply showing that Dom is stuck in a dream world, you are forced to
admit that there is a real world distinguished from that. Postmodernism will contradict itself,
ultimately because it is so wrong!
For all its excitement, good acting, and incredible score by Hans Zimmer, “Inception” is dangerous
and is something we should be weary of. The Christian worldview and faith, in contrast has
certainty. Our beliefs are not dependent merely upon emotion and feelings; and nor are they
devoid of reason and knowledge – we can know about truth and reality because we believe in an
infinite, unchangeable and reasonable God who created this world and revealed His Truth and
wisdom to us in His Word. Let’s pray that God will open people’s eyes to watch films, no matter
how cool and complex they are, with wisdom, caution and discernment “so that we may no longer
children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human
cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14)
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
What is postmodern about Inception?
Baudrillard's theory of hyper reality where there are dream worlds that look like reality within
Disrupts linear structure - the beginning is the end and flips between layers of dreams
Mixes up time and space reality - as time is different in the different layers of the dream
Self-referencing - plot within plots and always referencing back to original "reality"
Rejects Jameson's theory that Postmodernism is "depthless", characters are complex and
develop throughout the film. The plot develops and raises the question what is reality? The
ending adds to the philosophical questioning by not clearly establishing whether Cobb was
dreaming about returning to his children or not, the top is left spinning on the table however
screen goes to the credits so the audience don't see it fall. Postmodernism is usually against
interpretation but the ending is enigmatic which leaves the audience questioning; the reality
portrayed in the film with Cobb returning home, the reality portrayed in the film - is the director
hinting to the audience that it is fictional, hyper real story, or whether life itself is "real" in the
sense is life actually just a dream and we wake up when we die, like Mal believed.
Christopher Nolan (director) plays Inception on the audience through the soundtrack of Edith
Piaf "Non, je ne regrette rien" being mutated, slowed down the deeper the characters are in
the dream levels. The music feels distant in the 3rd level as if the audience are in the levels of
dreams too - that the film is in fact a dream, playing on the fact that when the audience stop
watching a film they almost feel disorientated having been drawn into the story and world that
is portrayed in the film.
It requires an engaged audience who are able to intellectually understand the plot. So in
some ways it can be seen as elitist. However it has grossed $825 million which shows that it
does appeal to a mass audience. It is able to mix mass culture of Blockbuster effects with a
deep, complex plot.
On Inception by Christopher Nolan
By Chris Fletcher — Published on June 4, 2012
Tags: film, postmodern fiction
Published in Issue 28
When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, the sight of
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a bespoke suit grappling with a similarly well-dressed man in a
hallway gave me a sense of déjà vu. As soon as the gravity in the hallway shifted and the
grapplers fell to the ceiling, I knew that the movie it reminded me of was The Matrix, and I
settled into a defensive posture. My love for The Matrix burned bright and hot in my
freshman year of college, but that love began to cool as soon as I discovered David
Cronenberg’s Existenz hidden in its shadow. Released three weeks after The Matrix, Existenz
explores similar thematic terrain with less CGI gloss and more guns that shoot teeth as
bullets. Because many people prefer their virtual realities to follow a clearly explained
internal logic, weird films like Existenz always lose out to films like The Matrix. Weird takes
too much effort. I like weird.
Considering that half of Inception takes place in the dreams of one or another of its
characters, it is surprising that it is not weirder than it is. Inception could easily have been a
Freudian affair with little id-people springing up from the unconscious to cavort with
Leonardo DiCaprio, the kind of film the audience leaves saying, “What the hell was that all
about?” Christopher Nolan is not a student of the David Lynch School of Ambiguous
Filmmaking, however. Nolan says that ambiguity in a film “has to come from the inability of
the character to know—and the alignment of the audience with that character” and that an
ambiguous film “needs to be based on a true interpretation.”
The upshot of this is that Nolan won’t let anything he doesn’t understand into the film. There
must be no surplus in the story, nothing unaccounted for in the narrative. If you leave the
theater scratching your head over whether a spinning top fell down, it’s because Nolan wants
you to scratch your head over it. Indeed, getting his audience to pore over his films in search
of the “true interpretation” seems to be something he likes to do. His second feature was
Memento, a hip, postmodern calling-card of a film; it was universally loved for its non-linear
storyline by the kind of film-watchers who love—nay, need—to sit in front of their
televisions and mash buttons on the remote until the hidden “watch in chronological order”
feature is selected.1
Even though all this calculation makes Nolan seem a cold, Kubrickian
filmmaker, he’s more of a Hitchcock, playing his audience like a fiddle. Among his
features—Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight,
Inception—Nolan has racked up 141 award nominations of one kind or another.2
knows how get people on board with his vision.
But just because there is no surplus in Nolan’s vision, that doesn’t mean that there is no
surplus in his films. It is provided by the viewer, who, along with the protagonist, must
confront the ambiguity of not knowing how everything fits together. In Inception, Dominick
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends a lot of time explaining the events of the film through
expository dialogue with other characters. This is a side-effect of Nolan’s style of
storytelling. None of the characters is allowed to say, “Who the heck knows? It’s a dream for
goodness sake!” in response to a question about the mechanics of a dream, so everything
must be explained more than once. And, boy, does the audience owe those dim characters a
debt of thanks.
In the world of Inception, dreamers are able to share the same dream through the technology
of the PASIV device (an aluminum-sided suitcase containing narcotics, IV cables, and dosage
meters), and Dominick Cobb and his team extract secret information from unsuspecting
victims by conversing with their dreaming selves. At an unspecified point before the events
of the film, Cobb and Mal got stuck in Limbo (“raw, infinite subconscious”) for what seemed
to them like fifty years—long enough to convince Mal that their shared dream was reality.
Cobb’s first inception came when he convinced Mal that the dream world was not the real
world. He explains the procedure in the film as follows: “I broke into the deepest recess of
her mind, to give her the simplest little idea. A truth she had once known, but had chosen to
forget. . . . That her world was not real. That death was a necessary escape.” When Mal
finally awakened from Limbo, it became apparent that Cobb had performed inception on her:
even when awake she was convinced that she was dreaming. In flashback, the viewer sees
Mal kill herself, hoping to wake up. As a result of her suicide, Cobb is haunted throughout
the film by a dream-projection of Mal.
Mark Fisher writes in Film Quarterly that “in Inception, as in late capitalist culture in
general, you’re always in someone else’s dream, which is also the dream of no one.” (Of
course, Fisher most likely sees capitalist culture at work in his Alpha Bits.) Cognitive
biologist Christof Koch writes in Nature, that “even weeks later, [Inception] leaves me with
the queasy feeling that perhaps we too are merely dreaming.” A social theorist sees culture at
work, a cognitive scientist watches the film through the precariousness of perception—
Inception seems to be a kind of Rorschach test. Hold its shifting dreamscapes before a
reviewer for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and then ask her what she sees. Her answer
will tell you more about what is important to her than it will tell you about the film itself.
Richard Corliss offers an interesting variation on this theme when he says that Inception is a
film about filmmaking. Unlike, say, Inglourious Basterds, which shows characters going
through the process of planning, filming, cutting, and screening a film, Inception has to be
interpreted in order to be seen as metafiction. Corliss thinks Inception is about the movies
because he’s a film critic for Time. He’s seen so many films, broken them down into their
constituent parts so many times, that he could probably do it blindfolded. I’ll bet he dreams in
movies and wakes the next day to critique them. And so, for him, Inception becomes a movie
about the process of making movies.
For me, Inception is a movie about choosing between competing realities, about trying to
believe in something that one is unsure of. Like Corliss, this reading is based on my
experience; unlike Corliss I don’t have an easily explainable reason for this reading. There
are lots of reasons to think that Cobb is obsessed with making sure that he is not dreaming: he
continually spins his reality-testing top to make sure he is awake. He says he wants to be in
the real world because his children are there. But I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure
out how to argue in the other direction. I believe Inception is a film about Cobb choosing to
believe in his dreams over the waking world. I used to think I knew why this interpretation
was important to me, but now I’m not so sure.
I am about five years behind on The Matrix. This is because movies were a controlled
substance in my house growing up, and I wasn’t all that rebellious. In order to be rebellious,
you have to believe that it is a possibility. You need someone to model it for you. I was
homeschooled. My parents were my role models. The feedback loop worked in their favor.
I was going to catch up on movies while at college, by golly, and I was going to start with
The Matrix. The problem was that I chose a college where an “R” on a movie actually meant
it was restricted. I had to get off campus to watch what I wanted (remember, rebelliousness
had not been modeled at this point). As a freshman, I have no contacts in the outside world.
The university is my world, and it has skyways, so chance encounters on the street aren’t
Enter Brent. “Uncle” Brent is 27, lives on my floor, owns a car, and is going home to Green
Bay over Easter Break. I told him that me watching The Matrix was the point of us spending
12 hours in a car together. Brent is a saint. If he hadn’t have been game, I would have had to
make friends with someone else who owns a car. (He also puts up with me buying a bag of
fruity marshmallows at Piggly Wiggly and getting them all over his back seat.)
I am born again. I see through pair of Matrix-colored glasses—skin-tones take on a greenish
hue and lines of code are intermittently visible racing across the surface of tables, tracing the
curves of flesh, dropping from the sky on rainy afternoons. With evangelical fervor, I hit
campus after break extolling the virtues of the virtual. No one gives me the time of day. The
Bride has just killed Bill, and Neo is old news.
I respond to indifference by turning inward. I read as much as I can about The Matrix. In
2010, I will use the Internet to do most of my research, but in 2004 I walk a mile through the
desert of the real (downtown Minneapolis is pretty much a wasteland, those darn skyways
again) to Borders and pick up a copy of The Matrix and Philosophy. On the second page is a
reference to Jean Baudrillard. He quickly becomes very important to me.
In an early scene of The Matrix, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation appears as a
hollowed out book. Later in the film, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) welcomes the proto-
Neo, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), to “the desert of the real,” while gesturing at a
television depicting the ravaged landscape outside the Matrix. This desert of the real is
referenced by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation just after he relates Borges’ one-
paragraph story “Del rigor en la ciencia” (“On Exactitude in Science”).
In the story, cartography in the Empire has reached the point where maps are scaled in a
perfect one-to-one ratio to the territory they cover. Thus, the map of the Empire blankets the
Empire. Once this map is made, people realize that it is useless, and they let the elements take
care of getting rid of it for them. Baudrillard writes that
if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting
across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the
deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
In The Matrix, the only real left is the barren slag-fields Neo sees on the television. The
Matrix is the map. According to Baudrillard, those of us in the real world have reached this
state of rotting reality because “[s]imulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being
or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.
The territory no longer precedes the map . . . it is the map that engenders the territory.” How
can the map create the territory? Doesn’t the Matrix just mimic the world circa 1999? Maybe,
but The Matrix, the film, contains computer viruses who wear sunglasses and look like Hugo
Weaving. You can bet that if computer science and AI reach the point where a virtual world
like the Matrix is possible, that hackers will create viruses that look like Hugo Weaving. The
map engenders the territory, and I am obsessed with the idea of hyperreality, with the
precession of simulacra.
I am in graduate school, and I see Baudrillard’s stages of the sign everywhere and at all
times. One of my favorite hobbies is regaling my wife of two years with tales of unraveling
the secrets of the image. This means one of her favorite pastimes is doing something else
while I play the regaler. Once I had switched over to a B.S. (Baudrilliard Studies) in English
from a B.A. (Bad At) in Youth Ministries during my junior year of college, I tried to work
Baudrillard into every assignment.3
Did you know that you can give a successful PowerPoint
presentation in a Celtic Spirituality class on how the Celts’ way of life mirrors Baudrillard’s
concept of The Dual Form? Or that Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange
Mountain and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening are both better read with Baudrillard at hand to
In grad school, things aren’t much different. Where the phases of the image might be, I fit
them. Where they aren’t, I have a hard time paying attention. For me, they stand out clearly
in the relationship between The Lord of the Rings and The Stand (Stephen King’s “American
Lord of the Rings”), so I write a paper about it. It seems to work for my professor, so I keep at
the project of finding the seeds of the hyperreal in everything.The problem is I don’t really
know why the project is important. Maybe I should just quit and find something more
remunerative to turn my attention to. After all, who’s going to pay me to sit around and think
about Baudrillard all day long?
Near the start of Inception, Saito (Ken Wanatabe) offers Cobb the chance to return to his
children in the United States in exchange for planting an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer
(Cillian Murphy), the owner of a multinational energy company. Saito hopes that this
planting of an idea will lead to the breakup of the company, which threatens to overtake
Saito’s company. The only way for the idea to take is to perform “inception” on Fischer, and
Cobb is the only dream-extractor ever to have performed it in the past.
Inception requires the gradual buildup of the idea in the subject’s brain, so that subjects
cannot trace its genesis. This gradual condensation is accomplished through multiple dreams-
within-dreams. At each level, a different part of the idea is planted, until, in the final level,
the subject owns all of the ideas introduced by the extraction team. These dream-levels echo
Baudrillard’s stages of the sign:
1. The first level of the dream takes place on busy city streets. As the analog of the first stage
of the sign, “it is a representation of reality.” It’s a copy but a faithful one.
2. The next level takes place in a hotel. Cobb admits to Fischer that it is all a dream, but hides
the fact that he is a fellow dreamer, pretending to be “Mr. Charles,” a subconscious projection
of Fischer’s. In this way, Cobb “masks and perverts a basic reality” the way a second order
3. This level takes place in a snowbound mountain fortress hospital (!): the kind usually
occupied by the main villain in a James Bond movie. Movie-like, the third level “masks the
absence of a basic reality.”
4. Dying under the kind of sedation necessary to reach three dream-levels will send dreamers
into Limbo. Limbo is not a level, but as an “unconstructed dream space.” Anything can
happen there; it is a “pure simulacrum.”
Arthur goes on to describe Limbo as “raw, infinite subconscious” with “nothing there but
what was left behind by anyone on the team who’s been trapped there before.” We learn in
the film that Cobb and Mal were trapped there for about 50 years. Trapped in the hyperreal
for a lifetime. No wonder Mal thought she was still dreaming when she woke up and Cobb
spends so much time talking with a mental projection of her.
Through the lens of hyperreality, Inception is about the blurring of two worlds: the dreaming
and the waking world. In an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur,Baudrillard says of The
Matrix’s version of hyperreality that
Sadly, the mechanism is roughly done and doesn’t arouse any trouble. Either characters are in
the Matrix, that is in the digitalisation of everything. Or they are radically out of it, as it
happens at Zion, the city of the rebels. Actually, the most interesting thing would be to show
what does happen at the joining of these two worlds.
Unlike Neo, Cobb and Mal do not know for sure where they are at any given time. Maybe
Inception fulfills Baudrillard’s wish to see hyperreality portrayed in film. Maybe the ease
with which the stages of the image can be overlaid on the dream levels means that Limbo
really does represent the hyperreal. Maybe, just maybe, Cobb is not haunted by Mal, but by
the hyperreal in the guise of Mal. Maybe Inception reveals a truth about the subject’s relation
to the hyperreal. Maybe I’m reading what I want into the film.
I am 11 years old, and I often stay up reading late into the night. Three nights ago, I read
Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories. When I finished it, I dropped the
book into the gap between my bed and the wall and tried to forget I had read it. I couldn’t
sleep when I finished it, and I can’t sleep now. After few nights of tossing and turning, I
dredge it up, rip The Mysterious Stranger from the other stories, and throw the loose pages
away. When shoved between two hard covers on the shelf, the thin Dover paperback doesn’t
look much the worse for my mutilation, and I sleep better at night. When I go back to the
book later, its deflated look and the memories associated with it will cause me to throw it
In Twain’s unfinished novel, the eponymous stranger, Satan (the nephew of the Satan),
appears to some boys from a village in Austria during the “Age of Belief.” Satan wows the
boys with the ability to breathe fire into a pipe, creates a dog the size of a mouse, and
materializes grapes and oranges in their pockets (and makes no jokes about bananas, either—
surely this proves he is an angel). Soon he takes to creating a castle full of hundreds of tiny
animated people. I skipped to the end once Satan began to kill the little clay people he’d
made by pinching them between his fingers. In the final paragraphs, Satan reveals just what
has been going on since his arrival:
“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that
they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious
of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are
all present; you should have recognized them earlier.”
Satan’s actions throughout (he is kind and soft-spoken with the boys, but kills his little
creatures with a horrifying indifference) unsettled me to the point that finding that it was all a
dream was a release of sorts. But it wasn’t just Satan’s visit that was a dream; his episode, he
explains, was merely one dream among others:
“I am perishing already—I am failing—I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone
in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for
you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable,
indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free.
Dream other dreams, and better!”
The possibility that someone somewhere could actually believe what Twain wrote unmoored
me. Limitless solitude in shoreless space? How could dreams make that reality any more
livable? How could you dream better dreams once you knew them for what they were?
* * * *
At one point, Cobb asks Mal, “If this is a dream, then why can’t I stop this?” Presumably, he
is referring to the fight they are having over whether they are dreaming or awake. Mal
answers with, “Because you don’t know you are asleep.” Later, after Mal jumps to her death
in an effort to wake up, Cobb desperately tries to dream other dreams—better dreams—in
which his wife is still alive. When Ariadne hooks herself up to the PASIV device Cobb uses
to dream on his own at night, she sees a series of dreamed locations connected by a cage
elevator. Cobb explains the significance of the locations when he says, “These are moments I
regret. Moments I turned into dreams so I could change them.” He seems to think that if he
can get the Mal-projection to realize that she is not really Mal, she will go away or at least
stop throwing monkey-wrenches into his dream-extractions. The problem for Cobb is that it
just doesn’t seem to be working.
Why, then, does he keep dreaming of her? Dreamers have the ability to think their projections
out of a dream, as Yusuf (Dileep Rao) does in a scene cut from the shooting script. In a worst
case scenario, Cobb could shoot her and she would die, at least for that dream. It seems that
Cobb’s conception of a better dream is one in which Mal exists, regardless of how awful she
* * * *
After I read The Mysterious Stranger, I asked my parents how I could be sure that they were
real, that I wasn’t just imagining them. Before the words were completely out of my mouth,
I’d come to the realization that their answers wouldn’t cinch the deal. There was no way to
tell if they weren’t just my mind feeding me what I needed to hear. Maybe my encounter with
Satan in the pages of Twain was my way of telling myself that I was asleep. I knew one thing
for sure: in order to keep functioning, I needed to believe that my parents were real beings in
their own right. Strangely enough, their reassurances to that effect helped me believe they
were. I knew very well that there was no way to know, but all the same, their belief helped
In his essay, “I Know Very Well, But All The Same,” psychoanalytic critic Octave Mannoni
revisits Freud’s concept of Verleugnung (“disavowal”) as it relates to belief. He tells the story
of when one of his patients was mistaken for a visiting poet and told that he was invited to
Mannoni’s office for a drink. When the client arrived for his scheduled analysis, he told
Mannoni, “I knew it was a joke, the drink. But all the same, I am awfully happy. . . Especially
because my wife, she believes it.” According to Mannoni, “[w]e are so accustomed to it that
the formula, ‘I know very well, but all the same,’ does not even seem that surprising to us.”
Through this formula, we are able to maintain beliefs in things we have disavowed. As long
as there is a dupe, a gullible other, who will believe for us, we can cope. Mannoni believes
that this formula explains quite a few things:
The need to “mystify” children with stories of the Stork and Santa Claus,
The practice of going to church “for the children,”
The enjoyment of coincidences,
The avoidance of omens,
The value of reporting false news.
To the list above I would personally add the following:
The need for going to church in general,
The habit of going to school,
The value of reading Baudrillard.
The truth is, I switched from Youth Ministries to English because I took a class where we
read C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Chesterton and realized that if I was going to remain a
believer in a world I’d in many ways disavowed, I needed gullible others who’d clearly
thought through what they believed, who didn’t seem gullible. I kept going to school after
graduation for the same reason. I needed two sets of dupes to do my believing in two
diametrically opposed realities for me. And I needed Baudrillard to remind me that even
smart people sometimes believe in crazy things—crazy things that might just be true.
While Cobb never goes so far as to say “but all the same,” he does enough in the following
exchange with the Mal projection to get the ball rolling:
Cobb: They’re not real, Mal. Our real children are waiting for us—
The children run off. Cobb opens his eyes.
Mal: You keep telling yourself that, but you don’t believe it—
Cobb: I know it—
Mal: And what if you’re wrong, what if I’m what’s real?
Cobb is silent.
Mal: You keep telling yourself what you know . . . but what do you believe? What do you
This is, in effect, Cobb on the analyst’s couch saying, “I know very well that those are not my
real children (and by extension neither is Mal or this dream).” It is possible that it is implicit
in the Mal projection’s very existence. Cobb says that what he does is visit Mal every night in
order to change his memories, but they appear to be immutable. He also reasons that he visits
her to soothe her or contain her.
What I wonder is how we really know how she came about in the first place. It is clear from
Ariadne’s tutorial that the subconscious of the mark populates the dream levels and, from a
scene in which the characters discuss the layout of a level, that the other dreamers are able to
suppress their own projections. Cobb is the only one with a rogue projection, and Ariadne
figures it out during a discussion of dream layouts:
Cobb: Don’t tell me. Remember, you only want the dreamer to know the layout.
Ariadne: Why’s that so important?
Cobb: In case one of us brings in part of our subconscious. You wouldn’t want any
projections knowing the layout.
Ariadne: In case you bring Mal in.
While Cobb acts as if he cannot prevent Mal from showing up in his dreams, he could
remove her from the equation if he chose to. He draws a bead on her in the mountain
shootout, and Aridane actually shoots her in Limbo, which seems to have a part in her death
(along with Cobb’s revelation that she is not real).
Simply put, Mal exists because she believes that Cobb’s dreams are real, and as long as
someone believes they are real, Cobb can function. This would explain why every time he
disconnects from the PASIV device, he has to pull out his reality-testing top—the absence of
Mal throws him for a loop.
And if Mal’s immateriality would give us pause (how can Cobb use a dream to believe in
reality?), here is Zizek on that point:
[F]or the belief to be operative, the subject who directly believes need not exist at all: it is
enough precisely to presuppose his existence, to believe in it, either in the guise of the
mythological founding figure who is not part of our reality, or in the guise of the impersonal
actor, the unspecified agent—“They say that. . .”/ “It is said that. . .”
It is not terribly important that Mal is only a dream, as long as Cobb believes in her. And he
does, as we see when Ariadne encourages him to shoot Mal because it is “not really her,” and
he responds by saying, “How can you know that?”
I’m beginning to get the distinct impression that no one outside of our church believes what
we do. I’m supposed to invite my friends to Sunday school, but why aren’t they going
already? If God is real, why are there people who don’t believe in him?
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no
earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing
exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless
thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
* * * *
If Cobb was using Mal’s belief to believe in the reality of his dreams, what does he do once
she is exorcised from his unconscious? Is his need gone because he is presumably in the
waking world with his children? His doubt clearly remains as he spins the top in the final
scene. According to Zizek, an object can take the place of a person through “interpassivity.”
His perennial illustration of interpassivity is his VCR (one wonders if one day he will replace
it with a DVR):
Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored
in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction, and occasionally enables me to simply
relax and indulge in the exquisite art of far niente—as if the VCR is in a way watching them
for me, in my place.
Interpassivity is the externalization of something the subject wants to be doing. The subject
can feel as if they had had done it, without having to do it. And if a VCR can go beyond
merely recording a film to watching it for the subject, maybe a top used to believe in reality
can go beyond merely reflecting the state of reality to believing it for the subject.
Zizek sets the VCR to recording, Cobb sets the top to spinning. Both are recipients of a
“And straightway the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help
Thou mine unbelief!’”
I am at a literary gathering in St. Paul talking to the host. A friend of mine mentions that he
teaches at a small Christian college in Minneapolis. He makes a self-deprecating comment
about the challenges of teaching literature and writing to conservative kids, and the host leans
in and sort of mumbles (he’s had a few glasses of wine) something about “those Neo-Nazis”
in a tone of commiseration. I understand the frustration of dealing with small-mindedness as
much as the next guy but Neo-Nazis? Maybe my Sunday school teachers were right. Maybe
we are living in different worlds.
Zizek has his VCR.
Cobb has his top.
I have Cobb and his top in my DVD player and Boaz Hagin’s “Examples in Theory:
Interpassive Illustrations and Celluloid Fetishism” in my hand. Hagin believes that maybe,
through interpassivity, films can go beyond merely illustrating concepts, like belief, through a
gullible other and help us believe in the things they illustrate. In short, he thinks films might
be propositioning us. I read this and know that Inception can’t help me believe whatever it is
I currently believe about Christianity and its relation to reality. But maybe it helps me believe
in the way I believe it.
His first feature was the micro-budget (as in $6000 [almost invisible, really]) Following. In
the economics of filmmaking, it was a success, earning $48,000 at the box-office. At the
point of its widest release, however, it was in two theaters. It was a perfectly serviceable
calling-card until Memento came along.
In contrast, the ambiguous David Lynch has 65 nominations, at least as according to the
Internet Movie Database.
The “B.S.” doesn’t really stand for Baudrillard Studies, and it doesn’t really stand for what
it sounds like either (but there is something suspicious about getting out of a taking the
language requirement for a Bachelors in English). What it stands for is Bachelor of Science,
which, looking back at it now, makes sense in my case. I treated finding the stages of the
image in a text as a science. It was as if I thought that just identifying the process of
simulacra moving away from reality was a useful public service.
Chris Fletcher lives in Minnesota and writes creative criticism. He blogs at 10 Billion
Image 1: Inception poster.
First of all, Inception is a science fiction movie. Secondly, it is a film that makes extensive use of
special effects, the commissioning of the old tricks to new delusions of digital cinema; a very high
budget blockbuster. Finally, one relies on the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to tell an intriguing story
from the narrative point of view, complex and sometimes incomprehensible (according to the
decomposition of the linear narrative that is a feature now dominant in contemporary cinema),
which leads to think of philosophical arguments (first of all the distinction between dream and
Inception has some of the deepest aspirations and plays with philosophical concepts and
contemporary past. Here it tells of a man named Cobb (DiCaprio) who works as a thief of dreams;
is confined in people's minds when they are sleeping to discover its secrets, as in the dream when
our defenses are much lower. A man who lives more in the unreality of those dreams in the reality
of real life, because he has to forget a tragic event that has marked his life. “To carry on the
feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and
novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .]
this is the character and privilege of genius." (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria
 1956: 49).
Image 2: Cast of Inception.
Inception is art. “The process of art is to transmit the impression of the object, as a "vision" and
not as "recognition": the art process is the process of estrangement [...] of objects, and the
process of dark form which increases difficulty and duration of perception, since the perception
process in art is an end to itself and has to be extended; art is a manner of "feeling" the object's
"becoming", while the "already become" has no importance in art.” (Šklovskij, 1929). Sklovskij’s
speech is related to art, and it also introduces defamiliarisation; you must draw a clear line of
distinction between the reality of the dream with its more or less evanescent images (but this
could also apply with our perception of reality to which our mind draws from reality that can, at
the moment, serve the economy more or less of our daily lives) and the construction of a film that
Image 3: DiCaprio.
When the film is concerned with the dream world it does nothing but focus on the peculiarities of
the vision, utilising the pre-eminent film grammar (staging, shooting, editing, sound). Many things
happen in the dream world: a sudden burst of enlightenment, effects special movements slowed
down or speeded up, the absence of gravity, soft focus, etc, and camera movements and styles
that highlight the exceptional nature of the recitatives. The dream, as is often the flashbacks, can
be made with black and white or colour correction in post-production and filters (eg, a soft filter)
or rebuilding dream worlds with computer graphics. But in any case, a dream sequence in the film,
regardless of the aims of the objective (to stimulate the perception or surprise or scare) is always
a sequence to be treated and analysed like any other sequence. There is nothing more postmodern
in a dream, in the sense that when we dream we are not able to reconstruct events, organise
perceptions, and manage maps of reality.
The stories in Inception are trying to pile up, they are neutralised, they multiply, the landscape is
constantly changing before our eyes; we are driving a car yet we are on foot; in a moment a girl
becomes a woman, the dialogue is strangely broken, but really it is nothing and end ups being
nothing... when we awaken. Sometimes an object or objects take shape, and it is possible that
these objects resulting artifacts are so perfect that they highlight their pictorial effect. In practice,
when a person wakes up from a fading dream, however vague, and they have no history and no
"recognition" of the dream, is it still an experience of artistic vision?
The dialectic of dream-reality is the central axis on which the film moves, reminiscent to the
studies on contemporary virtuality. Nolan adds this substrate with philosophical attention to the
staging and the narrative, never forgetting the sense of rhythm and a certain amount of action.
The film, in fact, even lasting two hours and a half runs quickly with no downtime and casts the
viewer in the abyss of sound, images, and feelings. Nolan's film is like playing a magician;
hypnotising the viewer who is catapulted into a dizzying stressful visual, auditory, and very
Image 4: Effects.
Like any self-respecting postmodern films, Nolan's film is immersive, wrapped in a bath of
sensations, and at the same time is a reflective film, citing the many different theories and asks to
Our dreams should acquire their maximum intensity in the limbo that is the place where you can
grow old while still young (the place where you can spend a lifetime while our sleeping body
remains young in the bedroom). Yet in a film that puts the "dream" in the foreground leading us
into a way of "unreal", while asking us to imagine it as reality. And it is curious that Nolan has
chosen (but these aspects are present in excess of his earlier projects; Memento (2000), in The
Prestige (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008)) a script (but keep in mind that he thought this for
many years) that prefers the dream world and with it the sensitive world of vision and, if the
dream becomes lucid, playful. In fact, the playful aspect is typical of some post-modern film and
the narrative structure of Inception does not transgress the rule. What states is certainly
acceptable. What is important to note is how the film attempts to formalise a "way" more critical
(say "not for fun") to see the film and re-building in mind.
We see for example the sequence in which Cobb teaches how to build the framework of Ariadne’s
(Ellen Page) dreams while they are in what looks like a Parisian street sitting at a café table. We
consider that Ariadne is dreaming without realising it and believe it as long as Cobb did not reveal
the truth, thus dragging in a lucid dream. To make her aware of living in a dream world, shows the
explosion of the "slow motion" of roads, buildings and objects at the same time they remain sitting
quietly without damage, because they are not in the real world. Following Ariadne, walking
through the streets of Paris, fold the overlapping part of the city which is below, above the roofs of
the buildings now teeming with the life of another city, a sort of dream-like view of Paris reflected
in the mirror. But in the dream representation is simply that Ariadne has doubled over the city like
a blanket folds in on itself. In fact, the city that is reversed, the landscapes are transformed before
our eyes, but it is also true that the film’s post-modern elements has accustomed us to see similar
Interesting is the analysis of the sequence of the explanation of the dream world, as well as the
whole discourse on post-modern, formal and ideal. Limbo is not the deepest stage of the dream, or
the place where it is now more distant but it is the representation of man's world need to hunt for
lost and lost an eternity of time to recover its place in the uncertainties of the real. The image of
limbo is not a vaporous Nolan, artistic, evanescent image projected to the knowledge of the
unconscious or at least to even a partial perception (for example, the dream world of Hitchcock's
films in which there are echoes of surrealist cinema of the twenties).
Image 5: Marion Cotillard plays as Cobb’s Wife, Mal.
Perhaps one might wonder why Inception is not even a 3D movie. In fact, it leads to a far more
interesting dimension. The intrusion into the secrets of the soul is a strange noise with addiction. It
is also an observation about the present media: In modern online role-playing games you can
already lose yourself beyond recognition in strange dreams.
“Like a giant cinematic jigsaw puzzle, Inception will keep you guessing right until the very end as it
carries you through to the unbelievably tense climax. If ideas are the future of tomorrow,
Inception certainly thinks bigger and better than the rest.” (Ann Lee, 2010).
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Nolan, C., Nolan. J. (2010) Inception: The Shooting Script (1st
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Traficante, C. (2010). Review – Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”.
http://www.icine.com.au/2010/07/26/review-christopher-nolans-inception/ (Accessed 02/10/11)
Lee, A. (2010) Inception review: Unlike any other film you'll see this year.