Why “Inception” is a great film

The word “dream” in the English language is a complicated one. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a person’s hopes and aspirations. For instance, it might be your dream to own your own business or to make out with Ellen Page. Or Leonardo DiCaprio. I suppose it’s a matter of preference.

The word “dream” also refers to the activity of the brain during REM sleep, when our unconscious mind creates a world for us to inhabit while we slumber. Both of these meanings of the word are applicable in the case of the fantastic film “Inception,” by visionary–and I do not use this term lightly–director Christopher Nolan. You might remember him from such films as “Memento” (it wasn’t as good the second time, though we all must admit it was really, really good the first time) and also, of course, “Batman Begins” and incomparably, “The Dark Knight.”

Spoiler Alert: You have been warned.

“Inception” works as a film on several levels. As a science fiction film, it is totally in the vein of Phillip K. Dick. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction which is commonly called magic-realism. We have a device, this dream machine, which is totally fantastical, and yet Nolan has deposited it into modern day, and the characters in the story treat it as commonplace. It has been seamlessly integrated into our modern world. Its functioning is not explained and doesn’t need to be. How it works is not important. What is important is that we, as the audience, can accept it because the characters do. This was a common technique in Dick’s stories. Recall the Empathy Boxes and Mercerism from Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep.

So what Nolan does with this science fiction device, by making it commonplace and not bothering to spend absurd amounts of exposition explaining how it works (a very huge mistake made in a lot of modern sci-fi movies), is open himself up to exploring the important themes of the film. And boy, there are a lot of them. First, he discusses the concept of an idea as a virus. This is something that is proven every day. I’ve discussed memetics before on my blog, but this film hits it on the head. The main character (Leo DiCaprio) is plagued by the guilt of having murdered his wife essentially by implanting an idea into her head. Her death came about as a direct result of his first attempt at the inception of an idea. An artificial inspiration which caused her to commit suicide. The idea that he put in her head is another big theme that is lightly but poignantly touched on by Nolan. Namely, death as an exit from reality. Death as a solution to a reality that can’t be verified.

What I get a kick out of in terms of theme is how Nolan integrated the idea of memory. How memory changes the way we view the past. I recently read about a psychologist who had set up video cameras all around his home with the intention of capturing all the significant events in his growing child’s life. After so many years, he was remembering his child’s first step. He remembered it as happening in the evening in the living room. When he reviewed the tapes, he discovered that the event had actually occurred in the upstairs hall in the middle of the day. This is because when we remember things, it is not like replaying a video tape. Every time you remember a significant event, you are reconstructing it. Re-experiencing it and at the same time, changing it. Every time you remember something, you remember it differently. And this is why it is interesting when Cobb (DiCaprio) builds these memory worlds where he is trying to change the past in his own mind. All he really succeeds in doing is torturing himself, because, despite his sharp memory, he cannot actually recreate the entire event or the characters in their entirety any more than he can deliberately change them. His dead wife as a subconscious projection is a shadow of the real person. She becomes something malevolent. Something cancerous in his psyche. Something that haunts him and his work.

It is also important to point out the film’s success as an action film. And if we do this, it becomes necessary (and somewhat enjoyable) to make the obvious comparison with The Matrix. I say pleasurable because I can finally drop The Matrix from my list of movies to ever watch again. Inception does everything that The Matrix did only better and in greater abundance. The Wachowski brothers took the Platonic idea of the Cave or the Brain in the Box, if you will, and made it into an action film. It took the philosophic and touched on it and used it as an excuse to make what amounts to an escapist fantasy. Then they tried to pass it off as deep when in the end, there’s nothing of real substance or value.

Nolan has done something completely different. Instead of posing the question and then never bothering to answer it, Inception continues to dig, relentlessly exposing more facets of the question of dreams and the unconscious just as the characters, Cobb in particular, continue to dig deeper, moving further and further into the meta-dream. Dreams within dreams within dreams. The thought that he and his wife spent fifty subjective years in their own world, constructed from their own thought goobers, is astonishing.

And again, looking at the action of the film, I find it to be very successful. It is not as…”techie” as The Matrix. They didn’t use as many wires or CG. In fact, there’s very little CG. Nolan likes to put stuff on film as much as possible. And he does a great job of it. The fight scenes are more believable, even if they are fantastical. The action is more exciting because the characters are more realistic. The dream-within-dream time dilation thing is incredible. That there are, at one point in the film, three different action scenes happening at the same time and at different speeds is pure magic.

It is rare to see a film so expertly plotted. And we can see echoes of this in his big breakout film. Memento was very well plotted and had the mark of something very cool. But it was, in the end, premature. I can’t watch that movie anymore. I don’t even particularly like it. I am a little nervous that Inception won’t stand up to repeated viewings, but I am cautiously optimistic about it.

In the end, I think what makes Inception successful is a sort of perfect storm of very cool things. The cast is superb. The acting and dialogue are stoic in the places they need to be, funny where appropriate, and emotionally challenging at just the right moments. The set design is immaculate. The world-building (the meta-narrative) is perfectly executed. The integration of themes, the mixing and matching of what amounts to be a sort of theme-salad, is so well proportioned, doesn’t stifle the action, and manages to flourish while nothing else suffers. It is not didactic, I mean and The Matrix is horrifyingly didactic, which is absurd considering it has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool. Inception is magnificently plotted and paced. I was spellbound. I was entranced.

In the end, Inception did something for me that only a few films do. It affected me. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself questioning my state of awareness. Was I asleep? Was I awake? Was the world real? The idea infected me and even today, about twenty-odd hours after watching the film, I’ll find myself looking for clues that I am awake.

Zu träumen ist zu leben.