Inception: The Beautiful Illusion of the Dream

02 Jan 2011

No idea is simple when you need to plant it in somebody else’s mind.

If you read the following post, I will spoil Inception for you. So if you have any plans to see it, stop reading now.

I don’t know if every culture has placed significance on dreams–endowing the unconscious with powers of insight or foresight–but it certainly is a major facet of our society, even if we don’t acknowledge it as a spiritual experience. In fact, we’ve worked pretty hard to strip the mysticism from dreams, assigning their meaning to the realm of psychology: the ultimate hidden aspect of humanity can be concretely defined as the id.

The world of Christopher Nolan’s Inception is not a profound rejection of modern dream interpretations, but the inevitable end-point of a society that endows the id with supreme importance. The crux of Inception’s setting is the acknowledgment that dreams are mirrors to our souls and, accepting this as fact, the plot becomes driven by the question of whether there is more to dreams than mere reflection: is it possible for dreams to be the instruments of creation? Or, as it is introduced to us by Mr. Saito, is inception possible?

Within the film, there is no wondering behind this question. While the characters may–and, if briefly, do–doubt it, the audience must take as fact that inception is possible, else the story would fall flat. This the most significant point that must be acknowledged in order to eke any meaning out of the movie. The possibility of inception establishes an important rule for the story: there are no reliable viewpoints. It is not possible for us to tell the difference between the simulation and simulated. If one character can have their understanding of reality altered in order to attain some predetermined end, any of the characters could likewise be manipulated. The trick to inception, we discover, is convincing the subject that an idea is their own–or better yet, legitimately bringing about the circumstances wherein they can actually come the idea themselves.

From here, one can posit any number of theories: perhaps Cobb is the one facing inception and the team is working towards his salvation; maybe Cobb never escaped Limbo, instead accepting that there is no difference between a dream and reality; or what if the story takes place entirely in Maud’s mind? These possibilities, while interesting, are without basis because we have nothing that can tell us which point in the film is the baseline reality with which to begin all of our positing from.

Walking away from the movie, we ask ourselves whether the top fell. We do so because we believe in the idea that there are totems that can help separate dream from reality. We wonder because we want to feel resolution. We want to know whether Cobb has finally returned home or if he has created a limbo where it does not matter. This question, while seeming significant, ignores the key behind the entire movie: we cannot trust any of the characters, including our hero, Dominic Cobb. So what does this mean about Inception? What is Nolan trying to get across with the movie?

Believe it or not, he’s actually using the movie to reject the entire premise of his movie. Dreams are not powerful. The only strength that they are capable of comes from interpretation. It is a realm of absolute subjectivity, where even the author can be wrong. Do you want the story to be about the rescue of Cobb from his wife? Find the parts of the movie that prove your claim and go with it. Do you want the movie to be about how Cobb murdered his wife and, unable to cope with the act, retreated into his own personal hell? So be it.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter if the top falls, because that is not something that Nolan shows– and even if he did, we can’t accept it as an absolute truth. From then on, how we view the ending and the significance of his totem is a matter of personal identity, not of fictional resolution. It is about the journey that the viewer has taken through the universe that Nolan has created; it is who we have become through watching it and what we choose to take away from the movie.

Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.