Boy, where does one begin? This is another philosophical opus by Christopher Nolan that pretty much confirms his rein as the king of intelligent philosophical mainstream filmmaking. The success of his films prove that people DO like deep mythological, ethical, and philosophical foundations to their stories.
The life of the mind and the question of what constitutes reality is a common theme in Nolan’s films, and Inception takes this to the limit. It’s main purpose appears to be exploring the nature of how ideas take hold in our minds, and how our cherished presuppositions are held by faith and “locked away” in our minds to such an extent that they determine what we think of reality. Those “unproven” subjective presuppositions about reality then guide and determine our behavior regardless of objective reality.
DiCaprio’s Cobb character leads a team of people who use sophisticated technology to be able to enter into people’s dreams in order to steal their secrets for competing corporations of what have you. The metaphor here is incarnated in each person having some kind of locked safe deep in their consciousness where they hide away their secrets they don’t want discovered. The dramatic challenge of the movie is when a client hires them to do the reverse, to plant an idea into a person’s consciousness, in order to get them to do something the client wants. This is what is called “Inception.” So they seek to find the “safe” in a target’s dreams where they can deceive him and place the notion that he should “break up his father’s corporate empire upon his father’s death.”
Nolan employs a lot of concepts about dreams that we are familiar with. He uses the notion of falling or death as what wakes us up from a dream. He applies the notion that time in a dream goes by much slower than in our real world, so if they go deeper into his consciousness to a deeper level dream, the time slows down even more.
But the hero’s journey of Cobb is his own guilt over the suicide of his wife, Mal. His guilt over her death is manifested by her showing up in all his dreams as a killer of the dream that makes him and others wake up. In short, she is the reality waker. But when we discover why, it makes it quite a powerful postmodern tale of the questioning of our notions of reality. It turns out that they both indulged in this dream world escape by creating dreams where they could experience their fantasies together. When Mal wanted to stay longer and longer in their dreams, Cobb tried to snap her out of it by placing an inception in her mind that this wasn’t reality, so she needed to wake up. And how does one wake up in a dream? By killing one’s self. The only problem is that this planted presupposition stayed with her into the real world and she thought that it too was a dream, so she killed herself to “wake up.”
Wow, our presuppositions (faith commitments) have real world consequences on our behavior, and it is not always for the good. But also, this is raising the question “How do we know our notions of reality are true?” We act upon certain unproven notions that find their way into our minds through the narratives that we live or observe or construct. In a way, the movie is a metaphor for how those beliefs enter into our mental lockboxes. Through storytelling. The team of dream thieves are storytellers (like filmmakers) who craft entire worlds and pretend to be characters in a story that embodies a certain belief about reality. It implants themes about reality and how to behave into our consciousness, that we then hold onto and use as our basis for acting in our own world.
I entered the movie thinking, “This is about dreams. If he concludes, “it was all a dream,” I am going to be ticked off.” So I was happy when he ended on the note that left it ambiguous whether or not it was a dream for the hero. I think the point was that the movie is self-consciously NOT real, but a dream of reality that tries to engage in an inception in our minds. Therefore in the movie he can never conclude with an absolute statement about the “reality” of the film. I believe that is his point as a postmodern filmmaker: He wants us to question reality, and he is not going to conclude whether the “reality” in the movie is reality, precisely because of his epistemic commitment to questioning reality with the nature of stories. This explains why he mixes dream elements with reality elements. For example, the fact that he wears a wedding ring in the dream world, but not in the real world, and the kids are a couple years older at the last shot, BUT there are dream world indicators in the real world, such as the walls closing in on Cobb as he runs from the bad guys, and the fact that the kids are in the same exact position at the end “reality” scene as they are in the dream scenes. He wants us to question reality, but he is not going to give us an answer.
Quite clever. A story about how the power of stories accomplish their goal of affecting our consciousness and constructs of reality.