“The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibility of dreams…if you do that, you can do anything.” —-Waking Life
Here is what you do if you have a passing interest in neuroscience, psychology, or physics but are too lazy to take science classes in college: make movies. In the last decade or so, some of the most successful movies from nearly every genre—from thrillers like Memento to sci-fi/action movies like The Matrix to art house movies like Waking Life—involve quirks of the mind: alternate realities, psychological disorders, and imaginary characters.
Inception, the latest film from Christopher Nolan (director of the aforementioned Memento as well as The Dark Knight, which means we at NPI are predisposed to like him), tackles dreaming, an area so loaded with psychological and epistemological ramifications that the movie feels ready to burst at the seams. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a thief who enters peoples’ dreams to steal their ideas. This process, known as “extraction,” involves exploiting projections of a dreamers’ subconscious to reveal secrets.
When one of his marks, Saito (Ken Watanabe), catches Cobb and prevents him from completing a job, he is forced to take on an even more challenging task. Unlike extraction, this new process, called “inception,” doesn’t involve the taking of an idea, but the planting of one. The process is so complex that the question of whether true inception can even be performed is not settled—as Cobb’s partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says, “True inspiration can’t be faked.”
These questions of epistemology—How do we come to know what we know? Can we ever be certain of what we know? How can we communicate these things to others? Are ideas represented the same way in different individuals?—are raised both directly and indirectly, but they are quickly skirted. The main issue of Inception, and the one for which it has garnered adjectives like “mind-bending” and “cerebral” and “intellectual” in all the media coverage of the film, is a much simpler one: How are dreams different from reality?
Of course, nobody can really provide a full and complete answer to this question, so the answer the movie offers is as insufficient as it is elaborate. As Cobb walks his protégé, Ariadne (played by Ellen Page, in her long tradition of playing characters named for Greco-Roman deities), through the process, he explains all the things anyone who has ever had a dream already knows: That dreams always start in the middle, that strange things seem normal in a dream reality, and that a dream is populated by images of one’s subconscious.
In addition to these rules the movie adds some of its own, including the idea that you can feel pain in a dream,* and a concept of “limbo,” which is essentially an unchecked prison of the subconscious that you go to if you die in a dream and can’t wake up. The problem, though, is that the film doesn’t really have time to explain all this at once and is already loaded down with a lot of exposition initially** as it is, so it only lets the audience in on these things when they become important. Limbo, for example, is only introduced when a character might end up there, at which point we are supposed to feel terrified for him. It’s not so much that the film seems to be making up the rules as it goes along, but that it’s only telling us the rules in the middle of the game. This makes it almost impossible to have a firm grip on what’s at stake for any of the characters.
*I suppose this may not be that controversial. As the film puts it, “Pain is in the mind,” but I, for one, have never experienced the physical sensation of pain in a dream. Maybe I’m just lucky.
**Even the idea that you can inhabit another person’s dream-world, the central premise of the movie and a completely messed up proposition to say the least, is pretty much just glossed over and taken as a given.
Despite all the complications Ariadne, an expert student of Cobb’s old professor (played by Michael Caine, who has disappointingly little screen time), takes to the project quickly and, as Cobb’s architect, starts constructing elaborate settings for dreams. In one such scene set in a town square, she literally bends a Parisian road on top of itself in one of the film’s best spectacles.
Spectacles like this, and the physics of dreams in general, are one thing Inception completely nails. As Cobb’s team goes deeper and deeper into dream realities, into dreams-within-dreams-within-dream, their realities are affected by the physical movements of the dreamers. In other words, if a dreamer is turned upside down while dreaming, then so is the entire reality of the dream. This makes for some pretty amazing action sequences and fight scenes that take place in shifting gravity, and one particularly cool sequence in which Levitt’s character has to improvise a way to shake people awake in zero-gravity.
The film makes an art of constructing and playing with the physical dimensions of dream worlds. It nests at least three within each other, including a climactic showdown that inexplicably takes place on a ski slope. Unfortunately, the excess does not always enhance the film. At some point the added layers are just distractions, and the simple pleasures of watching Levitt strangle a man in zero-gravity are interrupted by a machine gun fight in the snow.
It’s particularly unfortunate because all these added layers and rules—the dreams-within-dreams, limbo, the difficulties of waking dreamers up, etc.—are really not necessary to make the film’s subject compelling. Indeed, for all the film’s supposed “complexity,” it barely touches some of the most interesting aspects of dreams. The dreams Cobb and Co. inhabit look and feel alarmingly like real life—there is none of the peculiar logic that governs real dreams. Similarly, the ways ideas are represented within Inception’s dreams are incredibly straightforward and literal, with none of the labyrinthine symbolism most dreamers are familiar with.
Instead, the only sort of substantive issue the film deals with is a tired, “How do we know we are dreaming?” plot. Cobb’s subconscious is plagued by the memory of his wife, who is trying to convince him that the reality he lives in is no more than a dream. It’s not that DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard (playing the wife) are unable to breathe life into this story, but that they simply aren’t given the time or space to do it. There is so much going on and so many rules to be explained that there is no time to deepen these characters.
In addition, the movie is horrifically over-scored, with heavy brass instruments hovering over every scene as if the movie were a 148-minute montage. Even in the moments of revealing snippets of dialogue or abrupt confrontations, the characters are completely drowned out. The message over all of this seems to be, “Don’t worry about these people, there’s a big puzzle to figure out!”
And, disappointingly, the puzzle is not nearly as engaging or clever as the movie seems to think it is. There are no complex ideas addressed by the convoluted plot, just weird rules and inconsequential hypotheses. More often than not, the film is confusing only because it’s not worth the effort to figure things out. With so little investment in the story and characters, then, the movie doesn’t build to a dramatic climax so much as a run out of cool things to do. Which isn’t to say that Inception doesn’t do a lot of cool things—and do them well—but that its failures outweigh its successes. With the infinite possibility of dreams you can do anything, and yet Inception doesn’t do enough.