Coercion is likely to be more effective when the victim doesn’t realize he is being coerced.  This is one of the main themes in Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Inception, which I saw Monday night with high expectations.  In Nolan’s movie, characters are susceptible to an exotic form of mind-control in which agents infiltrate their dreams and ‘plant’ beliefs/desires in their minds (a procedure called ‘inception’), which, upon waking, the victims interpret as beliefs/desires of their own or (as Frankfurt might say) beliefs/desires the victims wholly identity with.  Believing these beliefs/desires represent what they genuinely believe or genuinely want the victims are more likely to act on these beliefs and desires.  The movie, in my mind, was just ok–ambitious and interesting but not nearly as successful as Nolan’s masterful Memento.

I’m not giving anything away by letting you know that the plot is thinly driven by a corporate tycoon who wants a corporate rival to split up his recently deceased father’s energy conglomerate/empire–indeed, needs his rival to do so in order to prevent him from gaining a monopoly on the world’s energy resources, which, presumably, would be bad for everyone.  But this movie isn’t really about plot.  It’s about all the pitfalls faced by those who set out to manipulate people’s behavior by means of ‘inception.’

The dream worlds that provide the settings for at least half of this 2.5 hour movie are depicted very well, which makes the movie a pleasure to watch (although I will say I didn’t think there was anything particularly extraordinary about the visuals).  The action sequences, which also make up a large part of the movie, are also well done.  There are interesting insights into the logic of dreams–for example, that in dreams we always find ourselves in media res without any idea of how we arrived at our locations, that action and location can shift suddenly, and that our dream environment often take on features of the environment in which we are sleeping (so if we’re sleeping through an earthquake we’ll like experience tremors in the dream landscape).  So what’s not to like?

I’m still not sure.  But my reaction three days after seeing the movie is still lukewarm–perhaps it’s my nagging sense that the movie could have been more interesting than it was.  And one minor complaint: whereas ‘inception’ is treated as being extraordinarily risky and difficult, the more basic premise of ‘dream-sharing,’ or ‘entering the dream of another,’ is never given its due.  We’re never given any information about how DiCaprio’s character manages this feat, beyond ‘Michael Caine taught him how to do so.’  If you see the movie (or have seen the movie, Josh) I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

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3 Responses to Inception

  1. Josh says:

    /Begin Obnoxious Latin grammatical nitpicking/ * in medias res. Accusative plural – “into the middle of things.” If you wanted just “in the middle of things” as opposed to “into,” both words would need to be in the ablative – either singular – “in media re” (the final a needing a long mark) – and that means “in the middle of the thing” or – “in mediis rebus” (in the middle of things). /End obnoxious Latin grammatical nitpicking/

    I think upon reflect I agree with most of what you have to say about the movie. The visuals themselves were not particularly interesting in the sense of being groundbreaking from a technological perspective I guess. Nor was the plot. Another thing you didn’t quite mention was, in spite of the film’s acceptance of a very strange premise (that we can dream together just through hooking up some wires like we’re plugging into a group video game) the movie still is often burdened with exposition.

    I wonder if the film wouldn’t have been better if it had given up all attempts to explain/justify itself. It would have left the viewer a bit more lost, but then, it might have improved what I thought the film’s strongest aspect was – the creation of the feeling of a slightly terrifying dream, and with that, the feeling of being in a state that’s right in between dreaming and reality, where you question but do not quite discard the sense of reality you do feel while dreaming.

    I also thought the very concept of “Limbo” as it’s presented here was terrifying. The idea of dreaming for what felt like 60 years and then awakening to discover you’re still young, after you’ve grown old and are ready to die… I really did find myself looking at the world through a confused and somewhat dismayed perspective for the few hours after I watched this film. I really felt addled and was reminded of the overall sense I sometimes get, that a movie and a dream are really somewhat similar when the movie is done well. I actually had somewhat the same reaction to Shutter Island – a movie that, if you think about it, covers a lot of the same ground.

    A couple of more potential topics for discussion about this movie:

    It occurred to me that Dante’s Inferno seemed like an important (and non-trivial) source for this universe. Dante’s underworld has three main levels (each which some sub-levels) plus Limbo. Dante’s uppermost world is a relatively open area; the second of the three levels is more claustrophobic and fiery; the third is a world of ice. Dante’s journey is also presented as a dream, he has a guide (Virgil), and he is haunted by images of his dead love Beatrice.

    Last thought – when we were walking out of this movie, Brooke asked me if I thought the world in which DiCaprio’s character emerges at the end was real or a dream. Obviously this is a question we’re meant to ask at the end. My response – “it’s America.” I wondered if there was a sort of intended socio-political subtext. The characters (at the top level) are travelling from Australia (Nolan’s homeland) to the United States (Los Angeles no less). Do we, Americans, live in a uniquely dream-like environment? I recognize that’s a sort of pretentious question, but still.

  2. David says:

    How careless of me. I meant to write ‘in mediis rebus.’ 🙂

    Yeah, I forgot about the ‘limbo’ theme. That was pretty cool, and connects up with some interesting philosophical literature on the desirability of immortality. Bernard Williams has an essay subtitled “on the tedium of immortality,” and in Inception there is definitely the sense that having lived one’s life it would be tedious to wake up and find that one has to live it all over again.

  3. Nates says:

    [Warning: spoiler below]

    Well, I saw Inception yesterday and enjoyed it, but I think it helped to have read your posts previously and gone in with lower expectations. (It also helped that it was 99 degrees outside.) Anyway, it’s definitely not up to Memento (or the Prestige, for that matter), but it’s still interesting.

    The Inferno connection is intriguing. Perhaps the inception of this idea was David’s ungrammatical Latin, which resembles the opening lines…

    So, supposing Dom is still in a dream at the end. (And it seems significant that he walks away from the spinning top, implying that he no longer cares whether he’s in a dream.) That would suggest that he was the real target–that the inception is one that’s been planted in his mind. But what idea ? And by whom? I don’t know if there’s an actual puzzle to be figured out here, or if Nolan has simply left these issues ambiguous.

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