Inception: mindfrak lite, not quite zeitgeist


It took months to arrive, but Inception finally screened in Italy this weekend. Here’s my take. There are spoilers here, but I assume everyone who’s interested has seen it by now.

Regardless of what anyone says, Inception is a good object to think with.

And I think Christopher Nolan is a clever filmmaker. Mind you, clever doesn’t always mean wise. But he has a knack for making films that can splinter your mind. Even the Batman franchise’s The Dark Night had some deep guano buried within its pyrotechnics. But is Inception the zeitgeist film it aspires to be?

I was about to write a ho-hum review when I realized that Nolan was a bit smarter that I had initially understood. He made an entirely self-referential film about implanting an idea in a stranger’s mind, and abracadabra, here we are talking about a film’s idea in our heads. It took a few days to gestate, but that’s one of the major points of the film: ideas don’t simply replicate, but cook on the back burner until the right conditions concoct something new. (Coincidentally, Steven Johnson has a video about his new book, which deals with this very issue.)

As I wrote about The Prestige way back when, I had noted that though the film was ostensibly about magicians on screen, in fact it was really about film as an act of magic. Likewise, Inception is about the consequences (and ultimately ethics) of trying to convince people to believe ideas that are implanted without their consent. The idea in question is the one DiCaprio’s character planted in his deceased wife’s mind: that the world isn’t real.

OK, so historically this is an old philosophical point that can be found in any Ancient Religions 101 course, but thanks to postmodernism and the persistence of mass mediation, the trope seems to circulate more readily (i.e. The Matrix, Truman Show, Videodrome, etc.).

As it should.

Inception makes the argument rather clinically, however, and certainly lacks the poetics of Plato or the Vedas. I also think we can agree the film is mostly un-dreamlike, unless you were trying to depict James Bond’s lucid dreaming skills. So why spend so much time debating Nolan’s realization of dream theory, or lack thereof?

What struck me more about the film was his exploration of how ideas spread, in particular the popular concept of memes. One of the better insights of the movie was the point that you can’t just implant an idea and expect it to work the way you want it to. Everyone has history and a context, so ideas won’t motivate anyone unless they have some kind of emotional charge. Isn’t this what advertising aspires to? Really, the best “extractor” for the job is Mad Men‘s Don Draper.

Inception’s take on memes is actually refreshing, because usually memes are treated far more mechanically, such as the view that an idea simply replicates itself like downloaded music files. At least in Inception, the way ideas digest has more complexity.

Curiously, ideas are the one thing that cannot be copyrighted. This is due to the public nature of them. It is very hard to trace the origins of an idea to a pure source, just like in the dream you cannot remember how you got where you are. Ideas are networked beyond the individual’s belief in a singular concept. So when it is proposed during the movie to make an “inception”–to implant an idea in a person’s dream so as to make him think it is his own–most believe it is impossible. The characters acknowledge that ideas really do not have a beginning, and in a sense aren’t real, at least in the tangible sense. The capitalist system likes to reify and commodify everything into things, but ideas evade enclosure. There is something about this notion similar to Buddhism, which speaks of thoughts as being like flames that light other flames. But try to capture fire and you get Prometheus and his eternal suffering.

No doubt, regardless of what is possible, “inception” is a marketer’s wet dream and will be the subject of lots of wasted money and human creativity. You can see evidence of it in peer-to-peer marketing and from brand managers who dream of colonizing mindshare by dropping little brand bombs here and there, hoping that they propagate and “stick.” But unlike viruses, marketing slogans and images are more like weeds. In our age of mass media we have to learn how to be good gardeners.

The difference between Inception and say a good PK Dick story (or even a Cronenberg film like eXistenZ) is that by the end, you really don’t know what was/is “real.” Though Inception‘s closing shot leaves you with a question (a good move, by the way… Luis Buñuel was always a big fan of leaving story elements open like a zen koan), I was not–spoiler alert–confused about whether or not DiCaprio was dreaming (nor did it really matter), unless that is, the overall metaphysical message is that life is but a dream. I think it hints at that possibility, but there are definitely other films where I’ve been left with a much deeper sense of unease about the groundless condition of the universe.

Ultimately Inception‘s hierarchical dream stages (dreams within dreams, kicking “up” levels, a bottom “limbo”) gave the dreamworld too much structure. Nonetheless, the film valiantly recapitulates the idea of lucid dreaming by offering us the vague possibility that a lifetime could indeed be a dream. If we can acknowledge who’s doing the dreaming, then we can have far more control over our lives. For example, the film offers us the vision of dreamers being dreamed within an architecture designed by multinational energy corporations. This is a scary kind of manipulation that can only be guarded by our projected antibodies (one of the film’s more intriguing concepts). No doubt, without proper mindfulness and training, we are vulnerable to being dreamed by interests that are not our own.

Wait a second… when watching the film, wasn’t Warner Bros. dreaming our dream for us, too? Or was it the director? Did we have a group dream in the theater?

Ice cream headache. If only we had the militarized mental antibodies of say… Dick Chaney. Scary thought.

I tend to think of dreaming as a consequence of growing new connections in the brain. Our minds attempt to fill in a groundless reality through a symbolic language of poetry, which is possible when our rational minds are turned off. During these moments we tap into the creative condition of the cosmos, maybe defaulting to its natural state. I can only guess.

The problem with Inception is that the dreams were far too logical and controlled, with the exception of the occasional train coming out of nowhere. But to impose a Hollywood narrative on a dream, well, that’s Hollywood. I think films by the likes of Maya Deren or Buñuel are far more successful at emulating the dream state and marrying the potential of film with the creative energy of the universe (and let us not forget the infinite possibilities of animation, such as Richard Linklater’s Waking LIfe or A Scanner Darkly). A Hollywood narrative, however, does offer us the experience of entering into another reality and temporarily believing that it is real–just like a dream– but so do books (good ones at least). This is a matter of master storytelling.

Frankly, The Prestige moved me far more, perhaps because its speculative reality and allusions to magic were philosophically more complex (and creepier). Plus, Bowie playing Testla is a far better coup than DiCaprio’s dream sleuth. However, I do like Ellen Page, and look forward to seeing her repertoire expand as her young career grows.

There was a small touch that I liked quite a bit. The main action takes place during an overseas flight. As I have argued in my discussion of Lost (chapter five in my book) and 2012, airplanes are the techno-dream bodies of our world. In pop culture they often represent the vehicles through which we travel the liminal realm between worlds. I thought it was symbolically appropriate that the major dream sequences took places during an intercontinental flight, the jetliner being a good metaphor for corporate media.

My final verdict? Part Citizen Cane (with its Rosebud moment), part PK Dick ( although light on the mindfrak quotient), part James Bond (skis, guns, fortresses and global corporate intrigue), and part self-reflexive magic trick. It is the latter characteristic I associate with Christopher Nolan, and will likely be his signature for years to come. In the end, the fact that we are having a broad cultural discussion about dreams is always a good thing, and even more so when we connect dreams with media. Ultimately because so many are talking about this film, it is the mark of successful art–to a degree. It was interesting and compelling enough that we didn’t ignore it.

  • Ian

    My initial reaction to the movie was that the viewer was the final dreamer and Nolan was attempting to place the idea that we might be asleep into us

    Why anybody would have a motive to lull people into a dissociative state of depersonalization, create feeling of being unreal, disconnect people from themselves, make people feel they are unable to control one’s actions; and instil derealization, the feeling that the outside world is unreal or that one is dreaming I don’t know.. Could it be that such people are easier to control?

  • Ian


    Check this link out.. I never noticed this really cool thing they did with the inception

  • Antonio

    Ian, thanks for posting. I like what you said. It’s inline with my more current review of Inception, which I posted at Reality Sandwich:

    Again, thanks for the post!