Dreaming Life

There have been few recent films that I have anticipated as highly as Inception.  Thankfully, it did not disappoint…except for one thing.

In the world of Inception, people can enter one another’s dream states.  In fact, some people can create these very states for themselves and others.  Professionals can be hired to either extract or implant ideas in a person’s mind, although the latter is far more difficult than the former.  Because this is a possibility, some of the more important people, say business tycoons or world leaders for example, hire people to train their subconscious to defend itself even in sleep.  Extractors, the people who steal the ideas, team up with architects who create the worlds, forgers who impersonate family and friends within the dream, and chemists who sedate the subject.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an extractor who teams up with fellow extractor Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to implant an idea into the mind of Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) rival business partner, robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy).  Cobb’s elaborate plan will take his team farther into Robert’s subconscience than any of them have ever gone…except for Cobb himself.  Cobb has a checkered dream past with his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), a past that haunts his waking and dreaming lives, making it difficult for him to distinguish between the two and dramatically affecting his work as an extractor.

Extractor Cobb (DiCaprio) and his architect Ariadne (Ellen Page).

On this job, Cobb’s team creates a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream…I think I’ve gone far enough.  With each successive dream, time lengthens so they have longer to do the job in dream space (real world minutes turn into hours, days into weeks, etc.).  At each level, writer/director Christopher Nolan stunningly visualizes a gripping script and creates special effects that have few equals in recent cinema.  Some of the action sequences are quite literally mind-bending, for both viewer and character, as physical stimulations in the first dream world affect the team’s physical experiences in the subsequent dream worlds.  So when the team travels in a van moving at high speed and skidding from left to right or even flipping over in one dream, the world of the subsequent dream literally turns or flips around the dreamers.  Th dreamers’ experiences of pain or even death within their dream states have real world effects:  if they die in these dreams states, they wake up, but if they are too far into the subconscious, death in the dream will send them into a real world mental limbo in which they lose cognitive function.

The second dream world revolves around Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an attacker.

There are two stories at work in Inception, Cobb’s work for Saito and his relationship with his wife Mal, and, I would argue, the ways in which this duality plays out are the film’s only major flaws.  Though the two narratives converge to disastrous results and inform one another thematically, I felt that they ultimately distracted from one another.  At 2.5 hours long, the film could have been trimmed by about thirty minutes by more seamlessly integrating the two narratives or downplaying Cobb’s relationship with Mal, which, though contributing to the overall intellectual component of the narrative, does not deliver on the emotional impact that I suspect Nolan hoped for.  For stretches of time, Nolan puts the quest into Robert’s mind, and Robert’s sudden search for his father’s secret, on hold to reflect on Cobb and Mal.   So, in a way, the major plot point becomes something of an afterthought in much of the latter portions of the film.

Nevertheless, Nolan has taken a fantastic script in Inception and created an amazing viewing experience that looks absolutely beautiful in IMAX.  There are obviously some talking points to be had here from a theological/philosophical perspective, although the film never really delves into them.  On the other hand, we could thank Nolan for allowing us to flesh them out on our own.  Inception asks us to consider, among other things, the distinctions between knowledge, belief, and, we could add, faith.  How do our experiences shape what we know and believe?  How do we allow these beliefs to influence our interactions with others?  Do our experiences and resulting beliefs crowd out other beliefs or do we allow them to co-exist?  How de we understand truth or Truth in light of these competing or parallel beliefs and experiences?  We could also consider the importance of ideas.  Inception reveals how difficult it is to implant an idea into a person’s mind and make it stick…even when characters can literally inhabit other people’s minds.  As people of faith, what types of ideas do we implant in the minds of those with whom we interact?  Are we implanting messages of peace, hospitality, love, and acceptance or are we fueling ideas of hatred, rejection, or bitterness?

This morning, I still find myself wondering what Inception would have been like in 3D.  There are numerous scenes that have all the potential in the world for providing a truly immersive viewing experience.  Not only that, but unlike Avatar, we finally have a story that seems to actually beg for a richer technological adaptation.  As it stands, however, Inception is by far one of the best films of the year, which, unfortunately, given the year, doesn’t give it enough credit.

Inception (148 mins.) is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout and is in theaters everywhere.