Reality Revisited: a review of Inception
“Pardon him, Theodotus:
he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the
laws of nature.” George Bernard
Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra
Shaw has had lots of fans in recent years. “Constructivists”,
as some are called, think that knowledge has much more to do with social interactions
than reality. The upside to this is obvious: freedom – freedom from taking the tension of our differences too
seriously and freedom to go with what one feels is right. It’s a freedom
Hollywood has long celebrated in films like Dead
Poets Society (1989) and Pleasantville
Christopher Nolan isn't an old fashioned barbarian, but
at the very least he sees a downside to not knowing. For example, consider his
latest film, Inception.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an Extractor, a thief who makes
his living by entering the dreams of others and stealing their ideas. It is
quite a lucrative business, but for him it has several downsides: it’s dangerous
and, thus, exciting (for us if not
for him); it cuts him off from his family for reasons you should learn only by
watching the movie; it is confusing. The last in Nolan’s opinion may be the
At first glance Inception
is a typical summer movie, teeming with romance, action, and stunning visuals.
Cobb is blackmailed by Saito (Ken Watanabe) into using his dream-walker skills
to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival. With the help of Ariadne (Ellen
Page), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf (Dileep
Rao), he concocts a scheme complicated enough to confuse Sherlock Holmes.
Thankfully even as it embraces the summer movie motif, Inception transcends it, and its sizzle
makes its steak all the more satisfying. The story within Inception’s story is Cobb’s story, a story filled with questions. He
and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) once chose to live in their shared dreams.
In them they enjoyed god-like freedom to create a world in their own image,
according to their own imaginations. But their delight in it was tempered by troubling questions:
Is it really real? If it isn’t, what is? How can I know? Give Nolan credit here:
he’s not content to sweep these nagging doubts under the rug and enjoy the
fruits of freedom. They obviously drive him crazy and, through him, Cobb.
Constructivists think asking such questions is a no-win
situation, as Stanley Fish once famously pontificated: “I would believe in
absolute truth, if there was an explanation of reality which was independent of
the standpoint of the observer.” If he’s right, then all perceptions as far as
we know are just perceptions, all are equally trustworthy and untrustworthy, and
the question “What is real?" becomes impossible to answer. If he’s right, then
so is Saito, when he tells Cobb, "Don’t
you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret,
waiting to die alone?” And Mal is right when she begs Cobb simply to forget
the questions and love her: “You’re
waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you
hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter,
because we’ll be together.”
How does Cobb answer
the questions? Well, just as no good question is ever well-answered just in
theory, you’ll need to watch Inception
to appreciate how Cobb deals with his dilemma. But before you do, let me
encourage you to do two things. First, watch Nolan’s Memento (2000); it’s a more confusing film in many ways than Inception, but clearer in its
revelation of Christopher Nolan’s worldview. Then, read chapter 1 of Romans. Paul
argues that there are a couple of things that we cannot not know: that God
exists and that we are guilty.
One imagines that Paul and Christopher Nolan would have much
to discuss after watching his film. I cannot imagine a better film to discuss after
watching it with friends of my own.
Christopher Nolan seems to be conscious of the notion of metanarrative. Memento: even without the ability to remember the parts of the metanarrative, Guy Pearce’s character NEEDS one to explain his life, even at the expense of constantly finding new suspects. The Prestige uses the basic structure of a magic trick as a template for its plot. Even in the two Batman films Nolan has directed, metanarrative is prominent–in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s beginnings as Batman are an explanation of a revenge narrative giving way to a redemption narrative; and it’s even more obvious in The Dark Knight, where Moral Good is called upon to defeat the destructiveness of chaos and the cold brutality of chance, even at the expense of a sacrificed hero.
Anyhow, i think Inception is another knot in this thread of Nolan’s. I think he’s exploring the human need for an overarching story to explain life and justify action.
After seeing Inception, I believe that Nolan doesn’t believe there is anything in life or the life after worth hoping for. Comparing Inception with Momento, the main protagonist in both are content with the fact that what is reality is hopeless and that as in Leonard’s case in Memento, he’s willing to live in his own reality whether it’s right or wrong. Cobb, I believe, has decided to live within his dream and forsake his life for one that he can control as evidenced in his desire to try to right all his wrongs throughout his life (wife, kids, Saito). In both cases, desiring to be their own gods so that nothing is out of their control. I’m thankful that Nolan has made thoughtful films that do deserve further discussion beyond the surface and I hope that this film will do that to folks that are willing to go deeper. Greg, thanks again for your thoughts and I hope that we can have further discussion about this and all of Nolan’s films and how we view the world.
I agree. Thus far, I’ve seen no evidence in Nolan’s work that there’s anything or anyone out there that should make life worth living. He’s seems stuck on his epistemological and existential problems: how do I live, if I can’t know anything?
Of course seeing this problem so clearly ought to push him in the right direction, oughtn’t it? I admit I’m fascinated by men like Nolan and Woody Allen who can see certain problems so clearly, but remain unwilling to embrace the solution offered in the gospel.
Ah, well. At the very least it’s evidence of the fact that the human problem really is more than just a lack of understanding.
Thanks for your comments,
I think he’s conscious of the notion and perhaps the need of a big story within which to make sense of one’s self, life, and the world, but do you see any evidence in his work that he actually thinks there is one?
Nolan presents Leonard’s choice at the end of Memento as tragic, but the only choice available to him. Hard for me to see any hope in that. If you can help me see it in Nolan’s work, I’d be pleased to find it.