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.