I saw Inception yesterday and didn’t like it enough. As my mother praised it on the phone the other day and Cory Doctorow called it “one of the two best science fiction movies I’ve ever seen (along with Gilliam’s Brazil)” I raised my expectations too high. Sure, it was a good mixture of a love story, philosophical questions and an action flick. The romantic aspect left me cold though. The action was fun and some of the imagery was novel. I was fully satisfied with the actors’ work and the visuals, although some of the latter became repetitive. Tighter editing would have made the movie much better. Now onto the philosophy.
The biggest obstacle for making the movie perfect was the writing. Some of it was too schematic. Lines like “Wait, Who’s subconscious are we going through exactly?” usually appear in b-level sitcoms. Another hint for me that the writers were not the best was that I knew what the big secret was third way through the movie. Finally the philosophical questions were not original, although they received a good treatment. The movie proved the point that coming up with new ideas is impossible. They recycled some. Here are the reference points I connected the movie’s ideas with:
- Falling in love with/getting addicted to our own dreams – This was one the main theme of Wim Wenders 1991′ film “Until the end of the world.”
- Fighting in a dreamland to change “reality” – This was what Robin Williams kept doing in the 1998 film “What dreams may come.”
- Suggesting that the whole film was just a figment of an imagination was the basic concept of Shyamalan‘s 1999 “The sixth sense“.
- Getting confused whether one’s dreams represent reality or the other way around – I first encountered this concept in Mihaly Babits‘ (a Hungarian author’s) novel from 1929 “A Golyakalifa.” (The English title seems to be “The Nightmare.”)
These were just my personal associations. But there are many more examples for each themes. Inception was just mix-and-matching them, but doing it in a big way. If I am looking for original contribution to the field of ideas I would be hard-pressed to come up with any. On the other hand I keep thinking about the movie, which is more than what I can say about moth. It gave enough fodder to make a few more points here.
The small, personal objects that helped the dream travelers to check where they were were called totems. It was an unusual word choice. For the majority of the viewers it probably invoked some sense of the indigenous religions it is associated with or the spirit animals they represent in cultures where a whole group is connected to a totem. I think though the objects in the movie really were “anchors, ” using the term as NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) uses it. Wikipedia’s description is not the simplest, but an OK starting point:
“Anchoring is a neuro-linguistic programming term for the process by which memory recall, state change or other responses become associated with (anchored to) some stimulus, in such a way that perception of the stimulus (the anchor) leads by reflex to the anchored response occurring.“
In the movie Ariadne (what a great name for an architect who designs a maze) calls the totem “An elegant solution for keeping track of reality.” In NLP the anchor objects (they don’t have to be objects) enable “you to make available mind states just when you want them.” I guess they couldn’t use the term “anchor” in the movie as most US viewers would have thought of TV news personalities.
Another reason I think the movie wasn’t as deep as it could have been as it never delivered a sophisticated answer to the question “how do we know what we know.” Considering that the idea of “inception” was the main theme I think the topic was undertreated. The writers should have consulted some epistemology textbooks or better yet read up on phenomenology. I would have loved to hear (and see) more on the topic.
As I mentioned on my Kabbalah blog Rabbi Simcha Weinstein found two connections between the movie and Kabbalah:
- Kabbalah teaches, similarly to the movie: our souls leave our bodies and ascend to their heavenly source in order to replenish energy.
- The chemist’s name in the movie was Yusuf, which is the same as Joseph and the Bibilcal Joseph “was blessed with the ability to interpret dreams, a rare skill that was highly valued.“
Another idea that keeps popping in my mind is Plato’s cave. This notion is that what think of as reality is really just like shadows on the wall of the cave we live in. It doesn’t directly addresses the issue of dreams, but a quick led to a short short by Voltaire titled “Plato’s dream.” It’s a story worth reading about perfection, morality and mortality. Not really related to the film, but I am in the mood of sharing everything that the movie brought up for me.
Christopher Nolan is the M. C. Escher of film making. He clearly likes to build his movies on recursive logic. In the Following he created a Moebius strip like plot, already containing the major trick of Inception: the frame within a frame within a frame scenario. Then in Memento he went one step further in deconstructing the traditional cinematic representation of timelines. In his next movie, Insomnia, he was yet again dealing with sleep, albeit this time with deprivation. These are all variations on the same theme.
Enough ramblings. Apologies for the lack of coherence in my “reflections.” I don’t have a central point to make, but I think I shared plenty of minor ones to reflect upon further if you want.
IMDB’s summary: In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption which involves executing his toughest job till date, Inception.