WARNING: some spoilers follow, if you care about that sort of thing;
I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception on Friday night. Then I had nothing interesting to do on Saturday, so I saw it again just to check I had seen it. Many of the top film critics have given rave reviews of the film, although one has to wonder with the soggy output of the Hollywood Blockbuster Summer, that Inception has been given the ‘film of the year’ badge simply out of soggy circumstance.
A lot of the academic blogs have reviewed the film as slightly sterile affair, because it fails to bring anything new to the mind, image and memory genre. Jussi Parikka has written;
…Nolan’s film is exactly not daring sci-fi when it comes to dealing with the brain or the self. The cliched guiding idea of getting caught in a dream at the expense of reality does not become transported into a more powerful and political “don’t get stuck in someone else’s dream” but only a bit sentimental storyline. The parallels between political/financial power and power over the mind remain very vague, and the attempt to multiply dimensions of reality (or dream) itself a bit boring.
Parikka’s point is that for Inception to at least register itself as interesting it needs to move the goalposts a bit and for him, the film fails to sufficiently move anything. One can remember a whole range of films covering these themes, (Dreamscape, Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, The Matrix, Nolan’s own Memento, Solaris, etc.) and it would be hard pressed to distinguish Inception from any of those. When dealing with themes such as mind, reality, dreams, image, memory, one of the interesting side effects is the self-reflexive subjectivity of the viewer. The viewer is able to relate to these issues through the medium-specficity of the screen, his/her memory, being caught in the allusive image. In many ways, Nolan’s narrative of criminal dream builders, extracting (or inserting) ideas from important business ‘marks’, contains many themes that bank on audiences linking the dots and seeing the film repeatedly as a result. One of the most prominent for me, is Nolan’s use of simultaneous duration between dream levels (don’t all films operate this way? We spend 2 hours watching a narrative that esstenially takes place over a much longer period?).
But Parikka’s point about Inception not adding anything new to contemporary culture misses the point, because he misses the very theme Inception proclaims endlessly. Ideas. Nolan may spend awkward amounts of time dissecting the Cartesian reality/deception dichotomy, but the film is undeniably about epistemological idealism. And what is crucial for Inception to work, is that ideas build worlds, including reality. An idea, claims ‘Cobb’ (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character), is like a parasite, it holds things, sticks in the brain and is fundamentally the most important element in the film. After all, would there be any point to Inception if ideas failed to be valuable, or failed to be exceptionally strong. The whole focus of the film is the notion that if one were to implant an external idea into an individual, this idea would fundamentally change and even define him/her. This echos Kant’s statement that the only things we can know directly are ideas and abstractions.
This is why for me, the very end scene of the film is undeniably clever in its structure, but fails to add tension to the Cartesian tension; if ideas can operate at all conscious levels; reality, dream, deeper level of dream, then it theoretically doesn’t matter if Cobb is still in a dream or in reality proper; it is still limited to the ideas of human access. Enter the Lacanian quip, that we are all dreaming from the “Real” in reality, i.e., in reality we are actually dreaming, it is only in the dreams of our subconscious we are truly engaged with what matters, even if it isn’t the ‘Real’.
I was impressed by the film not on the level of Ideas, or whether the film communicated its “cultural lessons” effectively, but the level of thoroughness in its content. There are number of things you can criticise Nolan for, potency of ideas, direction, editing (personally I wouldn’t criticise him for these things, but I’m playing Devil’s advocate), but one thing you have to admire is the thoroughness of his creations. Everything is meticulously created to make sense within itself. The content is no where near anything original, but the attention to detail, especially in a $160 million blockbuster is staggering.