In his book Speaking into the Air (University of Chicago Press, 1999), John Durham Peters points out that if telepathy — presumably the only communication context more immediate than face-to-face interaction — were to occur, how would one know who sent the message? How would one authenticate or clarify the source? Planting an idea undetected into another’s mind, subconsciously in this case, is the central concept of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. [Warning: I will do my best to spoil it below.]
Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real
All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
— Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street”
The meta-idea of planting an idea in someone’s mind, known to some as memetic engineering, is not new; however, conceptualizing the particulars of doing it undetected is. Subconscious cat-burglar Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in extracting information from slumbering vaults. After a dream-within-a-dream heist-gone-wrong, he’s offered a gig planting something in one: and idea that will grow to “transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” Cobb reminds me of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) in the 1984 movie Dreamscape. Gardner is able to enter the dreams of others and alter their outcomes and thereby the outcomes of “real” situations. Cobb and his team do the same by creating and sharing dreams with others. The ability to share dreams — or to enter other worlds together via dreams, computer networks, hallucinations, mirrors, lions, witches, wardrobes, what-have-you — seems to be a persistent human fantasy. Overall, Nolan does a fine job adding to that canon of stories.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff gets theory-checked mid-film when Cobb’s partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt — standing in for Heath Ledger?) explains inception with the “don’t think of an elephant” ploy. What are you thinking about right now? Exactly. The problem is that you know why you’re thinking that right now. Successful inception requires that you think you thought of the idea yourself, independent of outside influence. It’s the artificial insemination of an original thought, “pure inspiration” in Cobb’s terms.
For better or worse, this concept (which takes the entire first act to establish), its mechanics (designer sedatives to sleep, primitive “kicks” to wake up), and the “big job” (a Lacanian catharsis culminating in the dismantling of a global empire) are just the devices that might enable the estranged Cobb to return home to his children. His late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard — standing in for Brittany Murphy?), or rather his projection thereof, haunts his dreams, jeopardizing his every job. Mal is a standout strong character and performance in a cast of (mostly; see below) strong characters and performances. She is beautiful, scary, and maintains an emotional gravity intermittently missing in this often weightless world. She is the strange attractor that tugs the chaos along. Whenever the oneiric ontology of Inception feels a bit too free-floating, Mal can always be counted on to anchor it in anger and affect.
The first time through, I thought that over-explaining the “idea” idea was the movie’s one flaw, finding myself thinking, “Okay, I get it” over and over. The second time through though, I honed in on it: The one thing preventing the concept from fully taking hold in the holiest of holies in my head is Ellen Page. Sure, she ably carried the considerable weight of Hard Candy (2005) and manhandled the tomboyish Juno (2007) to breakout success (admittedly with Michael Cera’s help), but her character and performance in Inception is the splitting seam that unstitches the dream into so many threads of sober consciousness. She’s supposed to be a brilliant architect yet simultaneously unaware of the ins-and-outs of inception and extraction, but she only believably excels at the latter. Where Keanu Reaves’ bumbling and understated Neo made The Matrix (1999) work by asking questions and pulling the viewer into the second world, Page’s clueless Ariadne drags us, the pace, and the other actors down. With the inexperienced patron Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) cues and clues to guide us through the intricacies of dream-theft, Ariadne is rendered all but unnecessary. She’s mostly redundant.
The seed of every story is a conceit, an unrealistic event or idea that the rest of the story sets out to explain. The survivors of a loved one who has committed suicide can never really know why he or she did so. The living can always see another option. If nothing else, Inception succeeds in explaining the suicide of a completely rational person, but I think it succeeds at much more than that.
Note: This post greatly benefited from discussions with and thoughts from Jessy Helms, Cynthia Usery, and Matt Morris.