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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan


In this review of Christopher Nolan's film Inception (2010), I focus on the way in which it closely references other Hollywood movies in its representation of dreams. By this, it uncannily blurs the boundaries between dreams and reality, fiction and truth, for the cinema audience.


Clearly, Inception is a highly accomplished movie - for a Summer blockbuster. No one can possibly be so dulled to the dazzle of special effects and stellar cast, and the fast-paced action sequences, not to appreciate it at some level. The question that Nolan's unusually intelligent thriller wants us to ask of it, however, is whether this is a good, thought-provoking film by any standards, not just Hollywood's own seasonal one.

Certainly, the film teases at the limits of its viewers' intellect, with its illustration of the truly strange unconsciousness of dreaming. Rather than resorting to pseudoscientific explanations for its premise that dreams can be shared and altered by others, the film instead asks legitimate questions that we may ourselves have thought about at some point: Why can we construct coherent narratives in dreams but can never quite remember the beginning of one? Why do we always wake up before we hit the bottom of a fall? Why does a minute of sleep encode hours or years of narrative play within a dream? Especially towards the start of the film, as we struggle to orientate ourselves in relation to the imaginary dream worlds on screen and the everyday truths about our own dreams that they point towards, the film teases us that we have comprehended its conceptual playfulness before it suddenly scurries away down another Carrollian rabbit hole. Led on a merry chase through its mazes and Escher-type paradoxes (both of which feature as prominent metaphors), we leave the cinema not quite sure of whether we have reached the film's intellectual centre - or even if it is supposed to have one at all.

However, in an attempt to claim some point of understanding, I would note some aspects of the film that are most interesting. The first is how well the film deals with the potentially subversive question that is lurking in the background. Ostensibly, the plot claims that it is possible for one person to share the dreams of another, and to enter their subconscious dreams in order to steal secrets or to implant life-changing ideas. In this case, Cobb (Di Caprio) and his team of conspirators must craft a dream narrative and sustain it in the mind of Fischer, the son of a dying industrialist, in order to convince him to split up his father's business empire once he inherits it. But surrounding this plot, like a partially-perceived halo, must be the question of whether this entire plot is "just another dream," the conspiratorial fantasy of the would-be-but-not-really dream-thief Cobb.

The tension of this peculiar heist narrative derives from the risk that, over time, dreamers might confuse reality as being just another layer of a dream and will try to kill themselves in order to "wake up"; or that they will prefer the magical realism of the dream world, or the dream world which can conjure up believable happy memories of lost lovers, to the dull real world where the laws of gravity and death stubbornly persist. Thus at a certain point it becomes impossible for dreamers to escape out of a dream and back into actual life; they will inhabit their dreams in a state of limbo for what seems like decades, whilst in actuality they become either vegetative or suicidal. The thrill of the second half of the film depends on a version of the archetypal ticking time bomb that here is the planned "kick" that should reawaken the infiltrating dreamers once they have completed their mission, preventing them from falling into limbo.

In principle, the film thus needs to draw a clear gap between truth and fiction, between the corporeal characters in actual life and their fictitious projections in Fischer's dream world, if it is to cause us to fear emotionally for what will happen to the "real" characters if they overstay their time in Fischer's dream. In practice, though, there are plenty of hints that this whole premise - the entire narrative from start to finish - is just one big dream which we never step outside of, thus deconstructing the reality of all of the characters, whether ostensibly within or outside dream states.

But rather than leaving us with an explicit version of the schoolboy's final line, "he woke, and it was all just a dream," as a plot twist (which, since it has been an obvious possibility all along, would hardly be a twist at all) the film ironically acknowledges and then refashions this suspicion throughout. In his "real" life, Cobb seems less like the visceral and credible secret agents of Bourne or Daniel Craig's Bond that we have become used to in cinema in the Age of Terror, and more like a classic James Bond, dashing through a world of sharp-suited goons who cannot shoot straight to save their lives, and of megalomaniac corporate villains. Cobb in actual life seems as bravura, and parodic, a secret agent as he is when in the dream world, dodging bullets and leaping cars. This blurs the gaps between real and dream; real-Cobb and dream-Cobb seem one and the same. Thus real-Cobb too might be an illusion, whereby an unseen persona has dreamt himself into the part of some Ian Fleming hero, albeit perverted by an encounter with Freud.

Where the film is canny, though, is in its ironic acknowledgement that Cobb's whole adventure might be a sham from which he never wakes up and which we the audience never step outside of, and the way in which it turns this to use as a metaphor for our own experience of watching film in the first place. Which is dafter: the idea that "architects" can create and inhabit other people's dream worlds, or that the narrative constructed for us in the cinema is just an elaborate hoax or fantasy? Or, in the end, is there much difference between the two? Rather than honing in on the uninteresting question of "do I wake or sleep," the film shows how cinema is an existing theatre of dreams that has long kidded us in this regard.

The first half of the film moves forwards episodically, with each episode seeming to draw on a different, immediately recognisable Hollywood genre. We open in the apocalyptic Orientalism of a Tarantino movie; switch into the prototypical plot of the renegade agent on the run from his former employers; then into the Italian Job (we are prepped for this by a cameo by Michael Caine) whereby a heist is planned by an assembled team who gather - where else? - in a dimly lit warehouse; the heist itself begins with quick changes of vehicle; then we enter the physics warping world of the film's most obvious twin, The Matrix, which for most of the film's second half means bullet-time fighting and gravity-defying stunts; finally, the climax of the film takes place in remote military post in Arctic tundra, defended by classically incompetent gun wielding skiers. Elsewhere, we get echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (in the son-meets-father death bed scene); any number of romances set in rain-soaked Paris; of Nolan's own Memento; and probably a hundred others I am not sharp-eyed or knowledgeable enough to have noticed.

Rather than being self-indulgent in recruiting other films for its metaphors and sub-plots, there is a good reason why this particular dream seems so derivative. This use of familiar genres is unsettling in precisely the uncanny manner of dreams: we have seen this film before, but not quite in this way. This is - or should be - the same Hollywood thriller as any other, but is somehow different.

As I mentioned earlier, the undoubted tension of the action sequences hinges on whether the characters will wake up in time. But we have to ask ourselves why we are tense at all. If I am seeing people get shot in a dream (and not even in my own dreams, but in the fictional representation of Fischer's dream that may in turn be embedded within Cobb's dream) why am I fearful as we hurry along to the film's fast temporal beat? The reflexive answer can only be that we are successfully deceived in cinema, so that whether we take the narrative on face value as being about dreams-within-reality, or whether the whole thing is just a hoax as Cobb's dream, matters not. What is effective, then, is that the film accepts that this could all be just Cobb's dream, but then deflects this uninteresting twist onto our own experience in the cinema: if this is all just a dream, what else did we expect, since cinema is and has always been just a simulation, no matter how much we might want its romances or thrilling conspiracy theories to be true?

The film is thus quite Aristotelian: we dream or watch theatre (or film) for some emotional release, but a release that can also have an effect in actuality. When Plato rejected Aristotle, it was because he thought that theatre (or dreams) were dangerous, because they substituted a representation for the real, kidding us that we have reached some sort of understanding that is not actual truth, but truth only in the narrative's own terms. Yet here is where dreams are so strange, straddling both philosophies. Dreams may not be reality as such, but they do - indeed, biologically have to - happen in our everyday lives, and when they happen they seem as, if not more, real and affecting than the conscious life and decisions from which they momentarily detach us.

Similarly, cinema is part of reality, of our historical memory, as well as also presenting fictitious stories. Hence why it is so discomforting to watch Fischer's dream rendered in a way that invokes cinema genres that we ourselves have witnessed on numerous previous occasions. Alongside the conspirators, we enter Fischer's dream world, and not only do we passively watch the narrative unfold, but we also actively inject into it our own historical experiences of cinema that Fischer cannot possibly know of. Early in the film, we get a reference to Richard Dawkins, when Cobb challenges someone he is stealing from: "What is the most resilient parasite?" The answer is an idea (or meme). Hollywood has successfully implanted such memes into our cultural unconscious. The Bond villain, the secret agent, the heist, the Arctic hideout - these are the DNA of the summer blockbuster movie. When we see Fischer's dreams rendered with these memes within it, it is as if somehow our own reality (which unlike those in the movie we know to be true) has infected his unrealities. Rather than Nolan or Cobb alone envisaging Fischer's dreams, our personal and actual experiences of earlier cinematic imaginations play a part in the construction of their uncanny, unsettling nature, whereby they seem familiar but somehow different.

Of course, to mention the uncanny repetitiousness of dreams - and especially the way the dreams invoke real film history so that the lines between Fischer's and Cobb's unconscious and our cultural conscious becomes blurred - is to conjure up the spectre of Freud. As with the "do I wake or sleep" puzzle, he too lurks in the background to the narrative, but thankfully, aside from an ironic use of "totems" (to break the taboo of dreams), and a comic nod that "it all goes back to the father," the film does not try to be too clever for itself. The Matrix, dealing with similar philosophical questions, was quite bald in its use of Plato and Descartes, and was therefore quite familiar to anyone with any knowledge of these; it was a great popularisation, but the fundamental premise that reality could just be a demonic deception was an old one. With Inception, because the vocabulary of Freud has become so commonplace - the unconscious, Oedipus, repression - we neither need nor are given any of the didactic, pseudo-academic explanation that smothered The Matrix series.

As well as straddling Plato and Aristotle, then, the film should certainly be seen as being anti-Cartesian and post-Freudian. Contrary to Descartes, feeling and thinking, or emotion and rationality, or dreaming and mental alertness, are not separate states; as with Freud, each reflects and blends into the other. Even if the vision is just the representation of Fischer's dream within Cobb's dream within a fictional film, and even if rationally we know there is no danger to any of the characters who are just projections of his mind which is in turn a manifestation of Nolan's, instinctively we cannot help but react with embodied impulses: the sweat on the brow, the clench on the arm rest. Here is Nolan's achievement, then, in encouraging us not only to feel in response to a thriller, but to think about it; and to encourage that thinking by introducing the potentially timeworn memes of the Hollywood blockbuster into the newly imaginative movie theatre of dreams.

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Your Comments on "Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan"

Name: Anon    URL: http://www.youtube.com/sbecker3    Date: 13 December 2010

Comment: Perhaps the medium and the message are purposely confused as far as Mr Nolan's view of the world from "Momento" through to "Inception"? The medium of convenient and socially binding identity used to garner in the faithless from the danger of going astray in exploring themselves in an unsupervised manner? If cinema provides acceptable introspection then what does this say about the use of novelty within an otherwise boring repetitive framework of rational plot based explanation that seemingly has to set the ground rules for handling the routinely unsuspected illusions that appear in each of his films?

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This page was published on July 23, 2010 | Keywords: Inception, Christopher Nolan, metacinematic, dreams

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