Dreams, the “subconscious”, and Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is an exceptionally ambitious film about the journey of thought-thieves who enter into the dreams of others. The film intertwines multiple story arcs into one viewing experience.

The main character in the film, Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a thief adept in the art of extracting thoughts from the dream-state of individuals as required by his business clients. Inception, is a film about his last assignment which requires him to do the exact opposite – to insert an idea in the mind of a young business tycoon.

At the heart of the film is a reinterpretation of the old-fashioned heist movie filled with car chases, gun-fights, and resplendent pyrotechnics. These sequences are wondrous spectacles unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In a particularly dazzling progression of scenes in the second half of the film, Nolan splices layer upon layer of difference visual sequences to Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing soundtrack. What is most audacious about the endeavor is that these sequences are layered in the alternative reality of dreams.

On another level, Inception is a film about emotions, perception, and reality. Cobb brings a lot of emotional baggage to the table, and the film is as much about his perception of reality and the emotional bonds he shares with others as it is about the mind of the people he enters.

Finally, in order to build the framework for examining dreams, Nolan also spends a substantial amount of time in Inception building a set of rules for dream examination and extraction. While plot structure, attention to detail, and character are central to the experience, these components of the film have been dealt with in detail elsewhere. Because Inception is purported to be a thinking person’s film and because the director’s invests significant time in explaining the theoretic underpinnings of thought-capture in the film, it is constructive to examine them in detail.

How do you insert an idea into someone’s head? Let us consider the idea presented in the film first. According to the film, in order to have a successful inception of an idea, it must be planted as a “seed” or a vague notion in the subconscious and allowed to grow into a full-fledged idea. To gain access to the mind, it must be inserted when the subject has his or her guard relaxed: the best way to enter the mind of a subject is when he or she is dreaming because it is at this time that it is exceptionally vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Why can an idea not be planted through the power of suggestion in a wake subject or through hypnosis? Well, for one there would be no science-fiction blockbuster woven around this simple, yet true explanation. Nolan tries to hammer across the notion that “ideas” are “parasites” that elicit a reaction similar to an immune response in the brain. This is untrue, and there is an inherent paradox in the explanation. We know that very few behaviors, mostly associated with survival, are instinctive. However, if an idea is not innate, then by definition it has external roots and it is susceptible to the power of suggestion – dream state or otherwise. In other words, most ideas do come from outside the mind and are subject to constant modification. This paradox does not detract from the narrative, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Law enforcement officials and magicians have known for years the relative ease by which false memories can be implanted. Psychologists have studied many of the ways by which memories can be changed in alert individuals without their conscious knowledge. Recent studies have affirmed that when there is mismatch between a decision and its outcome, subjects retrospectively rationalize choices they never made in the first place. Clearly, the mind is a place ripe for tricking!

Also, as we all painfully know, the act of forgetting is also a common occurrence. For many years the general assumption was that once a memory had been consolidated and turned into part of a long-term memory system, it was maintained indefinitely. Recent research has demonstrated that even consolidated memories are susceptible to decay. Whenever a memory is retrieved, it is prone to change. In other words, every time you recall events from your childhood, you change these through reconsolidation. Over time, these events add up so you either remember incorrectly or even forget.

There are additional preconditions to the foundations of the plot. First, is the assertion that dreams influence conscious decision-making in individuals. Second, is the corollary that that the rules of conscious decision-making apply to dreams too. Both are required to believe the premise of the film, even though neither has been scientifically substantiated.

Nonetheless, setting these preconditions aside, the dreams in Inception are vivid, though for the most part, linear. Even the most creative filmmakers are constrained by the limitations of their imagination and their art. I suspect that Nolan knew that it would be foolhardy to even try to replicate an actual dream, so he broke dreams down into two fictitious components. The first is the architectural structure that is created by the thieves and somehow uploaded into the mind of the dreamer. The second is the people that populate these hollow architectural structures which he calls projections in the film. Both are ingenious devices that allow Nolan to rein in dreams so that they resemble recognizable locations such as street corners in Paris.

Nolan also uses a very early Freudian notion of deep layers of thought, which has since fallen out of favor. At one stage, Cobb perpetuates the “we only use a part of our brain” fictitious meme. His use of “subconscious” (which has no concrete scientific meaning) throughout the movie to the more commonly used “unconscious” is also likely deliberate in order to put forward the idea that there are layers below the conscious. This comes into great effect in the final act when there are layers of “subconsiousness” which can be controlled and navigated like different levels of a video game. The denouement may also leave some viewers exasperated. However, given the complexities of the plot it was one of only few resolutions logically possible.

So is Inception worth watching? Definitely. Is it rooted in the current understanding of how the mind works? No, but that should not detract from the viewing experience. Inception is a thoughtful and beautifully-shot film. In addition, how many other commercial films can claim to ask us to delve deeper into the recesses of our own minds?

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

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27 thoughts on “Dreams, the “subconscious”, and Inception

  1. Excellent analysis. As Nolan’s movies are, this too was visually brilliant in an unlike-Cameron way (which IMO is better). Also, it was one of the rare movies where special effects are inherent to the plotline and not just bells and whistles. That said, I still found the movie a tad underwhelming but perhaps that’s coz of the expectations piled on my early moviegoers on Twitter.

    • Thanks for reading, Patrix. I loved the special effects too.

      I agree about the early moviegoers commenting on Twitter. I was very excited about seeing this movie. I came out of the theater thinking it was worse than I do now. I’ll probably watch again for the seamless effects.

  2. Thanks for putting across the conflicting thoughts that even I had about the premise of the film. Despite which the movie has been a treat to watch.

    • To be fair, this review was the hardest one I’ve ever written. This movie is about something so complex, that it took me a while to even structure my thoughts.

  3. Saw ‘Inception’ today. Had avoided reading reviews till I watched, so came back to check yours. I think you’ve mostly got it spot on.

    Overall, I really liked the movie, but it’s not Nolan’s best by any margin. ‘Memento’ is of course streets ahead. And I think ‘Prestige’ and Dark Night are much better films. I was willing to suspend disbelief on the science front, but the big negative for me was the fact that I couldn’t empathize with any of the characters. I really could care less about Cobb reuniting with his kids or the group’s mission succeeding. That was a bit disappointing.

    • I agree with you. It was more of an intellectual and visual exercise. The lead actress, Marion Cotillard who I had seen a few weeks earlier in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was completely wasted.

      As for Ken Watanabe, I really had to read his lips to complete his sentences.

      I liked Dark Night and The Prestige better than this. The Scandanavian Insomnia with Stellan Skarsgard was better than Nolan’s adaptation.

  4. Bhishon bhaari review. Enjoyed it but somehow had a few occasions of bouncers trying to understand. But then I am intellectually challenged.Your analysis is admirable.Makes me want to “never” ever review anything. Have to watch Inception.Good work Ani.

    • Thanks, LEB. Last week I spent most of the time writing a business report so I enjoyed releasing the braindroppings in the previous post. This one was more of a slog. I had to really put in a lot of concentration to pen it precisely.

  5. I just stumbled onto your byomkesh blog….I am ever so elated …. even more than your post on how to cure hypothermia bollywood style. Why hvnt u linked it on this blog…or hv I missed the link?

  6. I took eternity to finish read the post. Not because it was long, but because I couldn’t understand a lot of things here. The reason being, I haven’t watched the movie yet. Very few reviews would make me want to watch a movie. Your review does.

  7. Btw, watched two great Bollywood movies last evening.
    Swaha: incredibly good story
    Trump Card: Everything is perfect, but acting is out-of-this-world flawless
    Try and see if you can get these two.

    • People in the movie theater I saw it in were just cracking up at that point. I was glued to the visuals.

      Thanks for reading. I enjoyed Matrix more too.

  8. Ani,
    Once again you have written an excellent and well thought out review. I enjoyed how you presented the movie without revealing too much and then added the “academic” perspective. I think after reading your review and then watching the movie I would have captured so much more. Without it, I still enjoyed the movie even though I had to play “catch up” mentally because I didn’t realized how complex the movie was. It is definitely not the time of movie for chomping on popcorn and snuggling with a date. You need to give it your full attention. Even if you took out the complex layers, you could enjoy the movie just for the action scenes. I was on the edge of my seat by the end. Did it continue to spin or fall over?

    • Thanks, Jenee. I enjoyed the movie, but I had very high expectations. I think I can safely say that these expectations were not met. Overall, a good movie, but not a great one.

  9. I’ve always been a Nolan fan ever since Memento…and he doesn’t disappoint with this one either.It’s so well edited.I came out of the theater with my mind all fuzzy.

    I read your awesome review a week back,just thought I’ll reserve my comments until after I’ve seen the movie. 😀

    • Thanks for reading. I like Nolan’s movies, but even among them I like the two Batman movies the most. I didn’t like his remake of “Insomnia” as much as the original. On the other hand “Memento” and “The Prestige” were spell-binding.

  10. Young folks here told me that they couldn’t understand the movie and so i go with all prejudices to see the movie tomorrow.Shall ask for ur help then if just like them i am also blinking at the end of it.
    Good write up which feels like an interesting review.:)

  11. Anirban i got the movie to a certain extent and understood what the youngsters meant.Those levels of dreams were too chaotic but the movie is worth watching i feel for it’s cinematography and fantastic concept…subconcious…projections…planting an idea into someone’s mind.
    Wow!! what an idea Nolan Jee!
    Thanks for the review…would’ve delayed the watch otherwise.

  12. What I felt very slightly disappointed in was that the entire plot was laid out in front of us, explained neatly as if with a chalk and board. When I came out of the cinema hall, I had understood everything in the movie, and the ONLY thing I was thinking about was whether or not the totem falls at the end.

    I would have loved for the film to have one or more of the follwing:

    1. Some emotional content — As one of your commenters said, it was not easy to identify, empathise or even sympathise with any of the characters. They all acted brilliantly, more or less, but I just couldn’t find a good enough human connection. The movie, therefore, felt quite sterile and cold. The problem, though, is that this requires a very careful balancing act. Had there been too much of an emotional angle, the movie could very well have degenerated into a Cameronesque blockbuster.

    2. I would have loved to have had more to occupy my mind after the movie’s done. All good movies (and games) tend to do that…leave you with something to think about, either an emotional touch with one of the characters or a feeling of awe regarding the plot or some concept of the movie. The Matrix, for example, left me thinking about the limitless possibilties Neo has at his control, at the world of un-reality we could be living in, etc. etc. When Inception was done and dusted, it was truly done and dusted.

    • I disagree. At the end, with the top spinning, it left you to wonder if Cobb was really in realitly. For all we know, Mal could have been right about leaving to another reality. There is no way to really know; it’s all up to you.

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