"Inception" and the Danger of Imagination

Imagine a world where dreams can be invaded like a burglar intrudes into a home. Your thoughts, fears, and emotions lay exposed. Your innermost subconscious is raided by thieves seeking to steal your plans and ideas—for a price. If you can imagine such a place, then you have entered the world of the film “Inception.” Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (of Dark Knight and Memento fame), this film is some parts action thriller and others psychological exploration.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a man skilled at entering dreams and extracting what whoever is paying him desires to know. Yet more than anything Cobb desires to return to his two young children, neither of whom he can visit because he is suspected of murdering his wife. Cobb is offered a chance to return to them if he can complete one more, audacious job. Instead of infiltrating dreams to find out ideas already there, he is asked to do inception:  planting an idea in the mind of the dreamer. Though this is claimed to be impossible, Cobb takes the job with the hope of seeing his children again. Putting together a team to work with him, Cobb embarks on an intense journey into another man’s subconscious dream-world, one that includes gunfights, paradoxes, and dreams-within-dreams.

“Inception” continues to showcase Nolan’s exceptional skills as a filmmaker. Witty, intense, emotional, thoughtful—this movie deftly combines car chases and explosions with deep investigations into the dreaming human subconscious. Nolan creates multiple dream worlds with surprising depth and consistency. The consistency and detail make such a far-out concept increasingly believable as the story unfolds, leaving you remembering afterward how many of its rules align with your own dreaming experiences.

With great art, Nolan presents numerous themes that should only multiply and deepen with repeated viewings. Idolatry is held up for ruthless examination. The world of dreams presents the possibility of human desire restrained by little more than the imagination. One can create homes, cities, and entire lives in accordance with one’s own wishes. Rejecting God’s world, these human dreamers seek an even more complete separation from God and entrenchment in their own man-made Edens. Such worlds soon become preferable to the real world. In fact, for many these become their reality.

The idol-making subconscious has an even darker side. Cobb is haunted by the death of his wife and secretly harbors deep guilt regarding it. He tries to keep his wife alive in the prison of his self-conscious. In the attempt, his efforts mixed with his guilt turn her into little more than a destructive monster. Such creations lay bare the dehumanizing effects of selfishness. How often do we re-create others into our desired image within the confines of our mind? Such re-creations can take the form of unspoken expectations or fantasies played out and secretly preferred over the real, God-created person. In doing so, we trade the created image of God for that made in our own likeness.

Cobbs’ guilt further exposes the depths of bondage to which sin can force its captive. He is haunted and losing his grip on reality. His created world soon begins to define and change him. In other words, the freedom that dreams give has turned into slavery. Ultimately, Cobb is a being in need of forgiveness. But forgiveness seems to require atonement and redemption, neither of which seems possible. All he really has is necessity and forgetfulness.

The film also confronts technology’s affect on the lines between public and private. Today Twitter accounts, Myspace, and Facebook trumpet our every thought and movement. Cameras watch us in stores, restaurants, gas stations, schools, even parking lots. For the famous, the paparazzi or reality shows peal off additional layers of privacy. Yet one place still seems inviolable—the mind. Our thoughts if we choose can remain our own, unshared and unknown to the rest of the world. But is it inviolable for no other reason than it is impenetrable? If technology could reach the inner recesses of thought, would it, too, be endangered by theft and held up for public ridicule?

In the end, “Inception” shows the depths of human desperation and depravity. Seeking not just to control but to create our own world, the results are often despair and regret. The film is keenly aware of the danger we present both to other others as well as ourselves. In its unflinching portrayal of these issues, the movie raises filmmaking to the level of true, thoughtful, lasting art. Nolan has taken summer blockbusters and given them an intellectual and beautiful quality otherwise unheard of in a season of mindless action and stale sequels.

About Adam Carrington
  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    My head is still spinning a little from last night when I caught the movie, but I think you picked up on some important themes for us to be thinking about as Christians–excellent points about idolatry–on both the vertical and horizontal levels.

    I wonder (this will be a bit of a spoiler question btw) if Cobb was redeemed in the end or did he just manage to rationalize his past mistake with his wife? I wonder if the whole “inception” on Fischer was really designed by Cobb to rationalize his past mistakes?

    Anyway–that thought made me wonder if this movie isn’t really about perception and rationalization. In other words how can we convince ourselves that our past mistakes were not really mistakes but something else altogether like the best of two bad decisions? In the movie it would appear that it works out for Cobb–though that is not the way things work in real life.

    All that said, I wholeheartedly agree–this was the best movie of the summer by far!

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    As a thought exercise and as a summer blockbuster, I thought it was great, but my vote for movie of the summer still goes to Toy Story 3. I guess for me I had a hard time being invested in the film as a whole, because I didn’t know the characters, I didn’t understand the stakes, and I felt like they kept changing the rules as they went along.

    But I really do love Nolan for writing such a brave script, dealing with themes that haven’t really been dealt with in that way before: themes of love as idolatry, the consequences of ideas, the act of creation, etc. Those are things I love to think about, and Nolan provides a brilliant means to do so with others.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    There goes Rich hijacking another comment thread to talk about Disney movies! …jk

    I actually really want to see Toy Story 3. With regard to Inception, though, I would say that it was Cobb’s relationship with his wife in his subconscious that I found so fascinating about this movie–to me anyway, the movie was largely a journey into Cobb’s soul–that is what made it fascinating.

  • Adam Carrington

    Drew, your points go to prove how much there is in this movie. You obviously could have written a completely different review with different ideas and still have kept within the confines of the film. The journey into dreams and the soul was a very interesting claim about what we are as human beings. Our imaginations, subconsiousness, and consciences show us to be so much more than mere matter and time operating in space. Our being is physical but much more. And the power this much more has over the physical I think provides a great window into discussing our existence as spiritual beings and how that relates to the God who created us in His own image.

    MAJOR SPOILER ALERT (BELOW)

    The question at the end of the movie could be whether the entire experience, the entire film we have just watched is nothing more than a dream. If a mere dream, the working out at the end would be Cobb permenantly descending into a dream-reality. In that sense, there is no redemption but merely escape. Cobb’s happy ending is really a failure to survive in the real world amidst his guilt when flight is possible. Even if it is not all a dream, we still face some of Drew’s points about rationalizing and what that does to our knowing that we know (epistemology for all the philosophy majors). I think it would work well with Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18ff, where men suppress the knowledge of God and exchange His image to worship idols.

    Anyway, I also have not seen Toy Story 3, which I plan to remedy this coming weekend. But aside from what that film may yield, “Inception” is the best summer film I’ve seen thus far.

  • http://www.dianndia.blogspot.com Dianna

    “Such worlds soon become preferable to the real world. In fact, for many these become their reality.”

    This isn’t true at all. It is only, seemingly, Cobb’s wife, Mal, who couldn’t tell between reality and dreams. There is nothing said (purposefully, I believe, due to the ambiguity of the ending) of how the technology has affected others in the world. We only live within and only know the constraints of our few main characters. To say that many of them choose dreams to become their reality is a misinterpretation. To me, the fact that Ariadne comes back after being introduced to the technology isn’t necessarily a desire to choose dreams over reality, but a curiosity, an investigation of science, of seeing what true, unconscious but still kind of conscious creation looks like in a shared dream state, much like how an artist will return to inspiring works from the past, or a songwriter will turn over a melody in his head over and over. There is a detached, scientific exploration to Arthur, to Yusuf, to Eames and to Ariadne. The only people in danger of actually choosing to live in the dream world are Cobb and Mal, which I believe is choice that Cobb, at least, consciously makes.

    My friend pointed me to this article: http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/24477/1/NEVER-WAKE-UP-THE-MEANING-AND-SECRET-OF-INCEPTION/Page1.html , which has some interesting explications on what Nolan is doing with Inception as an art form. I haven’t had a chance yet to think through the religious themes in it, though I do think selfishness might be a large one. I don’t know that all of that author’s arguments work, but I think it’s much more about the artist’s relationship to his art, and the confusing complex process of creation and inspiration (it’s very important that Cobb says, multiple times, that Inception is a form of inspiration, and you can’t fake that) than it is a straight religiously themed piece about selfishness. If it is about selfishness, it is about selfishness as related to the artist and his creation, not necessarily about selfishness as it is related to love.

  • Adam Carrington

    Dianna, good thoughts that show how interesting this film is. But I would say this as to your first point:

    Consider the scene when Cobb and his group looks for a seditive strong enough to keep one asleep during three levels of dreaming. They enter a room where many ordinary people are dreaming. It is noted in this scene that they come there often if not every day. Why? The person manning the area says that they do it to get to reality, that the dream has become their reality. Though this problem isn’t faced by many of the major characters, the film is very clear in this scene that there are people who now prefer the dream-world to their own. So your interpretation of the major characters’ interests and scientific detachment is not incompatible with my reading of how the existence of these new ways of dreaming affect others in the world of the film. I in fact agree with your basic reading of the other main characters that accompany Cobb.

    As to your second main point, I never did argue that Nolan’s conscious point was religious. Since I write for Christ and Pop Culture, I did note themes in the movie that I think reveal truths about humanity as religious, worshipping beings. I would say that love is a central theme to the movie with selfishness as a distorter of it playing a big part in Cobb. Why did he know that inception works? Because he had done it to his wife. Why did he do it to his wife? He wanted to bring her back to reality part of which was because he thought it was for her and their own good. So even the original inception had to do with love. And the results of that loving act going wrong is the source of Cobb’s guilt and the underlying temptation to his selfish attempts to preserve his wife’s existence.

    Anyway, good points and I hope to read the article you linked soon.

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  • Matt

    Adam, very well written, but I disagree with you concerning the theme of religion, and specifically in your case, Christianity. Your opening few sentences – “Imagine a world where dreams can be invaded like a burglar intrudes into a home. Your thoughts, fears, and emotions lay exposed. Your innermost subconscious is raided by thieves seeking to steal your plans and ideas—for a price”. I feel that speaks more to a religious theme than you may have intended, and is an astute observation regarding the theme. however:

    Take the first sentence about how dreams can be invaded like a burglar intrudes into a home. Most Christians, from a very young age are indoctrinated into a belief system whereby they are taught the difference between right and wrong and between Heaven and Hell. They are taught what Heaven is, which is essentially one’s own “dream” – if you will – of a better life after death,and exactly what you need to do to obtain it; follow Christ and accept him as your savior. Religion, therefore, intrudes into the dreams of those being indoctrinated, whether or not they have asked for it, and teaches them the only way to obtain it – whether or not that is right or wrong is a whole different subject. There is a scene in the movie where we are introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s father, where he sort of blames him for teaching him how to use his mind to create a dream-world and how that has led to his problems in the real world. A parallel, I believe, to how many parents indoctrinate religion into their child’s lives without the child having a choice in the matter. I think what happened to Mal and her blind faith in a belief system that what was not only false, but led to her demise, is a cautionary tale in what blind faith can do to a person when introduced to a false ideal. When one looks at death as the only way to make one’s dreams come true.

    The next couple of sentences in your opening paragraph: Your thoughts, fears, and emotions lay exposed. Your innermost subconscious is raided by thieves seeking to steal your plans and ideas—for a price” draws a parallel, in my opinion, to the Christian idea of Hell and how it is used to shape one’s belief about religion. What is more fearful than an eternity spent in Hell? Nothing, especially to a child. I remember being indoctrinated into Christianity and how much this idea scared me. I had to choose whether or not I was going to believe, follow Christ, and be a Christian, and have all of my dreams come true in the afterlife, or burn in Hell. It was an easy choice, but a choice that was forced upon me based on the Christian belief system. Thieves had stolen my “plans”, whatever those were in the real world, and convinced me that my plans should involve Christianity, and it was at a price, the details of which I won’t go into, it would take too long.

    The theme is much larger than the dangers of imagination (which there is no such thing), selfishness, and of man against each other, but rather the dangers of blind faith and teaching someone to believe in a system of ideals based on nothing but blind faith. I believe that Christianity can do a lot of good in this world, but I think it is also dangerous in that it teaches us a set of beliefs regarding the afterlife that is little more than a dream, causing many to lose touch with the difference between reality and imaginary. We only have this one life here on Earth to live, and we must abide by Christian values, not because we will get to Heaven if we do, but because it’s right for your fellow man.