I love pretty much anything Christopher Nolan makes. If Nolan drew a flipbook in crayon I’d probably watch it and love it. He’s a master of the scrambled storyline, with skips and jumps and flashbacks that keep you on your toes at all times. If you don’t like movies that force you to think, then you probably won’t care much for his work. Ditto if you don’t like movies with dark themes or dark visuals. He is especially keen on exploring the complex relationship between perception and reality. His films ask penetrative questions about our own self-knowledge and about our tendency to lie to ourselves, selecting for ourselves the reality in which we want to live. True to form, the movie Inception does that brilliantly, with one element in the story illustrating particularly well why it’s so difficult to let go of our most basic belief systems.
Dom Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio, is a highly skilled “extractor” who infiltrates people’s dreams in order to steal their secrets or else teach them to better guard their secrets against other intruders. In order to pull this off, someone other than the subject must serve as the architect who “builds” the structural elements of the dream out of the subconscious material already present within the mind of the dreamer (it’s best not to think too hard about how they could do this; just run with it). Because the detailed content of the dream is provided by the one dreaming, everyone else you meet in the dream is a subconscious projection of the dreamer. They look and sound like real people, but really they’re just an illusion created by the person whose dream you’ve infiltrated. Ordinarily they all behave in ways which are typical for those people in real life. But there is one circumstance which dramatically alters their behavior and character: When the reality of the dream itself becomes suspect, everyone in the dream suddenly becomes hostile toward the one threatening the dream’s integrity. Even people who are characteristically sweet and gentle turn violent and belligerent toward the intruder the moment they sense their reality has been threatened.
It makes perfect sense, though, when you think about it. What’s the most fundamental assumption in a dream? It is that the dream isn’t a dream. It’s supposed to look and feel like real life. The functioning of the dream itself depends on this illusion. The one thing that cannot be disturbed without destabilizing this fictitious world is the belief that the events and people you see are real. Sure, sometimes you can figure out that you’re dreaming and stay within the dream, consciously changing it however you like (I love it when that happens!). But more often than not, the realization that you’re dreaming ruins the dream—it breaks the spell and snaps you out of it. The dream disintegrates and the projections scurry back into the recesses of your subconscious mind.
Nolan’s Inception brilliantly imagines how characters within a dream would behave if they became aware that someone was tampering with their dream world, thereby threatening its illusion of reality. Fighting off the intruder would become their prime directive, and all other storylines and motivations would converge upon a plot to destroy the one threatening their existence. “Jeez! You mind telling your subconscious to take it easy?” Ariadne complained.
I can’t speak for Nolan’s intentions, but to me, this expertly captures the way our own minds fortify the assumptions which give structure to everything else we think and believe. Our minds act like living organisms which must protect those functions on which they depend, even amassing an army at a moment’s notice to combat anything which threatens the structural integrity of our own way of seeing the world around us. Just as the extras in each dream go from disinterested bystanders to angry mob in the blink of an eye, so our own thought processes tend to retool instantly, arming our minds against anything which threatens the most basic structural element within, namely that what we think maps to reality in an accurate and reliable way.
In order for our minds to function well, beliefs have to “click” and work together, and we often put a lot of time and effort into making them do so. But every once in a while something comes along which causes us to question our most basic beliefs. When that happens, our brains kick into high gear, generating evasive countermeasures like a military division (or perhaps more fittingly, as the movie clip above suggests, like the body producing white blood cells to fight off a foreign infection). It’s not even a conscious choice on our part. It just happens, and we ourselves feel the effects of this battle as if we are one of the bystanders caught in the crossfire of a military skirmish. Our old ideas militate against the new ones so automatically, producing justification after justification for maintaining the mental status quo, that we are scarcely aware of what is happening. Just like in these dreams, our minds can have a life of their own, and it helps us process what’s happening to become more aware of what’s going on. At some level, something is causing us to question what we believe and our minds don’t like it. We fight it whether we mean to or not. But learning to recognize this pattern could help make things a little clearer for us.
Questioning Your Reality Can Be Dangerous
When I first began to seriously question what I was taught about “ultimate reality”—that behind everything that exists there is a kind of Giant Invisible Man—it wasn’t easy to pursue the questions I had. All these reasons for abandoning that quest came rushing in like a well-trained militia. I don’t think I even realized what hit me. It was over almost as quickly as it began. “If you go down that road,” my inner dialogue warned, “you may not like what you find, and you may very well lose everything you’ve worked for all these years.” Simultaneously, another inner critic chimed in and asserted, “Your motives for asking these questions are probably wrong; therefore you should stop asking them.” Finally, the wisest-sounding voice of all speaks up, like the seasoned sage condescending to advise me: “Grasshopper, who are you to even ask such questions? You are too small and these questions are too big. Simply accept the reality you have been given and be happy with that, for the grass is no greener over there than it is over here, and you will only have more questions than before.” What? Your inner dialogue doesn’t sound like clichéd characters from old movies? Maybe that’s just me, then.
In my experience, ideas and thought processes aren’t the only things that can go from benign to belligerent at the threat of a foreign idea. People can get uncharacteristically combative as well. I’ve watched in disgust as family members of friends metamorphosized from sweet and loving caregivers to angry, desperate crusaders bent on reconverting their loved ones back into thinking “the right way” about things, saying and doing things they ordinarily would never do. In my own life, I’ve seen men and women of utmost character and integrity lie through their teeth in a desperate attempt to keep their grip on the reality they believe they are obligated to defend. Steven Weinberg famously said:
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
I’ve heard people argue that other things can make good people do bad things, too. But the people I’m talking about are exceptionally principled idealists who wouldn’t give in for any of the usual tempting influences (money, power, prestige, or sex). These are people who would drive all night to return a package of gum that wasn’t properly purchased. But openly question the beliefs on which their whole world was built, and just look out. You’re likely going to see a side of them you’ve never seen before. People can say and do the most insensitive things in the service of defending their belief systems against threats both foreign and domestic.
Whether these defense mechanism take the shape of ideological rationalizations or rhetorically combative people, you should expect resistance to any serious questioning of the presuppositional framework on which your worldview depends. Like the subconscious projections in Inception, your own thoughts will resist changing anything foundational to the structure of the way you think. In a way, a mind depends on this kind of self-protection, just like dreams depend on the dreamer remaining ignorant of the illusory nature of the dream. The good news is: If you want it badly enough, you can break through the dream and wake up. You might find what’s really going on doesn’t look anything like what you thought was happening. Many of us who went from a worldview of religious faith to a (for us) wider world of skeptical curiosity will describe it like waking up from a dream. It was scary and disorienting as it was happening. At times we may have even feared that we might not survive, or at least that something awful would happen to us. But survive we did. And so far, I haven’t come across any who regret learning what they learned along the way.
Now About That Ending…
I couldn’t close out a discussion of an intriguing film like Inception without offering my take on the big question left unanswered at the end of the movie: Was the final layer of the storyline a dream, or was it real? [***Spoiler Alert***]
It doesn’t matter.
Let me explain why that’s the best answer.
First of all, if I had to pick a side, I’d argue that the “top layer” of the storyline, the one we assume is the “real life” layer, had too many elements which resembled the dream layers.
Like Mal said, it’s awfully suspicious that the “real world” layer was just as riddled with a mysterious and powerful corporation putting a bounty on his head. All the chases and shootings and beatings seemed an awful lot like the level of danger manufactured in everyone’s dreams. I’d also point out how complete strangers inexplicably acted like they knew Cobb as well as he knew himself. “The dream has become their reality,” the old man in Mombasa said to Cobb. “Who are you to say otherwise?” Pro tip: It’s a telling sign that a person is a projection of your own psyche if they seem to know you as well as or even “better than” you know yourself (e.g. God). Finally, I’ll point out that in the “real world” layer, both Mal and Saito told Cobb: “I’m asking you to take a leap of faith.” It’s possible that was just a coincidence, but it’s even more likely that some conscious organizing of dialogue is happening and that this is yet another clue that Cobb is dreaming this layer as well. I’m tempted to reference the apparently identical re-enactment of Cobb at the end of the film turning to look at his children, who seem forever the same age, doing exactly the same thing each time. But Nolan anticipated this give away so he cast two separate pairs of kids to enact those scenes. He didn’t want to make it too obvious.
The biggest question on everyone’s mind in the last seconds of the film is: Did the top fall, or did it keep spinning?
Again, let me assure you: It doesn’t really matter. There are two reasons for this.
1) Cobb had already spun the top at that layer three times before, and each time it fell. So why would it suddenly regain its magical powers of perpetual motion now and not before? If it’s a matter of Cobb’s will, then this is in fact a dream layer and not the true “real life” layer we thought we were in. Each time the top fell in the past, it convinced us (and Cobb) that this layer was real life. But what’s to say he couldn’t make the top fall in his dream? He can make it do whatever he wants if it’s all still a part of his dream. But that’s not the most salient detail for us to note…
2) Cobb chose not to look at the top anymore. He wanted to be with his kids, and at this moment in the layer he was in, he was finally home and free to see them again. Previously he wouldn’t look at them because that would ground him in that layer instead of the one of his choosing, the one in which he was home. The one inescapable reality for Cobb was that his wife was dead because of something he did (a thought which produced a guilt that defined everything about him at this point). So the one thing he knew he couldn’t have was his wife and his kids in the same reality. He had to choose between the two. And now that he had made his way home after having said goodbye to Mal, he chose to look at his kids and look away from the totem. Not that the totem really tells us (or him) anything authoritative since, as I’ve already pointed out, it had fallen at that level three times before. If this were a dream, he could still make it do as he wishes. But he didn’t even care anymore. He was “home,” and he had what he wanted. Nothing else mattered.
Once again Nolan has artfully explicated the provisional relationship between perception and reality. We are experts at fooling ourselves, and if we want something badly enough, we’ll find a way to believe what we want to believe. That’s why we need a method of escaping our own subjectivity. But that’s a topic for another discussion.
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