My rating: ****
I have no doubt that Inception will prove a bonanza for all those analytic philosophers churning out edited collections on analytic philosophy and popular culture over at Open Court. Let me propose a workable alternative title for the film to start them off: Descartes and Freud. The Final Showdown. Or, for those of a Foucauldian persuasion working with other publishers, I might suggest Dream and Existence: The Movie, or even My Body, This Paper, This Fire, Redux. But before anybody gets too enthusiastic, we are talking strictly Freud and Descartes 101 here, for beginners. Thus we have Descartes’ famous meditation on dreaming, madness and doubt and some rather unsophisticated references to repression, guilt and the unconscious id – with a nod to Jung thrown in.
But for all that, Inception is a highly watchable action film with an intellectual edge in the same vein as The Matrix. The premise is that a vaguely defined technology allows people to visit the dreams of others in order to discover their secrets. A much more difficult process allows dream visitors to plant a new idea in the head of the dreamer. The technology and those who use it are deliberately left rather vague which allows the focus to be placed firmly on the more interesting end result of the process rather than in the techniques of getting there.
It is quite a novel experience watching a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that requires concentration to focus on all the simultaneous levels of action taking place – dreams within dreams within dreams. But it is the sort of intellectual concentration that one brings to solving puzzles – puzzles such as labyrinths which feature quite heavily in the film. And of course the character in the film who designs the labyrinths is named Ariadne. But we are not talking Borgesian complexities here. If it is a welcome change to have something to think about in an action thriller it is not the sort of intellectual focus that is associated with altering one’s experience of the world.
If in The Matrix, the question is how we distinguish between ‘reality’ and the illusion of ‘virtual reality’ (Plato’s cave), Inception gets back to classic Cartesian roots. How do I know that I am not dreaming? Just for the record here is Descartes’ classic passage on dreaming from his Meditations 1
How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.
As he notes, there is actually no way of distinguishing between the waking and sleeping states when one is experiencing them, yet the premise in Inception is that it is possible to carry around a small physical object of one’s choice which allows one somehow to distinguish between dream and wakefulness. It is hard to see how this can work as one can dream anything at all – there are no external guarantees (apart from God, according to Descartes at least). The other problem in the film is that the dreams in the film, even if they are designed to some extent for the dreamer by the visitors, unfurl in a fairly logical fashion, which as most people know is not how dreams work. There are also various other plot difficulties – but perhaps these have been planted deliberately to provoke the viewer – I certainly hope so.
Attempts are made to give the film an emotional core along lines that evoke The Forbidden Planet and even Solaris. There are also some resonances with Vincent Ward’s 1998 film What Dreams May Come which I won’t reveal in the interests of not including spoilers. But unfortunately the film is badly let down by the casting and performance of Leonardo diCaprio as the central character. Where the writing indicates a complex, intelligent, grief stricken individual struggling with his own demons, what we get instead is bland and self assured. The right casting and direction (intense closeups) would have made the difference between a spectacular action film which poses interesting intellectual puzzles, and a film which went to the next level with a real emotional punch. An opportunity sadly missed.
But quibbles aside, the set action pieces in this film are impeccable with some fabulous special effects and good acting from the supporting cast. The soundscapes and music – particularly in a dream which takes place around a snowy fortress – are very effective as well.
In any case I will look forward to seeing an Open Court publication appearing some time in the near future…
Not much later… (15th August).
It has come to my notice (thanks Stuart!) that Blackwell has already put out a call for abstracts on Inception and Philosophy to be edited by David Kyle Johnson in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. If you are interested, Dr. Johnson’s contact details are on his webpage.
There is already some interesting reflection around the film. For a Deleuzian interpretation of Inception see the Cineosis blog. There is also a most interesting article by Ian Alan Paul in Senses of Cinema on the indetermincy of both subject and object in Inception. This article also makes passing reference to Deleuze.