The release of Inception (2010) marks another entry into the plethora of films of the last decade revolving around themes of simulation and meta-reality. The suggestion that our everyday lives, and the world that they inhabit, are in some way fake, constructed or are simply façades has populated the imaginations of American filmmakers and is seemingly an emerging genre of movie-making.

From the Wachowski Brothers’ action-packed film The Matrix (1999), to David Cronenberg’s enigmatic eXistenZ (1999), to Charlie Kaufman’s Baudrillard-inspired Synecdoche, New York (2008), filmmakers have largely been obsessed with the suggestion that the material world which we take for granted as being real and consistent is rather revealed to be a construct which can be bent, transformed and recreated based on characters’ actions, desires and fantasies.

While the subjective nature of our experiences has arrived as a driving problematic within American film, it has long been one of the central concerns occupying the traditions of Western philosophy, postmodern literature, and avant-garde cultural practices and continues to animate cultural production in these fields. From the parable of Plato’s Cave to Rene Magritte’s iconic non-representation of a pipe (Ceci N’est Pas une Pipe) and now in Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, it seems that this is a problem and a concern that will not dissolve anytime soon.

While Inception certainly takes part in this trajectory in American cinema, its contribution is markedly different than the aforementioned films in that it posits both a variety of different models for thinking about the production (and destruction) of our reality as well as suggests frameworks within which to consider our own fundamental relationship to cinema.

Reality and The Dream

The majority of the Inception takes place in dream-worlds. After sedating themselves and plugging themselves into a machine, multiple characters are able to occupy a shared dream-space where one person is tasked with manufacturing the dream-world, and the rest are able to live in it. While the dream-world is initially the product of one of the characters’ imaginations, it soon becomes transformed and filled by the subjectivities and desires of other individuals who enter the world of the dream.

What we end up with in this framework is a dream world that is always in a state of production and is never constant or static, as each person’s presence in the dream-world alters the entirety of the space as they move through it. The dream-worlds in Inception are layered and built atop one another, and we often are asked to consider a dream within a dream within yet another dream. In this structure, the events in one world send affecting ripples throughout the others.

While we are presented with an authoritarian computer controlled world in The Matrix (alluding to or evoking Michel Foucault’s and Jean Baudrillard’s theories of social control), and while we are shown a properly surrealistic world in eXistenZ, where the unconscious needs and wants of characters in the film dominate their experiences with the world(s) around them (drawing this time from the psychoanalytic texts of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan), in Inception we are presented with worlds which are always in-between and dependant, shifting and mutating as characters negotiate the space (which are perhaps more properly understood as borrowing from the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari).

The plot of Inception presents us with a diversity of psychological and philosophical frameworks within which we can think about the film, and in the end we are presented with a geography of these different discourses that is at times harmonious and at other times contradictory. Nolan’s work both serves as a primer of these different fields of study while at the same time it moves to complicate the relationships between them.

Repression and Psychoanalysis

On the surface of the film we are clearly and forcefully presented with Freudian theories that then serve to drive the characters and move the plot. Early on we are told that the easiest way to get someone to accept an idea as their own (called ‘inception’ in the film) is to reduce it to its most basic and elementary form. In the plot of Inception, this is shown to be one of the character’s Oedipal complex, manifest in his troubled relationship with his father. The rest of the film revolves around a team of protagonists attempting to get this character to resolve this conflict in order to plant an idea in his unconscious mind.

The central protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is possessed by Freudian conceptions of repression. Slowly and steadily it is revealed that he is motivated not only by his desire to be reunited with his children and become a father himself, but also is haunted by the guilt associated with his wife’s suicide. In one memorable part of the film, Cobb and another character physically navigate through one of Cobb’s constructed dream-worlds which is manifest as a hotel with different surreal spaces inhabiting each floor. As the characters move through the building in an elevator, only when they descend to the basement (representing Cobb’s unconscious) do we get to see the trauma that occupies Cobb’s unconscious mind.

The psychoanalytic concept of repression is a consistent theme, as the buried experiences and traumas of Cobb continue to resurface in the dream-worlds until they are properly resolved. For example, in several scenes we get glimpses of Cobb’s children, whom he hasn’t seen in years, as encounters in the dream-world trigger his memories and cause them to come into material being. Cobb also unconsciously resurrects his wife in the space of the dreams, causing him to come face-to-face with a manifestation of his repressed trauma.

This is also jarringly clear in a scene where a locomotive from one of Cobb’s traumatic memories spontaneously appears and goes barrelling down the streets of another character’s dream-city, destroying cars and killing drivers along the way and derailing the protagonists from their objective. It is both the characters’ desires and repressed traumas that seems to construct and destruct the dream worlds and which causes us to become suspicious of the veracity and credibility of the events in the film. Through the inclusion of these events, Inception asserts the role that the unconscious and desire play in the process of the composition of our realities.

This back-and-forth between the planned and logical creation of the worlds and the spontaneous, unwieldy and frightening manifestations of the unconscious is done so successfully and seamlessly throughout Inception, that when we arrive in the final scene when Cobb is supposedly back in the ‘real’ world and outside of the dream-worlds, we are still left questioning the actuality of his experiences.

Simulacra and Simulation

Another theme that is consistently present throughout the film is that life is densely layered, and that any objective material reality is thoroughly obscured and buried through our relationship and interaction with it. Again, at the surface level this is most obvious in the cascades of dreams that the characters wander through, where it is easy to become lost as the viewer. During the climax of the film, through clever editing and good scriptwriting, Inception has us floating between at least five of these different worlds at once (one ‘real’ world, three dream worlds, and one ambiguously defined world). This leaves the audience questioning the relationship between all of the events in the different worlds and subsequently the authenticity of the real world at the top of it all.

Inception presents us with imagery that act as metaphors of this conception of reality. Nolan includes a scene early on where the characters find themselves standing between two large mirrors where they see their reflections echo into infinity on either side. The mirrors then shatter and vanish only to reveal a street that they begin to traverse. This alludes both to the structure of the film itself and to this idea of the multiple and layered reality.

Jean Baudrillard, in his text Simulacra and Simulation, offers us a metaphor in which we can think about the nature of our perception in relation to the film. He asks us to imagine standing on the surface of the world only to see a map of that same world begin to be drawn around us. Soon, the map becomes so large and complete with details that is the size of the world itself and we become lost and confused, unable to distinguish between the actual world and the map of it.

Inception seizes upon this metaphor and uses the maze as a way to describe our relationship not only to the world, but also to our expectations of it. In the film, the characters quite literally draw mazes of the dream-worlds beforehand in order to properly dream, imagine and inhabit them. Ariadne (Ellen Page), the character who is tasked with designing the dream-worlds for the characters to run around in, at one point draws one of the mazes as a series of concentric circles, leading us to assume that each dream (as well as all of the dreams combined), are layered mazes which are difficult to navigate and are without a clear path to a centre, or are in fact paradoxically without a centre at all. This idea that we only comprehend the spaces around us through a process of mapping them is a strand that runs through much of Inception. This suggests that it is not the material or ‘real’ world that informs us, but rather it is our own preconceptions and expectations of it that operate to generate the world and our experience of it in the first place.

The Desiring-Machine

Finally, Inception seems to operate within one last model in which we can navigate its mazes. In the tradition of Western philosophy, we are often asked to consider the world in terms of subjects and objects. The subject is the perceiving and experiencing being that takes in the world around them, while the object is what is being perceived and consumed by the subject. This kind of framework positions the subject as a consumer, digesting the entities (objects) around them. For example, we can conceive of this relationship very simply as a person (subject) looking a painting (object), where the subject experiences what stands before them via observing it. In this model, both the subject and object are relatively contained and static things, distanced from one another in this meeting.

Inception challenges us to disrupt and complicate this relationship by positioning both the characters and the worlds around them in states of production instead of in states of consumption. In Nolan’s film, neither the characters nor the worlds they inhabit are static or distinct, and instead we find relationships that are defined by their degree of entanglement and interdependence. In the dream-world, the space would not exist in any way without one of the characters at first dreaming it, and similarly, the character would not be able to dream if they weren’t already occupying a space.

Both the characters and the dream-spaces take on the characteristics of the others as the film progresses, and it becomes clear that the characters and the dream-worlds are complicit in each others’ production. This entanglement is included near the beginning of the film, as one of the dreamers’ full bladder causes a torrential downpour in the dream-city. In another scene, a car crash in one dream-world causes an avalanche in another. Both the characters and the spaces enter a relationship defined by interdependence and the borders that we would like to neatly draw between them become more and more difficult to place. This process is most strikingly apparent throughout Inception as manifest in the protagonist Cobb – where he ends and his dreams begin is profoundly obscure.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, here Inception is very much taking part in the tradition of the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who describe the type of relationship between Cobb and his dreams as rhizomatic, with multiple beginnings and ends and without clear separation. We are never clearly able to delineate the causality or linearity of the characters or the plot, and are instead invited to navigate them as we wish.

This is ultimately where all of the previous models collapse into one space of interdependence and production. While the Psychoanalytic and Simulacrative models described earlier in this article still operate on the surface of the film, their logics and reasoning become disrupted when Nolan asserts a dream-world in which everyone is always producing the world and themselves. Inception challenges us to consider the dream-world and the real world in the same way, that they are both always in a state of subjective-production which is dependant on our own process of creative perception and experience. This is perhaps the central thesis of the film, and one that leads us to question our own life in relationship to the life of the film.

Dreams and Cinema

When we think back upon the characters’ experiences of dreaming and of inhabiting dream-worlds, Inception is ultimately daring us to question not only the nature of our own everyday experiences, but also our experience of watching the film. Many of the aforementioned models that are operative in the dream-spaces of Inception are also found in the space of the theatre as we experience the film. Through the structure of the film and the deployment of a variety of techniques, Inception challenges the audience to become complicit in the production of the film itself.

The structure of Inception, and perhaps the structure of all film, already implies an involvement on the part of the audience in the process of producing the story. Through the use of the cut in editing and of various compressions in space and time, the mind of the viewer is always in a state of filling in the gaps. As we move between the different spaces and times of the plot, our own mind is generating arcing logics and filling in details in an attempt to create a cohesive whole. Through this process of production we are indeed making, as characters remind us several times throughout the film, a ‘leap of faith’ in order to make the film complete. In this way, Inception again asks us to produce instead of simply consume.

Just as Cobb’s dream-spaces are affected by his subjectivity, the space of the theatre is in many ways also the space of our own desires and subjectivities. In a dark room, the audience experiences the light of the projector presenting them with images and realities in an analogous way to how the characters in the film themselves dream. We are allowed to live experiences that are completely virtual both through our entanglement with the production of the film as well as through our innate desire to create and connect. Desire is not simply defined by a lack, as Freud and Lacan assert, but rather by a drive to connect and a drive to produce.

We are driven to connect with the images on the screen in the same way that we are driven to connect with the world around us, and through this connection we end up becoming immersed in the production of both the film and ourselves. As we sit in the theatre and help to produce the film in this way, Inception also helps to produce our own experiences and subjectivities through our encounter with it.

While going to see Inception, we are choosing to take part in the space of a dream in which we will be confronted and presented with images on the screen that appear spontaneously and apparently without origin, as if from the unconscious. Just as in the narrative of the film, we will be experiencing the space of another person’s dream, in this case Nolan’s. And, just as in the film, our own subjectivities, desires, memories and drives will alter and affect our encounter with Nolan’s film.

The last shot of the film finally serves to reinforce this productive framework within which we can encounter Inception. As the main character Cobb spins a top, which in the plot of the film acts to test whether the world he is in is actually reality or is just another dream, Nolan dares us to question the nature of our experience of the film. Cobb walks away from the spinning top not wanting to see the results of the test, yet the camera remains fixed on it leaving the audience experiencing it in all of its uncertainty. In this moment, which seems to hang forever, the film cuts to black and leaves us without a definitive answer as to the nature of Cobb’s world, and as we exit the theatre into the lobby we are left questioning not only the meaning of that last scene and of the film, but ultimately the nature of our own lives, encounters and experiences.

About The Author

Ian Alan Paul is a writer and artist living in San Francisco. He is currently pursuing his MFA and MA at the San Francisco Art Institute