The Marxist Matrix
How to make sense of all those dreams-within-dreams in Inception.
About halfway through Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Arthur lifts an assault rifle and tries, unsuccessfully, to take out a group of attackers firing on him from a nearby rooftop. Arthur's teammate Eames nudges him to one side and tells him, with an audible smirk, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling." He produces an enormous grenade launcher, takes aim, and gets the job done. As with many moments in Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster, this one requires some parsing. It seems that Eames conjures up his gargantuan gun on the spot, at his whim.
The grenade-launcher bit is a passing moment of comic relief, but it's also one of the few times in Inception where Nolan seems to depict a dream-world act of the sort we associate with actual dreaming—illogical, unbounded in creative potential, free from the drab tyranny of the real. Nobody in this film makes love to Megan Fox atop a dragon while his teeth fall out: The dreams here observe more or less tidy rules. A dreamer's experience of time, for instance, slows down in regular, calculable intervals as he drops deeper and deeper into unconsciousness. His innermost secrets are conveniently deposited—and readily locatable—within locked vaults. And the effects of waking-state factors like gravity and weather register with improbable intelligibility in a dream, so that if dozing-me is dunked into a bathtub, geysers of water will burst into whatever place dream-me occupies at that moment.
In Inception, when a dream goes nuts, that nuttiness is not its natural condition but rather a herald and catalyst of its breakdown and end, as in the scene where Ellen Page's Ariadne folds Paris onto itself—the sort of wild invention that Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb warns her might alert a dreaming subject to foreign meddlers and thereby snap him back to consciousness. In Inception, a dreamer—or, to be precise, a dreamer jacked up with the unique cocktail of drugs that the extractors administer to their marks—is a pretty literal-minded type.
To hear several smart critics tell it, so is Christopher Nolan, to a fault. In a New York pan, David Edelstein called the director "too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie." At his ChicagoSun-Times blog, a similarly scornful Jim Emerson wrote that the movie "reduces the complexity (and beauty and terror) of the human subconscious to the dimensions of a routine action movie or video game.'" In the New YorkTimes, A.O. Scott wrote that the dreams in Inception were "often curiously pedestrian" (I, for one, wouldn't mind a few more ski-slope shootouts in my dream life) and that "Mr. Nolan's idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness—the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity—that this subject requires." What connects these criticisms is a desire for the appearance on screen of an infinite, unfettered unconscious at work, a demand that Inception replicate, engage with, and deliver that radically unmoored feeling we get from a dream.
This is a not-unreasonable expectation to bring to a movie that boasts state-of-the-art special effects and whose director is known for his love of elaborate, disorienting mind games. Beneath that expectation, though, lies a tacit agreement that this is how dreams should be represented. Critics are right to identify Nolan's vision of dreams as somewhat literal-minded, but to call that a flaw in the film risks countering his literalism with essentialism. In Nolan's vision of dreams, did he fail to meet his subject's requirements, or did he put forward a grimly hamstrung, dystopian view that assails the optimistic idea that dreams are the mind's loony, liberated playground?
That dreams in Inception aren't normal dreams is a central plot point. The movie's exposition is passing and partial, but the rough idea is that, to better train soldiers, the military developed a technology through which dreams could be manipulated and shared—this technology eventually migrated to the private sector. When Cobb and his cohort enter a dream, they take the creative reins from their dreaming subject so as to better sift through and steward his subconscious—the tidier the dream, the easier it is to manage and mine it. I emerged from the film convinced that its dreams play out the way they do not because of a shortcoming on Nolan's part but because of a haunting and resonant choice he made.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Still from Inception © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.