Inception: Idea, Reality, Shadow

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Slate's Culture Blog
July 19 2010 3:48 PM

Inception: Idea, Reality, Shadow

This is a guest post from Slate's Timothy Noah :


Did Christopher Nolan doze through high school English class?

Nolan's hit film, Inception , is a work of science fiction, a genre whose rules (as I understand them) do not allow the audience to question whether it is scientifically possible to implant a specific idea in a person's brain by manipulating that person's dreams. But that's only half the film's central conceit. The other half is that, once you've implanted the idea, you can assume your victim will act on it. That assumption has nothing to do with imagined scientific possibility and everything to do with imagined human nature. And if 20 th -century literature can be said to make any single pronouncement about human nature, it's that a giant chasm lies between thought and action.


Spoiler alert: The following paragraphs will give away some key plot points.

Saito (Ken Watanabe), a powerful Japanese industrialist, hires Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to tiptoe into the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of Saito's chief competitor Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), an even more powerful industrialist. The conglomerate controlled by Maurice is poised to achieve global dominance and wipe out Saito's conglomerate. Saito instructs Cobb to plant inside Robert's head the idea that once Maurice dies, Robert should dissolve Maurice's conglomerate, thereby clearing the path for Saito's conglomerate to prevail. If Cobb succeeds, Saito will reward Cobb by making a single phone call to get him off the hook on a (false) murder charge. (That industrialists possess the power to do such things is a separate silly conceit, but at least it isn't one Nolan invented.)

Lip service is paid once or twice to the idea that planting an idea in someone's head doesn't guarantee that person will put it into action. But the arc of the narrative runs the other way. We learn, in a flashback, that Cobb conducted "inception" once before, when he planted an idea inside the (very pretty) head of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Mal carried the idea to its logical conclusion, with tragic results. As a catalyst of deeds, inception works all too well! The film ends before we find out whether Robert will act on the idea Cobb implanted at Saito's request. But if he doesn't, there won't have been much point to the preceding 148 minutes of plot machinations.  As the lights come up, the audience is asked to believe that deed follows inspiration as night follows day.

Tell it to T.S. Eliot. Did Nolan stay awake during classroom discussion of " The Hollow Men "?

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

If J. Alfred Prufrock can't even follow through on his impulse to eat a peach, if Vladimir and Estragon can say "Well? Shall we go?" and "Yes, let's go" and then do not move , if Jean-Paul Sartre's Antoine Roquentin can be paralyzed by la nausée as he contemplates the world's indifference to his very existence, if the Beatles' Nowhere Man can't stop making all his nowhere plans for nobody—then what likelihood is there that twerpy Robert Fischer will break up his father's gigantic company? Unlike eating a peach, or deciding Godot can goddamn well find some other suckers to wait for him, dismantling a hugely successful financial concern is an objectively bad idea. Even if Robert resolves to do it, someone sensible is sure to talk him out of it.


Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.



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