What’s Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception about? As a piece of science fiction, Inception sets forth its own laws governing the nature of dreams, and dreams in the movie conform to the movie’s laws, not those uncovered by Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. (Spoilers ahead, of course.) There are touches where Nolan’s dreams correspond in nature to those described by Freud and experienced by all people nightly. When, for example, the dream-chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) has one glass of champagne too many just before going under, the dream extractors who enter his dream find themselves rained upon, thanks to the pressure on the sleeping Yusuf’s bladder. (A dream “with a urinary stimulus may lead [the dreamer] to a foaming stream,” Freud comments, in what might be considered a parallel passage.) Similarly, when the van containing the dreaming Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) swerves, gravity in Arthur’s dream of a hotel shifts sideways. As “the guardians of sleep,” Freud writes, dreams often try to explain away sensations that manage to impinge on the dreamer’s consciousness.
In a number of important ways, however, Nolan’s dreams are unlike actual dreams. A real dream, of course, can’t be shared while it is being experienced, though that may be chalked up to the movie’s poetic license. More important, in a real dream, problem-solving is impossible; there are usually jump-cuts far more Godardian than anything attempted by Nolan; spacetime is much more fungible, if not irrelevant; and crucially, there is a wish, or rather, a congeries of wishes, governing the structure of the dream.
In Nolan’s movie, the arch dream-thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) warns Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young dream architect that he has recruited, never to construct her dreams from personal memories, lest she lose track of the distinction between dreams and reality. In Freud’s understanding, though, dreams are made of nothing but personal memories, and a dreamer always knows that he is dreaming, even though that awareness may not always be a part of the dream. (That sounds more mystifying than it is. Another way to explain it: it’s only because what’s going on in the mind is a dream that the managerial part of consciousness allows something so disorganized to happen at all.) Cobb further warns Ariadne that beneath all the layers of constructed dreams lies what he calls limbo—the raw unconscious—where a person could become lost and spend an eternity. Freud, too, thought of the unconscious as existing at the deepest layer of a person’s mind, and he, too, thought it had an eternal character (“In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten”), but Freud believed that every dreamer dropped into exactly such a limbo nightly. The intricacy of Nolan’s action sequences depends on his notion that dreams within dreams exist on separate physical levels and are structurally fragile ways to go deeper into a person’s mind. Freud, however, considered a dream within a dream to be no more than semantic shorthand. He thought a dream within a dream worked more or less the way a double negative does:
To include something in a “dream within a dream” is . . . equivalent to wishing that the thing described as a dream had never happened. In other words, if a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event—the strongest affirmation of it.
In Inception, dreams are addictive. We see people lying on cots in an opium-den-like basement in Mombasa, and we are told that they are happily squandering their daylight lives for the sake of dreams’ pleasures. Ariadne at first has moral qualms about invading other people’s dreams, but her yen for their pleasures proves stronger.
Further non-dream-like aspects of Nolan’s dreams: They are designed by architects. When you’re killed within a Nolan dream, the dream ends. In every dream, a large cast of zombie-ish extras are trying to kill you. (You might wake up if killed in a real dream, and you might dream about persecution, but neither is an invariable feature of real dreams. Not of mine, anyway.) Nolan’s dreams are also fairly shallow in their psychology. A few years ago, there was a Japanese animated movie, Paprika, about a team of therapists who used a sci-fi technology to heal their patients by entering their dreams. Among the issues dealt with: survivor guilt, unacknowledged sexual attachment, and the difference between psychosis and neurosis. In the matter of insight, Paprika, though its heroine is a bubbly-voiced, wide-eyed teen, runs circles around Inception. And let’s not even mention Mulholland Drive.
Nolan’s dreams more closely resemble video games. That explains, I think, the movie’s brooding over the fate of the bodies left behind by the dreamers. The movie doesn’t merely worry about the bodies left at the “top level”—the dreamers’ physical bodies. It worries about the representations of their bodies left behind on all the intermediate dream-levels. It probably doesn’t make sense, therefore, to class Inception with Paprika, Mulholland Drive, and other movies about dreams: it belongs rather with The Matrix, Existenz, and Avatar—with movies about the mind-body problem in the age of gaming. Thus the movie’s fascination with the décalage between the passage of time in reality and its passage within a dream. (Freud, by the way, was aware of the phenomenon of complex dreams that seem to have been dreamt during a very brief spell of sleep. He hypothesized that such dreams result from “a phantasy which had been stored up ready-made in [the dreamer’s] memory for many years and which was aroused” and suddenly activated during sleep.) A well-known feature of gaming is the gamer’s loss of a sense of the passage of “real” time. The disorientation is paradoxical: if engrossed, the gamer is both surprised to discover how much real-world time has passed while he was playing, and has the feeling that while playing he has lived several lifetimes, as in real life, no one can.
Movies increasingly resemble video games, but they used to be thought of as resembling novels. The interpretive guess that I would hazard is that Inception reflects the anxieties and the pleasures that the moviemaker feels as his medium shifts from a novelistic analogy to a video-game one. I may be mistaken, but I thought I noticed that the Paris loft where Cobb taught Ariadne the basics of dream-invasion was full of printing equipment. Is it an abandoned press? The “inception” of the movie’s title—the idea implanted in Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the “subject” of the dream invasion—is that he should feel free to play in his life rather than continue his late father Maurice’s commercial imperium, which has something to do with energy. Robert Fischer, we learn from a brief glimpse at his passport, is Australian, and though I’m free-associating wildly here, Maurice Fischer’s empire reminded me on that account of Rupert Murdoch’s, and of the questions about what will happen when it falls into the hands of his heirs. Newspapers and novels are different things, of course, but lately they seem in danger of sharing the same fate. As movies leave behind print, they will replace a certain structuring chronology with the level-switching and time-displacement that Inception shares with video games.
The movie’s imperfectly hidden second “inception,” as Bilge Ebiri has noted in an essay for New York magazine, is contained in the lines exchanged several times by Cobb and Saito (Ken Watanabe): “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” Saito first asks the question of Cobb to persuade him to undertake the movie’s central caper for the reward of eventual reunion with his children. At the movie’s end, Cobb reminds Saito, who has aged into an old man in limbo, of the same lines, in order to induce Saito to return with him to reality. Within the movie, the lines allude to the fate that Cobb has dodged by turning against his memory of his late wife, who wanted him to spend an imaginary eternity with her. Outside the movie, however, I wonder if they refer to the gamer’s anxiety, during play, about the time he is losing while he plays. Will the gamer regret not having gone outdoors? Will he regret spending his youth in solitary play, instead of with a romantic companion? If he plays games too much, will he even have a romantic companion? Yet isn’t it only when the gamer leaves the game that he is in danger of feeling old and alone? So long as he’s in the game, he’s protected from awareness. The crucial misdirection of the movie, I would argue, is the impression it gives that its tempter is Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s late wife. Mal shoots innocent people and dandles carving knives; even in the first reel, Cobb is willing to tell her he doesn’t trust her any more. No, the movie’s real tempter is Saito, Cobb’s opponent in the dream-game that starts the movie, and the man responsible for persuading him to undertake the high-stakes maneuver that may, depending on how you read the movie’s last scene, have trapped him in limbo forever. If the child’s top in the last scene is indeed to be understood as spinning eternally, it’s not with his late wife that Cobb is going to be spending countless lifetimes. By then she’s been successfully dismissed from Cobb’s mind. He’ll be spending them with his fellow gamer.