The Inception Files

The Inception Files by Kelly Bulkeley

It’s reasonable to expect a dream researcher would have a clear, informed opinion about the movie Inception.  Unfortunately I don’t.  Instead I’m caught between conflicting impressions, some favorable, mostly critical. Three factors inclining my thumb in an upward direction:

1. Christopher Nolan.  It’s great to see a brilliant director at the top of his game deciding to do a film entirely about the multiple realities of dreaming.

2. Intellectual daring.  As good dreams often do, Inception pushed its audience to think new thoughts and question their epistemological certainties.

3. Accurate portrayal of the “realness” of dreaming: When Ariadne (Ellen Page) is sitting at the sidewalk cafe she suddenly realizes she can’t say how she got there—and in that moment understands she is dreaming.  This is true for many people whose dreams start in media res and who simply accept their dreaming experiences as real while they’re happening.

Five problems drawing my thumb downward:

1.  Lack of dreaminess.  This was the biggest disappointment.  For a film supposedly about dreaming, it lacked the visceral power and alluring weirdness of actual dreams.  Everything fit together too neatly; every detail in the dream worlds had a direct explanatory cause, whether because of the emotional repression of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), or because of actions in outer reality.  It seemed a very cerebral take on dreams.

2. Heavy heavy heavy.  The press of gravity seemed to drag everything in the movie down, from the fantastic buildings crumbling into the sea to the elevator down to Cobb’s unconscious basement, from the suicidal plunge of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) to endlessly falling passenger van.  There was virtually no humor in the movie, no romance, no lighthearted playfulness.  Falling is indeed a common experience in dreaming, but that gravity-bound vibe took over the movie.

3. Loud, noisy, and filled with unnecessary action.  This may have been necessary to attract teenage boys, but it helped extinguish any kind of truly dreamy atmosphere.  On the contrary, all the Bond-esque mayhem and derring-do merely reminded me it was summer and I was in a movie theater paying $10 for a popcorn spectacle.

4. Lame motivation.  If I understood correctly after two viewings, Cobb and his crew were risking life and limb to help one mega-corporation stop another mega-corporation from getting too much money and power, so the first mega-corporation could…get more money and power?  Of course Cobb has the personal goal of getting back to his kids, but the murky corporate espionage theme made it hard to care about his team and their mission.

5. Didn’t make me forget The Matrix. I re-watched that film with my kids a few nights ago, and we loved every single scene of it–as soon as it was over we wanted to watch it again.  I don’t think Inception will generate that kind of long-term reverence and delight.