Inception is a sophisticated sci-fi thriller constructed on the premise of postmodern deconstructionist doubt, and a brilliantly conceived and executed tight-rope walk between plot, dialogue, and multiple layers of character development. Indeed, not only were the principal leads carefully nuanced, so too were many of the supporting characters. From a storytelling standpoint, Inception is a tour-de-force.
Although it is set in the contemporary period, the film spends very little time there, enamored as it is with dreams, manipulation of ideas via the subconscious, and creating preferred realities. In essence, it is a mind-bender. Yet it offers timely narrative hand-holds so that viewers may continually orient themselves within the precipitous plot threads. Despite plenty of shoot-em-up action sequences sure to please action aficionados and heart-touching sequences likely to please sensitive viewers, Inception treats both as secondary to the arena of ideas and their consequences.
Not that the ideas are good. Not by a long shot. And this is what bothers me about Inception. There are several troubling assumptions which seem to go unquestioned in the worldview it presents.
- Because Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the protagonist of the film, was trained and gifted in entering the dreams of others, he could not find many opportunities to use this skill through honest pursuits. Thus began his life of espionage and other criminal pursuits. This seems to be considered normal in the film, as if Cobb was not doing anything wrong.
- Cobb is cast as a sympathetic-if highly troubled-character, notwithstanding his pathological lying, withholding of the truth, and willingness to get what he wants despite the cost to others. In other words, he is cast as a good guy, although his actions clearly indicate otherwise. For example, it wasn’t until Ariadne (Ellen Page) discovered he was not telling his team the personal dark secrets which put them at risk in the dream state that the viewer begins to realize not all is as it seems with him. Also, we discover late in the film that he was responsible for introducing his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) to life in the dream worlds by tricking her into it. Then later he introduced to her the idea that suicide will help her escape a dream, waking her to reality. He did not anticipate that she would lose track of what is real and what is not, thus leading her to a tragic suicide in the real world. Ideas do have consequences. I wonder if younger, impressionable viewers will be able to discern the difference? For this reason I believe the movie should be rated R, rather than PG-13. We rate movies according to violence, sex, bad language, but what about bad ideas, such as suicide will help you escape your dreams and wake up? What about that? Hmm? To make matters worse, there are several particularly troubling scenes depicting this very thing, one of which is Mal jumping to her death in the real world depicted in the film.
- Notably, Cobb states that ideas are like viruses, very dangerous and contagious. Smart as this thriller is, it connects the suicide theme to the notion of dangerous ideas. But it does not go far enough in my view. It seems as if reality is constructed in such a way to prioritize the feelings and preferences of characters, rather than any kind of ultimate reality, that is, rather than God and righteousness. Thus, actions are taken to achieve results desired by the characters despite the cost to others. Given that most actions occur in the dream world, the characters thereby care less about who they hurt or kill in that environment. But wait, it is not so simple is it, since both the multiple layers (three in total) of dreams, and reality are blurred, each affecting the other. So it raises questions of what is real? What is not? Is morality something only for reality or does it have relevance in the subconscious as well? Who decides? The individual? The community or multiple layers of community which influence the individual? When is enough going to be enough? At what point does the deconstruction of ideas, morals, and interpersonal responsibility meet head on with a higher moral accountability? That is, when do we (with all our desires, choices, actions, and rationalizations) give an account to who God is? But Inception does not ask those questions, and that is its Achilles heel.