My wife and I went to see Inception this weekend and I’ve been mulling over it the past two days. I’ve been looking through the internet to find a good analysis and, not finding one fully to my satisfaction, look Tolkien & Lewis’s advice and just wrote my own. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know why you’re reading this but rest assured you will be lost. For those who did see it, I’ll see you after the break.
First off, I think we need to give the movie credit. It is very difficult to play mind games with your audience when the audience knows mind games are being played. Many movies (think “Fight Club”) simply play the games and only reveal at the end that there are games afoot. Many people mistake this for cleverness and brilliance, but “Inception” manages to play the games well even though the audience knows what’s going on and is trying to figure it out. So kudos to Nolan, the director, for a fine movie.
Now, many people are arguing about the ending: was it a dream or reality? That’s a fun debate to have. For my money, I think the fact that there are so many scenes in the beginning of the movie where we don’t know how we got there (which they tell us is the easiest way to figure out if you’re in a dream or not), particularly in light of the bracketing at Saito’s place, makes me think it was a dream. My wife tells me that makes me a mean person, and points out that the top wobbled and it never wobbled in the dream world.
Such debates can go on and on but I think we may get somewhere not by analyzing the tricks and logic of the movie but by analyzing the philosophy behind it. I think it might be helpful to go back to Nolan’s last movie, “The Dark Knight.” The end of the Dark Knight has Batman assuming the role of the villain so that the reputation of Harvey Dent as a hero may be preserved, as “Gotham needs a hero.” Although the truth of Harvey Dent as “Two-face” seems to lend itself more towards the Joker’s nihilistic view of the world, Batman & Gordon decide the only way to combat the Joker & htose like him is through the illusion of Batman as a villain. My understanding is that Nolan has similiar themes of reality v. deception in his other movies, though I haven’t seen any of the others.
This concept lines up neatly with the views of philosopher Leo Strauss, the man many claim is the father of the neo-conservative movement. One interpretation of Strauss’s philosophy (if I was going to claim it is the proper interpretation, I recognize I would need to write a far more scholarly analysis then I am doing at the moment) is that Strauss recognizes that Nietzsche is correct. There is no way to justify our own reality or social mores, etc. Strauss however differs from Nietzsche in that he finds Nietzsche “dangerous” for pointing this out. Instead, Strauss believes that this kind of questioning is appropriate only for philosophers and not for the general public (or non-philosophers). For the public, some kind of deception or falsehood is necessary for society to function properly. This includes religion, social norms, etc. Only philosophers who have the desire to question can handle the truth, so to speak. If people knew the meaninglessness of their lives, they cease to behave as society must, and chaos and anarchy would reign.
The similarities to “Dark Knight” and this interpretation of Strauss are obvious. The true philosophers know the truth, while the masses of Gotham are fed an illusion for their own good so that they may work towards building a better society. Both batman and Strauss believe that if the truth were known society could not exist.
Applying this to Inception, Cobb cannot function with the questioning of his reality. He has become more paranoid, cannot properly sleep with sedation, and is estranged from his home & family. As this article points out, the movie doesn’t turn on whether or not the ending is a dream or reality; it turns on the fact that Cobb doesn’t stick around to see if the “totem” stops spinning i.e. he no longer cares whether he is in a dream or reality. Even though Cobb knows this might not be real, he takes the “leap of faith” so that he can properly function, whether he’s truly functioning or not.
Under this idea, a leap of faith is used so that man can create a reality. Contrast this with the Christian view: a leap of faith does not create reality but instead opens ourselves up to it. That is, Christians believe that only through faith in God can one come to truly understand oneself and one’s surroundings. The difference is subtle, as both leaps allow us to properly function but only the Christian view believes that a leap of faith brings us closer to the truth whereas for Strauss the leap of faith leads us away from true philosophy (which for Strauss is fine for most as most people are not worthy of being philosophers-a fairly Gnostic position).
Now, I’ve been assuming that “Inception” is closer to Strauss based on my interpretation of the Dark Knight but there is some evidence that the Christian view is represented, especially if one believes the ending is reality (so in fact, the ending might be more important than I earlier indicated). It is clear throughout the movie that religion is important, though subtly referenced. Creation of a dream world is compared to building cathedrals, and Cobb relates part of the enjoyment he & Mal (you also must notice that “Mal” can be associated with “Malice”) had in Limbo to his state as to “playing Gods.” Yt this world is false. It fails to bring Cobb happiness (though apparently it pleases Mal) and so he leaves it and in fact ceases to build dream worlds at all. It’s only when Cobb engages in self-sacrifice to save Saito does he engage his demon and return to reality. Doing so requires a leap of faith and in so doing Cobb comes to be able to enjoy the world and his family again, like a Christian would say.
I’m not sure which interpretation is right, or if we’ll ever know. But the movie is interesting enough to make the discussion worth having, if for nothing else than to better understand our own faith and the approaches of other so that we can better evangelize the culture. So I’d really like to know what you thought of the movie.