Some friends of mine asked me to explain my negative reaction to Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception. (SPOILER ALERT: I am writing this for people who have already seen the movie.) What I had said was that the film offers neither intrigue nor character development, and that it is neither logical nor realistic. Nolan uses smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of intelligence and insight. He exploits pop psychology and pop philosophy as well as a convoluted set of plot devices to keep audiences both engaged and confused.
Apparently, the film works. Many intelligent people are impressed and even willing to dish out the dough to sit through it a second time. Some are performing back-bending feats of post hoc rationalization in order to explain away Inception's many plot holes and inconsistencies.
Others are less impressed. I was happy to have a friend point out this very well-done and humorous commentary on the film's illogical complexity:
I like the film's basic premise, the idea that people can share dreams, and that people can enter other people's dreams without their knowledge in order to extract and even implant information. Much could be done with that, but what Nolan does is not worth taking seriously. His dream worlds are boring, his characters are mostly two-dimensional, and his plot has the subtlety and sophistication of a sledgehammer, as well as an over-abundance of plot holes and inconsistencies. If none of this is obvious to most viewers, it is probably because they are too busy trying to work out the logic of his dream worlds, or perhaps they are just enthralled with the idea of sharing dreams and grappling with "subconscious projections."
I was initially intrigued that Nolan makes use of the idea that ideas can be parasites. This idea most famously appeared in The Selfish Gene (1976), when Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to argue that ideas might replicate and become dominant in populations much the way genes do. The meme idea has been toyed with for decades, but it has become a bit more well-known thanks to Dawkins' international bestseller and controversial The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking The Spell (2006), both of which suggest that religions are complexes of memes which have come to dominate populations, and not necessarily for the betterment of the people who believe in them. (Dennett also influentially used the idea of memes to develop his view of consciousness in Consciousness Explained .) It is not a stretch to suppose that Nolan had memes in mind when he wrote this dialogue: "What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious."
Unfortunately, Nolan's handling of the meme idea is not satisfying. In some ways, it is too simplistic: Secrets turn up as memos neatly filed away in manila envelopes. In other ways, Nolan's vision is too implausible. Even if a single dream could establish a resilient connection between an idea and an emotion, it would not necessarily lead to any particular behavioral result. At best, it might make the subject think a lot about the idea. To get the idea to make people do things they would not otherwise do, the idea would have to overcome hordes of competing ideas which also had emotional support.
Nolan's premise is that a single implanted idea can lead a person to do a specific action which they have no apparent reason or motivation to do. For small, inconsequential actions, this is not so hard to swallow. However, for something monumental and complex, like the legal dissolution of a mega-corporation, this is too implausible. To make it more believable, Nolan's characters claim that they have to find the simplest form of the idea (whatever that means) and that the subject has to believe that the idea was his own. These contingencies are a lot of hot air and don't make the premise more believable.
While Fischer (Murphy) might really think that dissolving his father's business is what his father wanted him to do, and while he might also want to make his father happy, he still might decide not to dissolve the business. This could be for any number of reasons. For example, it could be because he thinks that his father would not want him to do everything his father wanted him to do. That is the whole point of the inception drama they have created, after all: Fischer believes that his father wanted him to be his own person, and that means not always doing what his father wants him to do. Fischer may decide to keep the company and develop it in his own way, still trying to be his own person, as he now believes his father wanted him to be. The inception process may have freed Fischer from the weight of his father's authority, but that just means he is now a free man to destroy or not destroy the company as he sees fit. Fischer might decide that keeping the business just makes the most sense financially, and it could be too hard for him to let that go. If the goal was to destroy the company, it does not seem like this inception was a very good way of doing it.
In sum, Nolan does not show any insight into what it means for an idea to be a parasite. A better film might have explored the ways all of our cultural behavior could be understood in terms of memes, and how difficult it can be to control and predict their behavior. Of course, only somebody interested in psychology or the philosophy of mind would make this objection, so I can't hold it against the film, even if it was a disappointment.
My low opinion of the film is primarily due to its lack of cohesion and believability. For example, the entire set up for this film is riddled with problems. In the opening sequence, Cobb (DiCaprio) is dreaming within a dream in order to extract information from Saito (Watanabe). The dream is populated by Saito's subconscious, which means that all of Saito's secrets are in a special safe which the Architect has built into the dream world. Cobb asks him about the safe, and Saito gives its location away by looking in its direction. This does not make sense. Saito is not privy to the Architect's work, so Saito should not know about the safe at all, let alone where it is. Cobb, on the other hand, is working with the Architect, so he should have known where it was from the start. He had no reason to ask.
During the same sequence, Saito catches on to Cobb's plan and there is gunfire. Cobb is running away while trying to read the secret information he extracted from the safe. Meanwhile, the entire building is collapsing, because the dream is falling apart. Why doesn't Cobb change the dream? He can. He knows it is a dream. In fact, it is his dream. He can make a small, sturdy room for himself so he can read the information in peace and quiet, but he does not. He acts as if he is at the mercy of the dream. That does not make sense.
There are more serious problems with the opening sequence. Saito's secret memo has some portions blacked out. This cinematic silliness tells us that Saito has kept some secrets out of the dream. Thus, despite what we are told later in the film, the safes in the dream worlds are not automatically filled with all of the subject's secrets. Apparently, they are only filled with those secrets the subject is willing to share, and which happen to be relevant to the Extractor. (After all, if the safe contained all of Saito's secrets, it would have filled more than a couple of pages in a small manila envelope.) This undermines the whole premise.
Worse, when faced with the fact that secrets were kept out of the safe, Cobb--who is supposed to be a master Extractor--resorts to a bluff in order to get the information: He pulls a gun on Saito. This is how a master Extractor goes about sifting secrets from the unsuspecting? Pointing a gun and yelling, "Give me the information!?" I'm not convinced. Nolan does not makes Cobb a believable Extractor, and this weakens the whole film.
Then, after Cobb botches the extraction with Saito, Saito tells him it was just a test, and Cobb failed. Yet, Saito then offers Cobb a job--the job which occupies the rest of the movie. Apparently Saito has a very peculiar notion of failure. We have no reason to believe that Saito is sincere. In fact, it would have been much more interesting if Saito was setting Cobb up with the whole "inception" plan.
Furthermore, we are never given a reason to think Fischer's father's business should be destroyed, except for when Saito (Watanabe) claims that the world would be better off. Again, we are given no reason to trust Saito. Why should we support him against Fischer's father? Saito's character and his motivation for destroying Fischer's father's business are never established.
There are moral implications here, as well, which Nolan does not address. I don't recall anybody considering whether or not it would be wrong to manipulate Fischer into destroying his father's business, or whether or not it could be damaging to Fischer himself. (Somebody--I think Ariadne--does suggest that the inception might damage Fischer's relationship with his uncle, but that's it.)
Nolan may be counting on an ambient anti-corporation sentiment in his audience. Perhaps all mega-corporations should be destroyed, but even then, destroying Fischer's father's company will apparently just make Saito more powerful, and Saito is already a man who can buy a major airline at the drop of a hat. So why should we want Fischer to destroy his father's business?
Perhaps we are not meant to approve of the job; however, I think Nolan wants us to. He never presents inception as a morally complex or challenging subject. In fact, he makes it easy to accept Fischer's psychological manipulation by writing the father as an unloving and harshly judgmental figure. On top of that, Fischer achieves a catharsis during the inception process, coming to finally feel loved by his father. We are happy that Fischer has this moment with his subconscious projection of his father, and that helps us digest the fact that he is being manipulated. In the end, Fischer is not being manipulated into destroying the business so much as he is being freed from his father's dominion. While this makes it less likely that Fischer will actually dissolve the business (thus undermining the whole point of the job, as I noted above), it makes the audience more willing to accept the manipulation. It's easy to get behind individuation, after all.
Still, what about possible psychological damage to Fischer? Nolan never suggests that something bad might have happened to Fischer. Yet, there is a potential threat to Fischer's psychological stability. Recall that Fischer is not just implanted with the idea of destroying his father's business, but also with the idea that there is a will in a secret safe which formalizes the process, and which his uncle knows about and disapproves of. Since there is no will, and since his uncle is unaware of the whole thing, the inception scenario is built on false premises. This should make it hard for the implanted idea to develop in Fischer's mind; and, if the idea really is planted so firmly that it will be hard for Fischer to let it go, it could lead to problems with Fischer's grasp of reality.
Besides the lack of moral depth, the plot and characters in this film just aren't given a believable foundation. Here's another plot hole: If Cobb just wants to see his kids again, he doesn't have to find a way to get to America; he can have them brought to France. He could at least asked his dad for a few pictures, so he can remember their faces. Really, the whole thing about not remembering his kids' faces is absurd. We are supposed to believe that the moment before he left America was his only chance to get a memorable glimpse of their faces? What father cannot remember his kids' faces? I found it impossible to feel for Cobb, because I could not take this whole situation seriously.
Aside from general plot and character failures, there are a good number of logical inconsistencies in the film. For example, the use of music in the dreams. Music is used to give cues to people in the dream worlds. Given the logic of the dream worlds, this would require that the music be played at a super fast speed, so it would sound normal in the slower dream world. If you play music in the ears of a person who is asleep, it should take them 30 minutes to hear a five-minute song. Yet, in the movie, when they play music for somebody who is sleeping, the music sounds the same in both the dream world and reality. This is inconsistent.
In Inception, sound is not the only sort of information which travels across worlds. All sorts of physical interactions do: When water splashes on a dreamer's face, water enters the dream, too. When the dormant body is violently accelerated or decelerated, the shift is felt in the dream world, too. To be consistent, Nolan would have to have his dream worlds constantly bombarded with all sorts of information from higher-level dreams and waking life. Of course, it is obvious why Nolan does not want to be consistent here: It would make his dream worlds chaotic and unpleasant, and practically unwatchable for the audience.
A bigger problem: Fischer (who, by the way, is the most interesting and engaging character in the whole film, and who should have had a lot more to do) dies in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream while under heavy sedation, which means he goes into Limbo. This is supposed to be an unconstructed dream space, but it actually contains a whole world of constructions which Cobb and Mal (Cotillard) had constructed together. When Fischer enters Limbo, he is immediately captured by Cobb's subconscious projection of Mal. Yet, when Saito enters the same Limbo, he is not. In fact, it takes Cobb a long time--apparently decades--to find him. That is inconsistent.
More, Fischer had been trained to create aggressive subconscious projections which defend him against dream intruders. These projections appear at every dream level, but they are nowhere to be found in Limbo. Why not? We might think it is because subconscious projections do not appear in Limbo, but that is not true, because Mal is there, and Saito has plenty of his own subconscious projections down there, too. No, the real reason Fischer's subconscious projections don't appear in Limbo is because they would make it very difficult for Mal to capture him. (By the way, why were Cobb and Mal alone, without subconscious projections, when they spent decades together in their shared dream world?)
Aside frpm all of these problems, we might enjoy Inception just for giving us an interesting view of what it means to dream. Unfortunately, the film fails here as well. I cannot accept Nolan's vision as a plausible interpretation of what dreams are actually like.
First, the whole time-scale thing is too implausible. According to Nolan's dream-logic, if you die in a dream, then you wake up--unless you are under heavy sedation, in which case you go into a deeper dream state in which a few hours of sleep entail decades of conscious experience. This is unrealistic. People do not always wake up when they die in their dreams. Furthermore, people presumably die in their dreams while under sedation. Why haven't we heard of anyone having absurdly long conscious experiences while dreaming?
Here's another problem. During one dream, the players enter a dream-within-a-dream. I'll call the dream world D1 and the dream-within-a-dream world D2. In D1, they are in a van which eventually drives off the side of a bridge. This is supposed to put them into free fall, which any physicist will tell you is wrong. Free fall is not induced by driving off a bridge. Free fall is when you are falling directly towards a center of gravity without any other forces acting on you. Nolan gets the physics of free fall wrong, but that is not the point. The point is that, according to the film, if you are in free fall in D1, then there is no gravity in D2. Presumably, if astronauts in space have no gravity, then their dreams would not have gravity, either. I think we can test this hypothesis pretty easily: just ask an astronaut. The whole free fall bit is stupid, and it's only there to set up the zero-gravity action sequence between Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) and some subconscious projections.
Also, Nolan makes his dream worlds far more worldly than dreams actually are. For example, if you are shot in the chest in a dream world, you slowly die. In the real world (that is, the world outside of Nolan's film), when people are shot in dreams, anything can happen. Nolan's dream worlds just aren't realistic.
Finally, in the dream worlds, there is only one dreamer, but many players. Apparently, only one person is actually dreaming, even though all the other people are actively engaging in the dream. What is the difference between dreaming a dream and actively engaging in a dream while asleep? We are not told, and I think there is a good reason why this information is kept from the audience: It does not make sense. If two people are sharing a dream, they are both dreaming. I have no idea why Nolan would want to suggest otherwise.
Maybe that's enough about the illogical, incoherent, and unconvincing nature of the film. Now I want to discuss the way Nolan uses pop psychology and pop philosophy to entrance his audience.
Here is a good example of Nolan's lack of subtlety. At one point, Cobb enters what looks like, and what essentially is, an opium den: an underground chamber full of people living their lives in controlled slumber. The caretaker, an old Asian man (who is obviously very wise, because he is old and Asian and he smiles knowingly), suggests that the people are not sleeping to escape reality, but to find it. For them, the dream is more real than waking life, and who are we to say otherwise? (The old man addresses the question to Cobb, but it is equally addressed to the audience.)
In this and other similarly dull scenes, Inception suggests philosophical questions about the dream/reality distinction. Unfortunately, if there are any serious questions to be had here, Inception doesn't help us find them. The difference between dreams and waking life is not problematic. Sure, from time to time we might confuse dream memories with real memories, and we may sometimes wake up thinking our dreams were realistic, but we never fail to understand the difference. I see no reason to think there is a philosophical problem with the dream/reality distinction, and Nolan hasn't given me any reason to think differently. He hasn't even given me any useful tools for contemplating the issue. Nolan presents dream worlds which are so realistic that we might want to believe that the real world itself could be confused for a dream. This does not create a philosophical problem; it just makes Inception a very manipulative and unrealistic film.
The film is no stronger when it comes to psychology. I don't have a serious problem with the moral of Inception: The more you try to keep your sorrow and regret locked up inside, the stronger it will become until it breaks through your barriers and takes over your life. Don't live in the past, don't constantly relive your regrets trying to get them right, because you will end up losing control of your emotions. As far as pop psychology goes, that is relatively benign, if a bit tired. However, Inception does not give us any useful insights into these psychological issues. It just feeds us this pre-digested pop psychology without helping us understand it, and without even giving us a good reason to believe it.
And how are the psychological issues resolved? Cobb travels deep into his subconscious to tell his projection of Mal that he does not want her anymore. Voila! He is cured!
I guess we cannot blame audiences for buying such a simplistic and easy resolution, but I cannot say I'm impressed.
Inception would be much better if it had stronger, more believable characters and a more genuine plot. It would also be nice to have a third act which held me on the edge of my seat. The final act of Inception might have at least worked as an action/adventure, if I cared more about the outcome and if it were not so stifled by pointless reminders of the various dream levels. A better film would remind us of the various levels only when furthering the action. It was hard not to yawn when I should have been gasping for breath. I found the whole thing underwhelming.