When emotions alone don’t help
Analysis of the film, Inception
You might think or, rather, feel that emotions are better equipped to give us a more accurate “sense” of the real than any thought, ideas or abstraction. After all, thoughts “feel” like wordly constructed things in our heads, while emotions and sensations feel like palpable and tangible things which directly impact us. The last ones, we assume, feel more real.
Emotions and emotional concepts play an important role in elucidating what is real and what is dream in a film like Inception. The film unfolds a battle, or should I say, a dance between a hedonistic trust in the realism of dreams and a stoic determination to pull back to the real world against the forces of such a delusional comforting god-like realism.
As the movie story progresses we are in for a bit of a disappointment about the usual monopoly that our direct senses play over what we usually understand as real.
Inception immerses us in a journey in which grasping emotionally or conceptually our surroundings will determine whether the distinction between dream and reality will help us in staying alive.
The film delivers a kind of hard to detect macho undertones in the way men hold to abstraction more than to emotions when compared to women, but we can ignore that for the time being. After all, there seem to be some room for believing that the main character, Cobb (DiCaprio) was just a delusional agent of inception and not the perpetrator.
Cobb has a totem (his wife’s totem), which allows him to know when he is dreaming or awake. His wife was so absorbed in the “feel-real” experience of their shared dreams that she eventually decided to take the dream world for the real by locking away for good the only sensory reality-check item (totem) that she had.
Yet, we might wonder, if both of them were together stuck in the dream world (Limbo) for the same length of time how come she was the only one believing that the dream world (Limbo) was not just another real world, but the truly real world?
Cobb has a slightly stronger inclination to question his perceptions and was more driven to see things from a more conceptual and pragmatic angle since, unlike his wife, he primarily got in the dream world purely for business reasons.
Such initial approach might have helped him to figure out how to get his wife out of the dream world by travelling down into deeper layers of her subconscious. There he found her totem locked in a safe. The totem wouldn’t stop spinning convincing him they were still trapped in the dream.
Everything seems to point at the fact that his wife was just weaker and that she succumbed to the prerogatives of her dreams’ immediate illusory perceptions. She hid her totem in order to forget that she was in the dream world.
We, however, need to clarify issues around Cobb’s totem. The director introduced some ambiguities regarding the totem not to let the audience fully settle regarding where reality was.
Even when Cobb seems to be holding the threats of the real, reality is not fully delimited from Cobb’s perspective. That in my view didn’t feel organic if what the director wanted was a fluid realistic interplay between reality and dreams.
Cobb is using the same totem his wife locked away to check whether he was dreaming or not, even when the totem was supposed to work only for a single person.
This is when I think the director missed the point by trying somehow to give a hint to the audience of the dreamy state of reality itself. Regrettably, the dreamy state of the real for the audience can only be at best the merely fictional shots of filmmaking sequences and not a possible vivid metaphorical state of reality. Nolan’s ambition to understand reality as a dream missed its mark in this film. More on that later.
Cobb was a man of sharp thinking, able to eventually fight back the delusional “realistic” feeling of the dream world and its irresistibly allures. His ordeal wasn’t an easy one though. In order to rescue his wife and himself from the dream world he had to lie to her first so that he can let her know the truth later, and yet, it backfired with very nasty consequences.
The lie: Agreeing silently with her from the dream world that the dream world is the real world and asking her a crucial question from that dream world:
“What if the real world is not real at all?”
The truth: Confessing to her projection that the so called real world in which they first killed themselves to wake up in the real one was the dream world and not another version of the real one as she thought.
We could summarise the core idea that Cobb implanted (incepted) in his wife as follow:
“This world we are in now that feels real is not real at all.”
This idea, once remembered in the real world, compulsively let her to apply it for a second time, but this time in the real world, which she started taking as a second dream world.
Cobb lead his wife to kill herself in the real world by persuading her in the dream world that by questioning the so called real world in which they were and killing themselves they would wake up in the truly real world.
When his wife woke up, one fundamental idea persisted: “What she feels to be reality, no longer feels like so.” Such idea let her to commits suicide for a second time in her own terms.
We might wonder, what let her to mistrust reality for a second time? We could venture into a psychological answer, but also into a philosophical one.
Psychologically, she might have wanted to up her husband’s initial leap of faith by betting again on the arbitrary chance that “what she feels to be reality, is not reality at all,” as it happens when they killed the first time.
She blindly trusted her husband to kill themselves even when her gut feeling was telling her that she was happily in Limbo.
Unfortunately, she lost track of reality after she awoke because she was already convinced by her husband in the dream world (her unconscious) that her core reality and beliefs are questionable.
Her inception manifested as a gut feeling coming from the dream world. The dream world and the real world became for her equally palpable. Dying a second time around was just a passage to the truly real world.
Why did she question reality the second time around? Maybe because she wasn’t the agent of the first decision and not, as her husband wants us to believe, because he incepted the idea in her subconscious.
From the moment she woke up the real world is the one of her chosen. Her mind was already far too infected by her subconscious. In that sense, she wouldn’t be dealing with the divide between reality and dream, but with a layered house of cards of many realities.
As she went deep down into layers of the dream world, she assumed she could go up higher into layers of a more real world. But going up wasn’t going to appease her questioning after her experience down under.
That would be the true meaning of inception, a passive aggressive response to an initial brainwashing that is wrongly assumed to come from an autonomous creative idea.
Philosophically, Cobb’s wife felt into the trap of spurious or bad infinity. Even when she was radically questioning reality for a second time, the onset of beliefs brewed in her dream state lead her to be inclined to insidiously question any further state she might awaken to.
She was meant to respond to her situations in a blindly emotional way and when she use reasoning, it backfired. She failed to put logic emotionally into context.
Cobb was, contrastingly, a more rational person and he acted accordingly with Mr Fitcher, the corporate billionaire.
In one of his lines he tells us:
“The subconscious is motivated by emotions not reason. We need to find a way to translate this into an emotional concept.”
The film insisted in the distinction between feeling and knowing. However, Cobb was unable to play with his wife’s subconscious in the same subtle way as he did with Fitcher’s. Instead of leading her wife to a constructive emotional concept, he lead her into a blind alley of self contradictory logic.
Can we really blame Cobb? No, but love is not about blind trust and even when Cobb didn’t lead his wife to kill herself in the real world, he was emotionally and conceptually clumsy in the way he handled their way out of Limbo.
The lesson Cobb should have learned:
Every great idea, without exception, has its side effect. We should make sure we make our love one know so before influencing her/he so much when trust is fully granted.
As DiCaprio acknowledged in an interview regarding his role as Dobb:
“This is a drug addict, a guy addicted to the dream state.”
And yet, he managed to keep his cool and escape from his ill fate. Unfortunately, with devastating consequences. Inception was a huge ego trip in which our dream states, helped by technology is able to create an all rounded world with its own “reality”.
This not a far fetched reality from our current interaction with social media. It is to be seen if reality can create for us natural awaken dream states without the help of technology and with the certainty that we can still have our feet grounded and still enjoy the humanity of gravity.
Inception is a great film, but Nolan failed miserably to deliver the message about what is real and what is dream. It all ended up in another Hollywood saga of tragic love lost.
We have different layers of dream-like states in the film:
1- Dream states like when we naturally dream without technological enhancement.
2- Dream states like with technological enhancements for extraction or inception.
3- Dream state like when we fall into Limbo.
4- Dream states like when as an audience we watch filmmaking.
5- Dream states like when reality becomes a delusion.
Unfortunately, Nolan failed to explore reality states. Like when reality is experienced as metaphors of things happening, of things to come and of things lively awakened by our memories as we construct our real now.