In the Old Testament, Joseph and Daniel interpreted bizarre dreams. In Christopher Nolan’s hit film Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio invades them.
If there are any shared traits between the political career of Barack Obama and the filmmaking career of Christopher Nolan, one of them is their propensity to leave people scratching their heads.
In 2008, the popular knock on Obama’s rock-star candidacy was style over substance. “Sure, he can make a great speech, but what has he really said?” Similarly, after afor Nolan’s action-packed psychological thriller Inception, fans and critics are generally united in their praise for its clever plot and taut storytelling, but divided on what it’s all supposed to mean.
This Rorschach-like quality shows up in spades, particularly as it relates to its ending, which bears [SPOILER ALERT!] a resemblance to the final moments of The Sopranos series finale. Across the blogosphere (and the twitterverse), theories abound as to what those final moments say about the story as a whole, and in turn, what Nolan is trying to say with his film.
That Inception takes place mostly inside the realm of dreams makes it even more subject to interpretation than the average summer blockbuster, and people who use Jungian analysis to interpret dreams will have a field day trying to sort out the deeper meaning.
It’s possible that Nolan himself had no objective for Inception other than telling an interesting story. Part of the genius of the film is that it works on several levels, and one doesn’t have to absorb any deeper lessons about life or humanity to appreciate the visual illusions, action sequences, and beautiful scenery that abound throughout.
Of course, keeping track of the plot twists in the labyrinthine maze of rules and explanations of Inception requires, as many action-adventure movies do, a willful suspension of disbelief and a dedication to its internal logic. Viewers with short attention spans need not apply.
(If you thought Lost was too complicated, trust me on this one — Inception is not for you.)
If Nolan imparts anything of substance, it’s his spin on a timeless axiom. When it comes to the way our minds work, “inception is reality.” Ideas are like viruses, according to main character Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), relentless in their pursuit of replication and dominance over the self. The choices we make, the words we say, and the thoughts we think, even in the deepest recesses of our subconscious, always have consequences.
Those consequences, in the context of human depravity, often lead to calamity. When Cobb and his cohorts [ANOTHER MINOR SPOILER ALERT] attempt to manipulate others’ dreams for their own gain, their plans are derailed through unforeseen circumstances. What’s worse, their attempts to fix the problems they encounter along the way lead to even bigger, more catastrophic problems.
As a Christian, my worldview filters my viewing of films. Thus, I can’t help seeing Inception as another example of man usurping God, using divinely-inspired creative ability to manipulate others, leaving a trail of destruction in the process. Because as futuristic as the premise feels, the idea of using dreams as a portal to access the unknowable is an idea as old as the Bible itself.
Consider the story of Joseph, whose dreams compelled his brothers to sell him into slavery, but whose ability to interpret dreams curried favor with the Pharaoh, propelling him to the requisite level of prominence he would need in order to save those same brothers many years later. Or consider Daniel, whose ability to interpret the bizarre dreams of Nebuchadnezzar helped open the king’s eyes to an eternal kingdom greater than his own.
The emotional core of Inception is in the interlocking relationships that undergird the drama, between Cobb and his children, his wife Mal, and a third connection between [LAST SPOILER, I PROMISE] a wealthy tycoon and the young heir to his fortune. The fact that audiences are willing to wade through the mental gymnastics of the plot is a testament to the resonance of these timeless relational themes.
This is no coincidence, as longing for connection and reunion is part of the human condition, and sits at the heart of the Gospel of Christ Jesus — the relationship between a Father and his Son. With his film, Christopher Nolan has, consciously or not, attempted to inject some hope (there’s that word again) into the proceedings by depicting a series of shattered relationships aiming toward a semblance of wholeness through the application of technology.
The problem with Inception (or if you really dig ambiguity, the brilliance of it) is that it’s never really clear if this wholeness is ever achieved. The ending leaves you guessing, with clues aplenty in each direction. Optimists say yes, pessimists say no, and realists are just glad it wasn’t another sequel. (At least, not yet.)
And really, trying to answer that question misses the point. The existential question posed by Nolan is not whether technology will ever advance far enough for us to interface with our dreams the way the Cobb does, but whether or not that possibility can bridge the aching divide endemic to humanity.
As a Christian, my answer is simple: no way. Not without receiving the gift of eternal life through faith in Christ. Not that our subconscious minds aren’t immensely powerful, they are. And it’s not that our dreams don’t serve important emotional and cognitive functions for us, because they do. But only God can atone our sins and reconcile us despite our irreconcilable differences.
Of course, many people would have you believe otherwise. Technology companies, entertainment conglomerates, and the marketing firms that represent them all stake their livelihood on the premise that better technology makes for a better life.
And somewhere down the line, another filmmaker will probably try to answer in the affirmative with another futuristic thriller inspired by the short stories of Philip K. Dick. And if that film is even half as clever or thought-provoking as Inception, I’ll be glad to take in another two-plus hours of quality entertainment, because all in all, I enjoyed it a lot.
But my response then will be the same as it is now: Nice try. Keep dreaming.