Friday, August 13, 2010

Inception: A (Spoiler Heavy) Critique

Most of the highly visual, intellectual, and philosophical movies like Inception from the past few years have been about the nature of reality—or more precisely about perceptions of that reality. Inception is not that sort of movie. Inception is about storytelling and how stories can influence and change worldviews. Stories have the power to change the way people view and understand reality. The dreams in Inception are not reality and they are not there to represent it. They are carefully crafted stories designed to get people to reveal things they are keeping secret, or—in the case of an inception—to get them to believe that an idea is their own.

Consider the way the new architect character played by Ellen Page is taught the art of dream construction in the film. It is a primer on storytelling. When Cobb warns her not to make the dream jarringly unbelievable it is all about building convincing suspension of disbelief. When he tells her not to simply recreate memories he is teaching her that story is a craft about communication, not archiving data. Finally, Arthur gives her a lesson on the tools of the trade—the nuts and bolts of construction a working story. All of this is not just for the sake of entertaining the listener (or dreamer) but an effort to communicate ideas.

The nuts and bolts Arthur teaches are very important for the art of story crafting. Things like character development and plot devises need to be thought out. If a story is not well told it will be a distraction that keeps the ideas a story is trying to communicate from being seen.

The warning against recreating reality too closely is not about avoiding true stories, but a reminder that any story—even a true story—has to be crafted in such a way as to communicate a specific idea. Even reality TV is not reality. Every story must be edited and constructed to have impact and highlight some aspects and events over others.

The most important advice Cobb (and Nolan) give us is to carefully consider what sort of story we place our ideas in. In the movie, if a dream is to unrealistic the dreamer will reject it. If you want to introduce a foreign or even false idea, couch it in a lot of reality. The opposite can also be true. Hard or controversial truths can be passed in outlandish, fantastic or silly stories.

Human culture has been deceiving itself over and over again through its stories. The very first inception is recorded all the way back in the beginning of Scripture. Ever sense, there has been an epic struggle between truth and lies, reality and delusion, and the battlefield has taken place in the realm of cultural expression: stories and art forms however they come. What Nolan has done has given us a diverting tale that explores the nature of culture at its very essence. This is how humanity sows and spreads ideas.

The big question at the end of the film is: was it reality or a dream? As the screen goes black, we see Cobb’s test of truth still in development. He doesn’t care to find out the truth, and Nolan seems content to let the audience decide for themselves. However, that is not the point. The movie ends with the top still spinning. In the story that signals that Cobb is in a dream. Chris Nolan is reminding us that the story he is telling us is indeed just a story. The dream he has woven is a dream built to communicate an idea. Cobb convinced his target to do what he wanted him to, and Nolan’s film manages to say a lot about the communicative function of art.

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