The Movie Inception-Only About Dreams?

WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS.  If you are planning to see the movie Inception and do not want the plot spoiled, please DO NOT read this post.

When it comes to dazzling, big-budget summer blockbusters, the film Inception delivers.  There’s eye candy for all, from the film’s envelope-pushing special effects to its multi-generational heartthrob leads (Leo for 30-something Titanic fans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page for the younger crowd, and even Michael Caine for those who loved the original Italian Job).  However, the appeal of this movie for me was neither in its pretty-faced cast nor its technical wizardry, but in the serious questions it raised about the nature of our society and how we choose to live.

At first glance, the film doesn’t come across as social commentary.  It is, after all, about dreams.  A movie about dreams deals more with the private inner world than the external structure of society—right?  On one level, yes.  Inception has a lot to say about what motivates and inspires us, the complexity of human nature, and the role of the subconscious.  But I also think it was indirectly making a statement about a society that is in great danger of losing itself in layer upon layer of false realities.  Let me explain (get ready for spoilers).As you know, the central conflict of the film is Dom Cobb’s tumultuous relationship with his deceased wife, Mal.  We learn that he is responsible for planting an idea in her mind that led to her suicide: the idea that her world was a dream.  She lost her grip on reality, and consequently lost her husband, her children, and her life.  In one of the most brilliant final shots of any movie—the spinning totem—we are left wondering what choice Dom has made.  Did he choose reality, with all its messiness and heartache, or did he opt for a perfect dream world of his own making?

I continued to ponder this question as the credits rolled and the lights came up.  Then I started seeing people around me stand up, reach into their pockets and purses for their cell phones, and immediately begin surfing the Internet, texting, and checking voice messages.  They walked out of the theater with their heads down and their minds in another world, and I started wondering if the movie was saying something about technology.  Are we, as a society, increasingly choosing a dream world over the real world?  Cell phones, computers, ipods, television, and movies all have the ability to take us out of reality and transport us to a disembodied digital world.  There is often nothing wrong with the content we encounter in the virtual world, but there are reasons to be concerned about how frequently we let virtual reality trump real life.

Think about the similarities between the dream worlds in Inception and virtual worlds.  In the movie, an architect designed the setting of the dream, but it was peopled with subjects from the dreamer’s subconscious.  In the digital world, programmers and graphic designers create video games, social networking sites, and yes, even blogs, and then we fill those worlds with our own actions and thoughts and digital versions of our favorite people, which can support the fantasy that the world is “all about me.”  The movie’s dream worlds were addictive and created a dissatisfaction with the waking world.  Technology has the power to do the same.  At least one character in the movie got so lost in the dream world that she was unable to return to reality.  Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more people who are not just losing touch with reality, but losing the skills needed to cope with reality.  We develop the ability to handle heartache, frustration, fear, and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” by facing problems as they come into our lives.  But who wants to confront an angry boss or annoying relative when a comfortable, enjoyable alternative is waiting for us on the screens of our cell phones?

At the very least, technology is creating what my husband likes to call a “functionally Gnostic society,” where the physical world is viewed as inferior to the “spiritual” world and face-to-face interactions are being replaced by digital ones.  At worst, our unhealthy obsession with the virtual world might be eating away the fabric of our society, starting with the disintegration of the family.  One extreme example of this disintegration is a South Korean couple who allowed their three-month-old baby to starve while they cared for a virtual daughter in an online role-playing game (see their story here:

Clearly, I am not anti-technology.  I love Facebook, texting, movies, blogs, and YouTube.  The key is, of course, balance.  We have to learn how to use and enjoy technology without being possessed by it.  The air we breathe is composed of a number of gases: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.  Breathing any one of these gases exclusively would kill us; in the right balance, however, they are life-sustaining.  My concern is that more and more people are getting out of balance and choosing, as Mal did, the dream world for their reality and dismissing the real world as a dream.

I think that the spinning totem at the end of the movie was meant to raise the question of dreams versus reality not only for Dom, but also for us.

In what world have we chosen to live?


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