Directed and written by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy
“Dreams feel real while we are in them, it is only after we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange” says Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Luckily, Christopher Nolan is a skillful guide of the complex labyrinth of our dreams, speeding through the twists and turns, backwards and forwards through time, sifting through the levels of consciousness, and flipping gravity and physics right over.
As professional extractors, Cobb and his team create a dream world, luring their victim to enter it and fill it with secrets. The team then infiltrates the dream in search of those secrets, all the while battling the mind’s natural defenses against intruders.
In the subconscious battlefield, personal ghosts are a dangerous liability. Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), continues to haunt him in his dreams. She is still alive in Cobb’s subconscious and wants him to forsake reality to stay in the dream world with her forever.
Cobb struggles between his emotional attachment to his wife and the fact that he knows she is dead in reality. This spurs us to ask ourselves, what is reality?
Even for the most skilled navigator of dreams, it becomes difficult to differentiate the many levels of subconsciousness from reality. Are you actually in a dream? Or are you in a dream within a dream? Or are you in limbo — an eternal dream where the mind is scrambled and sanity forsaken?
Only epic films are able to deliver all the excitement and action of a blockbuster, whilst making revolutionary progress with metaphysics. Inception asks — how does life fit into the “big picture”? Is life the big picture? Or is there a more important reality that we enter after death (the concept of heaven in the majority of religions), where our passed lives were mere specs in eternity? Which world should we live in?
Cobb’s grief stems from this essential question.
To the living, life feels immediate and difficult to let go of, and it is only faith that allows the devout to keep waiting to enter into the next level. Religion gives us a road map — life is fleeting so wait until you die when you will escape to the world that actually matters. Nowhere is this edict taken more literally than by suicide bombers, believing that they are escaping this life for promises of possessions and a life in the next.
This idea isn’t limited to Islam though. In the 14th Century, Dante Alighieri wrote extensively on the geography of life and afterlife worlds. Sinners descend into increasingly nightmarish levels of hell, and Christians ascend after death to increasingly blissful levels of Purgatory and then Paradise.
Limbo — the first level of hell — is a world filled with great philosophers including Homer, Ovid, Horace (the virtuous pagans) and unbaptized babies, souls who fell in by accident. It is ironic and significant that those of greatest and least intellect are indistinguishable here.
The team is introduced to a group of men who heavily sedate themselves each day for hours in order to dream. Unconscious and bundled in ratty old sheets in a dimly lit basement, they resembled mummies and do not stir even when slapped on the face. It is a gruesome picture of someone, who though still living, is already dead because of his unnatural attachment to a virtual world.
These men dream to be woken up, explains their caretaker. For them, their dreams have become their realities, and life is no longer worth actually living through.
And what about you (us), this new generation of Millennials, Nolan might ask. Are your chains to the computer screen as liberating or as frightening as a perpetual drug-induced slumber? Don’t even mention the eternal soul. Do we even know when our physical bodies waste away?
The only semblance of an answer to these troubling questions is Edith Piaf’s voice serenading the dream-travelers as they prepare to leave each dream. Non, je ne regrette rien, she sings: I have no regrets. Perhaps getting lost in the labyrinth is unimportant if the best effort is expended and each life is lived to its fullest.