I’ve read a lot of reviews of Inception (including the one here) and a lot of thoughts on Inception (including the one here just a little bit ago, which is quite a nice theory. Me, I tend to go for the straightforward ambiguity of “either the ending is entirely real, or else everything up to the ending is real and it’s only the last few minutes that are a dream”. But I do like the idea that Matthew Johnson put forward…and I like that the movie is more ambiguous than the heist flick it seems to be on the surface.)
But the most common negative I hear about the movie is summed up by one of the comments in Matthew Johnson’s post (thank you, Snap Wilson, for inspiring this post, by the way): “Yes, I suppose it’s thoroughly reasonable that a drab, uninteresting person would dream about other drab, uninteresting people taking place in drab, uninteresting environments (or risible Modern Warfare 2 levels, apparently). That doesn’t make it good storytelling. Dreams certainly are capable of being alternately exciting, wondrous, imaginative or terrifying things. Inception was too serious for that, and thus we’re stuck with sterile concrete, glass and steel cityscapes where everyone wears a suit. The dreams of an accountant.”
This is the big complaint most of the people who disliked Inception had, that the dreams didn’t feel like dreams. (In fairness to Wilson, he said he liked the film despite that.) But I think those people are…not missing the point, because I think that’s kind of mean. Perhaps they’re approaching it from the wrong angle, or approaching it without key knowledge. Nolan isn’t making a film about dreams. Nolan is making a film about lucid dreams.
Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon of experiencing a dream with the knowledge that you are experiencing a dream, and using that knowledge to “steer” the dream and control its contents. The result is something like an astonishingly vivid narrative, like living out a movie. (Yes, the parallels are obvious. Nolan is clearly fascinated with the subject; after all, he apparently worked on the screenplay to Inception for something like a decade. You don’t do that with something you’re not obsessed with.)
Lucid dreams feel very different from normal dreams; there’s less of the disconnected dream-logic, the bizarre and senseless structure that comes from synapses firing randomly. You feel like you’re in a real place, talking to real people. There’s a narrative to it…and it’s one you can control. Does this begin to sound familiar? Lucid dreamers even develop strategies to determine whether or not they’re dreaming, although not the same ones as in the movie. (They do things like look at a digital clock, look away, then quickly look back again. In a dream, the numbers don’t stay the same.)
That was where Nolan’s idea for Inception began. The film takes that initial, real-world idea of lucid dreaming, and asks, “What might happen if lucid dreamers could share their dreams?” And then takes it to the next step, “If a lucid dreamer controlled the dreams of a normal dreamer, how would they know it wasn’t their idea?” And then inserts gangsters, corporate espionage, and guys with machine guns and grenade launchers, which is never a bad direction to take a film. The people who point out that Inception doesn’t replicate a normal dream are right…but then again, it’s not trying to.