I enjoyed Inception and fount it to be thought provoking. Though the special effects are interesting, and the storyline unbelievably creative, I’m fascinated most by the philosophical themes that the movie explores. These themes seem to draw from both Nihilism and Existentialism, as so much high and pop art do, to raise some interesting questions.
And I do mean questions – the film seems very pointed in NOT answering them. That’s part of the whole thing, really. I suppose many are left singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” (you know how that ends). I want to dig into the philosophy a bit and just think out loud with you.
There’s more than just dreaming going on here. There are questions about what is real, what (if anything) has meaning. I think we can trace a philosophical/worldview movement from Nihilism to Existentialism.
Nihilism is a philosophy that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a logical conclusion to Naturalism (or any non-Theistic worldview). If reality exists in some kind of box with nothing outside of it (e.g. God) to imbue it with meaning, then all sense of meaning and value is groundless and, thus, fake. The existentialist is one who rises above the resulting despondency or resignation to create meaning and define his own life and circumstances. (I wrote more about it in a similar film review here.)
There are two main characters in the film and each has an existential moment – the moment where they reject Nihilism (again, the view that they are prisoners of the nothingness of life, prisoners of their circumstances, of a meaningless world, yada yada yada). They reject this Nihilism by refusing to drown in their own subconscious angst and instead by choosing to create and embrace a new reality, one that is not foisted upon them. Philosophically, this is Existentialism’s response to and rejection of Nihilism. But it is crucial to note that it is not a repudiation of the truth of Nihilism as much as it is a decision to defy it and/or ignore it.
The first main character, obviously, is Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). His existential moment occurs on the “bottom level” of the dream, where he must finally let go of his dead wife.
He accepts the reality of her death and, though tempted to remain there with her in some profound depth of sub-consciousness, he chooses to leave and move on with his life, to build something new without her. After all, she is not real — all she is at this point is what he can project her to be in his mind. And as he tells her, that’s not enough.There’s something better about the real, complex, complicated, wonderful though flawed version of her that is gone.
So he embraces the “real,” though flawed version of life and chooses to get back to his children to live there.
The second character is Fischer. The entire dream sequence is, after all, a journey into the deep recesses of his mind. His existential moment comes after he breaks into his own subconscious and finds the idea planted there by the others – that his father wants his son to not try to emulate him, but to become his own man and build his own life.
Sitting on the beach (at the “first level” of the dream, later), he tells his uncle “that’s what I’m going to do.” He has resolved to not be defined by anything outside of himself, but to become his own man. In a sense, he becomes the “super-man,” the overcomer spoken of by Nietzsche.
In that sense, it is interesting to note that Fischer’s transformation is ultimately wrought within himself. This would be an ultimately existential theme. The twist here, however, is that the idea that leads to the transformation is one that is planted in him from something outside of him.
And here is where the movie (at least where I see it) departs from “orthodox” Existentialism. Can something from outside of you change you? (We could take it a step farther and consider the role of the “architect” of the dream, played here by Ellen Page, who designed the labyrinthine structure in order to create a setting where these things could take place. She is something of a muse who guides Cobb through the story.) It seems to me that this is a philosophical question that can lead towards a Gospel conversation, though I’d reckon that’s not what the filmmakers intend.
I think the filmmakers are rather intentional in wanting to leave these questions unanswered.
The last image of the film shows that symbolic “totem” (a top), which Cobb keeps with him to discern reality, spinning around. It seems as though it begins to wobble.
Does it drop? Is this a dream? Does it end? The implication seems to be that it will eventually drop, and that this too (this dream or reality – whatever it is – is there a difference?) will end, as all things must.
But for now the sun is shining and the children are joyously hugging his neck and all seems well. Of course it will drop (that’s Nihilism, which is the inescapable reality of a non-Theistic worldview; that is what is true), but he’s going to walk outside in the sunshine and enjoy it (that’s Existentialism).
That’s the courageous thing for the Existentialist to do. Create meaning, enjoy it and make the most of it even though it doesn’t really matter.
Or does it? Here we part ways again because the Christian worldview argues strongly that it does matter, that there is an ultimate reality that does not end. The momentousness of this life, however, is that it does set our course for that eternal reality and how it will be spent. It will either be spent in the sunny and very real presence of the very real Creator and King, or it will be spent drowning in a lonely sea of self-conscious angst and pain.
The Architect calls us to Himself.