What are dreams? What is reality? What does INCEPTION say about truth? On today’s podcast, Dileep Rao (Yusuf from INCEPTION) joins Daryl and Jay to dig deeper into Christopher Nolan’s amazing film… INCEPTION!
This week on the Patreon-exclusive Aftercast (that’s FREE to the public for a week!)… Daryl interviews our guest, Dileep Rao, about his experience working on some classic geek films: INCEPTION, AVATAR, and DRAG ME TO HELL. Listen on Patreon!Unlock this content on Patreon!
The Story Geeks bloggers respond with an additional perspective to the same questions discussed in the podcast. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
Why do we dream? And why is it still somewhat of a mystery to us?
Dreaming is a strange — and sometimes unsettling — concept. While you’re sleeping, your mind conjures up these imaginary worlds and situations that feel incredibly real, only to have it all disappear the moment you open your eyes.
I think dreaming is still something of a mystery to us because the idea of “consciousness” as a whole also remains mysterious. When I dream, I find that I can sometimes shape or control the events of my dream to a certain extent, but I don’t get to pick the topic (otherwise, I’d be having way more Star Wars/Marvel dreams). 😉 Sometimes we may also do things in our dreams we’d never do in real life.
I don’t know a lot about dream science, so this could be completely off-base, but a theory about dreaming that made an impression on me is the idea that it helps us process thoughts and emotions that pop up throughout the day, or are buried deep inside us (even if we don’t want to acknowledge them). If you are working on a stressful project at work, you might have stressful, intense dreams at night. I know I have a lot of dreams about my cat getting sick or escaping outside the house and running away; this is probably my brain manifesting my fears. Even though she’s healthy now, my cat is getting older, and losing her is a real fear of mine that definitely shows up in my dreams.
In Yusuf’s dream room (where over 40 people come to dream), the caretaker says, “They come to be woken up. Who are we to say what reality is?” What do you think of that statement?
There are two different — and potentially dangerous — ideas to be found in that quote. The first is the fact that the people Yusuf is referring to don’t feel as if they’re truly alive/awake unless they’re dreaming. For whatever reason, they really want to escape from reality, and they prefer the imaginary realm of dreams to the life they’re actually living out in the world. It reminds me a little of “Ready Player One,” actually, where people would prefer a digital life in the Oasis to the problems out in the real world. There’s nothing wrong with escaping to fantasy/imaginary worlds every once in a while through movies, books, TV shows, etc., but when we become too lethargic and indifferent to the real world, that’s when we get into trouble.
The question “Who are we to say what reality is?” is also dangerous because people do have to live in the real world; what happens there really does matter. You can ignore reality or try to hide from it, but that won’t make the problems go away. If you’re lost in a fantasy world or dream-like state, you’re not really growing or moving forward — you’re just trapped in a self-imposed stasis. And that’s an ultimately empty existence. The real world is more painful and dangerous than dreaming, but it’s far more meaningful because what happens has real consequences.
Cobb says, “An idea can either define or destroy you.” Do you think that’s true? How is it true for the characters, and how is it true for us?
I absolutely think that statement is true. Many times, ideas turn out to be wonderful, incredible, powerful things. George Lucas’s creative ideas about Star Wars gave birth to a new film franchise that forever changed pop culture. The Wright brothers had an idea about a flying machine. Great works of literature, life-altering scientific discoveries, and cutting-edge inventions all started as an idea. A good idea can inspire us and drive us onward, giving us something to work for and aspire to.
However, ideas can also be dangerous. Some of Cobb’s ideas have devastating consequences, both in his own life and the lives of those he cares about. You have to be careful about what ideas you focus on and allow to take root in your mind.
In the real world, we have many serious examples of dangerous ideas that became powerful and destroyed lives. Racism and sexism are warped and twisted ideas that have damaged cultures throughout time. Hitler’s horrific ideas led to a world war, the Holocaust, and the deaths of millions.
We have to be vigilant regarding what ideas are circling around in the culture at large and what sort of impact they could have.
Cobb is haunted by guilt that he planted an idea in someone’s head, and it caused them to experience mental, emotional, and eventually physical pain. Should he be guilty? And what does that say about the way we distribute ideas in the real world?
I don’t think Cobb is wrong to experience grief and guilt, even though his wife Mal is ultimately responsible for her own actions. Although Cobb did not intend to harm Mal, by messing with her mind he made her question reality, and he eventually lost her forever. We should take our actions seriously, since they can have a profound impact on others. We need to be aware of how our ideas can influence the people we care about.
For example, maybe you get frustrated and say something unkind to a coworker, like, “I can’t believe how often you mess up my projects.” Later, you apologize and admit you said that only because you were angry, and you didn’t mean it. But I bet that comment will continue to haunt your coworker, and may make them question their value in the office. Your relationship may never be fully restored, based on their perception that you think their work is worthless.
However, the flip side of that is that we can also motivate people with a positive idea. Maybe you tell your coworker, “You did great work today — I know I can always rely on you.” It’s just a quick little compliment, but maybe it gives them confidence and motivates them to work even harder. Maybe one day they’ll get promoted, and it all started with the idea that you believed in them.
Cobb says that he planted the idea in Mal’s head that eventually led to her suicide. But, he’s still haunted by her. What guiding ideas are in Cobb’s head? Did Mal put any of them there?
I feel like a lot of “Inception” is open to interpretation, and what’s real or not isn’t always clear. I don’t know how much Mal may or may not have manipulated Cobb, but I think he definitely is haunted by his memories of her, and his past mistakes influence his actions. What Cobb has to do is make peace with his past, find forgiveness, and move forward, so he can return to being a father to his children.
Remembering past mistakes can actually be helpful, if it helps us make better choices in the future. But our past can become a toxic force in our lives if it paralyzes us. Like Cobb, we need to forgive ourselves and resolve to do better. The ghosts from our pasts shouldn’t ruin our future.
Why does Mal want to sabotage Cobb’s missions?
I like the interpretation that the Mal we see is a manifestation of Cobb’s guilt over what happened to his wife. If that’s right, then Mal’s (or, really, “Mal’s”) behavior is similar to the self-destructive way that guilt can cause us to damage our hopes, desires, and interests — that is to say, it’s not really “Mal” who’s sabotaging the missions, but Cobb’s own doubts about dream-sharing and his ability to accomplish the mission.
It’s only once Cobb makes peace with “Mal” (by confessing to Ariadne in Limbo) that “Mal” is stopped; this scene, in particular, resonated with me on several levels (if you’ll pardon the Inception-pun!): on one hand, Cobb might be accused of “incepting” himself (given his location when he finds this catharsis), but on the other hand, the scene bears a strong resemblance to a religious confession (with Ellen Page playing the role of the priest). Both elements work together to provide the audience with a catharsis of our own as we finally make sense of the “Mal” mystery that has been running through the film to this point. (And we don’t need a “kick” to wake up from these layers of meaning!)
When trying to determine how to get Robert Fischer to accept a planted idea, Cobb says, “We all yearn for reconciliation. For catharsis.” Why do you think that’s true?
Scholars of religion sometimes characterize religious worldviews as broadly telling a story of “Creation-Fall-Redemption”: somehow, the world is here (Creation), but there is a problem with it (Fall), and the religious structure aims to explain how that problem can be fixed (“Redemption”). In at least one tradition (Christianity), a fourth category is sometimes added: “Reconciliation,” wherein the original Creation is restored to its initial glory. No matter one’s religious worldview, this recognition of an error buried deep within the fabric of the universe helps to explain much of the uncomfortable elements we experience, both internally and externally — the desire to see that pain wiped away is at the core of human existentialism.
So, I agree we Cobb: we all yearn for reconciliation with whatever Creation was meant to be, for just as much as we can know that the sun is shining or that we really have hands, something about Creation groans with anticipation of a day when it needs to groan no more and the pain we currently share is released in the final catharsis.
Plus, you know, it was a good line to squeeze a bit more pathos into this action movie.
Would you trust Cobb as a leader? Do you trust him as the person we’re relying upon to understand this story and what’s really going on?
I would trust Cobb as the leader for this mission at least, given his absolute commitment to the success of the outcome. Although his explanations and motives are frequently cloudy, the fact that he’ll be arrested once the plane lands if the mission fails gives all of the stakes necessary for this to work.
Narratively, though, he’s completely untrustworthy, as the “Mal” threadline evidences. It seems clear that Cobb is at least suspicious about “Mal’s” true nature, but he routinely seeks to hide that information from his team (and, by extension, from us as the audience). Although this secrecy does serve to build an intriguing emotional texture for this thriller, it (by definition) makes Cobb unreliable.
Is Cobb actually dreaming any of this? Or is this real?
In his beautiful essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien offers a wonderful criticism of Dream-tales, saying “I would condemn the whole as gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame.” To Tolkien, a narrative is powerfully undermined if its final result is discovered by the reader/audience to have never happened — what was, one wonders, the point of the story at all? Again, quoting Tolkien: “…if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”
Admittedly, “Inception” might get a bit of a pass, given its necessary connection with dream-states broadly considered, but I still believe that Tolkien is right: if Cobb has dreamed literally the entire movie, then I suddenly have much less interest in its outcome. That might be different from arguing that Cobb never woke up from Limbo after going back to save Saito, though I still think that’s unfair to the promise of the initial scenes. I appreciate Nolan’s suspenseful trick in the final scene, but — for purely aesthetic reasons — I’m very much on the “It’s Real” team for this movie.
What do you think of the film’s concept of Limbo?
I actually liked Limbo far more than I thought I would. It shares a vague resemblance to the religious notion of Limbo (since both are essentially static regions, devoid of both pleasure and pain), but is made more interesting by the inclusion of a form of community life, twisted though it becomes. As sometimes happens in high-concept films, the exact mechanics of Limbo are left rather mysterious (and, arguably, contradictory), but for a movie that is equal parts action and philosophy, I enjoyed the fact that the climax came not with a bang, but a whisper.