Inception Obsession

Spoilers herein for the movie Inception. You have been warned!

I’ve seen the movie Inception four times, including on IMAX. Thinking about buying it when it comes out in DVD, etc. I even bought the Hans Zimmer soundtrack; it’s excellent music for writing about gods and epic stuff.

Now, let me put this in context: the last movie I saw multiple times in the theater, and still didn’t buy, was The Matrix. And that was only because somebody pointed out the green tint thing, which I’d missed on the first run-through. I’m ridiculously picky and jaded about my media. I don’t watch much TV to begin with (writing time has to come from somewhere) and when I do there are very, very few shows, movies, or video games that can capture and hold my interest, let alone bring me back for seconds or thirds. The ones that do aren’t always the greatest thing since sliced bread — as Inception is not; its characterization is so thin as to be archetypal, though in certain rare cases archetypes are all you need to tell a story (c.f. fairy tales).

But every so often, something will come along that hits one of my aesthetic sweet spots, and then I just. can’t. stop. watching/consuming/engaging. In the case of Inception, I love the look of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s and Marion Cotillard’s wardrobes alone are worth the price of admission. Nolan’s got a good eye for combining the stark with the surreal, and even though his dreamscapes seem awfully monotonous — I’ve been calling Cobb’s city in Limbo “Cutandpasteopolis” — there’s still a strangeness to them that really works for me, especially in combination with Zimmer’s haunting film score. And I love the actors, who do a phenomenal job within those thin slices of characterization. DiCaprio’s good, but Gordon-Levitt really shines, Dileep Rao did a much better job than the film’s marketing would suggest (he’s the only member of “the team” who didn’t get an individualized poster), and I never thought I would find Marion Cotillard frightening but she does it so well. I could watch Ken Watanabe paint a wall and be floored by his technique. And Tom Hardy is surprisingly hot in three-day stubble and a Seventies butterfly collar. (…I’m kind of disturbed to see myself write this. But writers must be willing to embrace their own fears and eccentricities…)

But here’s part of what intrigues me about the film. I’ve been following some interesting discussions online as to whether Inception counts as a science fiction film, or a heist film with SFnal elements. I’m of a mind with those who argue that Inception is a terrible heist film, if that’s what it’s aiming to be… but I’m not sure it’s a science fiction film, either. The science in it is the softest of soft science — psychodynamics (also known as psychoanalytics), most notably Jungian and Freudian. Now, note that I’m a psychologist in day job life and I hate the term “soft science”. In theory it’s supposed to refer to science that can’t be empirically proven, but in reality SF fans tend to slap it on anything they deem too girly or foreign, or which cannot potentially blow stuff up. Which may be why so many fans are quick to slap the science fiction label on Inception — because it’s chock full of explosions, gunfire, manly banter (…manter?), etc. But as any headshrinker will tell you, psychodynamic theory will never be empirically definable because much of it consists of philosophical speculation about how the mind works. In other words, we think Jung’s collective unconscious — represented in the film as Limbo — makes sense on an intuitive level, but how do we prove it exists? We can’t, not in any consistently reproducible way. We simply decide whether to believe in it.

The headshrinker term for this kind of thing is magical thinking*, which is awfully apropos given what I’m about to suggest. Which is, namely, that Inception is fantasy, not science fiction.

Bear with me. In most fantasy, magic is a state of mind. Proper use of magic almost always relies on specialized knowledge and some kind of mental or emotional effort — often just willpower or concentration — sometimes in conjunction with special objects, environmental properties (e.g., ley lines), or innate qualities like a genetic predisposition. But in the world of Inception — like in our world — anyone can dream. Anyone can do the tricks that Cobb’s team performs in the dreamstate; there have been schools of thought and religion dedicated to lucid dreaming for millennia. And per psychodynamic theory, all human beings can potentially access one another’s thoughts (via the collective unconscious). So when there’s no explanation given as to what makes Cobb such a good extractor, or Ariadne a good architect, that’s fine — because most viewers simply accept that they are good at their jobs, with no proof necessary beyond the characters’ assurances. They’re good because we’re told they’re good, which makes us believe they’re good. They accomplish the feats that they do, not because of the drugs or devices, but because they imagine that they can, and they can convince others of this. Imagination, not technology, is the source of power, or dare I say magic, in this world.

So what we have in Inception is a film about people literally using magical thinking to alter their environment. The fact that the environment is someone’s mind, and that this results in reading or altering that subject’s mind, is also relevant. In most fantasies, mind-alteration/reading is done more simply — Obi-Wan’s “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” or Voldemort dragging secrets out of Harry Potter’s mind by staring at him and making angry faces. Inception simply makes the process of invading the mind look as difficult as it probably should be — a marathon therapy session requiring customized drugs, an entire team of specialists, and great expense, carrying substantial risk for all involved.

And why isn’t this science fiction? Granted, a certain amount of magical thinking is common in science fiction — FTL, for example, or human beings surviving in space for long periods of time, despite empirical evidence suggesting that neither will ever be possible. Psychic stuff usually gets lumped into science fiction along with the rest of these scientifically questionable tropes, especially if someone paints a spaceship into the background or positions a not-really-necessary device on a side table. (Or adds explosions.) But really, psychic science fiction is no different from fantasy. Both have rules: angry faces, arcane words. Both have devices: the the PASIV, the One Ring, the Macguffin of Powah. But in the end, Anne McCaffrey’s Rowan stories, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, and Cronenberg’s Scanners all succeed simply because we agree to believe in their basic premise, not because of any provable science involved. Magical thinking, again. The basis of fantasy.

Not to disparage Inception in any way; I’m a fantasy writer, remember. But it does tickle me that most of the hardcore science fiction fans I know — the kinds of people who wouldn’t normally touch fantasy with a ten-foot pole because it’s ew, gross, non-empirical, or who think any science ending in “-ology” is complete bunk — absolutely love this film. Because that means they do believe in magic, and that means they’re potentially mine to woo, as a storyteller.

Today, dream heists. Tomorrow, unicorns. Yeah. ::rubs hands and cackles megalomaniacally::**

* Note: I don’t think psychodynamic theory is magical thinking. I’ve studied Jung and Freud extensively; the reason so many people buy into their theories is because they’re on to something, particularly regarding the tripartate nature of consciousness and the existence of a collective state. But these are just theories at present (though there is a growing body of empirical evidence developing behind them, as we understand more about the brain itself), and the choice to structure a world around these beliefs is the magical thinking part.

** Yes, fantasy writers actually do this. Trufax!

41 Comments on “Inception Obsession”

  1. Excellent essay – lots to ponder. My distinction between SF and fantasy has usually been that in science fiction, there’s something about humans that makes us win; in fantasy, there’s something about the world – gods, the way magical forces are built, something – that makes us win. I would love to know the few TV shows that attract your attention, even if they’re not the critics’ darlings.

  2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s suit in the hotel sequence was utterly perfect — indeed, he could have used it as a totem, for such beauty can surely only exist in a dream. My lord, I might buy the DVD just so I can watch those bits again. Also, great posture.

    Was there something about the Matrix green tint that put you off?

    Off topic, but I had a dream last night that I was reading The Broken Kingdoms. The cover was the right shade of blue, but the title was The Ninety Thousand Kingdoms, and I remember thinking, oh, they’ve lost a few. So yeah, I can’t wait for it to be published, and neither can my subconscious.

  3. Charles @#1:

    Lately, Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (and I was a reluctant convert, only deciding that I liked it near the end of the first season), the children’s cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Japanese manga/anime Bleach, and most iterations of Law and Order. That’s kinda it. I’m not sold on Caprica yet, but I’m still watching.

    I’m not sure I agree with your SF/F distinction. SF seems just as reliant on MacGuffins (something about the world) for human victory, while fantasy is frequently about humans struggling against themselves. And the best SF and F blends both; I’ve become a huge fan of Kay Kenyon lately for that reason.

  4. Fraser @#2,

    Mmm… men in smart suits with good posture… in my happy place right now. Sorry, what else were you — oh.

    The green tint didn’t put me off, I just didn’t notice it the first time, to my amazement once it got pointed out to me.

    ::snickers at your dream:: You know there’s not really a hundred thousand kingdoms, right? Only a few hundred. The Arameri tend to exaggerate a little.

  5. It’s one of life’s great pleasures, isn’t it? I was also very fond of Tom Brady’s character — I have a weakness for can-do guys with English accents.

    I believe everything I’m told, which is why I would be so bad at court politics. Can’t believe those Arameri would take advantage of me like that!

  6. I think the ‘collective unconciousness’ idea is pure wishful thinking.

    As for movies i’ve seen multiple times, Avatar blah plot but impressive visuals, The Dark Knight loved the tumbler, Matrix 1 was just impresive all around

  7. “I could watch Ken Watanabe paint a wall and be floored by his technique.”

    There was a scene in the movie in which something happened, and all I could think was ‘Ken Watanabe is wearing a purple tie!’.

    And I’m totally on board with Jason Gordon-Levitt’s suit. Finest kind.

  8. Hmmm… guess I’m one of the oddball guys that loves both science fiction and fantasy, so both halves of me loves Inception. Really, it is my favorite movie of the year, so far. Of course, it helps that it’s from Nolan and has Ken Watanabe in it.

    I’ve got the first season of Bleach on DVD. Very, very much enjoy it. I’ve also been picking up Battlestar on DVD, as I was never able to catch it the first time around. I used to watch Law and Order, but no so much anymore.

    I’d recommend checking out Lie to Me. The main characters are scientists and experts on deception detection.

    Speaking of fantasy, are you planning on watching A Game of Thrones when it comes out?

  9. Of course sci/fi fans believe in magic. That whole “sufficiently advanced technology” theory and all.

    Inception is sci/fi. If the explanation for the ability to invade dreams were more magical and less (admittedly hand-wavy) nuts and bolts with drugs and a kit etc…, then the fantasy argument might be more relevant.

    Inception is an idea story at its core, which I think in some ways required the archetypal characters.

    “I could watch Ken Watanabe paint a wall and be floored by his technique.”
    brilliant :)

  10. Side question: Do they do much with IMAX in the movie? Debating seeing it again, but want to know if it’s worth the extra money.

  11. Being a catalog librarian, I go in for more of a hierarchical classification of genres: fantasy is the parent genre, with science fiction as a sub genre.

    It’s all imaginary “what if” scenarios, the sub genre classifications (sci-fi, magical fantasy, magical realism, space opera, etc.) are just finer distinctions of the flavor of what if.

    All of which is to say: I’m cool with Inception as fantasy. Maybe the Venn diagram for that movie overlaps science fiction by a thin sliver, but only just.

  12. I absolutely don´t care whether die hard science fiction fans would climb up a tree if Inception is called science fiction. I thought of it as science fiction, because there was a not really specified machine they all had to be wired to. Reminded me of nothing so much as of the beaming technology in Star Trek… There is a name, and maybe who invented it, but nothing whatsoever how it works.
    Still, I loved it, and I definitely would watch it again. For me it is one of my favorite films of the year, if not the best of the year. It simply worked for me.
    Fave quote: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling. “

  13. Thanks for the reply! Battlestar and Avatar have been 2 of my favorites too (Law and Order got stale for me a while back), so I will look for Bleach and Kay Kenyon.

  14. Damon Knight: “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”

    The Pasiv Dream Machine may be a macguffin, but it is a piece of technology that allows the characters to do what they do.
    What the characters are able to do when they get into the dream world may be based on psychology, but their ability to get into dreams requires this piece of technology. In my estimate that makes it science fiction.

    Compare this to the movie that Inception was being compared to prior to its release, Dreamscape. Dreamscape is about people with psychic abilities that can enter dreams. That’s a fantasy.

    Also, if we start to push softer science topics into the realm of fantasy then the whole genre will become more and more restrictive.

    There are a great many works that would no longer qualify as science fiction based on that definition.

  15. Why worry? There are things which are clearly science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dread Empire’s Fall), things which are clearly fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Thomas Covenant), and things which are both (The Many-Coloured Land). Story-telling is much richer than category theory.

    @Christoph #14: Great line, that one. Was Tom improvising? I ask because it — oh, wait, Christopher Nolan is English. Makes sense now. It’s hard to imagine — and I say this with the greatest respect — it’s hard to imagine an American writing that line. In exactly the same way that I couldn’t have written Gone with the Wind.

    OK, there’s many other ways in which I could not have written Gone with the Wind, but you get the idea.

  16. I got nothin’ to add on the genre front, but Ken Watanabe needs to be in every movie I watch and Joseph Gordon-Levitt needs to dress like that every day (preferably somewhere I can see).

    I exaggerate, but not by much. Watanabe is a fabulous actor and JGL, unlike so many people today, understands the importance of good posture. :-)

  17. Yes, I forgot to mention the talent that is Ken Watanabe; I almost felt a little sorry for Tom Cruise having to appear on a movie screen beside him (Last Samurai, I only saw it because I was on a mountain in France and there was no other choice (you can tell my life sucks, can’t you?) but on the bright side, Ken Watanabe!). The guy is class.

    Imagine if JGL just turned up in a suit one day, and just stood there.

    Or sat there.

    Oh! Maybe he could sit, then he could stand, then he could say something really important. And sit down.

  18. I was thinking Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a lot younger than me, so I felt like I was getting my Mrs. Robinson on when I was eyeballing him. I just got brave enough to check and it’s only a 5 year difference. So! I guess it’s time to get back and see Inception for the third time.

    On this third pass, I am going to have my eye out for Cobb’s wedding ring (or absence thereof) in each sequence.

  19. Green tint in The Matrix? Say, what! I’ve seen Matrix quite a few times and remember the green tint of the program code scrolling down the screen shots, but speak you of green tint elsewhere? O please explain.

    Haven’t seen Inception yet but will.

    Frazier @17 you are dead on right about story-telling being richer than category theory. As a sci-fi and fantasy fan I’ve read and seen much that blends both categories together into rich tapestries. Orson Scott Card once said you could tell the difference in a bookstore by the cover art: trees on the cover-fantasy; rivets on the cover-sci fi. While true at one time, I think I’ve read a fair bit that should have had both trees and rivets on the covers.

    Now, someone explain this green tint thing in The Matrix to me.

  20. Garhee @21: the scenes that take place in the Matrix have a green tint to them. You may have mistaken it for Sydney’s chronic air pollution problem, but apparently it was done in post.

    I was so over fantasy (O-V-A-H ovah!), but then I read (not to suck up or anything) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I’m totally back. Even if the title is a COMPLETE LIE!

  21. Scott @ #12:

    I thought the IMAX was worth it solely for the hallway fight scene, which was jaw-dropping on a regular screen and incredibly immersive on the IMAX screen. (Who needs 3D?) But that was the only value IMAX added, IMO.

  22. Saracen @ #16,

    Ah, but as I pointed out in the OP, lucid dreaming (which, among other things, allows one to enter another’s dreams) has been around for centuries. It’s a skill, not something that requires technology, and the fact that the team in Inception used technology to do it is kind of akin to the way most people these days send written communication by email, IMO. No one has to send an email; most of us know how to handwrite letters, slap a stamp on the envelope, and snail it away. The technology just makes it much, much easier. So does a movie in which the characters use email qualify as science fiction?

    Also, remember that in Dreamscape, the characters originally used a device in conjunction with their psychic abilities. It was only later that they learned to do it without the machine. So do you consider the movie science fiction until they discard the device, then fantasy afterward?

    And I’m not suggesting that soft science fiction = fantasy; far from it. I’m suggesting that science fiction which relies on magical thinking = fantasy. There’s a difference. Also note that this separation didn’t originate with me; the Mundanes went there first. I’m simply agreeing with their basic premise.

  23. Ah, but as I pointed out in the OP, lucid dreaming (which, among other things, allows one to enter another’s dreams) has been around for centuries.

    Yes, lucid dreaming has been around for centuries, but we remain unable to enter another’s dreams. Lucid dreaming means that you can tell when you’re dreaming and influence the dream through this knowledge. Inception’s PASIV dream device is the tech through which shared dreaming is made possible.

    In my mind, tech=sci-fi. The tech is required for the story, so the Inception is sci-fi.

  24. Blitzen @25:

    Yes, lucid dreaming has been around for centuries, but we remain unable to enter another’s dreams.

    Not according to people who are skilled in the technique. Not that I can do it, or have even tried, but for advanced practitioners, entering others’ dreams is supposedly possible. Jung acknowledges this in his own theories on the collective unconscious; it’s one of the core tenets of psychodynamic dream theory.

  25. Inception is science fiction. Period.

    It’s about, in part, what changes in society with the introduction of a new technology.

    It was used by the military as a way to create realistic (i.e. feels real) combat training. It was used recreationally, both to explore the limits of dreaming (Mal and Cobb) and as an alternate life (the people in Mombassa).

    The film focuses on a particular aspect of the technology, its use in corporate espionage. So we follow a group of extractors but we also hear about people whose job it is to provide subconscious security.

    So its great sf because as we’re following one element of the impact of the technology we get small peaks into the changes it has had on the wider world (it still seems limited to governments, large corporations and people exposed to it through those who work in the industry: like how Cobb recruits Ariadne or the chemist with the Mombassa dreamers).

  26. nkjemisin @26:
    Not according to people who are skilled in the technique.

    I find this incredibly hard to believe. Citation needed.

  27. I thought it fun that I saw this film right after quitting my job for a move, and I was doing the exact same experimenting with lucid dreaming that Nolan talked about in an interview that influenced his writing. I couldn’t do this while I had a regular office job, but I found that if you sleep for most of the night, wake up for a while, then go back to bed, it’s *much* easier to enter a lucid dreaming state. I found that if I’d been up for an hour or so, then went back to bed, that with practice I could sometimes leap directly from waking consciousness into dreaming and bring my conscious ego along and direct the dream somewhat. Great fun, and I love flying and floating.

    That said, my friends into pagan / wicca / ceremonial magick claim that properly practiced and trained people can interact in dream space. I’ve never done it but am open minded and would find that to be useful and fun. From what I understand, much of ceremonial magick, they say, is getting one into the practice of working in dream space and getting to the point where one can work with other people in that space for various ends. Doing the ritual work in reality (ahem) is just to get it into your head via repetition so that you can do it in the dream.

    One problem I had with the movie is that it wasn’t drea-like enough, or at all. In dreams, things change and are fluid. In the movie, the only time there was “dreamlike” mutation, was when the woman decided to fold Paris.

    Also, why did they have to have the briefcase I/V setup in the nested dream spaces? Was it just a visual prop to trigger the appropriate response?

    And, dude, no morning wood? ;)

  28. “According to people who are skilled in it” people can fly with yoga, heal cancer with warm hand rubbing and find water with a pair if wires.

    Sadly, according to people with rigorous double-blind tests, the first group are wrong. We need a little more than personal anecdotes to substantiate extraordinary claims like shared dreams.

  29. Jeff @ #30,

    Well, yes, Jeff, this would be why I’m suggesting that the film is fantasy. :) I’m not saying that people into shared dreaming, etc., really can do what they say — in fact, I’m saying that there’s no empirical evidence to prove that they can. But they believe that they can, and there’s talk of this in everything from ancient texts to the most woo-woo of modern New Age stuff. (Blitzen @ #28, just walk into any shop or bookstore with material on meditation and philosophy. The whole place is full of it. You won’t find any proof that it’s possible, but you’ll find plenty of people saying it.) The concept isn’t remotely new, is what I’m saying; it’s deeply embedded in Hinduism, some American Indian religions, ancient Chinese and Egyptian writings, and so on, as well as Jungian psychology. All Nolan has done is apply a technological veneer to this spiritual/philosophical construct. Which seems to be all that’s necessary to make die-hard sciencefictionistas buy into it, and — judging by the direction this thread has taken — defend it. I find this very interesting.

  30. I saw it as using sci-fi to make a psychological fantasy. The machines weren’t explained, but were just props that we accepted in faith. We do that with plenty of sci-fi films, like Star Wars X-wings.

    I was facinated more by the slow reveal of what happened with Mol. That felt like the main arc rather than the heist. That story haunted me for days/weeks afterward. Rather than limbo, I’ve always seen Cobb as having the epiphany and placing himself in a private purgatory.

    The dual genre nature of the film reminded me a lot of Proyas’ Dark City — which predates The Matrix by a year btw. Great blend of sci-fi & 40s film noir.

  31. OK, I have to disagree.
    Let’s begin with the place of psychodynamics in SF. It is far too well established to relegate anything hinging on it to fantasy, regardless of it’s perceived softness. The entire oeuvre of Alfred Bester was merely reworkings of popular pshycological theories (and misconceptions) in SFnal garb. In one of his novels he had people who took radioactive drugs which allowed them to physically enter the Jungian collective unconscious where they could meet and interact with archetypes! Another novel’s resolution hinged on an Oedipal complex. Other tales featured fugues, weird dissociative states, OCD and whatnot.
    Then there’s P. K. Dick – In Eye in the Sky his protagonists, after some particle accelerator accident, are thrown from one world to another, and each world is created by each character’s subconscious.
    And let’s not forget psi powers. There’s nothing scientific about them now, but you still find them in SF. And if you look hard you’ll find every fantasy trope from vampires to dragons in SF too.
    So How come all of these works are still classed as science fiction? How come magical thinking is so prevalent in SF? Easy. because ultimately, what’s classed as SF isn’t the works which have provable, rigorous science. It’s not about the story at all! The classification of SF versus fantasy is all about surface and presentation. If the author TELLS you the speculative element works according to a scientific principle, that it involves some machine, or an aspect of astronomy or phsics or biology or something in the DNA – then it’s science fiction. It only has to have verisimilitude to actual sci/tech. And Cobb and team use a machine. It has blinking lights, and tubes and chemicals – we know a machine when we see it, and that is enough. Were Nolan to replace the machine with an ancient magic talisman, and keep everything else in the movie same as it is now – we would have a fantasy.

  32. nkjemisin@24

    So does a movie in which the characters use email qualify as science fiction?

    No, because email exists. A movie that made significant use of email, filmed before it actually existed, would be science fiction, I think.


    If the author TELLS you the speculative element works according to a scientific principle, that it involves some machine, or an aspect of astronomy or phsics or biology or something in the DNA – then it’s science fiction.

    I broadly agree with this, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of surface and presentation, as you suggest. I would say something is science fiction if its distinctive feature is seen within the story as something that can be studied by a scientific method; and that is a real difference in the kind of story it is. If it had to conform to real-world science an enormous amount of iconic science fiction would be left out – and the idea that science (the very activity of science, which we know) might discover some things which we now consider impossible is not absurd in itself, even if the actual examples science fiction writers come up with are often far-fetched.

  33. Hold up. Are you trying to tell me that Inception is not a documentary? I just bought that dream machine on eBay for $10,000. Now how am I supposed to get into Bono’s brain and convince him to run for President of Haiti?

  34. Excellent post. I, like so many others, also enjoyed the movie. I tend to read both s/f and fantasy as well as crime/mystery so this movie sort of hit all points for me. I hadn’t tried categorizing the flick but I think I would put it in s/f primarily b/c they do need the machine and sedative to enter the shared dream state. Regardless, great movie worthy of multiple viewings.

  35. I saw the movie — for the first time — today and only then read this post. Loved them both.

    @B. Minich – Fantastic. Thanks for posting the link.

  36. ” hardcore science fiction fans … who think any science ending in “-ology” is complete bunk” : As someone who works in immunology, a sub-field of biology, this makes me crazy. Science!=engineering. Science!=blowing stuff up. Science can be far more subtle, both slower and faster than what we see in our day-to-day lives.

    I think it’s probably a hold over from popular perception of the Manhattan Project, but is it ever annoying.

    (Sorry for being OT.)

  37. Michael_gr @33,

    That’s fair. I think you may be saying the same thing I am — that what we classify as science fiction has very little to do with what is actually scientific. We’ve got different conclusions as to what to do about that, but the same basic premise.

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