Robert Mixa reviews the new science-fiction thriller, Inception, which is stirring up interpretive conversation among movie-goers across the nation. Here, Robert offers a philosophical commentary on the underlying themes of this psychological blockbuster.
Have you ever awakened from a dream that seemed so real you had a hard time distinguishing it from reality? Sometimes our dreams seem so real that we are unaware of our dreaming. However, most dreams have an illogical, disjointed plot, making it possible for us to identify them as dreams. A significant feature of dreams is that they are constructed from the contents of our memory that are infused with emotion. The most emotional memories emerge from the subconscious mind with a force so powerful that it affects us in reality. For example, when waking from a dream in which a beloved person, whom we hurt, appears, we often awake feeling the horror and raw emotion of that encounter. So dreams affect reality and vice versa, making it sometimes hard to distinguish the two. More than simply entering into the ocean of the subconscious mind with full control, Inception
demonstrates how vulnerable we are to the latent creatures of our subconscious, making the dream world a labyrinth in which we are hunted down by the Minotaur of our memory.
is full of complexity that only a shrink could analyze, I am going to attempt probe two issues: Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) tortured sub-consciousness - resulting from his attachment to the memory of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), – and his constant anxiety over whether he is in reality or a dream. Cobb is a con man who enters into people’s dreams in order to pull from their sub-consciousness information or to implant an idea in their minds that will manifest itself in reality, all with self-beneficial ends in mind. He does this with the help of a dream architect who constructs dream labyrinths in which he places a dreamer, leading him/her to a trap of vulnerability. Being an expert extractor, Cobb is supposed to have complete control in the dream labyrinth, never letting the projections of his sub-consciousness enter the matrix. However, he doesn’t. Always bringing the Minotaur of his sub-consciousness with him, Mal obstructs his plans, forcing him to abort the mission. He is so attached to Mal that he cannot move beyond her and carry out his task. She is his Achilles heel. But he keeps opening that wound. He doesn’t do anything to detach himself from her. Rather, he has locked her in the prison of his mind, controlling and possessing her. He does this because she represents for him a paradise to which he longs to return. Unfortunately, that paradise is now a dream, and Mal, in his dreams, is gradually convincing Cobb that his dream is reality. Thus, according to her, the only way of finding happiness is by believing in the dream. As mentioned above, Cobb’s task as an extractor is to have the dreamer believe the dream to be reality, but, through his projection of Mal, he is beginning to believe in the dream, remaining in the labyrinth of his mind.
Cobb fears that he will find no exit from the dream world since Mal keeps luring him into the dream. After barely escaping a dream designed by one of his architects, Cobb goes in search of another dream architect who will construct a world that will more easily deceive the dreamer into thinking it is reality while at the same time preventing Cobb’s sub-consciousness from getting in the way. I do not think that it is accidental that the new dream architect’s (Ellen Page) name is Ariadne who, in Greek mythology, helped Theseus find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. She is the one who is supposed to help Cobb return to reality. However, by entering into Cobb’s sub-consciousness, she realizes the gravity of Cobb’s attachment to Mal and how much of a risk he is to the rest of the team while venturing through other’s dreams. Cobb, full of pride, does not want his problem to be known. But this allows Mal to emerge at any point in the dream. In order to prevent Mal from appearing in the dream labyrinth, he is going to have to metaphorically kill her. His illness will only be cured if he frees her from the chains of his sub-consciousness. He must undergo catharsis. But only by purging himself of his attachment to Mal will he be free.
While this movie made me think of many philosophical issues, it occurred to me that this movie represents the postmodern condition of man – souls desparately looking for God, the ground of reality and meaning, but nevertheless denying him. The nausea accompanying this sense of meaninglessness naturally leads to an emptiness that must be quickly filled with something (a self-constructed idea that provides us with a meaningful framework to live by) so that a sense of control returns. However, Cobb is losing his sense of control in the dream labyrinth. He is beginning to lose his ability to distinguish dreams from reality. He may be stuck in the labyrinth of his mind. With this uncertainty he feels the anxiety of despair, the same despair Mal felt when she believed reality was a dream. I believe that this is the same despair modern man feels today since he no longer assumes that the world is meaningful and exists because of God. He searches for guideposts that will guarantee him a certain exit from the labyrinth of the mind. This desire is akin to a gnosis that claims to possess clear knowledge - a knowledge that will make him a master in the labyrinth. However, life is full of uncertainty, and, although we can ponder the reality of this world, we ought not to expect certainty in it. Rather, in order to live, we must trust that there is an answer and a meaning, but to trust this we must believe that there is a God. If we try to infuse our lives with our own meaning, the reason Cobb held on to his memory of Mal, we will live in anxiety because deep down we know that the world is really meaningless. But if we trust that there is a ground of reality (God), we can walk more confidently through the seeming labyrinth of the mind.
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.