The Marxist Matrix

How to make sense of all those dreams-within-dreams in Inception.

Still from "Inception". Click image to expand.

About halfway through Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur lifts an assault rifle and tries, unsuccessfully, to take out a group of attackers firing on him from a nearby rooftop. Arthur’s teammate Eames nudges him to one side and tells him, with an audible smirk, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” He produces an enormous grenade launcher, takes aim, and gets the job done. As with many moments in Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster, this one requires some parsing. It seems that Eames conjures up his gargantuan gun on the spot, at his whim.

The grenade-launcher bit is a passing moment of comic relief, but it’s also one of the few times in Inception where Nolan seems to depict a dream-world act of the sort we associate with actual dreaming—illogical, unbounded in creative potential, free from the drab tyranny of the real. Nobody in this film makes love to Megan Fox atop a dragon while his teeth fall out: The dreams here observe more or less tidy rules. A dreamer’s experience of time, for instance, slows down in regular, calculable intervals as he drops deeper and deeper into unconsciousness. His innermost secrets are conveniently deposited—and readily locatable—within locked vaults. And the effects of waking-state factors like gravity and weather register with improbable intelligibility in a dream, so that if dozing-me is dunked into a bathtub, geysers of water will burst into whatever place dream-me occupies at that moment.

In Inception, when a dream goes nuts, that nuttiness is not its natural condition but rather a herald and catalyst of its breakdown and end, as in the scene where Ellen Page’s Ariadne folds Paris onto itself—the sort of wild invention that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb warns her might alert a dreaming subject to foreign meddlers and thereby snap him back to consciousness. In Inception, a dreamer—or, to be precise, a dreamer jacked up with the unique cocktail of drugs that the extractors administer to their marks—is a pretty literal-minded type.

To hear several smart critics tell it, so is Christopher Nolan, to a fault. In a New York pan, David Edelstein called the director “too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.” At his ChicagoSun-Times blog, a similarly scornful Jim Emerson wrote that the movie “reduces the complexity (and beauty and terror) of the human subconscious to the dimensions of a routine action movie or video game.’” In the New YorkTimes, A.O. Scott wrote that the dreams in Inception were “often curiously pedestrian” (I, for one, wouldn’t mind a few more ski-slope shootouts in my dream life) and that “Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness—the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity—that this subject requires.” What connects these criticisms is a desire for the appearance on screen of an infinite, unfettered unconscious at work, a demand that Inception replicate, engage with, and deliver that radically unmoored feeling we get from a dream.

This is a not-unreasonable expectation to bring to a movie that boasts state-of-the-art special effects and whose director is known for his love of elaborate, disorienting mind games. Beneath that expectation, though, lies a tacit agreement that this is how dreams should be represented. Critics are right to identify Nolan’s vision of dreams as somewhat literal-minded, but to call that a flaw in the film risks countering his literalism with essentialism. In Nolan’s vision of dreams, did he fail to meet his subject’s requirements, or did he put forward a grimly hamstrung, dystopian view that assails the optimistic idea that dreams are the mind’s loony, liberated playground?

That dreams in Inception aren’t normal dreams is a central plot point. The movie’s exposition is passing and partial, but the rough idea is that, to better train soldiers, the military developed a technology through which dreams could be manipulated and shared—this technology eventually migrated to the private sector. When Cobb and his cohort enter a dream, they take the creative reins from their dreaming subject so as to better sift through and steward his subconscious—the tidier the dream, the easier it is to manage and mine it. I emerged from the film convinced that its dreams play out the way they do not because of a shortcoming on Nolan’s part but because of a haunting and resonant choice he made.

At root, the movie presents a world in which corporate-capitalist powers are capable of controlling our dreams: a bleak world, as a friend put it to me after seeing the film, “that has increasingly less room for a Freudian- Bretonian unconscious to go spinning revolutionary visions.” Nolan’s clearest and darkest articulation of this idea comes when we see the dream-world that Cobb and his wife, Mal, built together over the course of decades they spent in a limbo state. Possessed of unbridled creative power and a multi-dimensional blank canvas, these expert dream-weavers didn’t construct some fantastical, physics-defying wonderland full of milkshake waterfalls and basketball-playing dogs, but rather a claustrophobic, overwhelmingly gray metropolis full of identical Brutalist architecture that repeats itself obsessively, hewing to a cramped grid.

To Nolan’s credit, he doesn’t hammer us over the head with this theme, but it hangs over the film: Even our dreams can be annexed, colonized, and drained. This relates to a vaguely anti-capitalist critique in Inception.For starters, Cobb’s mission (on the way to reuniting with his children) is to dissolve a multinational energy company poised to become more powerful than a nation-state. And we can read the telescoping levels of dreams in Inception through the lens of derivatives, each more leveraged and unstable than the next. In this view, the spectacularly disintegrating illusions in Inception echo the spectacularly disintegrating illusions of the 2007 stock market.

If there’s an element in Inception that mitigates the bleakness, it’s the giddy way in which Nolan pilfers from cinema history. The alpine showdown and Mombassa street chase are straight out of James Bond and Jason Bourne. The deathbed set in Robert Fischer’s unconscious recalls the Star Trek holodeck. The zero-gravity fight scenes evoke both The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The spectral wife, Mal, haunts our hero like Hari in Solaris. Added up, Inception is something of a love letter to some of Nolan’s favorite films, and his extracting, forging, architecting heroes are not simply culture-bludgeoned victims, but emblems of that liberated Postmodern figure, the remixer, who bends and subverts mass culture to his will.

There is a certain claustrophobia to this vision, too—a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun, even in dreams, and that mass culture has co-opted our inner projectors. In a way, Inception is something like an elaborated version of the iconic sequence in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., when Keaton’s hero falls asleep and, in his dream, climbs up into a movie screen and is transported from one film to the next. Is the character surfing the montage, or is he trapped within it? On this score, Inception is ultimately ambiguous. One of the implications of thefilm, though—an implication that extends to the very last frame—is that there are worse purgatories to be stuck in than the history of cinema.

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