New Film “Inception” Bends Both Minds and Logic

July 18, 2010

Inception, new film by Christopher Nolan (director of Memento and The Dark Knight ), topped the box office this weekend, grossing over $60 million. I went into the new film Inception with high hopes. The film had gotten good buzz, I was a fan of the director’s previous works, and in general I like intelligent, well-writtenthrillers. Unfortunately, Inception  falters along the way.

 

The plot of Inception is too complex to effectively summarize (at least without giving away too much of the plot), but involves a man named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate espionage artist who has the curious (and largely unexplained) ability to steal ideas from other people’s minds while they dream. Cobb is also an international fugitive who can’t return home to see his kids, but a rich business magnate named Saito promises to fix Cobb’s legal problems if Cobb can successfully implant an idea in the mind of a business rival during a dream. Cobb assembles a team including a forger, a chemist expert in anesthesiology, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant architecture student who can design dreamscapes in which Cobb can do his mind manipulation work.

 

Inception ’s script, unfortunately, is not quite as clever as it thinks it is. There’s plenty of psychobabble mumbo-jumbo about dreams and brains, but a glaring lack of logic. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, though there’s a fine line between going with a film’s internal logic and a pileup of implausibilites.

 

Cobb (and Nolan) seem to make up the rules about the dream world as they go along. Apparently it’s a proven fact that if you dream that you are dying, you will wake up. You will also automatically wake up if you feel like you’re falling, so the best way to wake a dreaming person is to balance him or her on a chair and tip them over backward (this discovery will be a boon to drowsy drivers everywhere). You can go “two levels down” into the unconscious, but not three—because, well, I don’t know, they never really said. DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and the rest of the cast deliver these expository (and often clunky) lines with straight faces, but I was left wondering how, exactly, they managed to derive such discrete rules from the amorphous stuff of dreams. Call me a skeptic with a background in psychology, but I had a hard time buying it. There are many plot holes, errors, and gaffes in Inception; allow me to highlight a few. Spoiler alert!  

 

Cobb is an international fugitive because he is supposedly being sought on murder charges in the death of his wife. This seems plausible until we see the actual circumstances of her death: She committed suicide by jumping out a window of a building opposite where Cobb was when she jumped.There’s no way that Cobb would or could ever have been charged with her murder. (Memo to Nolan: police can easily tell the difference between a suicide jumper and a victim who was pushed—especially when they are in different buildings.) If Cobb had half a brain, he’d have happily returned to the States to have the murder charges laughed out of court. I haven’t seen a script with this level of ignorance about the legal system since 1998’s Ashley Judd dud Double Jeopardy.  

 

When Cobb is testing Ariadne to see if she’s up to the task of creating a virtual new world, he gives her a test, asking her to quickly draw a maze that would take a person at least two minutes to solve. After two unsuccessful attempts at rectangular mazes on some graph paper that Cobb quickly and easily solves with a pencil, Ariadne turns the paper over and draws a spiral design on the blank page. This impresses Cobb (and presumably audience), as it shows her “thinking outside the box.” Except that according to Cobb (and what we see of the puzzle), Ariadne drew a labyrinth—which would take mere seconds to solve, since a labyrinth has only one path. It is the same path from the outside to the inside, and therefore isn’t a maze at all (that’s why labyrinths are popular among New Age devotees for meditation: no thinking or decisions are required to complete the pattern). Instead of Ariadne solving Cobb’s task with brilliant bravado, she completely failed. (Too bad Nolan isn’t a Skeptical Inquirer subscriber, or he would have read my article on labyrinths.)

 

Then there’s this howler, spoken by Cobb: “They say we all use only a fraction of our brain’s potential.” Yes, Christopher Nolan (who’s said to have spent a decade writing the screenplay for Inception), trots out this debunked old brain myth. As I have written about on many occasions (including in Skeptical Inquirer ) the idea that we only use a small part of our brains is a complete myth. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that humans use all parts of the brain. I don’t blame Nolan for making the mistake, as it’s a common error. But if he's going to spend ten years on the script, you might think that he’d double-check the facts in his main character’s dialogue—especially if Cobb supposed to be the world’s top expert on how the brain works.

 

On a more philosophical level, you can’t really steal ideas. You can steal specific pieces of information (that’s the point of political and economic espionage), and if psychics were real they would be hired to steal knowledge—just as Cobb does. But you cannot steal (nor patent) an idea; as Robert Frost noted, “An idea is a feat of association.” You can implant an idea through ordinary communication or advertising, but in a real way, the basic premise of the film is fundamentally flawed.

 

Nolan throws in plenty of car chases and action sequences to please the eyes as well as tantalize the brain. The excellent special effects and pounding musical score do their best to divert attention from the plot’s underlying silliness. But Nolan’s directing skills outshine is screenwriting skills, and I can only hope that he can do better next time.

 

Comments:

#1 diogenes99 on Monday July 19, 2010 at 7:39am

Down here in the Bible Belt, we get only mild romantic comedies, cartoons, and Christian films at out local megaplex.  You have to drive 20 miles to the almost-out-of-business art movie house to see a movie that is considered art, cutting edge, or “liberal” or any controversial movie seen in wide release elsewhere.

When “Inception” arrived and was shown at the local metroplex, I rejoiced! 

Look:  At least the plot was worthy enough to spend time finding its holes!  Inception made us think about the complexity of dreams, the Cartesian problem of distinguishing between reality and dreaming, to reconsider Berkeley-like immaterialism as a interesting metaphysics, etc.  If something like “Inception” can emerge from the craphole we call Hollywood (while beating out cookie-cutter movies like Sorcerer’s Apprentice), I think we should just give it a free pass.  Hooray for Hollywood!

#2 Nomaic on Monday July 19, 2010 at 10:19am

Interesting article. But what’s more interesting is that Nolan owned up to this before the film even hit theaters. Go to cinematical.com and run a search for “nine ways inception will wake up the summer movie season”.

Read the second entry. It’s all there. No, Nolan didn’t apply stringent reality to Inception like he did in Memento and, in some ways, I’m pleased he didn’t. Thought the dialogue was clunky in some places? Just imagine if Nolan had gone the whole way.

And don’t play the “Nolan spent ten years writing this” card, as you’re alluding to a comparison between him and James Cameron. Nolan spent ten years’ work because he was occupied with other films and hadn’t found a suitable way to complete the story; Cameron spent ten years because the special effects weren’t good enough.

#3 sharanx182 (Guest) on Monday July 19, 2010 at 10:24am

i don’t think ‘something like inception’ can uphold itself on the merit of just that. I’ve seen b-movies with very similar plots, they just didn’t think of ‘levels’! to me inception was just a more money driven and entertaining execution of the same plot. the difference between you and me is that i know what’s happening in the movie inside out, and i know just how much is possible, so even if i tell myself that its just ‘literary license’, it’s akin to believing something from the bible.

the very idea of multiple ‘levels’ of dreams is so absurd that it becomes hard for a generally scientific, rational person to empathize with their situation! apparently doing something that even people who make really crappy movies would avoid makes one a ‘great director’ nowadays.

all i see is a whole generation trying to reach out desperately for some intellectual fodder, i wonder why it was hardly any of that for me? i don’t have higher brain function, my mind worked in pretty much the same way it does while watching any other movie. In this case the movie just hit my nerves the wrong way. I’d rather it was a book where they elaborated more on the philosophical part of it, about manipulation, about layers of the subconscious with respect to experiences and relationships.

it could have been better, is what I’m trying to say. in an attempt to make it even more ‘entertaining’, we get subject to absurd notions like ‘limbo’ and the ‘slowing down of time in lower levels’ and the ‘endless lives in limbo’ phenomenon.

it seems as if the whole idea of limbo came up so that the audience could feel the danger that the characters felt (to add something to replace the mortality that characters in this case wouldn’t have to face, it’s a dream for god’s sake!), while in real life something of this sort would have no risk at all. but that’s not how Hollywood blockbusters work now do they?

#4 dave (Guest) on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 10:29am

{Spoiler Alert} It all makes no sense by design.  It was all a dream.  Nothing was coherent for a reason.  Things aren’t fully explained for a reason (like our own dreams).  All dreams have plot holes.  Dreams are almost entirely made of of implausibilities.  Hell, in that sense, this movie was WAY too logical.

It also baffles me that people are debating wether the whole movie was a dream or not.  His kids were the same age, in the same yard, wearing the same clothes at the end of the movie that they were in his flashbacks.  It was all a dream.  The fact that you are analyzing the plausibility of it makes less sense than the movie did.

#5 TDW on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 11:08am

Hello all I just read the article and found that the writer might have missed some details that did in fact explain the some of the issues he was having.

1: “The death of the wife”, it was explained that the Doms wife had planned in advance a letter to her attorney that she feared for her life and that her husband was becoming violent towards her, Dom even mentions that she visited several shrinks to verify that she was of sound mind (although its clear that she is unwell she is not stupid and just faked her well being). The fall from the balcony could still work as she let herself slip off not jump. So if you were to push someone off facing you from the side Dom was on then it could still work.

2:The section where you stated “You can go “two levels down” into the unconscious, but not three—because, well, I don’t know, they never really said” is wrong, they stated the reason pretty well, its to do with the scale of time. If you were to keep slipping further down your sense of time would drastically stretch, I think its 1 min is hours worth the first time, 2nd time its gone into a days, 3rd its months, 4th is years, 5th centuries. The reason they don’t travel below 2-3 times is that it would just be too long by the 4th time. This is what happened to Dom and his wife and they both suffered for it when they returned. The stretch of time in the forth (or limbo) meant that they felt like they were living in the wrong time or that what they were experiencing was just a dream.

3: The maze that Ariadne creates was actually what Dom wanted, a maze (or labyrinth if you will) that she knew would take adleast 1 min to complete or more, not less. The mazes she drew before were too simplistic in design and if your going to build a maze you have to have control over it otherwise the person whos mind your entering might get a mental map of the area too quickly and have attackers come at you far too soon.

Reason 2: Arthur mentions that Dom likes to make rules but often brakes them when he feels like it, I think that Dom also wanted Ariadne to make a difficult maze that he could not figure out in 1 min, so that he could not jeopardize it completely by accident with his wife, he was also a architect before and would know how to deconstruct a level easily enough.

4: “On a more philosophical level, you can’t really steal ideas.” I think the writer got confused with the idea of stealing a idea, they do not take the idea completely from the persons mind. They get a chance to look at the idea. You can steal idea by have yourself look at the idea and then running away. But the original owner does not lose the idea. Dom and Arthur were trying to see the idea which Saito had hidden away in the back of his mind, it was guarded and they took it out and looked at the idea, they even left the empty paper to buy time, not to replace it. Saito was angry that he didn’t have the idea to himself anymore not that Dom now had his idea, when Dom awoke he left the idea in Saito’s head but he now also knew the idea.

5: “Then there’s this howler, spoken by Cobb: “They say we all use only a fraction of our brain’s potential.”
Yes I agree that we do use our brain in all parts, but when we sleep we relax and start to use different pieces of information in unusual ways, our sub-conscious starts to take our days endeavors and mix them up, as we sleep we use less brain power on sight or sound or movement and the brain can use that extra power ( I was short on terms to best describe this just go with it) to create things we might have never thought of. We would not have great works by Lovecraft if not for his dreams.

6: I think the writer needs to see the film again, most of this is explained in the film, also the reason they do not explain the how to’s of the dream machine was to keep it at a interesting pace. I’m sure some of us would love to know the in’s and out’s of this machine but the best you will come up with are the advertisement books that were sent to various movie sites (unless you fancy sitting for a further 3omins to 1 hour to create more exposition).

But the movie isnt about the machine itself but the heist that was done by the crew.
I’m sorry to say this but the review you gave showed a lack of understanding and by some accounts also didn’t allow for any room of imagination, if your going to critic the film you are going to have to bend a little, this is fantasy after all and its going to have to twist the rules a little. Dont forget to take your “willing suspension of disbelief” as Mr Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said with you next time.

#6 aimlesst on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 11:08am

This reviewer misses the entire point of the film, a much more thoughtful review can be found here:
http://chud.com/articles/articles/24477/1/NEVER-WAKE-UP-THE-MEANING-AND-SECRET-OF-INCEPTION/Page1.html

#7 palindromist on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 11:28am

Ahm… come on now… other than the “we only use a fraction of our brain” thingie this was a perfectly good movie. The phrase “...though there’s a fine line between going with a film’s internal logic and a pileup of implausibilities” is simply ridiculous. What was the last movie you watched that satisfied your sense of acceptable implausibility Ben? Looking at rottentomatoes right now I see in the boxoffice: despicable me, the sorcerer’s apprentice, twilight, toy story etc. Why don’t you write a separate article for each. Use your time to debunk. Little to debunk here.

#8 rotavator (Guest) on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 2:05pm

Consistency and logic within the framework is essential for good fantasy so I support the spirit of your criticism. But the points themselves are generally wrong or weak as mentioned by others above.
The rules of dreamworld *were* arbitrary and unconvincing though. One example: near the beginning, Cobb casually folds Paris over itself for the one of the big special effects scenes. But for the whole rest of the film they are entirely subject to normal laws of physics.
It’s a good film though.

#9 TDW on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 3:04pm

Unfortunately 8# got it wrong Dom didn’t fold Paris it was Ariadne, she was demonstrating her ability to fold the world around her to Dom. The effects in the movie later on were minimal due to film telling you that the person subconscious would spot something wrong with the world if they meddled too much within it. Ariadne could not afford to go ahead and fold the city again or change huge sections or the persons whose mind they were infiltrating would realise and attack the architect. This isn’t the matrix were bending or breaking the rules would be corrected and forgotten, in the persons mind it would cause the person to want to wake up or attack the intruders thus shattering the dream and any attempt at completing the mission.

#10 Aira Bongco (Guest) on Monday July 26, 2010 at 12:32am

The only reason the plot has so much holes is because I have a theory that the whole movie is a dream. Once we are in a dream, we believe certain rules while we are in it. We also see images in small segments ( like the movie) and everything are not coherent.

#11 Robert Subiaga, Jr. (Guest) on Monday August 02, 2010 at 7:19am

Love most of this review (and I always love when an SI reviewer takes on fictional pieces of work—a new kind of film and literary criticism that’s much needed). And I agree on the spurious appeal of labyrinths to New Agers. But I have to disagree about the use of the labyrinth in this case; here it was Ariadne creating an incompressible algorithm.

Remember, she had TWO minutes to create a “maze” that cannot be solved on ONE. The solution was to not make it a maze, as her conscious attempt to formulate the maze was slowing down her ability to actually construct it. By simply drawing a labyrinth spiral, not stopping, for two minutes, she created a figure that DiCaprio, in one minute, could never draw fast enough to exit.

This was quite clever—but Nolan still stumbled by not having his characters explain that! (Not to mention in many other places.)

Frankly, I found the wife’s uncertainty of “ground” reality the one great idea to hinge on—but that meant multi-layered dreaming and action sequences were superfluous. I enjoyed the first half greatly, then was bored through much of the second saying “I got the point! Now get to your climax!”

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