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.