Inception: Film, Dreams and Freud

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 15, Issue 5 / May 2011 13 minutes (3038 words)

Colin McGinn has written extensively and compellingly about the similarities between film watching and dreaming (192-3, 202-3):

Movies delve into our dreaming self, that submerged and seething alter ego that emerges when the sun goes down. In the cinema we relive the life of the dreaming self. Movies thus tap into the dreaming aspect of human nature. Moreover, they improve upon our dream life. They give us the dreams we yearn for. It is a rare individual who is not fascinated by his own dreams, with their raw ability to reveal, their magical expressiveness, movies partake in this fascination. The impact of movies stems, then, at least in part, from the primal power of the dream. To be sure, the dream component of the movie experience is augmented by the special qualities of the medium, but the primary emotional hook originates in the evocation of the dream… The best directors – Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and others – seem to me to recognize the essentially dreamlike character of the movie world, and they trade upon it in their films. What is A Clockwork Orange but an audacious dream adventure insidiously combining nightmare and wish fulfilment? [1]

Dreams are also of particular importance in psychoanalytic thought. Freud famously described them as being “the royal road to the unconscious”.

This then creates an interesting three way relationship between film, dreams and psychoanalysis with the latter having been among the most dominant forces in film theory and criticism for the past few decades.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception manifests and coalesces these three things. It is filmmaking on a huge scale with the very best production values of modern Hollywood which takes as its subject matter the interrogation of dreams and whose emotional narrative (as opposed to the functional narrative about corporate espionage) is essentially the working through of the psychoanalytic process.

For a filmmaker within the Hollywood system, Christopher Nolan is unusually pre-occupied with psychological human states to the degree that they often act as the primary theme of his films. Memento??’s narrative structure is built around the short term memory limitations of its protagonist. ??Insomnia explores the affects of extreme sleep deprivation as its lead character struggles to function in a state in which he is never fully awake or asleep, throwing into question his ability to interpret events accurately or remember them fully. Even Nolan’s Batman films are, at their core, concerned with creating a representation of the psychological state of someone who we can believe would turn himself into a vigilante and dress up as a bat. The Prestige sits somewhat outside of this theme but also shares similarities with Inception in its playing with the dichotomy between perception and reality.

Christopher Nolan does a few things very well in terms of his deployment of certain aspects of film grammar and technique, particularly cross cutting. With Inception Nolan spends the first hour setting up the premise of having the characters simultaneously occupy multiple levels of dream space which then allows him to play out all of these together using this technique. His confidence and competence in this regard is crucial to ensuring that the audience is free to follow what might be a very complicated concept and concentrate instead on the ever more complex plot machinations.

In Inception, Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) describes one of the interesting aspects of dreaming that allows the characters to infiltrate a subject’s dream world, “in a dream we create and perceive simultaneously.” [2] McGinn reminds us that this simultaneously active and passive process is analogous to the experience of film watching (p155), “We passively receive, through our sense organs, the images that populate the screen… But we also interpret what we see: we employ our imagination to construct the characters and story line, and this is an active business. This kind of imaginative seeing is an amalgam of active and passive, construction and reception.” [3] Nolan cleverly acknowledges this parallel as Ariadne (Ellen Page) actively manipulates the world around Cobb on the streets of Paris at one point creating two large mirrors that she makes face each other to reveal the infinite reflection within a reflection (symbolic of the infinite complexity of the unconscious mind perhaps, paralleling the notion of dreams within dreams). The camera draws attention to itself in this scene by its very absence where it should have appeared in the reflection (removed via camera trickery or CGI). Although not explicitly ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by revealing the camera and ruining the suspension of disbelief, the ‘fourth wall’ is implicitly broken and Nolan reveals himself to be creating the world of the dream within the film as Ariadne is.

A lot of what has been written by critics about Inception has focused on its originality. I too think the film is original in some ways but not in the same ways that most critics have proposed.

Inception is an amalgamation of various genres and heavily references and pays homage to other films throughout. Cobb’s relationship with his ex-wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), is hugely reminiscent of Clooney’s character’s journey in Steven Soderberg’s Solaris for example. The film’s action and globetrotting scenes have been openly discussed by Nolan as an attempt to recreate the scale and sense of the early Bond films, in particular On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with its snow set base and ski chase sequence. Echoes of The Matrix abound as characters simultaneously ‘plug in’ to the same dream space and fight in gravity defying environments. Inception at times feels like a pure heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, or with an espionage twist à la Mission: Impossible. The shoot-out on the streets of Yusuf’s (Dileep Rao) dream is highly reminiscent of Heat (unsurprising given Nolan’s openness about sighting Michael Mann as an influence on The Dark Knight). The chase scene in Mombasa recalls The Bourne Ultimatum??’s Tangier based segment. Tangiers actually stood in for Mombasa as a filming location in ??Inception. The opening of the film in Saito’s dream world is very similar to Rhas Al Ghul’s mountain side lair in Batman Begins, and the room in which Robert Fischer approaches his dying father in Eame’s dream has an air of the design of 2001: A Space Odyssey (another of Christopher Nolan’s favourite films apparently). These examples are just a few of the many similar references throughout the film.

The fact that Nolan’s film does not feel like a patchwork of the best sequences of other people’s films is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker and his approach to referencing which acts in the service of his film rather than being plagiaristic or gratuitous.

In thinking of how the film is original, critics have tended to focus on how Inception problematizes our knowledge of what is real and what is a dream. Whilst this intellectual investigation may in itself be philosophically worthy, Inception does not seem at first sight to add a lot more to this notion that has not already been done before in numerous other big budget films such as Total Recall, Vanilla Sky, The Matrix, et al.

What I think is original about Inception is rather its integration of the psychoanalytic process into the very fabric of the narrative. There have been a number of films in which psychoanalysis is used as central to character development, Ordinary People or Good Will Hunting for example, and many more that explore psychoanalytic themes or which lend themselves highly to psychoanalytic interpretation (Vertigo, Psycho, Eyes Wide Shut, to name just a few). Inception does something different , however, which I will address by invoking some of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis.

1. At its core psychoanalysis posits the notion that all of us have a part of our mind which is unconscious whose contents are unknown in any explicit sense to us. The unconscious is made up of feelings and desires, some of which we may never have been aware of and others which we have repressed as either a defence mechanism or for purposes of social compliance. The unconscious mind of the individual is a mass of contradictions and by definition remains uncontrolled and unordered.

Inception takes as a given the existence of the uncontrolled unconscious world of the subject which is best exemplified by the scene in which Ariadne and Cobb navigate through his dream world and he cannot prevent aspects of his own mind from attacking her (culminating in Mal stabbing her) despite his conscious desire to prevent this.

2. Psychoanalytic theory argues that during sleep the barrier weakens and the unconscious bubbles out, albeit often in disguised form. “A dream is recognised as a form of expression of impulses which are under pressure of resistance during the day but which have been able to find reinforcement during the night.” [4] As such, elements of our repressed feelings and wishes reveal themselves, now only partly concealed, in our dreams.

We see this notion very early on in Inception when Mal, who we find out to be dead in the real world and just a representation in Cobb’s subconscious, enters into the shared dream world in which Cobb, who cannot prevent her appearance, and team are trying to conduct an extraction from Saito’s mind, much to the annoyance and subsequent endangerment of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

3. Another foundation of psychoanalytic thought is the overwhelming significance of the child’s relationship with its parents. These primal relationships are burdened with largely unconscious problems which in turn affect all subsequent relationships with everyone the individual encounters.

In the film, when brainstorming as to how to execute the Inception of a business strategy into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the team soon agree that this can only be done by tampering with the unconscious relationship with the father, as this will be at the cornerstone of the subject’s sense of self identification.

4. The unconscious self has a huge impact on how we interact with the world and with others. Typically it has a more powerful effect on how we react to people and how we feel about our relationships with others than our actual conscious selves. “The unconscious must be assumed to be the general basis of psychical life. The unconscious is the larger sphere, which includes within it the smaller sphere of consciousness.” [5] Neurosis and psychosis are expressions of the dominance of the unconscious in our lives. These conditions can only be significantly improved by identifying their unconscious causes and by the process of uncovering and understanding them. To a large extent this is exactly what psychoanalysts do. They help their patients by employing techniques to facilitate this self realisation process.

This seems to me to be clearly the emotional core of Inception. Cobb is unable to function effectively in the real world, even from a practical perspective, in that his job is negatively affected and impacted, until he can delve into his own unconscious and reconcile himself with his feelings and memories of his deceased wife. These feelings include disappointment with her and guilt for his complicity in her being damaged mentally and emotionally. His uncovering of all this then allows him to return to the world cured of his neurosis and able to re-engage in a meaningful relationship with his (and her) children again. The fact that the practical barriers to him seeing his family are removed simultaneously is cleverly interwoven by Nolan as the emotional narrative (Cobb’s self reconciliation) and functional narrative (the corporate espionage heist which includes Saito providing the necessary authority for Cobb to re-enter the country on successful execution of the inception) run in tandem, culminate and merge together. This process of two seemingly unrelated concepts being brought together to create shared meaning is, Freud tells us, one of the aspects of dream creation and furthermore, if dream world and the real world are confused with each other, the “real and imaginary events appear in dreams…as of equal validity.” [6]

5. Psychoanalytic theory has also provided us with important insights into human fantasies (most notoriously and controversially the Oedipal fantasy). This does not necessarily refer to fantasies as we might usually think of them as more or less conscious constructions, but rather addresses fantasies which are more unconscious, which are intertwined with our view of ourselves and the world and, crucially, which we do not recognise as fantasies. The psychological pull of the fantasy is all the greater when we perceive it as simple reality.

Inception explicitly discusses the desire to live in the fantasy world and the simultaneous rejection that the fantasy is not reality. Think of the room full of dreamers which Cobb and team come across in Mombasa, who yearn so desperately for the fantasy world that it has become their ‘real’ world. Actual reality is the nightmare they want to escape. Here, the film comes close to exploring Jungian ideas of collective unconscious as Juan Galis-Menendes notes. [7] More central to the film even than this is Mal who yearned so badly for the fantasy that she refused to believe real life was not a dream and killed herself in order to return to this reality which never existed other than in her shared unconscious with Cobb. Cobb too is tempted by the fantasy to return to a life with his wife which can exist only in his dreams. The film charts the emergence of his psychological maturity in which he is able to recognise it for what it is.

Inception is at its core the symbolic rendering of the psychoanalytic process through the representation of the dream world, which in a manifest form, functions as the narrative of the text and is the very architecture and location of the world(s) Nolan creates. It turns psychoanalytic ideas into a tangible narrative in order to explore them in a new way. In doing this it loses a good degree of the nuance, complexity and psychologically challenging aspects of psychoanalytic theory, but nevertheless Nolan produces a rather compelling case for the concepts of Freudian theory via such a creative, clever and ambitious work.

In terms of functional narrative, like Memento, Inception suffers from being a bit too obscure and clever for its own good/sake. It wraps itself in knots and leaves much unexplained, leaving audiences eager to unravel the plot. This is a never ending task and effectively amounts to the equivalent of a game of Sudoku, a bit of a workout for the brain, but one which is ultimately an exercise lacking meaning. However, as I have attempted to argue, Inception has a greater payoff than Memento for those wanting to engage with it as a more serious work.

Understanding important aspects of the human condition often involves grappling with ideas which are obscure and ambiguous. This can lead to obscurity masquerading as intellectualism. I would argue that obscurity and ambiguity are not valuable in and of themselves. They are valuable only when they help us to understand the nuances of reality. I initially interpreted the final shot of Inception as a pretty meaningless and somewhat clichéd touch designed and employed to keep the eager Sudoku players ever guessing and unravelling the intentionally obscure. Indeed, this final shot of the film is not the first time we are given visual reasons to question whether we are watching reality or not. The overhead shot of Cobb running away from his pursuers in Mombasa creates the very maze/labyrinth that he had Ariadne draw for him in training for dream architecture creation. In the same chase he must squeeze through a narrowing wall, clearly a visualisation of the stuff nightmares are made of. However, I have come to appreciate the note on which the film finishes, not because I think it is important to wonder whether Cobb was actually still in a dream at the end but rather because it addresses the limitations of human perception in which our fantasies colour our perception of everything. The human condition is such that we are imprisoned in our subjective selves. We are destined never to know reality as it simply is, but only as we perceive it. As our perceptions are soaked with our own theories and fantasies, determining absolute reality will forever be beyond our grasp. Separating dream, or fantasy, from reality is in fact not so easy as it might at first appear. Indeed what is this last shot other than the dream (Cobb’s wish to see his children again) becoming reality? The two worlds of fantasy and reality have coalesced. Indeed, for the individual, they are never really fully separate.

It is genuinely difficult to make a film (or indeed write a song or paint a picture) in which important intellectual issues are addressed and make it have a positive message. Most works of art that are genuinely thoughtful, demanding and revealing of the human condition are not upbeat. Intellectual import and insight is more often than not synonymous with poignancy and melancholy. What is upbeat is usually superficial. It is for this reason that what I consider to be the very best films are often not my favourites in the usual sense of the word in that I do not have a desire to re-watch and re-experience them regularly. Nolan works a bit of magic with Inception, creating the dream blockbuster – it manages to be fantasy fulfilment for our less discerning selves; it has a creative and thoughtful examination of psychological elements of the human condition for our more critical and mature selves; and it executes an emotionally satisfying and, crucially, positive storyline.

A pleasure then, and not even a guilty one.


1 McGinn, Paul (2005) The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, United States: Vintage Books, pp.192-3, 202-3

2 Inception, 2010. Film. Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures

3 McGinn, Paul (2005) The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, United States: Vintage Books, p.155

4 Freud, Sigmund (1913) The Interpretation of Dreams, London: Hogarth, p.652

5 Freud, Sigmund (1913) The Interpretation of Dreams, London: Hogarth, p.651

6 Freud, Sigmund (1913) The Interpretation of Dreams, London: Hogarth, p.323

7 Galis-Menendes, Juan (2010) Inception: A Movie Review

Essay submitted August 2010

<i>Inception</i>: Film, Dreams and Freud

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 15, Issue 5 / May 2011 Essays   montage   psychoanalysis   science fiction