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Inception: A Belated Review

Inception - Christopher Nolan - 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio
Ellen Page
Marion Cotillard

Christopher Nolan

Script Writer
Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan
Emma Thomas

Warner Bros. Pictures

Release Date
Juiy 2010


Paul Gosselin 2020

A Saturday night not too long ago one of my sons and I decided to watch a movie. He suggested we watch Inception. This would be the second time I’d seen it, but why not? While watching the movie we had a rather lively exchange about the ideas involved in this movie and, as usual, we generally disagreed with the other's views...

Inception centres on a team of mercenaries who have developed the capability of entering the dreams of individuals and modifying them. And, once having accessed an individual’s dreams, they can also extract valuable information. In the movie, this team of mercenaries is lead by a troubled character known as Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio[1]). Cobb has a problem in his personal life and as a result is pressed into going beyond the usual dream intervention and must insert a life-changing idea in an individual’s mind, thus inception. The said individual would of course, be unconscious of the fact that this idea had been planted by someone else… He would mistakenly believe it was his own. The result is both a visually mind-bending and intellectually interesting movie.

As the storyline develops, Christopher Nolan, the director of this 2010 film, explores a well-known philosophical concept that is solipsism. Solipsism is defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.” One could go on to say that Descartes’ famous declaration “Je pense, donc je suis!” *(or, I think, thus I am!) leads to this same conclusion and frames the ultimate shape and borders of the REAL. All of which eventually leads to the conclusion that only the self is real. On this basis, other human beings are little more than shadows in one’s dream and the world around us is NOT anything real. In present day language, one could say it’s all a video game… Perhaps it is to be expected that one could find quite a number of people in padded rooms in psych wards would readily agree with such conclusions…

But reality has a number of (sometimes brutal) ways of reminding us of its otherness. When going outside in mid winter, a Quebecer will have to wear extra clothes, otherwise he may freeze. A worker near a furnace in a foundry will have to wear protective clothing otherwise he may be burned. A mountain-climber not properly attached to a rock face, may fall and kill himself. And an airline pilot not properly calculating his angle or speed of descent may kill himself and all the passengers on his plane. And a university student spending too much time on computer games may eventually discover that proficiency in such may not translate into good grades or a career…

Not all worldviews look at the world in the same way. Each worldview will answer the questions, “Is there a REAL world and HOW do I know if there is?” in a different way. References to some form of an origins myth are unavoidable to sort out such questions. The Judeo-Christian worldview does provide presuppositions that give a basis for believing there is a real world. It tells us that an intelligent and powerful Creator made this world and gave it laws[2]. This was in fact the basis for the confidence that the first generation of scientists had in exploring the world around them and performing experiments on it. Isaac Newton, for example, in his major work, the Principia wrote (1687):

The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.  A Heavenly Master governs all the world as Sovereign of the universe. We are astonished at Him by reason of His perfection, we honour Him and fall down before Him because of His unlimited power. From blind physical necessity, which is always and everywhere the same, no variety adhering to time and place could evolve, and all variety of created objects which represent order and life in the universe could happen only by the wilful reasoning of its original Creator, Whom I call the Lord God.

But what happens if you get rid of the Creator that Newton presupposed? What then? Well this is exactly what Enlightenment thinkers did and what you have left is only a material world, with observable matter, nothing else. In his book God in the Dock[3] C.S. Lewis discussed some of the mind-bending implications of a materialistic, Darwinian worldview on one’s intellectual life (1947/2002: 52-53)

If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e., of Materialism and Astronomy — are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?  I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milk-jug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.

Clearly what we believe about the Origin of things, life and humans is no small matter. It affects all the rest of our intellectual life. Hinduism is a religion that aligns with solipsism and teaches that reality is basically an ILLUSION. This is called “maya”, and this has moral repercussions too as we see discussed in this anecdote drawn from Francis Schaeffer’s book The God Who is There...

One day I was talking to a group of people in the room of a young South African in Cambridge University. Among others, there was present a young Indian who was of Sikh background, but a Hindu by religion. He started to speak strongly against Christianity, but did not really understand the problems of his own beliefs. So I said, "Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and noncruelty are ultimately equal, that here is no intrinsic difference between them?" He agreed. The people who listened and knew him as a delightful person, an "English gentleman" of the very best kind, looked up in amazement. But the student in whose room we met, who had clearly understood the implications of what the Sikh had admitted, picked up his kettle of boiling water with which he was about to make tea, and stood with it steaming over the Indian’s head. The man looked up and asked him what he was doing, and he said with a cold yet gentle finality, "There is no difference between cruelty and noncruelty." Thereupon the Hindu walked out into the night.

Enlightenment thinkers, such as the Scottish 18th century philosopher David Hume, established the cosmological (and epistemological) principle that the empirical, that is to say that which is accessible to the senses (or observable), should be considered the sole source of true knowledge. Based on this presupposition, it follows that the operations of the mind, since they cannot be directly observed, should be considered non-empirical and must then become viewed as subject to doubt and even unreal. Hume admitted that this problem caused him much distress. Hume's “solution” to this problem holds some interest (1739: Book I, part iv, sect. 7):

But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon,  I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

After reading Hume, C. S. Lewis offered these ferociously ironic comments (1986: 84):

There is indeed (or so I am told) one way of living under this philosophy without the backgammon, but it is not one a man would like to try. I have heard that there are states of insanity in which such a nihilistic doctrine becomes really credible: that is, as Dr I. A. Richards would say, “belief feelings” are attached to it. The patient has the experience of being nobody in a world of nobodies and nothings. Those who return from this condition describe it as highly disagreeable.

Now while Enlightenment thinkers (moderns) viewed science (=materialism) as the ultimate Truth, postmoderns have rejected this and when all is said and done are left with only the self (or the ego) as Truth. All of which leads us to an idea Nolan toys with in Inception, that what we call “Reality” itself may only be an illusion. And if it weren’t, how would we know? How would something (or SomeOne) outside the prison of the self break in and help us sort things out?

The American screenwriter Brian Godawa also wrote a review of Inception and regarding his impressions, before seeing the movie and after leaving the theatre, made these observations (2010):

I entered the movie thinking, “This is about dreams. If he concludes, “it was all a dream,” I am going to be ticked off.” So I was happy when he ended on the note that left it ambiguous whether or not it was a dream for the hero. I think the point was that the movie is self-consciously NOT real, but a dream of reality that tries to engage in an inception in our minds. Therefore in the movie he can never conclude with an absolute statement about the “reality” of the film. I believe that is his point as a postmodern filmmaker: He wants us to question reality, and he is not going to conclude whether the “reality” in the movie is reality, precisely because of his epistemic commitment to questioning reality with the nature of stories. This explains why he mixes dream elements with reality elements. For example, the fact that he wears a wedding ring in the dream world, but not in the real world, and the kids are a couple years older at the last shot, BUT there are dream world indicators in the real world, such as the walls closing in on Cobb as he runs from the bad guys, and the fact that the kids are in the same exact position at the end “reality” scene as they are in the dream scenes. He wants us to question reality, but he is not going to give us an answer.

Hmmm… Really, is that the best you can do Godawa? So Nolan “wants us to question reality”. That’s bland… Ok, fine. But this leaves one issue unsettled, WHY would Nolan want us “to question reality”? WHAT would his (ideological) motivation be to do that? Godawa doesn’t say. In any case, I think it would have appropriate to rephrase Godawa’s last sentence (above) slightly…

[Nolan] wants us to question reality, but he is not going to give us a clear, unambiguous answer.

But here’s the question: Do artists (or intellectuals) ALWAYS explicitly express their ideas or true beliefs? The answer must often be no… In some instances artists may have what they believe are good reasons for not laying all their cards on the table. For example, one may express an idea by saying (explicitly) “I hate pizza”, whereas one may also (subjectively) express the same idea by merely saying “I don’t eat pizza very often”… The listener is then left to decode the real meaning of the second statement. Having good knowledge about the speaker helps in this regard… When determining how to express an idea, artists and intellectuals do not live in a vacuum and are often (more or less consciously) influenced by issues such as “How will my target audience react to this concept, belief or doctrine if I express it openly? Will they reject what I have to say if I state my views clearly and unambiguously?” If in fact the artist or intellectual thinks the target audience may perceive the idea he wants to communicate as irrational, bad or even perverted, then this can provide ample incentive to dangle before his audience the concepts he wants to communicate in an ambiguous, veiled or implicit fashion. Of course if the artist adheres to a worldview that denies absolute morals, then this will inevitably have consequences on how honest the artist may be about his/her true convictions.

And we encounter this with early Enlightenment thinkers who were ostensibly deists, but often in actual fact materialists. Well aware of conflict between their own beliefs and those dominant in their time, to keep their readers happy these intellectuals often made bogus and vague references to a Creator. The mathematician Blaise Pascal saw through such cheap tricks and caustically remarked about Descartes' references to a Creator (1670/2003: 23):

77. I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.

And even in the 19th century this trend still appears. After publishing Charles Darwin’s magnum opus, The Origin of Species, (providing a materialistic explanation to the origin of life) there was a big backlash, both from scientists and theologians. To soften the blow somewhat, in the following editions Darwin added three words (in bold) to his conclusion.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

This insertion might give the impression Darwin was in fact a good Christian. But in March 1863, Darwin exposed his real view as wrote about this editorial change to Joseph Hooker:

I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter."

And in a private letter to his son George (21 October 1873), then studying at Cambridge, he was more open about his true convictions

Lyell is most firmly convinced that he has shaken the faith in the Deluge &c far more efficiently by never having said a word against the Bible, than if he had acted otherwise. … I have lately read Morley's Life of Voltaire & he insists strongly that direct attacks on Christianity (even when written with the wonderful force & vigour of Voltaire) produce little permanent effect: real good seems only to follow from slow & silent side attacks.

In this same letter it is obvious that Charles Darwin and other Enlightenment propagandists clearly understood the ideologico-religious process of inception:

Last night Dicey & Litchfield were talking about J. Stuart Mill, never expressing his religious convictions, as he was urged never to do by his Father. Both agreed strongly that if he had done so, he wd. never have influenced the present age in the manner in which he has done. His books wd. not have been text-books at Oxford.— To take a weaker instance Lyell is most firmly convinced that he has shaken the faith in the Deluge &c far more efficiently by never having said a word against the Bible, than if he had acted otherwise.

Now there is a paradox in this approach as the intellectual or artist relying on such subliminal methods may eventually wonder if in fact he is having any influence at all on those exposed to his work. This was something the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut had given thought to. In an address to other novelists and writers at the PEN Conference in Stockholm, 1973 he mused (1975: 228-229):

“(…) why aren’t we more influential than we are? I am persuaded that we are tremendously influential, even though most national leaders, my own included, probably never heard of most of us here. Our influence is slow and subtle, and it is felt mainly by the young, They are hungry for myths which resonate with the mysteries of their own times.
We give them those myths.
We will become influential when those who have listened to our myths have become influential. Those who rule us now are living in accordance with myths created for them by writers when they were young. It is perfectly clear that our rulers do not question those myths for even a minute during busy day after busy day. Let us pray that those terrible influential writers who created those [myths] our leader’s [believe] were humane. Thank you.”

But getting back to Godawa’s final take on Inception, perhaps Nolan may wish there was an objectively REAL world, but the critical issue is does he have a basis for this belief/hope in his own worldview? We get the impression that Inception may chronicle, to some extent, an ideological journey Nolan is on and he now seems to have painted himself into a corner, trapped between his own aspirations (like Cobb) for something really substantial, something REAL and the logical implications of his own worldview.

As the storyline progresses, we learn that Cobb, as a hobby, has dabbled in dreams (others and his own) and has even attempted to build his own private perfect dream world, a world where all his fantasies come true. But as time goes on, he slowly realizes that this dream world is deeply unsatisfying and is in fact a prison, a Hell[4]. It is odd that we have here an eerie echo of the dark side of the first Lie: Ye shall be as gods[5]

Well that’s all for now. Pleasant dreams…

[Note to my son] It WAS your idea (inception) to watch this movie...


-- (2010) Inception. IMDb [International Movie Database]

DARWIN, Charles (1863) Letter to Joseph Hooker – dated 29th March

DARWIN, Charles (1873) Letter to son George – dated 21st October

GODAWA, Brian (2010) Inception. Thus Spoke Godawa April

GOSSELIN, Paul (1979) Myths of Origin and the Theory of Evolution. Samizdat

GOSSELIN, Paul (2003) Hors du ghetto: un regard évangélique sur la culture et les arts. Samizdat 383 p.

GOSSELIN, Paul (2012) Flight From the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West. Volume I. Samizdat ix - 412 p.

GOSSELIN, Paul (2013) Flight From the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West. Volume II. Samizdat xiii - 566 p.

HUME, David (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature. The Gutenburg Project Ebook (# 4705)

LEWIS, C. S. (1947/2002) God in the Dock. (Walter Hooper ed.). Eerdmans Grand Rapids MI 347 p.

LEWIS, C. S. (1986) Present Concerns. Harvest/Harcourt Brace & Co. London/New York 108 p.

PASCAL, Blaise (1670/2003) Pensées. (Translated by W. F. Trotter) Dover Philosophical Classics Mineola NY 299 p.

Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. (1975) Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Dell Publishing Co. Inc, New York, , 238 p.


[1] - Though in a dream (SpaceBalls) version of this movie I imagined, this role was much better played by Danny DeVito…

[2] - The Judeo-Christian worldview also tells us that we are part of a majestic, rich and deep story, a story in which our decisions all have real life and death repercussions. A critical part of this story is the Fall, arguably the most empirical doctrine in the whole Bible as it is confirmed daily by the headlines of the daily news. Wars, divorces, epidemics, death, betrayals, genocides, scandals, deceitful propaganda, and on and on, expose the human condition. A ten-year-old kid can figure out on its own that we’re no longer in the Garden of Eden…

[3] - In the essay entitled Answers to Questions on Christianity.

[4] - And as the postmodern sexual jihad gains ground in the West, perhaps some will also come to realize that this moral fantasy world is empty and unsatisfying as well…

[5] - Genesis 3: 5.

Au chapitre 12 dans La chaise argentée (Chroniques de Narnia) ou encore la scène de la «chambre objective» dans Cette hideuse puissance (Ebook anglais - chapitre 15, section 4).