A couple of weeks ago I had a couchsurfer staying. “Surely there are environmental imperatives which demand urgent objective moral decisions, surely humans universally are moved by the beauty of a flower, surely these observations of 'good' or 'ought' present some challenge to your relativism.” “Yes but equally we could be living in the Matrix.” There is a trump card indeed.
Now, while Inception may not give expression to the human epistemological quandary in any way that the Matrix does not achieve more elegantly, it does bring to the table in a powerful way the suicidal nature of such a worldview. Suicide, indeed, is at the centre of this film, I believe inevitably so, and terrifyingly so. And as such offers me an, albeit painful, filmic response to the Matrix hypothesis.
Spoilering the film, we see these:
(1) First, the lightest of the suicides, barely attempted, but Robert Fischer Jr does go to kill himself when it is suggested that he is in another's dream, where dream death would save him from the extraction of sensitive information (insert 'facebook suicide' analogy here). A simple pragmatic suicide to escape submission to another's 'reality'. Suicide is the last action over which you have control, for those of us entrapped and disempowered by our lives within the unreality of the machine, sum moribundus.
(2) Next, in a brutally cut scene Cobb and Mal kill themselves under a train to get out of limbo; here suicide (unlike that in Bothersome Man) does free them. So they die beholding the meaninglessness of the mirror-like 'reality' they have created for themselves, as Narcissus, but more violently, they die to escape the self-referring gallery, the city of self-snapshots (re:fb again).
(3) In perhaps the most harrowing scene, the supposedly triply certified 'sane' Mal jumps from her hotel window ledge. This to escape the disappointing real 'reality', this to assuage an existential depression (different from clinical depression?), this to enter Cypher's blissful ignorance and thereby to overcome the pain of withdrawl from simulation addiction.
(4) If I understand the film's construction, all points at which Mal attempts to kill Cobb are expressions of his own subconscious willing his own death. These are interesting attempted suicides: motivated by guilt these are suicides of atonement. Interesting that this suicidal guilt should preclude him from architecting. Who do architects put at risk by their unresolved personal guilt? What mileage is there in this depiction of an active, personal guilt?
(5) And the suicides carry on, there is Ariadne's drop off the crumbling apartment balcony, by which point in the film we have lost any sympathy for the characters, lost the aimless plot among the tangents and generally become inured to suicide.
I want to attribute the massive success of this film to more than a mere viral marketing coup, more than its weight of celebrity and a lack of competing summer blockbusters. It meets a powerless, addicted, sinless generation where they are hurting, and there it empowers, sympathises and atones, this by the metaphor which the film allows us to inhabit. The metaphor of the dream is a profoundly comforting one, an addictive one, a gnostic myth structure which the whole-body experience of Inception gives some tangible legitimising weight to for its 140 minutes. As I read the suicides in this context, Inception, it seems, is not coy about the cost of the illusion, that, as in our longing to be but shadows on a cave wall, we will receive in ourselves the due penalty for this great exchange. I found it definitely the most sobering of these techno-existential films I have seen, as a Matrix made after Heath Ledger might, and perhaps ought, to be.
“You can't kick them awake when they're in free fall.”
So the America dream, now in free fall, is hinted at in the urban collage of re-creations by the happy lonely couple of Cobb and Mal. Beautifully rendered city scapes, built with an eye to their appearance as ruins, appear now as ruins, and Cobb is washed up on the crumbling shores of manifest destiny, where the clichés sparkle on the water.
“Do you remember how we got to this cafe?”
I am one apt to sit on the creationistic fence, thereby allowing another to define the dream I operate within. I am one apt to underplay the importance of cosmology, the study of first causes. Where there is a battle for freedom, identity and truth in the present, it is fought at the level of origins both at a micro and meta scale, perhaps I should come off the fence.
It is ironic that this film, so clearly aware of the power of story, should fail to provide a narrative we can care about. I enjoyed and genuinely hugely admire this laudably ambitious triple layered timescale and all of the games it opens up, but ultimately this elaborate heist is let down, crippled even, by the vagueness of the character's banal ambitions (noble an ambition though American immigration may be). The mire of tangents and broken internal rules is simply bad story-telling, with too much of the possible-improbable over the richer impossible-probable, all compensated by a deafening score and gratuitous CGI. Where do films with this much potential go wrong? How big a budget is too big? Genuine questions, as I would ask of big architecture, how do they miss basics, and at what cost and for how long will we compensate people with spectacle?
Anyways, conscious if baffled by the film's shortcomings, I enjoyed its imagination. I did also enjoy the guardian's film criticism criticism, which offers some measure of the cult success of this film.