Inception starts with a novel idea: that it’s possible to insert an idea in somebody else’s mind: and that it’s possible to induce someone to have a new idea that they will think is original but that is entirely engineered by you. “Inception” is a word meaning “the implantation of an idea.”
In the film, it’s also possible to “extract” an idea from another person’s mind without their knowledge or cooperation. (Basically, you trick them into looking at it in your presence, in a kind of mental structure you’ve designed for them. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.) In the world of the film, both of these are done only through the technological means of a drug-induced sleep undertaken in close proximity to other sleepers with whom the dream is shared—not by means of such old-fashioned means as, you know, talking to people—and both are highly illegal.
This is a clear parallel to what a writer does, and even more, to what a novelist or a screenwriter might be said to do. Writers of fiction make people believe things that are not true, often using emotional rhetorical devices or “tricks” to encourage people to believe things the words don’t even say and the screen doesn’t actually show. Novels and films are quite often compared to dreams.
So the theme concerns what the writer does. And in a certain kind of novel we might expect to find a considered reflection on writing and on fiction itself. Not in Inception. The film does not explore the details and implications of what the writer does or comment on it. Christopher Nolan is interested in exploring the “how and why” of writing fiction up to a point, and no farther, and getting to this point actually doesn’t really take long. The writer chooses an idea and tries to persuade people of it, maybe for admirable reasons, maybe for vicious ones. That’s it. If people believe it, their belief will affect the way they live, and when people come to realize that their beliefs are grounded in something other than reality (what that is doesn’t seem to matter too much as far as the movie goes, but it definitely is not as vicious or as horrific as what we have seen in the Matrix films), their realization will affect the way they live.
So we have a Matrix-like philosophical dilemma about how we can ever know our lives and thoughts are real, and our own. (It feels more like Synecdoche, New York than like the Matrix films, though, most of the time.) The main character, Cobb (played by Leonardo Di Caprio), lives his life on the run from shadowy corporations—but the need for him to live in this way is questioned by other characters as sheer paranoia. The world of Inception is a world where corporations hire teams to stalk, and in effect to brainwash, their rivals, in order to influence the rivals’ actions. Rather than being slaves to a worldwide tyranny, as in The Matrix, in Inception we are subject at any moment to arbitrary treatment from little bands of people who spend most of their time in a dream world and demonstrate little concern for the long-term effects of what they do. This would be much scarier—except that most of us aren’t important enough to merit that kind of attention. So, in the end, this is just a silly film about how the comeuppances of the rich are brought about by self-declared super-detectives using super-technology.
But this doesn’t seem to be enough, so Nolan tricks out the science fiction plot with ruminations on love, marriage, parenthood, and men’s relationships with their own fathers. (The father here is played by Michael Caine, inviting comparison with Nolan’s Batman films and with The Prestige.) But this more humanistic story is told only in flashes. Too much is left for the viewer to fill in, and ultimately the romantic plot is hollow. Like the thriller plot, it seems to have been included only to give audiences the sense that they are seeing something familiar.
As an action film, Inception is slow, the plot is convoluted and self-important. As a science fiction film, it’s pretty good. As a film with ideas, though, the kind a good science fiction novel might have, it is lacking. One character (played by Lukas Haas, the little boy in Witness) is named Nash, and there’s a running joke about an unstable equilibrium, which is clever—the way Moonlighting once named Mexican bodyguards “Ortega” and “Gasset.” If you think you can rework the images you get from this movie into anything resembling an idea, much less an argument, that’s up to you.