By Jeffrey Overstreet
[WARNING: This commentary contains spoilers—it’s for those who have seen the film, not for those who haven’t.]
In Part 1 of my Inception review, I confessed that Christopher Nolan’s film, for all of its impressive ideas and intriguing ideas, disappointed me. It was too busy being awesome to be great.
But its central ideas are inspiring, and it asks timely questions.
Inception is about people who manufacture dreams, and then they use those dreams to their own advantage, while the dreamer doesn’t realize he’s being deceived and robbed.
This endeavor mirrors what’s happening in so much business, media, and marketing. Advertisements seduce us and appeal to our baser instincts so that we’ll hand over our valuables. Politicians present us with appealing dreams while they seek their own advantage. Movies and the internet indulge our wildest fantasies, tell us lies, and fuel our delusions. (A friend of mine noted that Cobb’s dream-making team is like a filmmaking crew: There’s a director, a set designer, a producer, an actor, and an editor.)
As I watched Inception, I thought about people close to me. I’ve seen some invest countless hours in immersive forms of fantasy—especially video games. They get a lot of thrills from learning how to play those games, control those systems, and score points for themselves. If they fail in those alternative worlds, they can say “Game Over” and start again, without lasting real-world consequences.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not judging people who love video games. But I have observed some avid players “waking up” a decade after college and wondering why they haven’t developed meaningful relationships or achieved the dreams they’d once had for themselves.
Far be it from me to claim the high ground. I’ve been largely absent from “reality” for fourteen years.
This week, I surfaced from a project (a four-book series) that has kept my imagination immersed in a fantasy world for more than a quarter of my life. Like Cobb and his Scooby-gang, I’ve been developing elaborate, otherworldly scenarios. When I wasn’t investing energy in my demanding day job, I was diving deep into these worlds that only exist in my head. And I found it difficult, at times, to surface from those dark waters and focus on my the necessities of “real life.” (Anne, my wife, has been very patient.)
Now that the story is written, I’m in a sort of rehab, learning to live in the real world again.
Cobb has learned one hard lesson: Designing a dreamworld from happy memories, he and his wife wandered for years in a world of good feelings. But when they returned to the real world, they found its hardships intolerable. (Wim Wenders thoughtfully explored this idea 20 years ago in his film Until the End of the World.) The temptation to give up and say “Game Over” grew too powerful for one of them. The other lives with the guilt.
The farther Cobb goes, the more he tries to ignore the phantom that’s haunting him. She manifests his failures and his fears. She wreaks havoc in the worlds he’s made, endangering him and his friends. And until he deals with her—a matter of the real world—she will never leave him alone.
I can relate. When I step back and look at the fantasies I spent fourteen years imagining, what do I see? Phantoms of my fears, failures, doubts, and grudges as well as visions of my hopes.
This is, I think, one of the great purposes of the imagination. In the work of creation and art, we see ourselves reflected in ways that can humble and inform us. At our worst, we indulge our fantasies and desert our lives. At our best, we imagine things that, like x-rays, reveal wonders and damages so we can learn from them.
Cobb, training Ariadne, tells her that the dream-design was conceived—like so many video games—as a training program by the military “to allow soldiers to shoot, stab, and strangle each other and then wake up.” Similarly, his team crafts dreamworlds in which they can carry out crimes.
“How did architects become involved?” Ariadne asks.
Cobb replies, “Someone had to design the dreams, right?”
Later, Ariadne breaks into Cobb’s own dreamworld as an agent of compassion and grace. She reaches out to Cobb in the midst of his downward spiral. She challenges him to find the one way out of his self-made labyrinth. That will mean Cobb has to give up this game of constant striving. He’ll have to face his fears. Surrender control. And take a step of faith. He’ll have to return to the sad and broken world, a place of uncertainty, where real life and love and redemption are possible.
Perhaps someone will design a dream for him that helps him escape this labyrinth back into the light.
We’re all dreamers. We’re all collaborating in the creation of the world. But so much depends on whether we see ourselves as the designer, or as servants of a larger design.
What kind of architects are we—in the worlds we make, the stories we tell, the pictures we paint?
Those are the questions Nolan’s Inception asked me. “What kind of world are you creating? A sentimental prison? A context for conflict? The scene of a crime? Or a place where wounds can heal, where grace can flourish? Is it a world based on the illusion of certainty, where you think you have control? Or are you working in humility, serving a larger design?”
Read Inception, Part 1: Mind Over What Matters here.