Arguably, the central theme of Christopher Nolan’s 2011 film Inception is philosophical in its essence: it is nothing less than an investigation into what constitutes human reality. In other words, what are the boundaries of human reality, where does our understanding and our apparent consciousness of the world around us begin and end? These themes become apparent in the film with the focus of its screenplay on the notion of the dream. Nolan basically analyzes how dreams affect reality, and vice versa, and this therefore breaks down the wall between the two, and gives us a new conception of our human existence.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s character of Dominic Cobb is a specialist in invading other person’s dreams, implanting foreign ideas in these individuals, which then transforms reality. Accordingly, Nolan suggests to us that what really affects our daily lives is much greater than what we think. Even in our unconscious moments, such as sleep, there is an active element of reality constantly present: namely, at exactly these moments when we think we are removed from the world, we become most sensitive to the reality of the world, since it is during sleep that DiCaprio and his team perform their intrusion into the dreams of those they are assigned to.
Arguably, this notion that reality is not what we expect of it in the sense that what constitutes reality extends beyond the limits of what we normally count to “matter” in our daily lives is reflect in all aspects of Nolan’s film. Hence, Nolan gives a fairly complex narrative in the film, using an ensemble cast with many characters, and detailed back stories of many of these characters to give the viewer the effect of a surplus of information. However, at the same time, Nolan can be said to give a more coherent picture of the dream-world than is real: are our dreams often not chaotic and not understandable, are such dreams often not forgotten after we wake up? But this is Nolan’s point: what the individual thinks is trivial and unimportant may at times be more important and more significant to us than what we think is significant. This is shown in the centrality of the dream itself: when we think we are away from the world in sleep, in Nolan’s story, this is the point when we are most vulnerable to the world.
This would explain why Nolan describes dreams in a way that tries to break down our preconceptions of dreams as unstable madness. Hence, in the team that Di Caprio assembles to invade the dream of Saito, he employs a chemist, an architect: these are occupations that have a distinct function, and they must repeat this function in order to create the dream world that is not the dreamer’s own.
The mise-en-scene of the film is also reflective of this view of the concreteness of dreams: Nolan could have used more adventurous and bizarre forms of mise-en-scene and editing to reflect the “dream-like” nature of dreams as we traditionally understand them, but he decides to use more stable or even traditional techniques, such as elements of how film noir mise-en-scene is staged so as to give the viewer something he or she is familiar with to show the dream world, but also something different at the same time, without going overboard into the “psychedelic” interpretation of dreams. For example, the hotel which the character Arthur dreams, the topic of this scene being kidnapping, could be taken from an older criminal movie that we have seen before, and is therefore familiar to us on an unconscious level, just like the films we have watched in the past and the dreams we have had on the past may have existed on this same unconscious level.
In this sense, editing follows much the same idea in Inception, since the point is to make a difference between reality and the dream world, but not make such a strict difference between the two, since this would do the opposite of what Nolan wants: it would show how reality and dreams are two separate worlds, but he wants to show how these two worlds interact and essentially are not separate worlds, but part of a greater and single reality. This is not to say that the film’s editing is not adventurous, since it does capture moments of science fiction, fantasy and old Hollywood movies, which themselves seem distant from our current reality. But he does this is in way that still seems familiar to us, although on an unconscious level, and this seems to be precisely the point when dealing with the film’s greater theme about where reality begins and ends.
Christopher Nolan is clearly an adventurous film maker, as this film clearly shows. For all his techniques that may be studied by the film student, however, it all comes down to the story: and Nolan gives us a deeply philosophical story, because it talks about reality itself. Nolan’s film techniques are therefore used to support the main philosophical themes, and everything is put together “in sync” with this main idea of what are the extents of reality. Nolan shows the complexity of this reality, of how unimportant events may be in reality the most important, and how what affects us does not have to be “real”, in the sense that it exists in this moment, it can be a dream, it can be from the past, as in the case of the suicide of Di Caprio’s wife, which continuously haunts him. Inception carries us into a different world to show us how different our own world really is from what we expect of it.