Monday, 23 May 2016

Lucid Reviews: Inception (2010)

I will be doing a series of reviews of movies (and literature, music and art) which focus on the topic of dreaming and lucid dreaming. This will be an ongoing project which I will post on periodically. Note that when writing my reviews, I will not be concentrating on the quality of the general narrative, direction,  set/costume design or acting, as would be the case in a normal review. I am not a movie buff (I rarely watch movies) and my personal taste tends to be non-mainstream and quite narrow, meaning I am not ideally positioned to comment on film-making or acting generally. I am only concerned with reviewing the elements of the movie which deal with dreaming/lucid dreaming and how this phenomenon is portrayed in the work - for example, whether it is scientifically possible or reflective of the reality of dreaming etc. 

Inception (2010)
Written/Directed: Christopher Nolan
Movie Trailer

Plot Synopsis
Cobb and Arthur are 'extractors' who perform corporate espionage using experimental military technology to infiltrate the subconscious of their targets and extract valuable information through a shared dream world. Their latest target, a Japanese businessman, Saito reveals that he has commissioned their most recent mission, setting an impossible task for Cobb: planting an idea in the subconscious of another person - inception. 

Saito wants to break up the energy conglomerate of his main rival, Fischer and wants Cobb to convince Fischer's son and heir, Robert, to dissolve the company. Saito promises that he will use his influence to clear Cobb of a murder charge which would allow him to return home to his children. Cobb accepts the job and with the help of his father-in-law, Professor Miles, assembles a team - Eames (a conman and identity forger); Yusuf (a chemist who develops a sedative serum for the 'dream within a dream' strategy); and Ariadne (an architecture student, able to design complex dream labyrinths). While dream sharing with Cobb, Ariadne realises his subconscious contains an invasive projection of his late wife, Mal. 

The elder Fischer dies in Sydney, and his body is flown back to Los Angeles, accompanied by the younger Fischer. The team - and Saito - sedate Fischer and take him into a shared dream. At each dream level, the person generating the dream must stay behind to set up a 'kick' (a hypnic jerk) which is used to awaken the other team members from the deeper dream level. To be successful, these kicks must occur simultaneously at each dream level, which is complicated by the fact that time proceeds much faster at each successive level. 

The first level is Yusuf's dream of rainy LA. The team abducts Fischer, but are apprehended and attacked by armed projections in Fischer's subconscious. which has been trained to resist extraction. Fischer and Saito (wounded) are taken by the team to a warehouse. While dying in a dream would normally awaken Saito, the powerful sedatives required to maintain and stabilise the multi-layered dream will instead send a dying character into 'Limbo' - a world of infinite subconscious, from which it is nearly impossible to escape, as the dreamer risks 'forgetting' they are in a dream. Eames impersonates Fischer's godfather, Browning, to suggest Fischer reconsider his father's will. Yusuf drives the van as the other members of the team are sedated into the second level of the dream.

The second level of the dream is Arthur's dream of a hotel. Cobb convinces Fischer that he has been abducted by Browning and that he (Cobb) is Fischer's subconscious protector. Cobb, as a ruse to infiltrate Fischer's own subconscious, convinces him to go down another level of the dream to explore Browning's subconscious. 

The third level of the dream is Eames' dream of a snowy mountain fortress, which is protected by guards. The team must infiltrate it in order for Cobb to take Fischer down into his subconscious. Yusuf, chased by Fischer's projections in the first level of the dream, deliberately drives off a bridge and initiates his 'kick' too early, which removes the gravity at Arthur's (second) level of the dream, which forces him to improvise a new kick which will happen simultaneous to the van hitting the water. This causes an avalanche in Eames' (third) level of the dream. Mal's projection emerges and kills Fischer; Cobb kills Mal and Saito dies. All 3 'dead; characters fall into Limbo. Eames sets up a 'kick' by rigging the fortress with explosives and Cobb and Ariadne enter Limbo to rescue Fischer and Saito. 

Cobb reveals to Ariadne that Mal ended up in Limbo after he and she experimented with the dream sharing technology. While sedated for a few hours of real-time, they spent 50 years in a dreamworld, constructed from their shared memories. Mal refused to return to reality, so Cobb used a rudimentary form of inception by reactivating her 'totem' (an object which is used as a 'reality check' which allows the dreamer to distinguish between dreams and reality) and reminding her subconscious that the dreamworld was not real. When she awoke, Mal was convinced that she was still dreaming and and in an attempt to 'wake up for real', commits suicide, framing Cobb with her 'murder' as a way to force him to do the same. Facing a murder charge, Cobb flees from America, leaving his children with Prof. Miles. 

During this confession, Cobb makes peace with his guilt over Mal's death. Ariadne kills Mal and wakes Fischer up with a 'kick'. Now revived at the mountain fortress, Fischer enters a safe room to discover and accept  the planted idea - a message from his father who tells him to 'be his own man'. While Cobb remains in Limbo to find Saito, the rest of the team ride synchronised 'kicks' which takes them back to reality. Cobb finds an aged Saito in Limbo and reminds him of their agreement. The team awaken on the airplane and Saito makes a phone call. 

When they arrive at LA airport, Cobb is able to pass through the US Immigration checkpoint and meet Prof. Miles, who accompanies him home. Cobb tests reality using a totem - a spinning top which spins indefinitely in the dreamworld. However, he ignores the result of the spinning top totem, instead joining his children in the garden, leaving it unclear if this is reality or a dream. The totem is actually Mal's totem - Cobb uses his wedding ring as his totem (he only wears it in the dreamworld) and it was not on Cobb's finger when he handed his passport to the Immigration Officer. 

Dream Themes
  • Lucid dreaming
  • Shared dreaming/sharing of a mutual dream space
  • Use of dream totems
  • Manipulation of the subconscious
  • The analogy between (shared) dreaming and the cinematic experience

My Review
On of my main problem with Inception is the fact that it led countless amateur lucid dreamers to fully invest themselves in the potential reality of the movie - and treat it like it was the next technological step in neuroscience and dreaming. In the aftermath of the movie release, many oneironauts stopped focusing on the basics of lucid dream induction and began to try to create the conditions of the shared dream and the dream-within-a-dream, which are key themes. This is encouraged by the reactions of the media - including some scientific literature - which used the release of the movie as inspiration for articles questioning whether Inception could become a reality and taking actual dream research and manipulating the theories and findings to reflect the themes of the movie. This is typical of the mainstream media - using buzzwords and 'gimmicks' or current trends to create interest.

This isn't necessarily the fault of the movie, itself, but my enjoyment of it was affected by the fact that in countless discussions of the science of lucid dreaming, Inception was used as a blueprint for the scientific potential of lucid dreaming. Suddenly everyone was using a 'dream totem' - and lucid dreaming experienced a surge in mainstream popularity - albeit a very Hollywood-version which focused on the fantastical elements, rather than what we know to be scientifically or psychologically factual.

I am aware Nolan may not have set out to make a realistic movie which portrayed the actuality of lucid dreaming, but I still hold him responsible for misinterpretation of what lucid dreaming is and how it works.

Of course, we have various emerging technologies which enable us to induce lucid dream states and also recreate very basic images of what a subject may be dreaming of, by using MRI scans to monitor their brain responses. But shared dreaming has never been proven empirically, and essentially remains categorised as a 'pseudoscience'.

It is clear that some scientific investigation informed the making of the movie. Producer and writer, Jeff Warren describes how the consciousness appears to act in 'predictable ways' when there is no sensory input. Further, there are 'informal laws' which exist in the dreamworld - 'the law of self-fulfilling expectations' (where if you expect something will happen, it will) and 'the law of narrative momentum' (where the dream begins to fray if you remain in one place for too long). 

In Inception, time runs slower in the dreamworld than in real time - with a scaling effect, so that time slows down even more so when entering subsequent dream levels. This seems to accord with most people's experience of dreaming, with an important exception - in lucid dreams, research by Stephen LaBerge has shown that the dreamer tends to experience time almost in real time. Therefore, there is very little time dilation at all in a lucid dream. In respect of the laws of physics, Inception at some points in the plot suggest that the laws of physics do not apply in the dreamworld - for example, when Paris is folded like a piece of paper and with the 'impossible staircase' (based on that designed by M. C. Escher).

In Inception, the main characters use a drug ('somnacin') and a dream machine (Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous (PASIV) Device) to upload a dream scenario into the mind of their target and then enter the dream. While we are very much aware of powerful drugs which can modulate our sleep processes, there is of course, no way to use drugs - or machines - to enter into a shared dreamworld. 

Although Inception does not explicitly refer to 'lucid dreaming' (although note that Nolan is himself a lucid dreamer), it does make reference to concepts familiar to lucid dreamers, which may contribute to the acceptance of the the movie as factually accurate by many oneironauts. Notably, Cobb describes 'dreamsigns', stating that 'Dreams feel real when we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange'. The movie also leans heavily on the concept of 'reality checking' - specifically by the use of the dream totems. This is of course an aesthetic choice - the spinning totem belonging to Mal and used in the final scene by Cobb - was used in movie publicity and promotion, largely due to it's symbolic appearance. 

However, any regular lucid dreamer would know that there are far more reliable and easy reality checks which could be performed by a lucid dreamer - such as trying to push the fingers of one hand through the palm of another, or looking in a mirror. Remembering to carry a dream totem around - or using a wedding ring as a dream totem - seems to over-complicate the process of reality checking. In fact, given the way in which the (lucid) dream state is entered by the main characters, there seems little need for them to perform such a reality check anyway - and therefore this little more than a plot device. 

Further, the way the totems work in the movie is inconsistent. One of the rules we learn is that no-one must touch your totem, as figuring out how it works could lead that person to trick your subconscious into believing you were awake in reality. So, for Cobb, his dream totem (Mal's spinning top, and to a lesser extent, his wedding ring) will topple over in waking reality, but spin forever in his dream world; Arthur's die is weighted so that it will always land on one number in waking reality, but in someone else's dream, it could fall on any random number; Ariadne's metal bishop is weighted in a certain way; and Eames' poker chip has a misspelling of 'Mombasa' ('Mombassa'). Cobb explains to Ariadne how the spinning top totem works - which means he can never be sure that he is not in Ariadne or Mal's dream, even if it continues to spin for infinity. The problem arises in relation to the spinning top. According to the movie, if the top falls, Cobb must be awake - but why? Surely everyone would be aware that a spinning top would definitely fall in waking reality, not spin forever. Therefore, if someone wanted to enter into a shared dream world with Cobb and trick him into thinking he was in waking reality, they would simply make the top fall. There are only 2 options: one which would never happen in waking reality; and the alternative, which you would implicitly assume was the 'in a dream' option if you understood the function of a totem and how they are used to check consciousness and reality. To make sense, the totem would need to behave in a unique way in waking reality (such as the other totems used by other characters) and an ordinary way in someone else's dream world (assuming the other person is unaware of the special quality of the totem, such as how 'Mombasa' is misspelled on Eames' poker chip). If Cobb's totem is to be an effective reality check, then it can't be so easy to predict how it would operate in reality.

The 'rules' of dreaming as portrayed in Inception seem to be overly convoluted to the experienced lucid dreamer. For example, Cobb states that in order to wake yourself up from a dream, you must first kill yourself. This is a needless 'rule' which runs counter to the lucid dreaming experience. Any lucid dreamer will tell you that lucid dreams are very unstable and difficult to anchor. It is incredibly easy to wake up from a lucid dream prematurely, just by becoming too excited - given the REM state is a very light stage of sleep and a lucid dream occurs when the sleeping mind is very close to being fully awake. Most lucid dreamers could wake themselves from a particularly stable and strong lucid dream simply by telling themselves to wake up. 

This also means that the concept of the 'kick' (hypnic jerk) becomes pretty obsolete in terms of how lucid dreaming actually works. A hypnic jerk is an involuntary muscle twitch/spasm which happens when the brain is trying to test whether the body is asleep or awake. The hypnic jerk is often incorporated into a fragment of dream narrative (falling/slipping/being attacked). Therefore, it would be wholly impossible to set up a 'kick' of this nature anyway - hypnic jerks are always involuntary and unconscious, and in any event, not related to the lucid dreaming experience. It seemed that Nolan just wanted to incorporate a common dream experience into a movie which dealt with lucid dreaming without any necessity for inclusion. 

Another random 'rule' is that in a second/third level dream (a 'dream within a dream' scenario), the dreamer must not die or they will become stuck in Limbo, where time is so slowed down that decades pass there, when in waking reality, it is simply a matter of minutes. This is - at best - speculative fiction, but from the perspective of a seasoned oneironaut, a completely illogical addition to the plot. There is no reason why the rules of the dreamworld would be any different in a second/third layer dream, as anyone who experiences dreams within a dream will likely concur. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is the fact that the audience is kept guessing as to whether scenes are 'reality' or 'dreams' - encouraging them to look for clues, such as upside down clocks or the presence of Cobb's wedding ring.  We also see how subconscious elements creep in to influence what we see in dreams - for example Mal and Cobb's anniversary suite number is number 3502; the train that barrels down on the team in Yusuf's dream is also number 3502, and the taxi they hail is numbered 2053. Additionally, the random string of numbers Fischer arbitrarily gives as the combination to his father's safe is 528491. This is also the combination to both safes in Eames' snow fortress dream, the fake telephone number Eames gives Fischer (as the sexy blonde) in Arthur's hotel dream, and the room numbers in the hotel are 528 and 491.

My main issue with the way dreaming is portrayed in Inception is that I get the impression that Nolan wanted to make an all-purpose movie about lucid dreaming/shared dreaming etc and did his research, cramming in various elements of dream science which do not necessarily work together to produce a cohesive understanding of the complex ideas which inform the movie. It appears that the most interesting elements of dreaming have been cherry-picked, but Nolan doesn't stake his position on the subject. The movie is complex, relying on clunky narrative, which is both exposition and jargon-heavy, which adds to the difficulty in understanding the plot. When non-lucid dreamers try to untangle and interpret the movie, it's frustrating that the science/art of lucid dreaming is misunderstood - largely because the movie provides half-baked or mixed-up conceptualisations which are necessary to drive the plot and create interest, but don't further or support actual understanding of the themes so intrinsic to the storyline. 

The way the dream scenes are portrayed in the movie is one of the best things about it, in my opinion. Still, these scenes are not free from my criticism. Nolan reminds us we are watching a heist movie by including the gunfight scenes - seemingly forgetting that in a dreamworld, there is no necessity in using 'real' weapons in a realistic way. Any dreamer with superior dream control should be able to manifest and use any means of tackling an enemy without the constraints or rules of the waking world. The zero-gravity fistfight, the city of Paris being folded like a piece of paper and the crumbling beach scene were all visually stunning - and in particular, the latter had a very 'dreamlike' quality about it, which gave a sense of authenticity to me, as an oneironaut. 

Commentary from Dream Experts
Deirdre Barrett, a Dream Researcher at Harvard University states that Nolan did not accurately portray all aspects of dreaming, but conceded that the illogical, bizarre and disjointed narrative of dreams would not lend themselves to a complex thriller. However, she cites a scene in which a sleeping Cobb is shoved into a full bath, and in the dream world water gushes into the windows of the building, waking him up as an example of how 'real stimuli get incorporated, and you very often wake up right after that intrusion'.

Robert Stickgold - Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School 
'I thought it was a lot of fun. It’s a funny story, I got a call from Sony when they were just about to release it, sort of probing if I wanted to be a go-to person to talk to about dreaming that they could pass out. And I said no [laughs]. I said no because I felt I was going to watch the movie and say: 'Well, the movie was really dumb,' but it actually wasn’t bad at all. A, I enjoyed it a lot, and B, I love the sort of playfulness of getting you to forget where you are in the dream. You say: ‘Oh wait a minute, is this actually happening? Are they really on the train? I’m confused. What’s actually real and what’s a dream, and what’s the dream within a dream?’ And I think they did that beautifully, and I just enjoyed it. 

I don’t think at any point in watching the movie – I have two kids that went to M.I.T. and they sit around and watch all the science fiction movies and give them one to ten thumbs down depending on how bad the science is – and I don’t remember any point in that movie where I had that feeling. Obviously, the basic supposition that you can control things in the real world by controlling dreams is wonderful science fiction, but that’s out front I think, and I just enjoyed it'. 

Jane Gackenback - Dream Researcher & Former President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
'It was great fun. I was on the documentary about dreams on the Blu-ray. They flew me down there and the whole thing. Anyway – a lot of the points [Christopher Nolan] got right. With Hollywood, it always goes too far. Yes, we do have lucid dreams. Yes, you wake up into another dream, and wake up into another, and I think they did that four deep in Inception. I had a colleague who did it seven deep once. Yes, you can have a certain amount of control over the dream. I don’t think to the degree in which they have it. Some indication – I hesitate and say ‘some,’ big time – we can share dreams – particularly people who have lived together for 50 year, or identical twins, that sort of thing. Lots of places he got it right. He’s an amazingly thoughtful film maker'.

Dream Myths in Inception
  • If you die in a dream, you wake up - this may be true for some dreamers, but it is not a hard and fast rule of dreaming - many people experience their own death in dreams and continue to remain dreaming for some time
  • Shared dreaming - this is not scientifically possible, anymore than ESP or telepathy is empirically proven. While there is subjective anecdotal evidence from some dreamers who claim to share dreams with other people, there is no objective evidence. Further, Inception does not explain in any depth how shared dreaming via a shared dream network actually works in the movie. While it is possible to summons dream characters into a lucid dream, these dream characters may seem to act completely independently from your conscious dream self, but they are simply projections/personifications of your subconscious mind
  • Dream Limbo - in dream Limbo, the dreamer (who entered as a result of dying in a second or third level dream) is no longer lucid - they accept the dream as reality and do not realise they can simply wake up from it - this is a fictionalised aspect of the plot, which seems to stem from Nolan's desire to depict time dilation in the dream state
  • Dream within a dream - while dreams within a dream are possible in theory, the reality is not quite like that portrayed in Inception. Dreams within a dream are conceptual, rather than literal - in reality there aren't defined levels of dreaming which you pass through, but rather, a series of dreams in sequence
  • Dream architecture - while in theory it is possible to create a dream scenario (i.e. dream incubation) or control a dream from within - and even influence someone else's dream, for example, by introducing stimuli such as certain sounds or smells into their environment while they are in REM sleep, the levels of dream architecture shown in the dream goes beyond what we know to be the reality. Our dreams may reflect our waking influences or preoccupations - and lucid dreamers can often exert surprisingly high levels of control over their dreamworld with practice, but in fact, dreams are not as susceptible to our conscious interference as we might like to think. There is also no reason why a gifted architecture student would be used as a 'dream architect' - Ariadne's ability to design architectural structures in waking life gives her no special advantage over dream control

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