In C.S. Lewis’s ruminations on the afterlife in his novel, The Great Divorce, he plays with the traditional concepts of heaven and hell. At first glance, Hell looks comfortable, compared to a venture into the harsh, fearful, uncomfortable realities of the heavenly realms. And Hell appears safe compared to the surprises and danger of “the valley of the shadow of life”.
In presenting Heaven as a place of discomfort and fear for the ghosts who enter it, Lewis illustrates the necessity of a painful denial of self. A person needs to confront reality in all its harshness in order to enter a redeemed state.
That narrative arc, and the play on what is truly real and what is illusion, has more than a passing resonance with Inception—director Christopher Nolan’s latest and most elaborate cinematic vision. Nolan’s reputation as a director of provocative and challenging stories that have mainstream appeal comes from films like The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger and the head-spinning Memento.
There is a lot to like about what Nolan has done with his latest and what I think is his most engaging story yet. Inception is an extravagant sci-fi thriller with a depth and complexity that rewards those who give themselves over to the intricacies of the plot. It’s a film to see at least once, and preferably with friends to have a coffee with afterwards. But expect strange dreams to follow.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a kind of high-tech criminal paid to break into people’s subconscious—through their dreams—to extract corporate secrets. He and his team use an elaborate technique to do this: extraction allows the agents to create the dream that the sleeper then fills with the architecture of his own ideas. These ideas are often important secrets which the agents then take for their own use.
A powerful businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants to hire Cobb to pull off an audacious heist, not by stealing secrets from someone through their dreams, but by planting an idea – Inception – into the head of a corporate high flyer, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), which will lead to the breakdown of a giant company’s monopoly.
But there’s a twist. Cobb has his own problems with reality. He has delved into the world of the subconscious in order to create a reality based on what he once had but has now lost.
Falsely accused of murder, Cobb is exiled from America and his children. Saito’s deal includes a promise to “make things happen” to allow Cobb to find a way home. It’s a dream that threatens to always be tantalisingly out of reach.
One disturbing scene involves DiCaprio being lead into a cellar where a room full of sleeping men are all hooked up to a dream machine. “They come here every day to sleep?” DiCaprio asks. “No, they come to be woken up”, he is told. The dream has become their reality, mirroring Cobb’s own predicament. He seeks escape in the dream.
Inception plays with the idea of what is real and what is illusion. What can we trust? Can we believe in anything? How can we know anything for sure? The implication is that our grasp of reality might be quite fragile.
The characters drop in and out of multiple dream levels —and there are dreams within dreams—it’s very hard to tell whether you in a dream or not, or even in someone else’s dream and not your own.
Each of the agents carries with them a small token or marker that allows them to tell whether they are in fact dreaming or not. For one character this totem is a loaded die, which will only throw a six in the real world. For Cobb it’s a spinning top, that won’t stop spinning when he’s in a dream. It’s a dramatic device that is used with great effect right to the end of the film leaving us with some profound and unanswered questions.
Inception sits within a tradition of films like The Matrix, or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, or even Being John Malcovich – where the action takes place within someone’s mind or some other simulated reality.
The film seems to suggest that ‘escape’—in whatever form that takes—is no solution. The dream in this sense can be a kind of prison. Certainly it has become that for Cobb and slowly he has to face this. “We lost sight of what was real,” says Cobb. Reality is better, even if it’s harder.
But what is reality? In a culture that feels it has shrugged off belief in superstition and religion and embraced a naturalistic closed universe, films like The Matrix and Inception strike a chord with those who can’t quite lose the hunch that there is more to reality than what we can immediately see and touch and smell.1
In The Great Divorce one character tells another, “Heaven is not a state of Mind, Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly”. In that story it is ultimately a refusal to accept reality that leads many of the ghosts to turn away from the heavenly mountains and to seek refuge in the “safety” of a bland and colourless life on a never-ending bus journey.
The novel suggests that a vital part of becoming human is the necessity of facing reality, and reality is not always easy. It comes at a cost. It means a denial of the self, where truth must be confronted and God has to be acknowledged for who He is.
Christianity affirms what we see and touch as God’s good creation. Reality. It calls us to live in that materiality, and not to seek escape.
But it speaks of an even greater reality behind that reality. It’s what Jesus was mostly on about when he spoke of God’s Kingdom breaking into our world, embodying his power over all the rulers of the world, and even over death. The theologians describe this as God’s Kingdom having been established even if it is not fully consummated.
It’s a concept that claims to be what is really real, despite what we might see around us; when it looks like God has abandoned us, or is not in control, or can’t be trusted. The God who, as the prophet Isaiah says, “stretches out the heavens like a canopy” … who “brings out the stars and calls them by name”.
We are all dreamers in a sense, seeking to become architects of a reality into which we can live. A great deal rests on whether we see ourselves as the primary makers that reality, or that we are immersed in a story much larger and grander than our own.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
1. Sophie Lister, ‘Dreaming Unawares, http://www.damaris.org/content/culturewatcharticles/1038