I saw Inception a few days ago, and from my collective experience with my other friends who've seen it, it's the kind of movie that you have a strong opinion about; you either love it or you hate it and there's always a reason or five.
I personally loved the movie, I thought that in spite of its flaws that the plot was extremely complex, well-informed and theoretically adventuresome. I saw it as a metaphysical thought experiment that follows in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan's last non-Batman movie, The Prestige. My fascination with the movie came from my seeing the movie as an extremely ambitious thought experiment on narrative, epistemology, language and consciousness; which in itself is funny because it made me realize what a structuralist I've become. I used to always get annoyed when I talked to diehard Freudians because they kept bringing up the same interpretive framework for everything, but it's hit me that whenever I watch a movie or look at a piece of art, I end up seeing it as addressing some question or another about narratives and signs that only a structuralist would really care about.
I'm going to write my interpretation in the form of small vignettes since I don't feel that I could give a single elegant interpretive framework. It's also hit me that I've always worked very hard at linearizing my non-linear way of thinking and that it might be okay for me once in a while to present things in a more free-form fashion that doesn't take up so much energy.
Also, if you don't like things that are "pretentious", then you may not want to read this entry; it attempts to connect a lot of very strange concepts. You've been warned.
1) Mal (Marion Cotillard) is quite clearly insane. There is no two ways about it; she's mad. That seems like a rather banal observation, but it is tempting at first to empathize with her after seeing so many layers of dreaming throughout the movie and actually believe that she has a valid reason to be skeptical. But when it comes down to it, Mal has no basis for believing that she's in a dream when she kills herself. She can say "Well, dreams seem real, so there's no way I can prove that this isn't a dream", but she would have to ask that on ANY level of consciousness; in other words, if she was right that she was in a dream, then she would still have to ask the same question when she woke up in the next level up.
2) So there's an epistemological question that goes on with these dreams. You can't know whether you're in a dream if there's no reference to the waking world. This is equivalent to Bertrand Russel's problem of meta-languages. You cannot verify the statement "this statement is true" on its own merits. There needs to be some metalanguage that can say whether that statement is true or false and that can directly compare two statements. If anyone's ever told you that you're comparing apples and oranges, it means that you're dealing with two or more objects that do not have a shared system of comparison, i.e. a metalanguage. Of course, if we constantly concerned ourselves with trying to find a transcendent metalanguage (or for all of you postmodernists out there, a transcendent signified), we'd never get anywhere. Narratives in general, especially religious narratives, help us deal with this kind of problem; from the common ground of shared narratives, we reach some sort of understanding of the world through dialogue.
Madness is epistemic nihilism, a belief that nothing is sacred (which may yet explain people's reactions to my sense of humor). In my last entry, I pondered about how cognitive dissonance allows us to participate in a collective narrative. In Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV, the main character, a disgruntled and possibly schizophrenic impersonator of the German monarch Henry IV raves about the freedom he's gained from dropping the mask and living in a state of constant flux without worrying about contradicting any narrative he or others may have made about himself. He's become quite literally anti-social, a sociopath. On an interesting digression, he is faced with the choice, after murdering his ex-wife's fiancee, whether to keep his mask as Henry IV and trap himself in the narrative of madness, or face the consequences of his crime the minute he stops acting like the supposed lunatic who murdered him; a Madman suddenly forced to sanely masquerade as a madman.
Mal is an epistemic nihilist, and she faces the worst possible consequence for it.
3) The way in which dreams operate is based on a phenomenological theory of storytelling in which the reader's consciousness fills in the semantic gaps left by the text. If I say "He walked down the street" you have to come up with your own idea of what that person looks like, what kind of street they walk down and perhaps how they might be walking. In fact, maybe you don't even think about some of those things until I point them out, or until I give a second phrase that reads "and people laughed at the way he walked." Of course, now that I told you that he was laughed at, you accommodate this whole sentence by giving him a funny way of walking.
In Inception, the shared dream is populated with an arbitrary landscape, perhaps a city, a tundra or a hotel. There are people walking around and perhaps even some familiar locations, but for the most part, these are all arbitrary landmarks. The dreamer populates the dream using his subconscious, filling in for what's left blank with their own personal thoughts. The initial setup of objects demands that the dreamer forms some causality between initial objects in the dream and, as a result, the dreamer creates a narrative out of the objects that reveals information about themselves. This is how the process of extraction works.
4) The process of extraction mirrors how we use language and narratives. Words on their own are arbitrary, meaningless symbols; mere parts of a (very very messy) syntax. By drawing connections between the words that somebody says, that person can communicate with us by allowing us to draw connections between the words and extracting information from the context that emerges when multiple words or sentences are arranged in a particular way.
Narratives work in the same fashion. The "dream defenses" in inception are a perfect example. I personally thought that the dreams having some literal military looked silly, as many people may have. Despite the fact that we know that it wouldn't really look like that in real life, we understood what the military men signified by seeing them try to kill any and all intruders. Every metaphor requires at least two juxtaposed symbols; they are an invariant representation of a pattern. By juxtaposing two or more symbols, you can imply some sort of causality or context that mirrors something that people understand and therefore turn meaningless symbols (such as say... a bunch of talking farm animals) into something that helps us understand the world (such as, just for the sake of argument... Animal Farm.)
5) Extraction works by framing a person's consciousness with arbitrary symbols and then causing them to involuntarily fill in the blanks with parts of their personal life. We're simply hard-wired to look for patterns and try to make predictions by accounting for the unseen. The dreamer reveals their secrets by allowing the intruders to see how they connect the dots and account for what isn't present in the dream.
In other words, it is the context of what somebody is saying that reveals the truth. Otherwise, the person could be lying or telling the truth or just saying nonsense; but if we compare it to what they've said before and under what circumstances, then we can assign some sort of information content to the words. The logical conclusion of this is that the truth about a person comes from what isn't present in what they say, that it's always looking between the juxtaposition of somebody's words, sentences or actions. This is why our English teachers always tell us to "read between the lines."
6) As an extension of (3), art and religion make for very good learning tools because they utilize our brain's incredible talent for storing patterns as invariant representations. Stories represent a wealth of highly abstracted shared wisdom accumulated over the course of civilization; all in a convenient narrative form. But I digress.
7) The dreamscapes created by Ellen Paige use logical paradoxes in order to "close the loop" of the dream. Most notable was the infinite stairs reminiscent of M.C. Escher. I don't fully know what to make of it, but such paradoxes seem to tie in well with Bertrand Russel's metalanguage problem. The dreams have within them some sort of "incompleteness" in that the dream simply cannot account for all possible questions the dreamer might ask. By making the dream physically loop on itself in a seamless fashion, Ellen Paige can make sure that the dreamer will simply not be able to answer certain questions such as "does this dream end or is it infinite?"
In real life, we're faced with a similar phenomenon. Many logical paradoxes exist within our world, one of which has shown that some true statements in mathematics simply cannot be proven. This is called Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. In this sense, the dream is arguably just as real as "real life" because it has a set of symbols upon which we are able to endow a narrative and has logical paradoxes which shroud certain epistemic questions about reality.
8) And logical paradoxes might just be the most essential thing to the fabric of reality. If we had "total knowledge" by which all things were proven with a consistent set of axioms, then we would no longer have any sort of experience because there would be nothing left to learn. All experience is caused by the activity of the brain making sense of its inputs and all narrative is us drawing causal links out of an infinite amount of possibilities to account for some series of events (or more accurately, some set of symbols.) The existence of epistemic limits means that we continue in the activity of learning and creating narratives.
In my opinion, narratives are the essence of experience because they're about imagining what isn't there; we live ineffably. Things continue to be ineffable in the absence of irrefutable proof. But perhaps it's also because reality works just like the dreams featured in Inception; that the universe just doesn't have enough material to answer all of our questions and so reality closes itself under a logical paradox that leaves us to continually guess with narratives. The universe is hardly the static, sound and complete ontological entity that the Enlightenment envisioned, it's a constantly fluctuating narrative where ideas like "true" and "false" are far less understandable than we think.
And I think that's why Christopher Nolan made the last scene such a cliffhanger. To be honest, I actually hated that scene, I think it was an extremely un-subtle way to address a question that the movie already implied and I believe that by putting it in the forefront, it made people take the problem so literally without wondering whether it even mattered whether Leonardo DiCaprio was still dreaming.