"Inception" For the Win
How the film appeals to our social cognitive abilities, and our humanity
Posted July 23, 2010
Having just seen Inception, Christopher Nolan's latest tour de force, I admit that I'm still processing the complexities of the film's beautiful and terrifying subconscious dreamscapes. Overall, though, I think the movie succeeds for two reasons. Firstly, by literally taking us into the characters' minds and dreams, it capitalizes on our ability to engage in social cognition, most broadly defined as how we think about and perceive others. Secondly (special effects and poignant bursts of brassy music aside), the film at its core has a profound human element in the broken but compelling character of Cobb.
As we are thrust into the enigmatic dream worlds of the film's characters, we can't help but be on the edge of our mental seats—our brains hard at work guessing who is thinking what, and what the landscapes and events in a dream might mean for the dreamer, or "subject" as the film terms it. Later in the film, with breaths held and minds racing, we are enthralled as Cobb and his dream team (sorry, I couldn't resist) attempt to pull off an "inception," a targeted planting of an idea in the darkest depths of one's subconscious.
All of these cognitive events happen seamlessly and automatically for the viewer, as our brains are superbly good at stepping into others' minds. Many studies have shown that specific regions in our medial prefrontal cortex become active and engaged when we "mentalize," or think about the thoughts and actions of others (See Amodio & Frith (2006) for a review). Of course, this process happens at a distance, since we do not have insider privilege to truly read and know a person's inner thoughts. Inception invites us in to fully experience the flurry of sights, sounds, and emotions that might populate a mind.
Above all though, this film succeeds because it appeals to our shared humanity. We are presented with a troubled character, Dominic (Dom) Cobb, plagued by mental demons he must confront, even if it means losing a part of himself—a projection of his deceased wife—that he can't stand to lose. He wants to be reunited with his family; he wants to go home. These fundamental longings of connection and belonging are intensely human and arguably form the crux of our social lives. In fact, these desires seem to fuel Cobb's decision to take on the risky job of inception in the first place, since he's promised that he'll see his family again if the inception is successful.
It's rare nowadays that a large scale hollywood blockbuster is visually engaging, psychologically gripping, and so illuminating of the human condition. Inception seems to be all of these things, and more. Feel free to disagree, but I think Christopher Nolan has produced a masterpiece that's worthy of our attention and contemplation.