The dystopian and utopian nature of dreams in "Inception"

Pre-University Paper, 2018

28 Pages, Grade: 15 Punkte



Table of Contents

1. Introduction:
1.1. The Ambivalent Nature of Inception
1.2. Research Report: Providing a Theoretical Background on some of the Key Themes in Inception

2. The Mechanics of Dreaming in Inception
2.1. Creation and Perception
2.2. The Mechanics of Lucid Dreaming
2.3. Shared Dreaming in Inception
2.4. Time in Dreams – Dreamtime in Inception

3. Psychoanalytical Theories on Dreams according to Freud
3.1. The Relationship between Dreams and Waking Life
3.2. Causality in Dreams

4. The Dystopian and Utopian Nature of Dreams in Inception
4.1. The Utopian Nature of Dreams in Inception
4.2. The Dystopian Nature of Dreams in Inception

5. Conclusion: A Way out of the Dilemma: Dream vs. Reality
5.1. The Philosophical School of Skepticism
5.2. The Theory of Social Constructivism
5.3. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
5.4. A Final Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1. Primary Source, Movie
6.2. Primary Literature
6.3. Secondary Literature
6.4. Web Sources
6.5. Video Sources
6.6. Image Directory

1. Introduction

1.1. The Ambivalent Nature of Inception

With box office sales amounting to an impressive 828 million US dollars,1 the 2010 movie Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, was an instant success for Warner Bros. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that it is currently ranked 69th on the list of the most successful movies of all time.2 However, in order to understand what distinguishes Inception from a simple blockbuster and what makes it one of the most ingenious movies of the 21st century, one has to delve deeper into its numerous layers.

The screenplay is based on two fictional preconditions. Firstly, the existence of a technology that enables the sharing of dreams and secondly, that this technology became subject to a new kind of crime known as ‘extraction’, which involves inserting oneself into someone’s dreams to gain access to hidden information without the person being aware of it. The movie’s protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is a professional thief known for being the best at the dangerous art of ‘extraction’, and his team receive a tempting offer from Japanese businessman Saito. They are tasked not with stealing information from someone’s mind, but instead with planting an idea into a person’s mind, an undertaking known as ‘inception’. In return, Dom will be cleared of all his criminal charges, which would make it possible for him to return home to his children. Desperate to be reunited with them once again, he agrees to take on the challenge. Along with his team, Dom needs to convince Saito’s business competitor Robert Fischer to dissolve his father’s business empire once he is dead. Fischer is drugged by the team and together they enter the dream world. Through different dream levels, each one trying to convey a different emotional message to Fischer , the team dives ever deeper into Fischer’s subconscious in order to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s business empire into his mind.

Christopher Nolan walks a fine line between presenting a utopian or a dystopian world in his movie. The resulting ambivalence challenges viewers to make up their own mind about what they consider to be morally right and wrong. Since Inception does not foster straightforward black and white thinking, viewers are left floundering in a moral grey area. Instead of a clear demarcation between what we as human beings look upon as good and bad these two opposites begin to fade, which in turn precisely causes that complex and unsettling ambivalence. Interestingly, a close examination reveals that Inception deliberately does not meet the moral expectations taught to us by our parents and our cultural environment. The intricate weaving of a utopian and a dystopian world, as well as the ever–present conflict between dream and reality make the movie such an exciting research topic.

1.2. Research Report: Providing a Theoretical Background for some of the Key Themes in Inception

Although Inception was only released eight years ago a surprisingly large body of research exists. This is due to the fact that, as already indicated, Inception is not your typical one dimensional, villain-hero action blockbuster, but rather a complex and multilayered insight into philosophical issues culminating in the question: What is truly real? Anthologies such as Inception and Philosophy. Ideas to Die for, edited by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein in 2011, as well as Inception and Philosophy. Because it’s Never Just a Dream, edited by David Kyle Johnson in 2012, have already shed some light on the scientific and philosophical questions the movie raises. As it would go beyond the scope of my work to recap all the articles published in these anthologies and furthermore, as a lot of articles overlap thematically, I will only touch upon the most important ones.

While Inception and Philosophy. Because it’s Never Just a Dream mainly focusses on the philosophical question of the true value of reality , Inception and Philosophy. Ideas to Die for, encompasses a broader variety of topics ranging from Inception’s scientific background to more philosophical questions. That is why I have chosen it as a main source.

Sylvia Wenmacker’s article addresses the question whether dreams are less real than waking life by taking ideas posited by the philosophical school of skepticism into account.3 This branch of philosophy questions concepts that “most people assume to be unshakable truths.”4 Following this train of thought, Joshua Richardson and Ora Mc Wiliams challenge the concept of reality by reviewing the French philosopher René Descartes’s opinion on the empirical accuracy of our senses and therefore our perception of reality.5

Michael Rennett also picks up the question of the value of reality. However, he tries to provide answers by comparing and contrasting the opinions of different movie characters on this very topic.6 Matthew Brophy demonstrates that in modern, digitalized times most of us inhabit more than one reality, such as the virtual realities created in video games. Moreover, Brophy completely changes the reader’s view of reality by taking Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s hypothesis of a real live matrix into account, which claims there is a high probability our world is actually a giant computer simulation.7

Dan Weijers also argues that living in a true reality does not really matter as much as one might assume and should therefore not be an overriding priority. He goes on to explain that most people tend to consider the experiences they are familiar with as reality.8 This suggests that actually what we are most “familiar with matters more to us than what is real,”9 which results in humans being “irrationally biased toward the familiar.”10 In a different approach, Bart Engelen compares American philosopher Robert Nozick’s (1938–2002) stance on the matter of reality to the ethical theory of hedonism: “According to hedonism, a good life simply consists in having pleasurable experiences.”11 Nozick believes that the value of one’s life also depends on “the extent to which these experiences are authentic and real.”12

Taking a look at the dream mechanics in Inception, such as why time seems to pass more slowly in a dream than it does in reality and what it would take to make Inception possible in real life, Berit Brogaard intertwines scientific findings from the field of neuroscience with the movie.13 To this effect Indalecio Garcia tackles the subject of time and all that is linked to it in Inception by analyzing how time is perceived within the different dream levels in the movie and comparing it to how we perceive it in reality.14

Exploring themes presented in Inception that relate to our everyday life, Janet Testerman discusses whether and to what extent free will and autonomous action really exist. She argues that we are incepted on a daily basis by various means, including peer pressure and experiences.15 Whereas Testerman’s approach is to look at Inception from a modern perspective, Marcus Schulzke follows up by comparing ethical values presented in Inception to philosophical positions throughout the ages, taking Socrates and Kant’s views on the autonomy of thoughts into account.16 This is in keeping with Joseph Garvin’s research on moral decisions and behavior in dreams. Furthermore, he examines the consequences that result from actions carried out in dreams in the movie.17

It has to be noted that a lot of Freud’s research is regarded as outdated nowadays.18 However, to this day no valid counterevidence exists proving his theories completely wrong and so they will be incorporated in this paper, as certain ideas in the movie seem to be strongly based on his theories.

Although a broad range of questions raised by Inception has been discussed in the previous examples and otherwise related research, surprisingly the ambivalence of the dystopian and utopian nature of dreams in Inception has merely been touched upon. The aim of this paper is to further explore this somewhat neglected topic.

The main body of the paper will discuss the various mechanics of dreaming presented in Inception in general, going on to then further examine their ambivalent nature. In chapter two and three scientific and philosophical theses about dreams and the question of how to apply these theories to the movie itself will be examined. Chapter four will provide an in–depth analysis of the arguments relating to the question as to whether Inception portrays a dystopian or a utopian world. Finally, the most important points of this paper will be recapped to pave the way for the discussion of the final question: What distinguishes a dream from reality?

Due to form constraints both chapter four and the conclusion will be less detailed.

2. The Mechanics of Dreaming in Inception

2.1. Creation and Perception

In one of the movie’s first scenes, Dom introduces the young architecture student and his future co-worker, Ariadne, to the world of dreams.19 As he explains to her in a dream, our mind both “creates and perceives the world around us simultaneously.”20 In other words, the brain processes information as quickly as it creates new information that in turn has to be processed. In his essay Paradox, Dreams and Strange Loops in Inception Tyler Shores raises the question as to how we can discover something that we ourselves have created and, furthermore, be surprised by our own creations in dreams.21

As paradoxical as those ideas might seem at first glance, they begin to make more sense when we take a closer look at Dom’s sketch about the concept of dreaming.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten22

According to Shores the two curved arrows in the sketch point at each other’s non-pointed ends, which indicates that perception begets creation and creation begets perception.23 As we experience or rather witness what we see, hear, feel, smell or touch, and so perceive the world around us with all of our senses, it is only logical that there must be something to perceive in the first place. He goes on to ask how the mind can be both, the subject, perceiving that which it creates, and object, creating what it perceives, at the same time.24 Instead of portraying this phenomenon paradoxically he suggests that the process of creation is less like a linear process of traveling from point A to point B, but rather a “feedback loop.”25 But what exactly does he mean by this? As he explains “imagination by its very nature draws upon our remembered experiences.”26 Hence, he argues that we are not able to simply create something out of nothing, but instead need to use a template from memory, which we can then turn into something else.27 Just like memory and imagination, perception and creation, however different they might be, cannot be separated and viewed as ‘either’ ‘or’ possibilities,28 but rather as Ying and Yang like counterparts that feed into each other.

In order to be able to attempt to answer the second question of how it is that dreams can surprise us although we ourselves have created them, it is necessary to take a closer look at where dreams originate from. Sylvia Wenmackers states that the “content of a dream is supposed to originate from a subconscious part of the sleeper’s brain.”29 As “‘Sub’ means ‘below’”,30 one could also translate the word subconscious to below consciousness.31 This idea correlates perfectly with that of one of the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who “developed a topographical model of the mind,”32 that portrays the mind split into different levels, each one responsible for different mental processes.33 To illustrate his idea, Freud uses the analogy of an iceberg with the tip representing the conscious mind and the part of the iceberg beneath the surface of the water representing the subconscious mind.34 According to Freud the conscious mind “consists of all mental processes of which we are aware”35 and the subconscious mind encompasses mental processes we have no access to and are not aware of.36 It is therefore safe to assume that we create the dreams we dream, but that we are unaware of that process, which is exactly why it is possible to be surprised by one’s own dream.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten37

Emilie Dionne goes so far as to project the concept of creation and perception on reality.38 She argues that for us, as “individuals situated both in time and space”, it is impossible to separate our bodily sensations of the world around us, such as “where we are and who we are” from our mind. The very fact that our mind cannot survive when detached from our body shows that we are, as she describes it, “embodied”39 in our environment.40 Therefore, we never cease to interact with the dynamic world around us.41 Picking up nineteenth-century philosopher Henri Bergson’s thoughts on the matter she states that since our environment sends out certain signals which we react to in a particular way, such as being attracted or repulsed by them,42 “we actively participate in its materiality.” In a dynamic relationship our “actions and decision are informed”, as well as actively influenced “by our perception of things,”43 which consequently leads us to take part in the creation of our environment. This in turn influences our perception of the world around us and so forth.44 This idea correlates perfectly with Tyler Shore’s hypothesis of creation and perception in dreams as a “feedback loop.”45

2.2. The Mechanics of Lucid Dreaming

At the beginning of the previously mentioned scene, the young architecture student Ariadne and Cobb find themselves at a small café in Paris surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city.46 Since the audience is abruptly introduced to the scene without any further knowledge about the previous arrival of the two characters, viewers are thrown in at the deep end and have to make sense of the situation themselves. It almost seems as if the curtain in a theatre were raised and a new scene appears on stage. After discussing the mechanics of the dream world with Dom, Ariadne asks how she can “ever acquire enough detail to make” someone believe the dream was real. Dom responds that “dreams usually feel real while we’re in them” and that “it’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”47

It is at this moment that Dom introduces her to the concept of lucid dreaming, as he makes her realize that she is currently dreaming.48 She changes dream states and goes from being in a normal dream, i.e. being unaware of the fact that one is currently dreaming, to a lucid dream, in which one is aware that one is currently dreaming, usually associated with the active and conscious intervention in the events of the dream.49

According to Theoley and Utecht’s book Dreaming Creatively the following features are characteristic of lucid dreams:

- to be completely aware of the fact that one is currently dreaming
- to know that one can actively participate in the dream
- the dreamer’s consciousness is not in any way clouded
- to have access to the same sensory performance as when awake
- the dreamer can recall all his or her waking life experiences
- the dreamer can recall all the past events within the lucid dream during the lucid dream as well as in a waking state50

Inception meets all the above requirements. All of the dreamers state several times that they are dreaming. This is the case when Dom introduces Ariadne to the dream world at the beginning of the movie,51 later when the ‘inception’ is being planned,52 and finally when the subject of the ‘inception’, Robert Fischer, becomes aware of the fact he is dreaming.53 Since those carrying out the ‘inception’ are evidently aware of the fact that they are dreaming it is clear that they know that they can actively participate in the dream. This point is further proven by their change of plan54 whilst carrying out the ‘inception’, as they encounter obstacles such as Fischer’s security of his subconsciousness55 or the projection of Dom’s late wife Mal.56 The very fact that the dreamers act upon occurring events in the dream shows that their consciousness is not in any way clouded, as they would otherwise not be able to realize that the events are taking place and act upon them. This unclouded state of consciousness is furthermore proven by Dom’s projection of Mal in one of the first dreams shown in the movie, which features Asian scenery.57 When shooting Dom’s colleague Arthur in the leg, Mal explains that “pain is in the mind.”58 As Arthur has a pained facial expression, he appears to suffer pain in the same way he would in reality.59

The events in the dream undoubtedly prove that the dreamers’ senses, vision, hearing and touch perform exactly the same way as in a waking state. Although we are not given definite proof of the senses smell and taste, one can assume that these senses work in a similar manner, since the movie does not provide any evidence to the contrary. Following this train of thought, the assumption can be made that the dreamers’ sensory performance is the same in the dreams as in a waking state.

Since it does not become indisputably obvious at any point in the movie that the characters experiencing the dream can remember all their waking life experiences, one cannot be sure that this feature of lucid dreams holds true. Nevertheless, throughout the movie several uncorrelated waking life experiences are mentioned by different characters who are currently dreaming, for example when Dom explains the story of his late wife Mal to Ariadne,60 or when Dom slips into the role of “Mr. Charles”61 and Arthur talks about an old ‘extraction’ job in which he and Dom participated.62 Moreover, the conversations between the team members after their shared dreaming sessions show that they are all well aware of the past events of the lucid dream they have just shared.63 Towards the end of the movie, after waking up, Saito recalls that the mission was a success, leading him to honor the deal he made with Dom prior to the ‘inception’.64


1 Cf. 2018.

2 Cf. 2018.

3 Cf. Wenmacker 2011: 3–23.

4 Wenmacker 2011: 8.

5 Cf. Richardson and McWilliams 2011: 175–187.

6 Cf. Renett 2011: 53–63.

7 Cf. Brophy 2011: 189–215.

8 Cf. Weijers 2012: 92–107.

9 Weijers 2012: 98.

10 Weijers 2012: 98.

11 Cf. Engelen 2012:108–122, quotation: 112.

12 Engelen 2012: 113.

13 Cf. Brogaard 2011: 25–38.

14 Cf. Garcia 2011: 217–229.

15 Cf. Testerman 2011: 67–79.

16 Cf. Schulzke 2011: 95–107.

17 Cf. Garvin 2011: 110–116.

18 Cf. e.g. Brogaard 2011: 28.

19 Cf. Inception 00:26:00–00:28:30.

20 Inception 00:26:30–00:26:35.

21 Cf. Shores 2012: 338.

22 Fig. 1: Dom’s sketch about the concept of dreaming.

23 Cf. Shores 2012: 338.

24 Cf. Shores 2012: 338.

25 Shores 2012: 338.

26 Shores 2012: 339.

27 Cf. Shores 2012: 339.

28 Cf. Shores 2012: 340.

29 Wenmacker 2011: 3.

30 Wenmacker 2011: 8.

31 Cf. McLeod 2009.

32 McLeod 2009.

33 Cf. McLeod 2009.

34 Cf. McLeod 2009.

35 McLeod 2009.

36 Cf. McLeod 2009.

37 Fig. 2: A topographical model of the mind according to Freud that portrays the mind being split into subconsciousness and consciousness.

38 Cf. Dionne 2011: 149–158.

39 All quotations: Dionne 2011: 151.

40 Cf. Dionne 2011: 151.

41 Cf. Dionne 2011: 151.

42 Cf. Dionne 2011: 151.

43 All quotations: Dionne 2011: 151.

44 Cf. Dionne 2011: 151.

45 Shores 2012: 338.

46 Cf. Inception 00:26:00.

47 All Quotations: Inception 00:26:50–00:27:07.

48 Cf. Inception 00:27:00–00:27:50.

49 Cf. Tholey and Utecht 2000: 61.

50 Cf. Tholey and Utecht 2000: 61.

51 Cf. Inception 00:29:00–00:33:30.

52 Cf. Inception 00:47:30 –00:54:19.

53 Cf. Inception 01:28:00–01:32:00.

54 Cf. Inception 01:24:20–01:25:00, 01:53:54–01:55:00.

55 Cf. Inception 01:06:00–01:07:20.

56 Cf. Inception 01:51:50–01:52:30.

57 Cf. Inception 00:08:00–00:09:13.

58 Inception 00:08:50–00:08:55.

59 Cf. Inception 00:08:50–00:09:00.

60 Cf. Inception 01:15:55–01:21:50.

61 Inception 01:27:20–01:27:25.

62 Cf. Inception 01:24:20–01:25:00.

63 Cf. Inception 00:52:00–00:52:26.

64 Cf. Inception 02:18:17–02:18:25.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The dystopian and utopian nature of dreams in "Inception"
15 Punkte
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ISBN (eBook)
Es handelt sich um eine Seminararbeit aus dem Jahr 2018, die von meiner Seminarlehrerin mit 15/15 Punkten bewertet wurde.
Inception, Träume, Realität, Dreams, Reality, Dystopia, Utopia
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Anonymous, 2018, The dystopian and utopian nature of dreams in "Inception", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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