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Christopher Nolan’s Inception: The National Unconscious of America

November 9, 2010 | By

Inception is a projection of the collective American fear of a crumbling economy more than it is an experimental project of dreams in the style of 1950s psychoanalysis

Inception Poster

The thrills, the effects, the stars, the pretence of presenting a mind-boggling concept

Since Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) supplies what the average fan of Hollywood craves—the thrills, the effects, the stars, the pretence of presenting a mind-boggling concept—it should be granted the status of a successful Hollywood production. Not that my opinion matters; the millions grossed at the box-office, numbers which seem as incomprehensible to me as the sloppiness with which Nolan handles his ‘original concept’, have apparently proved the merit of the film beyond any reasonable doubt. But the point is not to judge the merit of the film so much, as to delve into the matter of how psychology comes home to roost. Hollywood has had a lengthy affair with psychoanalysis and dreams, but at a time when undergraduates have a difficult time remembering the title of a second film by the great Hitchcock , this sudden reversal to the realm of dreams is slightly surprising. It’s true that Nolan loves the stuff, but wasn’t Memento enough of a dream-reality project?

The question came to me even as I was watching the film, and the darkness of the mise en scene resonated with something I had been witnessing for a while now, but quite strongly that very day. We had gone out to shop for clothes earlier that evening, and had driven past one of the many shopping complexes in our medium-sized mid-east town that had closed down entirely since last year. We already knew that a number of shops in this particular complex had closed doors, including a Dillard’s Home store we would often visit to gawk at modernist furniture we could never afford, but we had no idea that the mall itself had now completely closed. We drove past the immense single-story buildings that malls are in this country, looking out at the closed glass doors, dog-eared notices pasted to ward off trespassers, people’s random scribblings on the dust that had gathered on the doors leading to empty, dirty-looking corridors inside. The parking lot and the roads leading in and out of it were riddled with potholes, and the lot itself was overgrown with grass and weeds. The signature wooden fence of Kentucky along the entrance was rotting to pieces. It was unlike anything we had ever seen in this comparatively prosperous little town of small businesses, universities and horse farms. We have noticed that roadwork is mostly patchwork now, McDonald’s has started charging you for a cup of water, and quite a few people we actually know have lost their jobs, but the vision of a dilapidated mall was stronger than all of these things put together. This was exactly the vision that reappeared in Nolan’s $160 million film I watched later that night.


Inception is a projection of the collective American fear of a crumbling economy

Inception is a projection of the collective American fear of a crumbling economy more than it is an experimental project of dreams in the style of 1950s psychoanalysis. It is more external than internal; it is not about individual personality but about shared dreaming. The shared aspect of the dream experience, in particular, cannot be undermined; Cobb’s team is loosely based on a corporate team model, where individual members are hired (Ocean’s Eleven/ Twelve style) based on their specific skill set. However, participating to experience this unique shared dreaming seems to go beyond the lure of monetary compensation for most of the team members; it is only implied that Saito is funding the project, and everyone will be rewarded on its successful completion. Even though I would be extremely wary of allowing any academic merit to the manner in which the psychoanalytic aspect of dreaming is dealt with in the film, I am definitely interested in the metaphorical implications of the pseudoscience that Inception presents.  It is in this regard that the shared aspect of the dream experience becomes all the more significant; it can be suggested that the people participating in the process of dreaming are sharing their unconscious with each other, and their dream is a collective representation of their societal conditions, with projections of their individual unconscious thrown in (like Cobb’s freight train or Fischer’s gunmen). The inherent bleakness of this collective dream becomes apparent when the team jokes about Eames not being able to dream seashore for them instead of a fortress on a rugged snow-covered terrain—cheerful spaces filled with sunshine would have been unexpected in this film, because it is essentially the representation of a dreary unconscious. It should emphasize here that the metaphor in Inception, if indeed there is one, does not seem to be intentional. But a sensitive audience can hardly miss the overlap of Nolan’s dream world with the current state of the public psyche in the United States.


Dream spaces in Inception are dark, enclosed and in a state of dilapidation

Mise en scene:
The majority of the dream spaces in Inception are dark, enclosed and in a state of dilapidation. Earlier films dealing with the dream/reality concept (especially the Matrix trilogy) have used similar mise en scene elements; locations such as interiors of middle of the century buildings and hotels, elevators and elevator shafts, subway stations, tunnels, dim lighting, predominantly in green/brown tones have become signature mise en scene elements for dream realms or transition spaces. Inception utilizes most of these, along with apocalyptic cityscapes of films like Day After Tomorrow (2004). Particularly symbolic are the city that Mal and Cobb create in limbo, and the shore on which Cobb is washed upon while he goes looking for Saito. On the shore he is washed upon the immense structures that Cobb looks up at resemble massive cliffs, but are actually skyscrapers towering upon audiences all the more ominously because of their emptiness. These monstrous facades, an entire shore lined with concrete structures, crumble into the ocean as Cobb is dragged away by Saito’s guards. This vision of twisted metal and concrete slabs cascading onto the shore, sending up billowing columns of dust is, in fact, one of the publicity banners for Inception. The main poster for the film, where Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, gun in hand, stands with his back to the viewer under an ominously clouded sky, in knee-deep water that is starting to submerge the bases of immense skyscrapers that tower over him, is also reflective of similar apocalyptic vision.

There is another set of images in Inception that are not quite as dark (both in terms of lighting and metaphorically), but they articulate a sense of desolation. Mal and Cobb’s creation is the primary example of the desolation—it is scary not because it is falling apart, but because it is entirely devoid of any human presence (ostensibly because it is in limbo). Mal and Cobb are the only inhabitants of their dream space, which, apart from Mal’s childhood home, is a stark cityscape of modernist structures of steel, glass and concrete. The interiors that Cobb leads the newly recruited Ariadne through combine similar architectural styles with Escher-type visual puzzles, striking again because of its starkness. The fear, desolation and lack of warmth of these scenes continue to emphasize the darkness of the collective unconscious.

The other aspect to note in the mise en scene is the use of reflective surfaces, including mirrors and windows. The theoretical relationship between reflection and psychoanalysis is a complex and enduring one, but it will suffice to say here that Inception’s use of it comments on the various psychoanalytic aspects of reflection such as self-reflection, the unconscious, and narcissism. In Ariadne’s first shared dream, the audience gets a taste of the visual trickery that is come further along in the film: Ariadne pulls at part of an urban scene filled with commuters to reveal that what had appeared to be part of the scene were actually mirrors. Once she pulls open these “mirror doors”, a touch from her causes the mirrors to disintegrate and fall to the ground. When Cobb goes to Saito later in the narrative, we see them sitting at a table with a reflective surface, almost like a mirror, where both of them appear in reflection. It might have been a conscious choice on Nolan’s part to accentuate reflective surfaces in order to underline the self-reflection through dreams, but the film itself unwittingly becomes a more profound metaphor of reflection, whereby popular culture reflects the socio-economic state of the nation.

Violence is a given in mainstream Hollywood: no one questions the rationale for constant gunfire in blockbusters in the scale of Inception, because the audience expects violence as part of the entertainment package. War and its effect on the public psyche are, however, slightly more pertinent if one intends to look at the film from a psychoanalytic standpoint. Given Unites States’ history of endless wars, and two particularly long drawn ones in the recent past, its effect on the collective unconscious can hardly be ignored any more. However, the wars that America fight are seldom on American soil, and in spite of the four thousand US casualties in the Iraq war alone , and the number of suicides related to PTSD in war veterans rising exponentially over the years , war is always a distant reality for the majority of the population, one that can only appear in a dream. In Inception, the geographical details of some of the places that the dreamers create in their minds, added to the gun violence, conjures up typical American war zones in the minds of the audience—distant, unknown, and involving confrontations with strangers. The snow-covered fortress in the final level of the collective dream bears particular resemblance to a battlefield. The fortress scene appears to be nothing short of a war zone; characters in snow camouflage, snowmobiles, a range of weaponry and the imposing structure of fortress itself establish the war motif beyond doubt. Saito’s injury from the previous level, and his death after having thrown the grenade while he takes his last breath, are also common war film motifs.


Audience feel the full force of the special effects

The various explosions in the film might have been included to make the audience feel the full force of the special effects, but it is noteworthy that dreams usually reveal themselves as dreams through violent actions. In Cobb and Ariadne’s first shared dream, explosions rip through the market where they are sitting at a café; as soon as Ariadne realizes that she is dreaming, produce, books, and the shops themselves blow up violently, and the ground explodes as if under aerial bombing. In the section when the team is fending off Fishcer’s projections from a garage, Eames asks Arthur to “dream bigger” as he pulls out a rocket launcher (?) to finish off the fight. Even if Fischer has violent projections, the team members are no less violent themselves. The cycle of dreams has to be broken by death, usually by violence—Mal’s violence and death are intrinsic parts of Cobb’s unconscious because of that reason.

The equation that I have achieved in this analysis of Inception might appear to be simplistic because it does create the impression that the American subconscious is a heterogeneous entity. However, even as we admit that attitudes about war, violence or even the economy are not uniform throughout America, the analogy that is presented here is quite widely utilized in the film studies discipline: national cinemas have often been related to social conditions in psychoanalytic cinema studies , even though psychoanalytical approaches to Hollywood have seldom gone beyond the textual study of films and their application of the subject. If attributing a homogeneous unconscious to a nation seems to be an unreasonable critical practice, it should be pointed out that western Cinema Studies has already established it to be an acceptable one. However, the strongest argument for the formulation of an American national unconscious derives from the current moment of economic and political crisis, whereby Nolan’s experiment with psychoanalysis unwittingly becomes a reflection of the national mood of hopelessness in a historical moment that combines the despair of decades of failed wars along with a devastated economic condition. As a result, the physical and the psychological darkness of Inception can be seen to resonate with this condition more than anything else.



[2] Global Research

[3] Siegfried Kracauer’s classic study of pre-war German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, and Vincent Floyd Rocchio’s Cinema of anxiety: A Psychoanalysis of Italian Neorealism are notable examples.

(Pictures used in this article are taken from the Internet)

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Aparajita Sengupta has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Kentucky. She worked on postcolonial elements in Indian Cinema. She taught postgraduate college in India for some time, and is now a full-time organic farmer.
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