Inception: A Lucid Dreamer's Review
by Ryan Hurd
Inception is now in theaters. I saw the film recently and I was not disappointed. The movie felt like a dizzy sci-fi lucid dream and I stumbled out of the theater afterward like I has just crawled out of a hall of mirrors. Don’t worry, there’s no big spoilers in this review.
I have already covered the actual possibilities of mutual lucid dreaming as well as the clever use of real dream researchers to create the impression of government dream research in the film’s viral marketing campaign. In this article, I am focusing on how the film portrayed dreaming well, and where it fell flat.
The Architects are the folks in Inception who craft the infrastructure of the dream. In lucid dreaming, this sort of dream construction is very possible and the depiction of the mind-bending scenery changes is true to my experience. I particularly liked how the dream characters would stare if the architect changed too much…. this also has a thread of dreaming reality. In my dreams, dream figures actively respond to changes of the dream and may try to prevent the changes from occurring. And they don’t always like being told they are figures on a dream, either. In one dream, I announced to a restaurant of people “This is only a dream!” and they crowd yelled back a cacophony of “no, no, no, it’s not true.”
I then did what most lucid dreamers eventually do: threw myself off a cliff to see what would happen.
Pain and Death in the Dream
Which leads me to my next point. Pain is possible, and it can be excruciatingly real, so it makes for a lousy reality check. Dying in dreams is also possible. But neither pain nor death can stop the dreamer. Rather than waking up, it’s not uncommon for lucid dreamers to enter another dream. For me, I enter the lucid void for a while, and I then patiently wait for the dream to recreate itself around me. This is more exciting for me then manipulating the architecture of a dream scene.
(PHOTO: The spinning top: now the world's most famous reality check.)
Without going into too much detail, I found Cobb’s struggle with intruding dream material true to life. Even in the most “lucid” of dreams, when we are completely aware and confident in our movements, unexpected and sometimes terrifying dream material will interject into the dream. Inception does an excellent job portraying this psychological truth. The harder you push against this material, moreover, and try to shove it down and away, the harder it will hit you back the next time. Lucid dreaming is a tension between openness and resistance. The resistance is nothing to be ashamed of… it’s part of the package. But we can become more aware of our resistances the more time we spend in lucid dreams, and become more adept at facing them when they spontaneously appear… rather than running away.
But where’s the bizarreness?
I’ve heard many complain about the lack of dream bizarreness in Inception. The truth is, dream bizarreness is over-reported. Most dreams are fairly mundane recreations of our everyday life, our jobs, homes and the relationships that make it all worthwhile. Big dreams don’t come often, but it is these dreams that steal the headlines with all their half-human/half-animal creatures, abstract geometric imagery and intense colors that make us say WTF when we wake up.
Also, Inception was set in drug-induced stupors, not even in ordinary dreams. Who could even say what stage of sleep the dreamers were in?
Still, I would have enjoyed some more dream bizarreness. The movie was so heavy, all focused on the drama drama drama. Several times I wish everyone would just become a little more lucid and enter a non-dual state so all actors suddenly merged minds. Or flew into a gigantic kaleidoscope mandala. I would even have laughed at some old-school Freudian imagery, but nay, the closest the movie got to Freud was the fact that the characters had their weapons drawn the entire time. But I can’t complain about the weapons… it was primarily a heist film after-all.
(PHOTO: This was cool, but still pretty rational.)
Dream Time versus Real Time
Lastly, again without going into detail here, I loved the sci-fi imagining of how different layers of dreams have different senses of time. Some dreams really do seem to last hours, only to wake up and find 15 minutes has gone by. Often this is a narrative effect, in which a story is told through vignettes that create the span of time between scenes. But sometimes it is the feeling of time passing that is so vivid. I recently had a dream in which I worked with a mentor making rope from strings. In the dream, I realized I had been there a month. My entire personality had changed in the dream through this meditative work. I woke up so centered, aged, as if I had actually gotten dropped in an infinite time bucket. My wife tells me she once lived an entire life in a dream. These things happen, and they are sometimes more than a trick of the narrative.
Overall, I had a great time watching this movie. But once I account for my love of any movie that uses dreaming as a plot point, I’d say that Inception is a little confused. It is a heist or a psychological thriller? A sci-fi parable or a love story? Inception tries to be all, and ends up not doing any particularly well. True to most dreams, and to waking life, this film has some truth, some distractions, and some fun imagery, but at the end, it’s the journey, not the destination that really matters, because if you think about it too hard, the whole thing kinda unravels anyways.
About the Author
Ryan Hurd, MA, ATH's Dream Medicine Editor, is a dream educator living in California. He is the author of “Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide," and the editor of the dreams and consciousness portal DreamStudies.org. Ryan’s approach to dreamwork has been cited in PsychologyToday.com and the Huffington Post. His dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, nightmares, the archaeology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis.