Inception: Is Fiction a Firm Foundation?

Are you really reading these words? Are you really sitting in that chair? Did you wake up this morning? Take a deep breath. Did your diaphragm just contract and your lungs expand? Look around and listen close. Is what you see and what you hear more than a figment of your imagination? Is your imagination your own? Maybe we should go a little deeper: when you woke up this morning (or think you did), was the bed you woke in more than a codebase object created by the Steve Jobs of another world? How about a little farther: are your best memories—your wedding day, the birth of your children—the result of controller movements in the hand of some kid in their mom’s basement who is, right now, playing some kind of open-world videogame? Maybe what is being written here and what you are reading is merely the result of a simulated world, created to test hypothetical human reactions to discovering that they live in a world that is not ‘real’. To sum it up, is your reality just a simulated illusion and, therefore, a lie? These are the questions and concerns which are currently asked by the contemporary skeptic and, by no coincidence, it is such questions and concerns which inevitably arise in the mind of many who view Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception.

As Craig Detweiler says, “Inception is…about celluloid dreams. It is a movie about the power of movies to plant ideas in our collective heads.”[1] It seems that Nolan had a certain ambitious goal in mind when presenting the perplexing world of Inception, to prove that ‘inception’ is possible. According to Detweiler, Nolan has done this. He has pulled “an inception on an unsuspecting audience:”[2] Nolan has unlocked the secured safe in the viewer’s subconscious and planted an idea; as the top continues to spin, the credits roll, and the viewer snaps back into consciously perceiving their world. Is it a coincidence that this is how Cobb successfully planted the viral doubt in Mal’s mind that led to her suicide (or so Cobb thinks)? In Nolan’s films, it is a stretch to think that anything is not deliberate. The viewer walks away asking the very questions which Nolan desires them to ask—questions that will change them and “might even come to define” them.[3] Although Detweiler believes this inception is “Reconcile with your loved ones—whether spouses, parents or kids,”[4] Detweiler is wrong. Nolan’s ambitions are not nearly so wholesome. 

Outside of Inception, it seems safe to say that Nolan tends to favor innovation in and through film; yet, it must be realized that he does not seek innovation for innovation’s sake. As Jonathan R. Olson quotes Nolan saying in regards to his objection to format advances, “I am in favor of any kind of technical innovation but it needs to exceed what has gone before.”[5] Nolan is not concerned with being cinematically novel; Nolan is concerned with exceeding ‘what has gone before,’ for that is true innovation. It is this philosophy which Nolan seems to hold to as a general rule in his filmmaking and is honestly exhibited in and through Inception.

Nolan’s Inception is a clever and enigmatic screenplay which captures and advances on the essence of contemporary skepticism and filmmaking by projecting forth a sort of philosophical and cinematic TARDIS-matryoshka[6] from Nolan’s own “subconscious,”[7] a TARDIS-matryoshka which revolves around a reel of ontological uncertainty. When watching Inception, the viewer is being privy to a physical impossibility; rather than popping open a big nesting doll first and then consecutively finding smaller nesting dolls inside each new doll, Nolan gives the viewer the hypothetical little doll first and somehow, as he opens each doll, the next doll is bigger than the one before. Cinematically speaking, as each story level opens, the viewer finds that what was initially presented as a straight-forward sci-fi heist continues to open into a much more complicated narrative with each scene. Philosophically speaking, Inception starts as a world in which the viewer assumes the same commonly accepted epistemic rules of truth and fiction in their own world apply; yet, with each look into the next level of story-line, the viewer finds something bigger and more complex than the ‘real’ world and the moral certainty attached to it. Either way, by the middle of the film the ‘real’ world has become so evasive, no one is sure (not even the characters) where it all began. Even though Nolan has masterfully directed this film so that the viewer always knows which dream they are looking at, they never know if it is all a dream in the first place. This is a truly innovative way to push forward innovative ideas.

Questioning reality at this depth of skepticism and in such a maieutic manner is not new to human minds. Also, producing a film that gives different levels of reality that cause a difficulty in ‘keeping up’ is not new to cinema. However, the intricately layered approach of uncertainty employed by Nolan is, at the very least, innovative—both cinematically and epistemologically.

Nolan’s approach is cinematically innovative because Inception is nothing less than a multifarious film that incorporates elements of various genres and sub-genres—drama, action, thriller, sci-fi, heist, noir—which simultaneously interweave to verge upon a single narrative. Such genre mixture has been done before, though not necessarily in this specific type of mixture and certainly not as successful or complex narratively. Moreover, unlike other movies which attempt such genre mixing that also play on the same philosophical questioning of reality such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, Vanilla Sky, or even Last Action Hero, Inception does not follow a preset pattern which begins with delusion and eventually, possibly to the surprise of the viewer, shines a light of revelation on the main character concerning their pretentious world. First, Inception differs from these movies in that it does not focus on a single level of simulation or dream or illusion. Second, the main character never becomes certainly self-aware and the audience is never certain if he needs to. Inception’s pattern is a well-structured maze.

In this film, Nolan has created and directed a film with an “indistinguishable boundary between dream and reality.”[8] From scene to scene, “the notion of a fixed identity remains elusive” and the possibility that the characters “function as mere projections of their remembered identities” or, in the case of Cobb, the other characters may ‘function as mere projections’ of his memory or perception of them—which has in the case of his Mal become quite skewed due to his loose hold on reality—becomes more, and not less, likely.[9] In the end, neither the viewer nor the main character is ever aware of what is real or if a single genre really defines the film.

After thinking on this, the viewer may wonder if this may be Nolan’s way of showing that ‘real’ life is similar to his film’s overall architecture. Men can never pinpoint what genre their life is and, if they live in a simulation, men can never truly become self-aware. Such a contradiction would only lead to further doubt of any conclusion that self-awareness could provide. Also, Nolan’s use of Mal as the once ‘lovely’ wife turned femme-fatale may speak to the psychological issue of people projecting their problems on others and, in doing so, bringing their own reality to life in that individual. Why else would a character who is, in what the viewer is made to believe are ‘real’ world memories, such a warm-hearted, deeply loving wife and mother be portrayed in Cobb’s subconscious as a ubiquitously treacherous and homicidal villain?

Furthermore, despite the fact that Nolan tends to direct films that are many-layered and lean toward an ambiguity which causes the truth that undergirds the narrative to be a choice rather than principle, Inception even advances on Nolan’s own innovative cinematic proclivities by going as far into the subconscious as possible without leaving the viewer in a dust trail of self-aware metafiction. As Olsen notes, “One of the innovations of Inception’s dreams-within-dreams structure, unlike The Prestige’s memories-within-memories, is that it permits metaleptic transgression of characters across narrative levels, yet accomplishes this without metafiction’s typical disruption of the suspension of disbelief.”[10] In the end, Nolan innovatively frames Inception so that the viewer can, and likely must, think on the questionability of reality, whether Cobb’s or their own without making the mistake of overcomplicating the transitional sequences between dreams.

In Inception, Nolan creates a cinematic world that exhibits “the structural nature of deceit” via an enrapturing narrative and complementing (cutting-edge at the time) special-effects which demand “a revaluation of the prevailing ideas of truth and fiction.”[11] Again, though Nolan captures the visual and conceptual attention of the viewer via modern cinematic effects and an innovative narrativization of ontological skepticism, the question Nolan leads the viewer to ask, the question which plays on repeat in the modern skeptic’s mind, the question Nolan is in fact asking, is not modern or innovative. With each frame that flickers by, Nolan develops an old question: “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?”[12] Yet, the epistemic chemical composition which Nolan uses to develop this question is not quite the same as the forefathers of contemporary skepticism. He has crafted a new face for this old question and, therein, a new answer—and it is this combination that he has left spinning in the safe of the viewer’s mind.

Nolan’s approach is epistemologically innovative because his search for truth does not intersect with deceit; rather, via the film’s purposeful ambiguity, it is anchored in and inseparable from deceit (quite pragmatic). Nolan’s epistemic approach is grounded in the natural falsehood of film. Todd McGowan says that “for Nolan’s cinema, the link between truth and fiction always remains clear: if one wants to discover the truth, one must first succumb to the fiction that seems to obscure it.”[13] It seems that Nolan does not, possibly cannot, separate his filmmaker-mind from the idea of thinking that there is no truth that is not grounded in some kind of fiction. This is where the new face is put on the old question.

For over two-millennia, some type of skepticism about the objective or subjective nature of the reality humanity experiences has been in question. Philosophers have been debating about how we can know anything for sure, for some time. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates allegorizes reality as a sort of shadow-filled cave from which one must ascend to see the ‘real’ forms the shadows outline and the fire which casts the shadow. In his Méditations of First Philosophy, Descartes breaks down reality to a single positive conclusion from which he can reaffirm reality: “I am, I exist.”[14] Berkeley’s Idealism sees reality as subjective, but this subjectivity is rooted in the ultimate reality of God’s perception. Even a poet like Poe questioned whether or not life was just a “dream within a dream.”[15]

            In Inception, Nolan paints a masterful picture of truth that is ultimately derived from some form of deceit. For Nolan, “Those who refuse to become dupes, who refuse to accept the fiction, ironically abandon the field of truth entirely.”[16] Nolan seems to think that one must accept the shadowland as an inseparable, even foundational, part of truth. This is beyond the radical doubt of Descartes. Such a concept turns Berkeley on his head. This definitely defies Kant’s Transcendental Deduction. Even Poe, in the midst of his poetic wandering, seeks an answer from outside the dream—God. These men, and many others who have questioned reality, have sought to find a sure, objective realness via a transcendental path. For Nolan, on the other hand, “the path to objectivity does not consist in discovering transcendental rules ensuring that we have escaped mere subjective illusion but rather in the subjective origin of the transcendental rules themselves.”[17]

One might think that Nolan is only minorly advancing on one of the basic contemporary skeptic thought experiments, ‘Brain in a Vat’. Also, one might think that Nolan is just copying or conforming or catering to a key concept in the current flow of popular philosophy; namely, simulation hypothesis. But a quick examination of this trendy bit of contemporary skepticism shows that Nolan was in 2010 and is still ahead of popular thought. Again, like his cinematic advances in Inception, Nolan’s philosophy is not stuck in the popular tide’s limbo, but advances past it.

Inception captures the contemporary skeptic’s rather wooden ‘Brain in a Vat’ argument and advances on it via a multiplicitous ambiguity that seems to beg for a much more complex foundation. Nolan takes the small ‘Brain in a Vat’ idea and encapsulates several larger ideas inside it: each dream level seems to have more self-awareness and, therein, cognitive liberty than the one before it. In this, Nolan seems to give a possible advancement (in the wrong direction for those who seek a silver-halide-lining) to contemporary skepticism via a challenge of it. Is it not more likely, considering the current trends of technology, that each person that we come into contact with on a daily basis is some kind of codebase computer simulation that has no tangible source that the simulated being could call ‘myself’ in the ‘real’ world? Is it not more likely that we are some algorithmic sequence that projects the subconscious of some other being? Continuing in Nolan’s fashion of truth being found in fiction, is there a transcendental reality at all—are all worlds merely a fiction: simulation?

When asked whether or not we might live in a simulation rather than a ‘real’ world, Elon Musk concludes as thus: “There is one in billions chance this is base reality.”[18] Because of the current technological advances in videogames and AI, many have begun to think in this manner, to take the old skeptical ideas and advance on them with a modern twist. Rather than saying ‘I am, I exist’, they say ‘I am, I am a simulation.’ Because we are thinking beings who have come up with advances like Fake Face, we now assume base reality is somewhere outside us, though not transcendent in the traditional sense. Our makers or controllers are just like us—we are exact projections.

Though preceding Musk, Nolan’s cinemafication of skepticism takes Musk’s conclusion to task. If this is not base reality, is it not most likely that we are a simulation inside another and so on (we are not sure at which level)? This would mean not ‘one in billions’ but, statistically, more likely one in infinity—similar to the double-mirror trick constructed by Ariadne. Musk and other popular people who speak on philosophy still seek to hold on to a form of reality. Whether they realize it or not, they seem to hope that somewhere out there, there is a base reality with real origins in truth. But Inception is a world which makes us think, how can we know anything for sure? Once we look into that mirror maybe we will find that we cannot decipher base reality at all, for it too is only a “fictional structure that mediates the visible world and creates meaning in it.”[19]

Via the cinematic and epistemic advances of Inception, Nolan has painted a new face for skepticism via a perfectly post-modern worldview. And in the ambiguity of this masterpiece, Nolan has given a new, unexpected answer to both the age old question and its contemporary twist: is this world a shadow; is this world a dream; am I a simulation? Nolan’s answer: does it matter? Or, as the elderly man says to Cobb, “…the dream has become their reality… And who are you to say otherwise?”[20]

Maybe Descartes is right. Maybe there is an “evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me.”[21] Maybe our creator(s) only want us to think we are really alive. Either way, does it matter? Maybe we live in a dream, or the dream of a dream. Maybe we live in a simulation, in a simulation, and so on; so what? “In the end, Cobb neither knows nor cares whether or not he is in the dream world.”[22] Neither should the audience, right? “Self-acceptance and moving on from the past represent liberation, whether or not they are grounded in truth.”[23] As long as there is no regret of the good or bad, we are really living.

It seems that this is the worldview which Nolan attempts to cast off on his congregants. Though many seem not to think deeply about what they view at the theatre, movies do cause something to transpire in our minds, even if implicitly. As George Miller says, “cinema is now the most powerful secular religion.”[24] With a religious zeal, Cobb seeks to make it home, no matter the cost. In the end, the viewer is left to wonder if the cost is reality. But the viewer is also prompted to sympathize and, therefore, conclude that happiness is worth the illusion. Robert K. Johnston is right, “The power of a movie lies first of all in what transpires within the individual viewer as she or he gazes at the screen.”[25] Inception’s power lies in its innovative ability to cause a repentance (changing of mind) to transpire in the viewer as they realize true peace may only come in accepting strange fiction.

It should be recognized, however, that this repentance and the sentiments that Nolan plays on to bring about this repentance rely on a previously accepted maxim: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”[26] The desires behind post-modern worldviews, such as the one Nolan frames, tend to be what C. S. Lewis would call “mere innovation…of the old maxim.”[27] The idea which suffers, “has also inspired the changes,”[28] but in the case of innovation, the change is really meant to replace the old maxim. It is for this reason that many moviegoers have grasped onto Nolan’s idea, though not in its full extent. They are not ready to scrap truth, though they are ready to accept that fiction allows certain possibilities that truth does not. Nolan is playing on mankind’s intuited search for reconciliation—the true happily ever after—which, due to its biblical roots, Western Society equates with truth.

Even surrounded by the post-modern thought, there is a reason we can be convinced to question reality with Nolan, to believe that it all may be a dream. We know that there is something greater than ourselves out there. There is a reason why we sympathize with Cobb. There is a reason why we are ready to allow him to stay in a dream, if that will give him peace. We have a feeling that things should be a certain way, things should be good. It is Western Society’s Scriptural lens that leads the viewer to both almost give up the secret code and allow inception, as well as hold back the last digit to the safe. Even Nolan’s attempt at scrapping traditional morality cannot fully reject the Scriptural lens that leads many contemporary western storytellers to still find a way to make or suggest a happy ending, no matter how skewed. Only from the perspective of a Christian worldview can Inception be seen for what it truly is, a well-crafted lie. From a Christian perspective, Nolan’s worldview is found wanting. The movie is entertaining and the ending adds a nice punch; still, the Christian worldview can never really permit Cobb to live a lie, it can never consider fiction to be the source of truth. The Christian agrees life should be lived in an unregrettable fashion; however, to have no regrets one must face the full truth, no matter how strange. To be happy of the past, one must not live a lie today: the past must be paid for, removed, forgotten.[29]


[1] Craig Detweiler, “Kicks and Tricks in Christopher Nolan’s Inception,” Journal of Religion & Film 14, no. 1 (April 2010): 4-5, accessed June 16, 2019, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edo&AN=55601913&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christopher Nolan, Inception: Shooting Script, Raindance, 48, accessed June 27,2019,  http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/scripts/Inception.pdf.

[4] Detweiler, “Kicks and Tricks in Christopher Nolan’s Inception,” 4-5.

[5] Jonathon R. Olson, “Nolan’s Immersive Allegories of Filmmaking in Inception and The Prestige” in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, ed. Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015), 45.

[6] Time And Relative Dimension In Space

[7] Will Broker, “Are You Watching Closely” in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, ed. Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015), iii.

[8] Stuart Joy, “Dreaming a Little Bigger, Darling” in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, ed. Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015), 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Olson, “Nolan’s Immersive Allegories of Filmmaking in Inception and The Prestige,” 52.

[11] Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 1. 

[12] Edgar Allen Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream” in The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, ed. Benjamin F. Fisher (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), 36.

[13] McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan, 5 

[14] Rene Descartes, Méditations of First Philosophy, trans. David A. Cress, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 18.

[15] Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream,” 36.

[16] McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan, 5.

[17] Ibid., 29.

[18] Recode, “Is Life a Video Game| Elon Musk| Code Conference 2016,” (June 2016): 2:50-2:54, accessed June 27, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KK_kzrJPS8

[19] McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan, 3.

[20] Nolan, Inception: Shooting Script, 53.

[21] Descartes, Méditations of First Philosophy, 16.

[22] George Faithful, “Salvation from Illusion, Salvation by Illusion: The Gospel According to Christopher Nolan,” Implicit Religion 17 (4): 411, accessed June 16, 2019, doi: 10.1558/imre.v17i4.405.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, 2nd ed., revised and expanded (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 28.

[25] Ibid., 26.

[26] Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (UK: Moorside Press, 2013), Kindle, loc 2089.

[27] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 58.

[28] Ibid., 57.

[29] Edith Paif, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, (France: Columbia, 1960), Vinyl.

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