Like the best and the worst of Hollywood’s summer fare, Inception, the new film by Christopher Nolan, is one part epistemology and three parts explosion, a gorgeous spectacle that offers one large existential question and many kinetic attempts at an answer.
The question is this: What is reality? Or, more specifically, how can we be sure that what we perceive is really, well, real?
It’s far from a new conundrum, this. With his cave in mind, Plato postulated that we might all be trapped in some deceiving dungeon of false impressions, mistaking shadows for light. But Plato hadn’t at his disposal $160 million with which to make, say, Paris’ arrondisements fold on top of each other like a cheap tourists’ map, or prod Leonardo DiCaprio to put on the same tortured expression that he wore in his last four films and that seems, by now, to be permanently etched onto his handsome face.
DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who infiltrates the dreams of others and extracts their best-kept secrets. When a wealthy Japanese businessman promises to take care of the sordid charges that keep Cobb from returning home to his children, the dream reaper agrees to reverse the process: Rather than steal ideas from slumbering and defenseless minds, he’d plant one instead and convince his employer’s main competitor to make a series of disastrous business decisions out of his own free will.
The premise, such as one exists, is merely an excuse to indulge in layer upon layer of special effects. To carry off his task, Cobb must penetrate the abyss of his mark’s subconscious, which entails going into a dream within a dream within a dream, each with its own set of rules and its designated, beautifully shot action sequences.
Herein, however, lies the problem. As David Denby astutely observed in his review of the film in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Nolan is a literal-minded director, and his interpretation of dreams is little but an excuse for elaborate chases and straightforward shoot-’em-ups. Anyone entering the movie with expectations of surrealist dreamscapes will soon run up against Nolan’s blunt instruments. A villainous, French ex-wife? Let’s call her Mal (as in Fleurs du). A young, hopeful maze-maker? Name her Ariadne. That secret place where we store our most repressed, throbbing thoughts? A James Bondesque snow fortress, of course.
What we have here, then, is failure to imagine. Even with untold riches and unprecedented technology at his disposal, Nolan could not conceive of an inner life more intricate or intriguing than a battery of battered movie clichés.
The prophet Isaiah would have sympathized. In this week’s haftorah, he delivers the first of the seven haftarot of consolation, soothing portions that follow the raging, dark weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. He begins by invoking God’s becalming message—“Console, console my people”—and continues with a dreamlike prophecy of a happy ending for the errant Israelites, with the exiles returning to Jerusalem and the Lord’s glory gleaming everywhere.
Not all, however, would be fortunate enough to enjoy these messianic times. Those who continue to resist God’s laws, those who adhere to their graven images, they shall perish. But even when he speaks of the sinners, Isaiah is never simpleminded; their crimes, it seems, are not so much corporeal as they are ontological. These are the questions the prophet puts before the idolaters: “And to whom do you compare God, and what likeness do you arrange for him?”
In other words, Isaiah is upset not only with the existence of graven images, but with the profound fallacy governing the notion of graven images itself, namely the belief that one could somehow find an earthly representation of the omnipresent, amorphous, and mighty spirit of the divine. Like an ancient, holy movie critic, he laments the silly, simplistic attempts to conjure magic with paltry illusions and trompe l’oeils. To be profound, to be truly meaningful, art and religion alike must transcend the temptations of the literal and the banal and assign themselves to the rarified realms of yearning and redemption.
But as the millions—myself among them—who crowded in cineplexes this weekend to watch Inception can attest, the glossy and the graven and the literal and the loud offer precarious thrills that are hard to resist. Why, for example, struggle to decipher the slow-to-unfold, metaphysical beauties of lust and light in the stunning I Am Love when we can chew on some popcorn and revel in DiCaprio’s delivery of such zingers as “dreams feel real while we’re in them”? Or why bother with mining our minds and souls in search of fundamental truths when we could subscribe to a well-worn set of prescriptions and prohibitions and tropes, a readymade identity that offers no grief and requires no real effort?
This, I suspect, is the elusive lament inherent in Isaiah’s prophecies, the sad reckoning that man, after all, is a tedious animal, a beast that feasts on frozen meals and vampire novels and other forms of sustenance that are easy to consume but contain nothing of real substance. If instead of envisioning a future for ourselves and our children we indulge in name-calling and mud-slinging and such childish stuff, if instead of toiling toward progress we crave ready amusements and easy solutions, if instead of true beauty the best we can come up with is Inception, we’re likely to be among those who shall not be redeemed. Think the path to salvation is straight and narrow? Dream on.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.