[SPOILER ALERT. You should see Inception before reading this.]
If you’re having trouble bending your mind around Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Inception, Pablo Picasso’s observation may help: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
Just like his protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Nolan has discovered a way to insinuate a prefabricated “truth” deep in the mind of an unsuspecting person. It’s a technique called “inception.” And now he’s testing his dastardly method on us.
The idea Nolan wants to plant in our minds is that a lie can change reality for the better. It’s a notion that is played out for us at least twice in the film.
First, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) experiences crippling shame as he believes his father has always been disappointed in him. Second, Cobb experiences crippling guilt as he believes he is responsible for the suicide of his wife, Mal. These are the tyrannous, seemingly immovable twin towers of the human personality: guilt and shame. And in the film, both are made to topple by beautifully constructed lies. Fischer’s shame is expiated by the (artificially implanted) dream of a deathbed reconciliation with his father. And Cobb’s guilt is atoned for by . . . well, we’ll come to that in a second.
Much has been made of the brilliant final shot of the film. Are we meant to deduce from it that Cobb has indeed been reunited with his children, or is he still dreaming? But that misses the larger question that Nolan wants to plant in our minds: Does it actually matter whether or not everything you’ve just seen is a dream? If it was, Fischer and Cobb still experienced genuine catharsis. And if it wasn’t, exactly the same thing happens. Whether or not it was a lie that told the truth, it’s still truth. And that truth still has the power to heal us.
Of course, as moviegoers, we already know that Nolan is right, at least to some extent. Movies are carefully constructed counterfeits which regularly bring us genuine release and revelation. We go to watch actors (like Eames) populating simulated worlds that are imagined by screenwriters (like Ariadne), implemented by technicians (like Yusuf), facilitated and financed by producers (like Arthur and Saito), and orchestrated by directors (like Cobb). Does it matter that we know what we’re seeing is an elaborate fake? Does it make the journey we take as an audience any less real, or the emotion we experience any less cathartic? The lines spoken by Cobb and Mal to each other are also addressed to us: “You're waiting for a train; a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't be sure. But it doesn't matter—because we'll be together.”
However, an attentive audience member might want to return the favor and plant an idea in Nolan’s mind. Is it really unimportant whether or not “the dream is real”? Can even the exceptional artistry of a film like Inception ever go deep enough—is it actually real enough—to deal with real guilt and real shame? After all, if Fischer had returned to reality to find his father insisting that he really was disappointed in him, would Fischer’s fake dream of reconciliation have been sufficient to fix his real sense of disgrace?
And what of the way Cobb ultimately deals with the guilt over his wife’s suicide? During his final dream confrontation with her, Cobb says, “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”
In the film (and during the end credits), Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” is a musical cue that is meant to alert the participants that they (and we) are being brought back to reality. If your French is better than mine, you’ll hear Piaf sing, “Neither the good that I've done nor the bad / All this is much the same to me . . . / No, I regret nothing. / It is paid, swept away, forgotten.” By the end of the film, that is Cobb’s song too. Bereft of any authentic mechanism outside himself to deal with his guilt at Mal’s suicide, and with only an unreal “projection” of her to talk to, he is left to try and forgive his own sin himself—by going deep into his own psyche and simply writing it off.
The snag is that real forgiveness of real guilt demands that a real price be paid. Real wrongdoing demands real redressing; the stain stubbornly persists. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. Fake blood, however realistic, simply will not do.
However, Jesus Christ’s death is real enough, and deep enough, to fully deal with the problem of guilt and shame. More than the mere inception of an idea, played out on a shallow screen, it is actual flesh and blood reality, lived out in history. Unlike the attempted resolution of Inception, Jesus’ death refuses to downplay or explain away the gravity of our sin. And only Jesus’ death and resurrection is able to offer the deep forgiveness and reconciliation that the film poignantly reaches for. In Christ, God’s love for his children overcomes all obstacles—all the guilt, all the shame—so that he can be finally reunited with them. In reality.
Can a film as masterfully made as Inception, a beautifully constructed dream, offer real forgiveness to guilt-haunted, shame-scarred souls? Well, in a world without a cross, it’s about the best we’ve got.
Barry Cooper studied English at Oxford University and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His new book, Can I Really Trust The Bible?, is published by The Good Book Company. He’s the author / co-author of numerous books and resources including Bible Explored (forthcoming), Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, If You Could Ask God One Question, and The Real Jesus. He’s a member of Trinity West church in London, and blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense. Follow him on Twitter.