Christopher Nolan’s Inception is many things: a great heist movie, a metaphysical thriller, a metaphor for life and creativity. As writers and artists, we exist in three worlds: the “real world”, the world of our consciousness, and the world of our creations. All those worlds are narrated to a certain extent. Narratives are overlaid by others or by us, and events are given meanings and connections.
We collectively impose stories upon the external world, whether in broadsheet newspapers, on TMZ, CNN or The Daily Show. We have to create reasons, causes and effects, to make sense of our surroundings. It starts when we’re infants and everything is a mystery. We have to tell ourselves stories about why this leads to that, so that we can simply survive. This process just gets more sophisticated as we get older.
Likewise with our consciousnesses. One theory states that our brains have an ‘interpreter function’ that adds motivations to our thoughts, which is how we attempt to understand our feelings, impulses and desires. When we wake from a dream, those seemingly random images and feelings usually have a narrative, which some dream scientists and philosophers believe is only added in the moment of waking. Think about it. You wake up to a loud noise: in your dream, a complex series of events led up to something that made that noise, and yet only a second went by between the noise and your waking up. Our brains are incredibly agile: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character states in a key scene within Inception, we create and experience simultaneously in dreams. It’s the same when we’re awake. We want something; we want someone. Until you question it, the feeling drives you and your actions. When you do question it, you search for the why. Why do I want this person? You search for clues, for a chain of causes leading to this effect. You add your motivation to explain why you did what you did. The interpreter theory says that this motivation is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. We could have told ourselves a different story, gone a different way. We experience ourselves and create ourselves, and we don’t always notice the seams, the joins. When we are in therapy, discovering why we took the paths we did, are the connections we make real, or simply useful fictions?
The third level, for creative types, is the creative world. We go deep into the creative trance state, the dream-world, where we are simultaneously architects and forgers, extractors and thieves. We create worlds, people, psychologies and emotions: we get lost in them. The external world, our internal world, and the world of our creations bleed into each other; the levels mingle, realities collide. It’s no wonder that many creative individuals lead intense existences; we are navigating multiple realities, all the time.
With Inception, Christopher Nolan deftly skips between worlds, displaying a seemingly effortless control and the lightest of touches (which is also a fantastic testament to and argument for the power of multiple script drafts). It’s an intense, thrilling experience, partly due to the story, and partly because such accomplished, bravura, show-stopping creativity is exhilarating to watch. We rarely see that in cinema anymore; but we do it ourselves, all the time, every day. We’re all creative geniuses; that’s what being human is.