Inception and PKD

After reviewing the book about PKD in my last post, I realized I’d said nothing about the film Inception, which I saw a few weeks ago. I’m going to come out and say what I think about the film, and what it means for cinematic SF, but save the spoilers (and much of my explanation) for the extended part of this post, so that those who wish can avoid the spoilers.

(Note, if you’re reading on the RSS feed you might not have a cut. I’ll warn you.)

So, what is Inception?

It’s one of the most Phildickian films I’ve seen to date that didn’t outright confess to being an adaptation of a PKD novel or story. It did bring UBIK to mind, and has many similarities, but one cannot quite call it an adaptation, nor ought one to do so.

That is to say, I think what it means is, Philip K. Dick’s patent approach to SF — the shifting realities, the dubious trustworthiness of the senses, the Cartesian worries about knowing whether the world is real or not, and of course the applicability of all these anxieties to a technological society that has descralized its universe — has finally become so essentially mainstream that it’s no longer so much Phildickian as it is just SFnal, period.

That’s hardly surprising, given the nature of the medium. Film’s great for presenting realities and then shifting them into alienness; it’s superb for immersing viewers in a reality and then yanking the carpet out from under them (sometimes by rubbing one character’s face in it — ha, there’s a line for someone who’s seen the film!). I think in PKD film has found the strain of SFnal thought that is most suited to the highly visual, cinematic approach to storytelling.

Well, and now, on to my more specific thoughts about the film… which are, of course, dependent on my mentioning spoilers, so read on only if you don’t mind those…


There are some problems with the ideas in the story, of course. One of the most problematic is this silliness of how time moves at a specific degree of acceleration depending on how deeply nested in a series of dreams-within-dreams you go. It’s a purely magical formulation, since:

  • dreams are quite fluid — one can dream a tale that feels like a century’s worth of intrigue or confusion in a single night, or only a brief flash of action with the barest of narratives. That is to say, dreams aren’t even consistent in their timespan in one head, let alone morphed across multiple minds
  • the degrees of acceleration of experience —  of subjective time — in the lower layers beggar imagination. Rather, one would imagine that there’s a great degree of fluidity on the first level, with less to work with on subsequent levels. That doesn’t work for the narrative we have, of course, but still, the “eternity” experienced on the bottom level is, well, silly.

There are a few other things I thought were needlessly overstructured, such as the whole schtick about who is dreaming, who controls the dream, who fills it up… that stuff read like nonsense, just as the extrusions from the subconscious that populate the dreamed worlds were basically just Agent Smith clonazoids. No big excitement there. The corporate espionage plotline — complete with mind-invasive agents, though they’re telepaths in PKD’s UBIK — is pretty simple and pretty familiar. And one reviewer — I can remember who — pointed out that there are more than a few similarities with another recent Dicaprio film, Shutter Island.

In fact, the ending purports to be one of them. I had an interesting chat with a friend about that, who wanted to talk about whether the Dicaprio character, Cobb, was — or was not — in a dream. The top left spinning at the end, just before cutting to credits, falls, or so he insisted. It was just too clear — to my friend — that Dicaprio was in the real world, period.

I read it differently: I think if we were to walk away from the film with a definite sense of conclusion either way, the top would have been shown spinning for much longer, or else it would have been shown falling over. There are, after all, just as many hints that the homecoming in the last scene is a dream — one of the biggest being that Cobb’s home is just as he remembers it. When you end up on the lam abroad, after the suicide of your wife and after your kids end up in the care of a relative, you usually don’t return home to find your kitchenware where you left it. Also, I suspect the top did spin longer than a real top would — I’d wager CGI was used in the last scene to extend its spin to an unnatural duration, actually — and that it’s implied Cobb is in a “dream”…

… of sorts, that is. I don’t think, though, the main significance of the long-spinning top in the final moments before the cut to credits is its relation to the story of Cobb, however. What I walked away with was a sense of invitation to the viewer to reflect on the shared dream that constituted the film itself, and the fact that, “waking from that dream,” the characters would be left behind in their fictional world. Cobb goes on to… probably, to question the reality he is living in. Is it a dream? Is it real? Perhaps, sometimes, he even wonders whether it’s an SF movie.

Which is, in fact, exactly what it is. So here, I see a Phildickian conclusion, one rather similar to the ending of Blade Runner, when Deckard leaves with Rachael, abandoning himself to his suspected inhumanness — which is, in some sense, equivalent to his patent unreality which is not quite (but almost) equivalent to his utter fictionality.

I guess what I’m saying is that I suspect, in the world of cinema (or some corners of it), Philip K. Dick’s SFnal grab-bag of tropes — doubt, paranoia, synthetic people who are indistinguishable from real ones, and the questioning of reality and its knowability in the face of demonstratedly convincing illusions — has become the language for the expression of postmodernist self-referentiality in a way that is “cool” and, well, not so alienating to filmgoers.

What this says about the 21st century, considering the conditions under which PKD arrived at these obsessions of his, is anyone’s guess, but it makes me wonder what kind of century we’re in for, artistically and politically too…

10 thoughts on “Inception and PKD

  1. I saw this after all the hype and thought it was a good film, but it didn’t live up to the expectations I had after all the hype. I think I would’ve much preferred to have downloaded it then see it in the theatre.

  2. Sean,

    Huh, I didn’t mind paying to see it (the second time; the first time, I was invited as part of KOFAC’s symposium). But it was a bit overhyped.

    I think the effects are more enjoyable on the big screen. Which, sadly, seems to be the main reason to see films in cinemas these days. (I’d be happy if, just once in a while, it was cinematography rather than just effects that I could say that about.)

  3. hey!

    that’s a really short ‘review’ for your standards…

    i don’t know pkd, but to attribute the film’s ideas to him only is too near-fetched. nolan plays with so many ideas — the labyrinth, worlds nested within each other, theory of relativity, paradoxa, ‘pure creation’ — that i see him citing a whole big chunk of the canon.

    also, i was not botherdd by his notion of time within the dreams — you have to come up with something, and i thought, in itself, it was told pretty logically. if you simply have a different idea of the nature of dreams, that’s a whole different story. i liked how in the end, when the ‘kick’ kicks in through the different levels, you see a (probably simplified, i’m no expert) visualization of the theory of relativity, that is, how changes in one dimension influence the dimension below it in terms of space shifts, and how those in the lower dimension don’t know what’s going on because they can’t leave it (the camera does that for us).

    i guess of less persuasion was probably the sedative and the whole subplot about that. i think viewers would have believed much greater fictions… no need to ‘logically establish’ the method of how they enter dream world.

    i liked the movie for it plays with ideas i like… and i’ve never ever SEEN PEOPLE WALK on the infinite staircase.

  4. Gitte,

    Well, but you know, PKD is credited with being a big early harbinger of the postmodern. Indeed, Emmanuel Carrere suggests that at one or two points he thought of himself as a kind of John the Baptist to the Second Coming of Christ, but some pomos argue he was much more of a John the Baptist to postmodernism.

    As for the rest: seriously, go read UBIK. You’ll find a lot of that stuff you’re talking about, in a different form of course, in that novel. Much of that is extremely old hat in literary SF — the matrioshka virtual worlds and labyrinth or maze which cannot be escaped; paradox isn’t a major issue in the film. I don’t know which canon you’re referring to, but… this is all very familiar stuff within the SF canon anyway.

    As for the Theory of Relativity and the kicks, you’re reaching in my opinion: basically, special and general relativity are, respectively, about the relativistic effects of differential relative motion — weird shit like time dilation, length contraction, and stuff like that — given lightspeed as a constant; general relativity is about the weirdness of how gravity actually seems to work within spacetime. Both of these are physical effects, and, I’ll add, physical effects that are not really readily apparent to human beings. (Thus it took till the last century for someone to figure them out.) That is to say, the “naive physics” modules (the bits of our brains that help us innately know how stuff that’s thrown will arc so we ca catch or dodge that stuff, for example) aren’t equipped to do Lorentz Transforms and such… so I doubt they’d play out in our dreams.

    Now, dreams… well, I’m far from an expert, but I can say that the little I’ve read suggests that dreams don’t actually seem to play out neurologically as we remember them. What I remember is that the narrative experience is something that comes later on, in the periods between REM sleep or even as part of waking, and that REM is a barrage of pseudo-random images and so on. (Likely not completely random: stuff that sticks out from the day, or from reading, or movies seen; stuff thought of; etc.) And given what we actually do know of human memory — how schematic it really is, and how unstable — I’m dubious that at any point anyone experiences a dream the way we experience CGI in films, though films have of course convinced us that our dreams look like films because we’ve all grown up seeing dreams depicted as film-like in films. The last bit is hunch, and though it’s a semi-informed hunch, it’s also informed by the fact I’m a very non-visual thinker… I have on occasion had dreams which I remembered, on waking, of having no visual content at all, just series of all-engulfing schematic concepts (which were very weird); but the rest of my claimns above pertain to what science currently tells us about dreams and how dreaming works neurologically; I might be right, I might be wrong, but it’s a question of science, not a matter of one’s pet opinion or whatever theory one wishes to adopt for the sake of a good rollicking yarn.

    It’s like how Lit majors are depicted in media as arrogant, hoity-toity morons with no sense of the “real world” — a misconception that seems convincing as long as you don’t know any lit majors, but if you do, it looks like a cheap fantasy indulgence.

    Which, hey, okay, it’s fantasy. SF film is about spectacle, about fantastical spectacle, so… fine. And for what it’s worth I enjoyed the film as an exercise in weird storytelling. But it was also, on a scientific level, pretty much incoherent and inside-out, and unnecessarily so I think.

    One tiny example: why would the levels in dreams, the dreams-within-dreams, be so clearly separated and impermeable? I don’t remember my dreams much, but I’m pretty sure a defining characteristic of dreams is the permeability of spaces and states — shifts in locale, in association, and so on all come willy-nilly. Why not in the dreams in Inception? Of course, it’s because then the plot wouldn’t work… but that’s like changing the laws of gravity to make the last action scene in your action thriller work… if someone declared that, “No, in this place, because of the shape of this high-rise, gravity is half as strong,” it’d be (rightly) taken as moronic by the chunk of audience who knows that’s nonsense, but the remaining majority would just want their ten bucks back.

    (There are exceptions, but they’re rare and depend mostly on a kind of hypervideogame aesthetic, and mostly are in “extreme” action films.)

    What I’m saying is that Nolan could have “played with cool ideas” while also doing something that might actually make logical sense. An example of a much more intelligent use of dreams in a narrative is their treatment in a certain episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — titled “Restless.” The dreams are a lot more like what people experience dreams like, tell story, and also do some cool things in terms of interrogating (and revealing) character and viewer psychology.

    And here’s an example: how could someone experience subjective time, with no loss of clarity and sharpness (ie. with a comparably rich psychological and emotional palette, with a rich visual field and subconscious manifestations, at 360 times the rate one experiences the real world? (Remember, one is constructing that rich universe and all those figures encountered, all the textural details and so on, instead of just perceiving them as in waking.) I figure you can speed up subjective experience, but only if the content of that experience is lossy. You might be able to upload a thousand pictures into someone’s mind in a moment, but unless there’s some kind of digital storage and interface in that head, the pictures will be so grainy as to be useless. Hell, they often are even when “uploaded” the old-fashioned way, by staring at photos or whatever. It’d make a lot more sense if, say, drugs were being used to partition the two hemispheres of the brain to artificially isolate certain reaction sets — a bifurcated dream experience, with a dreamer who is desperately trying to reactivate his or her corpus callosum — would make a cool parallel narrative. Or, maybe, running the plot in reverse, where the characters have to get down into their mark’;s deepest subconscious level, but also would only have moments to get their inception planted once they get down there; then just put more barriers up along the way, more injured characters and so on (jeopardizing the mission, not using the whole stupid, “If you die in [this simulated reality] you die in real lie” hack trope that really, really needs to be flushed from Hollywood); hell, that’d also allow some really creative weirdness with the look of the (lossier, more schematic) deeper levels of the dreams-within-dreams setting.

    Again, I’m mostly nitpicking stuff I didn’t bring up in my review above because, hey, it’s a fantasy, and people like stories about dreams. But the “physics” of the laws of magic in this film — the rules that control dreaming and all that — are utterly nonsensical if you think about them in terms of plausibility.

    And I agree that the “sedative” wasn’t necessary. Though from a PKD approach, you need a weird, mind-altering drug of some kind… it’s part of the stylistic language. I think, though, like with my idea of the corpus-callosum-blocking drug, one could crreate more interesting drugs that actually have something to do with the human brain, and could have much cooler narrative effects. (The mark in that version of the story would find himself with weird cognitive distortions on each side — on each side, he’s having trouble recognizing faces, or reading emotion on others’ faces, or performing verbal tasks, or whatever research turned up would be interesting in a plot. That’d be an acting challenge on top of being a neat narrative trick.

    Anyway… I can see why the film would appeal to literary people, to a postmodernist crowd, who would likely not even notice most of the stuff I’ve mentioned here. I didn’t mention it in the review in part because, once you start pointing out crap science in films, you notice that Hollywood almost never has anything BUT crap science.

    Whatever panic we see in December 2012 is, I think, a testament to the toxic influence of that tendency. (EDIT: And so, I think, is the ridiculous insistence against evolution, the pathetically bad science education we see as normative, and the rest. Which, you know, is so dangerous that it could mean our own extinction, given the stakes we’re starting to play for now.)

  5. John,

    I’m curious. Do you know of anyplace I can read more about the link between Dick and Caspary? I’ve never heard of her before, and couldn’t turn up anything linking them beyond the title of “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the title of a Broadway adaptation of a Caspary novel, mentioned on wikipedia.

    As for the Casparianness of Inception I’ve no idea, but I suspect there’s still room to argue that it’s a very Phildickian movie, especially if Caspary influenced PKD.

  6. Why is the way time is conceived in Inception “silly”? The premise of the film is that time works that way in these particular world[s]and therefore the story functions in a certain way [the entire last hour of the film, for example]. It also adds what I thought was the most fascinating idea of the narrative, that the lowest level [was it the 4th?] was essentially infinite. Maybe I’ve been reading too much on the classical conception of the sublime, but Inception’s admittedly loose definition of that layer was a very interesting internalization of the ‘folding spaces’ of the higher levels. Resisting that ‘drop down’ into the 4th level was the film’s only genuine threat too, since the phantom soldiers were metaphors. I thought of PKD a lot too, but couldn’t really locate any relevant story. I thought it was more like the PKD-lite of ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ et al.

  7. “read more,” I don’t know, but if you watch “Laura,” you can’t help but see where PKD got some of his material from.

    I learned of the connection well over 15 years ago in Graduate Film/TV School from a professor who leaned along the same lines as both Caspary and Dick.

    If you get a chance, watch the film. It seems that a lot of contemporary filmmakers have, especially Nolan.

  8. Andrew,

    It’s silly because, given all the other silly assumptions about the dreaming process being much like waking experience, but fantastical (in a specifically cinematic sense), it presumes that this kind of cinematic dreaming could unfold at a rate where one subjectively experiences years or even potentially infinite time in the space of a ten-hour (or whatever it was) flight across the ocean. While effectively infinite subjective time (or at least spans “approaching infinity) is something Freeman Dyson has supposedly demonstrated a machine intelligence could at least in principle be capable of that — of infinite data processing with finite energy (a point about which I remain somewhat dubious) — it must be added that this “infinity” is, even for machines, achieved by slowing, not speeding-up, thought. I very sincerely doubt that a human brain could actually overclock in the way Nolan’s film suggests at all, let alone doing so without burning out or, rather, “crashing” (to use a software analogy) due to overload.

    I find that all those who enjoyed Inception liked it on a metaphorical level, and have tended either to leave aside, or not realize, that the metaphors might work fine on their own — as in a fantasy — but make no sense in scientific terms. Not coincidentally, I suspect, the majority of those who struggle to see why I have those issues seem to be applying what one could call “lit-crit-styled approaches” to the film.

    (And hey, my reading of the last few moments of the film is, I’ll add, very clearly lit-crit-styled: I’m talking about metafictionality and commentary on film as waking-dream and simulation or simulacrum and so on.)

    Which is all very well and good — literary and aesthetical readings are valid ways of looking at films — but this is a science-fiction film, and claims to be telling a story about dreaming; well, we know something about the mechanics of how dreams happen in brains. Not a lot, but something, and whatever litcrit has to say about dreams, it seems to me it doesn’t invalidate what science says about them.

    In other words, for me the science here is as dumb as, say, suspending the laws of gravity as one of the major premises in a film and justifying it by, say, arguing that the “laws of nature” are a social construction and science represents only one of many ways of “knowing the world.”

    I’m not an Analog Mafioso or something, but when the science is that blatantly dumb, I may be able to set it aside to enjoy the film, but for me it mars the narrative intellectually and in reviewing I cannot overlook it. (Just as I cannot bear bad or lazy writing no matter how wonderful one’s SFnal ideas might be.)

    In any case, have you read UBIK, Andrew? I found a number of resemblances between the two films (and it’s the comparison I found most often made online after writing this up and then looking around to see if anyone else had noticed the parallel) and indeed suspect that someone quite consciously adapted UBIK into this film. Not enough to hold up in court — it’s derivative enough not to be a rip-off — but there are many clear parallels.


    Aha, I’ll try get my hands on that film, then. Thanks for the tip!

  9. PS: Andrew, it’s nothing personal. I also wanted to add, you refer to “these worlds” which I think is a misreading: those “worlds” are just dreams in brains. If the film suggested something like that what we know of as human consciousness in this world of ours is, by some bizarre physics, a subpartition of a more larger integrated consciousness which is distributed across universes or branes within a single universe, and that dreaming is reconnecting with other subpartitions or the larger self in its experience of them, then we could talk about “worlds” with different physics. But in Inception, it’s all happening inside brains of sleeping people. So the worlds would need to be constrained by the properties of brains. And they’re not.

    For a society that has little or no idea baout the way brains and dreaming work, of course, this isn’t an issue. (Just as a society who’ve no idea how gravity works will see nothing wrong in a film like Armageddon.)

    Some people might be comfortable with that. Personally, my feeling is pretty well-expressed by what I had to say about 2012 here:

    I find it embarrassing that a society that could produce the technology necessary to create such amazingly vivid images of the world, could also be entertained by such absolutely moronic visions of the world.

    Inception is no where near as insulting to one’s intelligence as 2012, but it irks and troubles me not just that the basic science is so bad, but that so few people notice, or have an issue with it. The fact that I’ve seen a few people defend it by saying it got the postmodernism right says, for me, something about postmodernism as well as about how badly we’re educating people about science these days. (As well as how odd it is that science, being verifiable, is cast aside so quickly for fanciful, and horridly-written theories.)

    Again, SF that also works on a postmodernist/deconstructionist-theory level is possible: Adam Roberts novels do it, or some do anyway. I think the problem is when you start with pomo or cultural theory, and then move to making the science fit it, you get neat theory and dumb science… unnecessarily, because startign with the science (even just basic science) and then finding how the cultural theory could fit would work just as well in terms of the latter, but also make the story satisfying on the former level. (And not scientifically retarded.)

    But I should add that I agree the CGI was amazing. As usual, spectacle is effective, but the intelligence of the script is much less so. Also, I agree that the threat of dropping down into the 4th level was the only credible threat. I think that’s a weakness of the film — a more fascinating threat would have been if Cobb finally did emerge uncertain as to whether the world was real or not, as I imagine we’re supposed to be at the end. The wife/projection subplot was better than I imagined it would be… I’ve seen characters who were real people (or androids who were the love of someone’s life) who were less compelling than she was. But it wasn’t like he was ever going to buy her story… and that, too, is a flaw. I would have found it more compelling if she’d seemed to be the real wife, whose suicide HAD been the escape from dream, and who’d come back to fetch him out of his prison. That would have been a compelling decision to force him into… but it was avoided, sadly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *