inception vs. the matrix: is reality overrated?

Blockbuster season approaches, and despite some moderately good intentions, I will probably go to many of them this summer. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion? Already seen it and already vaguely regret having seen it.

Not all blockbusters are as bad as people make them out to be, even if most of them are; it’s easy to make fun of the somewhat absurd conceits they use. Although it’s tempting to think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception as “that movie about dreams,” there’s enough going on to make the movie worth thinking about.

For starters, the “movies about dreams” characterization misses the point, since the dreams are not what make the film compelling. Inception in its plot and many of its methods is really a classic heist, the genre that inspired Nolan. Cobb, played by a very sleek Leonardo DiCaprio, is leading his team on that job that occurs with surprising frequency in heist films: the one that is supposed to be impossible. The twist is that Cobb’s group specializes in dream infiltration, but the obvious philosophical questions — like, is reality actually any more valid than a dream? — are not the best reason to watch the movie.

The dream device does have its purposes, of course. On the practical end, the dream states give Nolan license to do fun stuff like a fist fight in a hall where the gravity is ever-changing. But more importantly, Nolan uses the dream motif to ask a question about the “reality” of the film itself (and not, thankfully, about the “reality” of reality). I won’t ruin the details for you here, except to say that the very last shot practically serves as a wink from director to audience that makes us ask whether the preceding two-plus hours actually occurred (at least insofar as anything occurs in fiction). Has everything Nolan just shown us — even the parts we have taken as “real” — just been a construction of the mind?

This threatens to be the cheapest of cliches, “It had all been a dream!”, but that last shot is simply the cap on several subtler clues. The best might be the one that comes midway through the film, when we get to see Cobb’s worst memory replayed. It’s his wedding anniversary, and he’s supposed to meet his wife in a hotel room. But Cobb only finds a mess inside and the window open. We know his wife has been having psychological trouble, and now we wonder if she is on the ledge outside. Naturally, he looks out to see, but she isn’t on the ledge of the building he’s in.

Instead, somehow, she is perched on the building across the street, next to a window into what appears to be another version of the same room that Cobb is looking out of. His subsequent conversation with her reinforces this unlikely staging, as Cobb is clearly speaking to someone located directly in front of him rather than to the side of his window. Strangely, the window frame and the stones surrounding it are the same on her side as his, and there’s never any exposition to explain why she would be over there across the street.

What’s even weirder is that Cobb doesn’t seem to notice this odd set-up, and he tries to get her to come off the ledge by beckoning to her from across the street, back to him. It doesn’t make sense, since he’s basically asking her to come across the street, which at this height just means falling into the chasm between their facing high-rise windows.

In summary: Huh? I assert that it’s totally improbable that this arrangement was accidental on the part of the filmmakers. In anything other than a movie about dreams supplanting reality, I could have written this arrangement off as poor staging, but in this movie, it’s a piece of a puzzle. It’s this kind of detail that has made Inception a jackpot for people who like debating movies. The more reasonable forms of these debates tacitly acknowledge that there is no final answer, and we even admire Nolan for leaving the door wide open for us to reinterpret the evidence indefinitely. That last shot makes it clear that he’s going to enjoy watching us sort it out.

So if Nolan has left the very foundations of his fictional universe in flux, has he handed over the reins to the audience? Is this some kind of great concession on his part, letting us decide? The dilemma is certainly posed in other films, but rarely in more popular ones. Immediate connections can be made to the Wachowskis’ very satisfying Matrix trilogy, also well-known for gravity-defying battles in imaginary worlds. In The Matrix and its sequels, the illusory setting of confrontation is an immersive simulated world that subjugates almost the entirety of the human race, which is plugged into it without even being aware, with only a few unplugged or born outside the system.

Superficially, at least, the Matrix films and Inception are similar. They all make some hay out of the argument that the false world is as valid as the actual one, but all of them ultimately seem to prefer the real over the un-.

Even so, it seems to me that the differences are significant. While Inception asks us to decide for our own account what to take as true, the Matrix movies present the boundary between real and fake as fairly rigid, and we the audience are never called to wonder which we’re watching, except to solve seemingly intractable plot problems.

So maybe it’s surprising that it’s The Matrix that explicitly raises issues of freedom and social control, including high-culture references that are presumably meant to make us think more about upending existing hierarchies … just not, apparently, those between filmmaker and film audience. Jean Baudrillard, the postmodern heavyweight whose book Simulacra and Simulation appears briefly in the first Matrix movie, put it this way: “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix [i.e., the nefarious virtual reality used to keep humanity in stasis] that the matrix would have been able to produce.”

Here, and in every blockbuster that purports to challenge hegemony, the question is just begged if we are truly empowered by the film, or if we’re just schmucks who’ve forked over $10 for two-plus hours of distraction from the terribleness of life. Saying that The Matrix is just a light entertainment vitiates the force of the film on its own terms, although we can still enjoy it if we just ignore those terms and watch it anyway.

Inception, in any event, just sidesteps this problem entirely. For one, the ambiguous ending at least lets us viewers decide for our damn selves whether whether the whole thing — both the parts where people are supposedly awake and the parts where we take them to be asleep — is actually Cobb’s extended dream (or somebody else’s dream, or whatever). That fact itself gives us audience members some kind of agency, if not the ultimate political freedom that The Matrix aspires to.

On top of that, there’s a nice aesthetic upside where the ambiguity of the answer forms a neat parallel with the as-yet-undecided question of whether the viewers themselves are being conned by the movie, which after all is pretty similar to the dreams it’s creating representations of.

Moreover, whatever you think of its political implications, Inception can be read as a compelling psychological journey, and not just because it plays out in fantasies. Cobb is wracked with guilt and needs to let go of his wife, an imperative heavily complicated by his ability to revisit her ghost endlessly in his sleep. His moving speech toward the end eloquently examines the price of holding on too firmly to recreations and memories, and DiCaprio’s delivery nails it. Maybe, after all, it’s not important whether Cobb’s “truth” was real, but that he chose what he thought was real.