Just because something is about dreams doesn’t mean that it’s surreal. Because of the nature of what it is, it’s difficult to categorize what makes Surrealism a distinct genre like Fantasy or Science Fiction or romance or Romance or Action– because really, it can be all of those things. Take Jean Cocteau’s Le Belle et la Bete, a romantic Fantasy based on a fairy tale that is also a surrealist film. It is markedly different from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, which is a Science-Fiction/Action film that is also a surrealist film. It’s not a genre of exclusion either– usually, if something is surreal, it’s easy to tell that it’s Surrealism. It’s not a medium either, because everything from film to painting to television to poetry can be surreal.
But Inception is not Surrealism.
I watched three additional films, in addition to the subject film, in order to help me judge what genre Inception is. One was Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which seems self-explanatory as I intend to judge Inception as a heist film vice a Surrealist film. The other two films were Kon’s Paprika and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera— both of which were compared to Inception in this video essay by Kyle Kallgren. Paprika in particular is often compared to Inception due to similar premises. I’m going to use a few points from his videos, while also going more into depth with some of them.
Who? — Characters and character archetypes. This is both generic stuff like “The Hero” and “The Mentor”, as well as more genre specific stuff, like “The Evil AI” and “The Hard-boiled Detective”.
What? — Plot. This covers the structure of the story itself, but also what other stories or ideas that the plot is based on.
Where? — Setting, or the place and time where the plot happens. Keep an eye on this one, it’s going to be a bit more tricky this time.
Why? — Themes or messages. It asks both why the plot happens, as well as why the story is being told.
How? — This covers some of the more technical aspects of the film-making process, but also the tone of the movie itself. How you tell a story is almost as important as why.
Looking at how the subject film compares to more clearly defined examples of he two genres, I attempt to find which genre the subject is closer to in each category and then add up how each genre ranks at the end.
With that in mind, let’s see how Inception stacks up.
The characters of Inception are clearly characters from a heist film– to the point where there are intensely clear parallels between the characters of Inception and the characters of Ocean’s Eleven. Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney are both veteran criminals that risk the entire job due to an obsession with a woman that they lost. Ellen Page and Brad Pitt are both close to the main character and are concerned that his obsession with the woman will jeopardize the mission. Ellen Page and Matt Damon are both the newcomers that are unsure of the mission. Dileep Rao is sort of a combination of Don Cheadle, Scott Caan, and Casey Affleck. Elliott Gould and Ken Wantanabe are both businessmen who back the job financially. And then Julia Roberts and Marion Cotillard are both women that the main characters are obsessed with that put the job in major danger. Even going off of the thesis that Inception is a parallel for filmmaking, the text of the film clearly portrays DiCaprio’s team as a heist team.
That being said, Surrealism as a genre doesn’t much care about characters.
The plot of Paprika is that a dream machine has been stolen and is being used to drive people insane and bring the dream world into the real world by a mysterious terrorist. The main character is Dr. Chiba Atsuko, a psychiatrist/psychotherapist who has been using this dream machine to help her patients confront their mental illnesses and problems by becoming her dream avatar, Paprika. The plot of Inception is that Cobb and his team have a dream machine that they use to steal ideas from businessmen. A mysterious benefactor pays them to put an idea into the head of his competitor. These are the basic plots of the films. The idea of a machine or device that reveals dreams is not uncommon. It goes back at least as far as Forbidden Planet (though I’m sure there are earlier versions that I can’t think of) where Dr. Morbius uses a machine to project his thoughts and accidentally creates the monster from the Id. But ultimately in both Inception and Paprika, the dream machines are plot devices that allow the characters to move back and forth between the dream world and the real world.
There are also various subplots, including a subplot where one of Paprika’s patients is a detective and a movie buff who has to deal with the untimely death of his co-director when he was younger which happened just after the detective decided to give up filmmaking. Likewise, Inception has a subplot where Cobb has to deal with the untimely death of his wife which happened just after Cobb decided to incept her with the idea that she was in a dream. There’s also a subplot in Paprika where Dr. Atsuko has to reconcile her ideal/dream self, Paprika, with her real self in order to fully accept herself. In Inception, the actual inception deals with getting the mark to reconcile the father that he had with the father that he wished he had.
Surrealism as a genre is mainly about dreams. To quote from the Surrealist Manifesto, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Basically, Surrealism is about revealing the logic of the dream world.Paprika integrates the logic of the dreams into the film and how it explores its themes, and is contingent on dream logic to move the plot forward. Paprika keeps the dreams strange enough to qualify as having a dream logic, but minus one very cool scene where Ariadne manipulates Paris to fold on itself, Inception actually tries to give dreams logic which is kind of the opposite of what Surrealism is all about. Inception gives dreams rules and limitations, don’t do this, don’t do that. You can’t die, you just wake up, except when you drop into limbo because the drugs work too well. Inception moves forward using the logic that it makes up about dreams, but the amount of structure that is put into how dreams work is, again, antithetical to the point of Surrealism. Nolan doesn’t let the dreams get too strange, because it would mess with the plot of the film.
However, the plot and logic of Inception does map pretty well with Ocean’s Eleven. Two crews made up of the best of the best criminals and con-artists attempt to tackle an impossible job. The first two acts are spent gathering and training the team to do the job properly. The main character is revealed to be obsessed with a woman that he once lost and a member of the team confronts him over it. The third act is spent pulling off the heist. Ocean’s Eleven, while being shot on location for much of the film, is founded in the tropes and logic of the heist film– the protagonists are charming and good at what they do, the antagonist is someone that deserves to be robbed, and no one is actually going to die. Inception plays with these tropes– the protagonists are charming and good at what they do, but the antagonist is actually pretty sympathetic and the emotional catharsis at the end of his arc is him gaining something as opposed to being robbed, and going into Limbo is perceived as a fate worse than death but the effects don’t seem to apply to anyone but Mal. In terms of the plot and the story elements of the film, the basic structure of a heist film is overlaid onto the incredible worldbuilding that Inception sets up– just because it’s not surreal, doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating how that world works.
Now this is the big question of the entirety of Inception— was it all a dream? Or, in terms of setting, did the entire film take place in the dream world, or just the parts where we knew they were dreaming?
Now, setting technically has two parts, the where and the when. The when of Inception is actually pretty simple, it’s set in the not-too-distant future (next Sunday AD…) where everything is basically the same as it was in 2010 except the military has developed a way for people to share their dreams to run combat drills in a safe environment and now the technology is being used for corporate espionage and (presumably) other things. Paprika has a similar conceit– it’s basically the nebulous “now”, only with this one piece of technology added on. Ocean’s Eleven feels like it’s set in the early-2000’s because of pre-Bradgelina Brad Pitt and because George Clooney’s hair hasn’t gone gray yet, but otherwise is pretty contemporary (enough that Ocean’s Eight is coming out this summer). But neither a heist film nor Surrealism require a particular point in time.
It does require a specific place.
Both Inception and Paprika have extended sequences within the dream world. In Paprika there are two different dreams– the dreams of Detective Konakawa, which are patterned after his favorite films, and the shared dream parade. The parade is a cacophany of sound and toys and cartoon gateways and appliances and china dolls. The point of the parade, in the story, is that it is the collection of all the discarded dreams and dream images of people over time. Absolutely anything can and does show up in the parade (the kitchen sink could not be reached for comment). Inception, on the other hand, sticks mostly to realism. You can count on your fingers the number of truly fantastical moments in Inception that wouldn’t be found in a standard action flick. Water crashing into the house in Saito’s dream, the explosion at the cafe, Paris folding on itself, Ariadne playing with the mirrors, Arthur’s paradox stairs, the train, Eams’ transformations, playing with gravity in the second dream layer, Limbo, and the contents of the final vault. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’m missing something. And these are all cool things– but they are also proof that Christopher Nolan was deliberately holding back the kind of imagery he wanted to use in the film.
There are ways in both films to determine what is a dream and what is real. Paprika used a highly cartoonish style for dream elements, while the real world has harder lines and slightly muted colors. In Inception, there is no filmic distinction between the real world and the dream world, which is why the tokens are necessary. The tokens also keep the audience informed as to what is a dream and what is real. Which is a rather surrealistic take on it. Unless you are a lucid dreamer, you typically don’t realize when you are in a dream until you wake up, and there is some interesting philosophy about whether or not the world we live in is just a dream– philosophy going all the way back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (this philosophy would later have branches after the invention of the computer and become the founding philosophy of The Matrix.) Of course, this is mostly established for Nolan’s final “gotcha” at the end, but the setting of the story is rather inclined towards a Surrealist film.
Here we get into the subtext of the film, and we finally talk about the very popular theory that Inception is actually a metaphor for filmmaking. I get this take, I really do. It follows the thoughts of Jean Cocteau, who patterned his films after Orpheus, an artist who entered a dream underworld and returned inspired. It also follows the thoughts of Orson Welles, who in F for Fake said “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.” But of the films I watched for this the one that is most overtly about filmmaking is Man with a Movie Camera.
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was made in 1929 and it’s basically the Soviet version of Koyaanisqatsi, another film that a lot of people haven’t heard of. What makes Man with a Movie Camera incredible is its experimental use of filmic techniques that were just being invented at the time– things like split screen, double exposure, and montage. And we see the film being made. We watch the editor cut and paste the film and then watch the film that she cut and paste. The titular camera man is seen walking around the “city” (actually a composite of Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkov, all in the Ukraine) with his camera, filming trains and cars and people. Also, as a point of trivia, Dziga Vertov is a pseudonym that means “spinning top”. As a less relevant point of trivia, his brother was Boris Kaufman. Yes, that Boris Kaufman.
So, if we take the idea that the crew of Inception are a movie crew, what does that mean for the themes of the film? Well, it equates filmmaking with surrealism. And not in the way that Cocteau did. With Inception, we need to go deeper. Nolan equates the technical aspects of film with the way that a dream works. The same aspects pioneered by filmmakers like Dziga Vertov. And he does it by calling attention to the invisible filmic things that we barely notice.
“Think about it Ariadne, how did we get here?”
Through a jump cut.
That is surrealism.
So, how does Nolan achieve this?
I mean, the idea that filmmaking and filmmaking techniques are surreal is great, but Nolan’s techniques are… kinda conventional? Yeah, there’s some great imagery in Limbo, and the whole film is really gorgeous to look at, if a bit drained of color at times. But the really big dream moments that everyone talks about? Pretty much already been done. Walking on the walls? Cocteau did that. Ariadne breaking the glass? Happened in Paprika. Folding the city? Vertov did the same thing.
And that was almost 50 years before Star Wars.
Nolan’s techniques, for all of the film’s posturing, are not only not revolutionary, but pretty standard techniques and technologies for an action-thriller. Not that surrealism has to be particularly groundbreaking in its creation, but remember that Nolan made the Dark Knight Trilogy as a warm-up to this. I won’t say it’s really made like a heist film either, though– all the characters are clever, but they don’t really have quips per se, the production design isn’t focused on the One Thing they have to get at, and there’s just too much filmic strangeness for it to be a pure heist film. This category is kind-of a draw.
This one could, technically, go either way. Personally, I think that the things that are directly contradictory to the nature of surrealism cut down on the possibility of it even being surrealism to begin with– but the themes and trappings of the film are definitely inspired by the genre. I hardline genre a little bit more than the average person, but there’s definitely room to argue here. Do I recommend the film? Sure, it’s a fun flick that’s beautifully shot, but I wouldn’t recommend reading too far into it. To paraphrase the inventor of the subconscious, sometime a top is just a top.
Did you think it was all a dream? Is Inception really surrealist and I’m just not getting the bigger picture? Let me know in the comments! Also like if you can, and subscribe so you don’t miss out on any new posts!