Inception – Could Hypnosis Do It?

Its hard to think of another good film about the unconscious mind – the only other ones I can think of are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, David Cronenberg’s Spider and Jacobs Ladder. Inception is far and away my favourite “mind movie” – so packed with intelligence and ideas, especially for a big blockbuster movie.

Here though I want to get into some of the ideas about the unconscious.

The idea of an “Inception” is to install an idea in a person’s unconscious without them being aware that you put it there.

Which sounds very much like hypnosis – except strangely, for all the exploration in the film about influence and dreams, hypnosis is left out entirely. I suppose its justified in the context of the film, because hypnotising the target character is going to be tricky – he has had training to resist and avoid such things. Subliminals and priming aren’t going to be powerful enough either for such a big task.

But hypnosis would still be possible – and certainly more likely that going four dream layers down!

How would I do it?

Some possible requisites for a suggestible state would have to be incurred – which could include:
– creating a state of emotional automaticity (a state of wonder, or laughter for example)
– confusion where the unconscious mind is looking for an ‘escape’ by way of following a given command
– conscious overload – with too many things for the mind to attend to consciously, the unconscious is wide open to respond to influence.

There are plenty of methods to achieve these things – and once done, the thin end of a hypnotic wedge could be given that compounds into more and more responsiveness. Until his sense of conscious will is eroded entirely. Once in a deep enough state of suggestibility, a post-hypnotic command to return to the same state could be given.

Then, further fractionated inductions could easily be given, each time layering suggestions towards breaking up his Dad’s company (the task in the film). Suggestions could be associated to other real-world cues, so again and again the thought materialises in his mind as if from nowhere. With suggestions for amnesia, he would’t ever know the source of the ideas – it would be Inception.

The movie does deliver some acute truths about the mind, which I applaud it for.

The character Eames casually conveys that the relationship with the father is one of the most powerful sources of unconscious influence, and he’s pretty spot on with that. The wind-mill idea was brilliant as a visual motif for this.

The exploration of subjectivity was interesting – the dreaming/not-dreaming insecurity of Cobb, and also how he comes to realise that his imagination of Mal isn’t actually Mal – its just his imagination. How often do people exist more in our imaginations than in real life? I really appreciated this, especially as part of his cathartic self-awareness.

I also really admired the dual nature of the films trajectory. All the while he is trying to perform the inception, he’s also undergoing his own kind of therapy – dealing with his unconscious issues and slowly moving towards his ultimate terrifying truths which will ultimately set him free (allowing him to let go of the guilt of his wife’s death). This dual trajectory is a nice reflection of the therapy situation – where both practitioner and client move along their own trajectories in unison. What the film does brilliantly is to entwine the two against subjective reality, so you never really know where you stand – just like in a dream.

It also has a brilliant, dreamy soundtrack which I’ve listened to a whole bunch of times.

If you saw the movie, what did you think?


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  • POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT: I had huge expectations of Inception; I’d loved Memento and The Prestige (less so Insomnia, but I don’t think Christopher Nolan wrote that) and found them beautifully crafted and excellently scripted films.

    While the concept of Inception is brilliant, the visuals amazing and I love the references/images (Ariadne leading the way out of the maze/trying to get through a narrowing gap), I feel that the script let it down. The dialogue in a lot of places has way too much exposition, which makes it clunky. I realise that the rules/concepts need to be explained to the viewers, but at times I nearly groaned out loud. It’s like an episode of CSI where scientists, who have worked together for years, explain a simple, everyday process to each other.

    Then there’s the characterisation and relationships – the way that Ariadne, a 20/21 year-old can see into Cobb’s soul, whereas his mate who’s seen the problems at first hand is unconcerned. Of course, if it is all Cobb’s dream then maybe the usual rules of relationship don’t apply…however, as a viewer, that makes me feel cheated when all it would take to make it believable is a couple more lines of dialogue/one small incident.

    Maybe these are minor gripes – I did still find the film stimulating and enjoyed it (more so 2nd time through), just would have liked it tightened up a bit.

    Avatar, on the other hand… really? Found it ironically two-dimensional.

  • Avatar was great! Ok, the story wasn’t too original, and too glossy etc, but I love it for the achievement of what it was, the technology developed to produce it and all that kind of stuff. I also love the memory of seeing it when it opened at the cinema, it just felt really christmassy and fascinating, I’m a cinematically suggestible sap like that. I wish that the story had been more gritty, with the guy becoming so addicted to his avatar and fake environment that he neglects himself in the real world. That would have been more interesting.

    I do agree with you about those points on Inception. Insomnia I also really love, I watched it again recently and enjoyed it more than I did the first time. Strangely, I don’t really like Nolans Batman films. Have you seen The Social Network, if so, what did you think of it?

  • Yes, I think the whole atmosphere surrounding a film makes a huge difference to one’s experience of it. Whether it’s what’s happening in the world at large (recession/wars/royal weddings (if that’s your bag!)) or your own personal stuff; it all comes into play.

    I went to see Avatar purely because it felt like cinema history was being made and I wanted to be part of it. And in that respect it didn’t disappoint. I read that Cameron had waited for 10 years for technology to catch up with what he wanted to do…maybe that’s why the ecological message felt so old hat and patronising? It also depends on what one’s main ‘hook’ is into films; I realise that, being an (ex?) actress, I’m attracted firstly by characters and their relationships, secondly by plot and thirdly by visuals/how it’s shot (which I suppose is why Inception didn’t get a full ‘thumbs up’ – it met my 2nd and 3rd criteria brilliantly, but not my most important one). So, I thought Avatar looked great, but had a dull plot and simplistic characters – the baddies were bad, the goodies were good and the main guy’s journey was that he went from being a bitter jerk to a hero. The exception was Sigourney Weaver who did a marvellous job of injecting some variety into an underwritten character. You should definitely write your alternative version, though!

    I did see The Social Network – thought it was a good film. It met my first 2 criteria easily – well developed and superbly acted characters and a good, pacey plot (though I probably would have let the relationship develop further between Mark and Edwardo before showing the fact that they had fallen out… there again, maybe that’s widely known, so perhaps not). Apart from a few ‘weighted’ moments (“would you like to use my pen”-close up/pained looks out the window/refreshing Erica’s picture), none of which I minded, I don’t remember noticing anything in particular about the way it was shot. It described a world (Harvard/hacking) which is completely alien to me, so it was a little difficult to relate to it, but interesting nonetheless and I’m also curious to know how much of the emotional reactions were true – did Zuckerberg develop/learn anything? I did like the fact that it didn’t bash home the moral too heavily… though it did leave me feeling sad.

    Right – I’ve waffled on plenty long enough. I’ve not seen The King’s Speech yet – that’s next on my list!

  • Hi Saffron, ah thats interesting about your criteria and I totally understand. I really liked Social Network for its vibes, I loved the soundtrack and dynamics of how emotions and ideas bounced off each other during the film. Awesome from a screenwriting point of view as well.

    The Kings Speech I really enjoyed, although I fear its best watched before the ensuing hype – people will most likely watch it now to “see what all the fuss is about” which takes it from being the warm little movie that it is, into this weighty Oscar movie (no doubt with “is that it then?” feelings from the overhyped audience).

    Did you see Seven Pounds? If so, how did that rate on your first criteria? Its a very interesting film.

  • Interesting – I don’t generally notice music in a film unless a) it’s Tarantino, or b) I feel that it’s manipulating me towards an emotional response – which, of course, is its job, but I like the music more when I don’t hear it… poor, unappreciated composers!

    The King’s Speech, I thoroughly enjoyed. I agree – it’s not a ‘big’ film, despite the setting, it’s a gentle film of a man overcoming a difficulty. The only bit that jarred was Timothy Spall’s caricature of Churchill (must be tricky to carry that off, though) and, of course, there aren’t many films which use the 2nd World War as a feel good ending!

    I also saw Black Swan. I’d say that it’s a really good film – brilliantly acted and excellent effects… didn’t really enjoy it though – as well as all the cringey, nail-biting stuff, I rather lost patience with her as a character; all the angst and crying exhausted me.

    I’ve not seen Seven Pounds, but Will Smith is usually likeable – I’ve put it on my Love Film list… assuming you recommend it?

  • I totally agree about Black Swan! Well made and acted etc, but I just found it too stressful and frustrating to watch. People have since said to me “but stressful is good! If it had that reaction then it must be a powerful film!” but I don’t really see the logic in that. These days at the cinema I need to feel absorbed, engaged and interested, and if I don’t then my mind wanders to what else I could/should be doing, and thinking of such things whilst watching Natalie Portman freaking out and pulling her nails off just isn’t my idea of a good night.

    I saw The Fighter last night, very well acted, old-fashioned (like early Scorsese) boxing film, but with some good drama and dynamics.

    I’m sure you’d like the soundtrack of Inception as well – its a Hans Zimmer score (he does brilliant soundtracks, Thin Red Line being my favourite although I’m not a massive fan of the film).

    Definately recommend Seven Pounds, its in my top 5 of all time, although I’ve probably hyped it too much for you now 🙂

  • Along with my thoughts on 7 Pounds, I thought I’d give my opinions on The Fighter. However, work and the beloved tube have conspired against me tonight, so you’ll have to look forward to that another time.

    7 Pounds did that thing which I hate in films – it started with the end, i.e. the main character dying (or about to) – same as Carlitto’s Way and that one with Kevin Costner where he ends up kidnapping a kid who’s a Jehovah’s Witness. While it doesn’t stop it from being a good and enjoyable film, I have an innate resistance to identifying with/investing emotional energy in someone who I know is going to be taken away from me. It also meant that his plan became clear quite early on, which is a shame as I think it would have been interesting for it to creep up and surprise me.

    Despite this, it was interesting. I liked the detached (or was that me?), slightly haunted air that Will Smith had and liked his interactions with other characters…would have liked to see more of his brother and his friend, but maybe that’s the point – too much involvement with them would have weakened his resolve.

    The thing that got me thinking the most was some of his criteria for deciding what makes a ‘worthy’ human being; meekly accepting your fate, vegetarian/veganism? Totally up to him, of course; his choice, but I would have liked to have seen where those ‘ideals’ came from.

    Didn’t really get why he was a tax collector…biblical reference? Making himself hated to test his subjects? Practical as it gave him access to private information?

    So, what was it about it which puts it into your top 5?

  • You notice things in a slightly different way to me which is interesting. I didn’t really think about his choices before. I didn’t see the beginning as being the end (in terms of what actually happens), I found it too ambiguous to reliably make any assumptions from it. I’ve seen films before that pretend to show what happens, but then when you get to it, its not quite what you think (e.g. you think all the way through Casino that de niro dies in a car bomb, but then he escapes it). So I didn’t guess where it was going at all, and had that “ooooh” moment towards the end. First time I saw it, I didn’t have a frame of reference to know what it was or where it was going, and used all my mental energy on trying to understand it rather than appreciating everything else (a bit like my first time of watching Inception as well). Why its in my top five: I’m a sucker for emotional suggestibility in films, and I love the emotions that this film shows. I love the organic feel of it, the editing and how it intuitively shows things at just the right time to keep this emotional “thing” building in a nicely balanced way. I also found the conflicts really interesting, whether its selfish for him to allow the girl to love him, whether its worth loving her for a brief time (like Shadowlands), his ultimate battle of whether he’s being selfish to alleviate his guilt, or altruistic. In a way the rest of the film is just a neat set-up for that section of it, his relationship to her. Each time I watch it I find new things to think about and a different way of looking at it. Its funny you mention Carlitos Way, that was my favourite film when I was 16, and it was based on a book called After Hours, and the film which shares the name of After Hours (Scorsese 1985) is also in my top five.

    I wonder if you ever plough your way through any TV seasons and which shows you enjoy?

  • I agree with you about the emotional build in 7 pounds – it was very effective and had a big impact on me – my immediate reaction was fury when he said about getting married and having kids, then frustration at the catch 22 situation – it was very well done.

    As for TV, I’m sure I watch far too much. I have a few friends who really look down on TV; apparently cycling, listening to music, posting about your breakfast on Facebook or msn-ing is far more worthy. I used to justify it be considering it research for acting! Now I just figure Sky+ makes me happy (though I might have finished my play if I switched off occasionally!)

    There are so many good shows and loads that are on my list to catch up on sometime…they’re pretty much all American. In no particular order: Dexter, The Mentalist, Lie To Me, Heroes, The Wire, Criminal Minds (though getting a bit too gory for me), CSI (Las Vegas and New York), Law and Order (all of them), Battlestar Galactica (seen bits – on my list), X Files, Stargate (1st one) and I never tire of back episodes of Buffy and Angel. Oh, and I’ve just started watching Boardwalk Empire.

    There are very few British ones that hit the spot. I’m catching up with and enjoying Our Friends in the North which I missed first time round and I always thought Waking the Dead was very well written and acted. I watched some of the first series of Spooks and thought it very good, but couldn’t get into the second series…

    That’s probably enough to be going on with! What do you like?

  • I think good TV is often much better than cinema – seasons allow for different character trajectories than a 2 hour feature, with much more room for patience, subtlety, foreshadowing etc. Something like The Wire for example (which I think is incredible). Also love Dexter, Lie To Me, Sopranos & 24. I need to get started on Boardwalk as well (and Treme, by makers of The Wire). I watched all of Walking Dead, by Frank Darabont, which I enjoyed at first but seemed to lose its way very quickly.

    I agree British TV doesn’t compare, always seems self-conscious, tinny and slightly tacky. Hustle was ok, but still think America would have done it much better.

    Have you seen True Grit yet?

  • Well I finally found a time to see True Grit. Strange – I thought it was a good film; it had interesting, likeable and very well-acted characters, a story that kept me interested, it was beautifully shot and gave a real sense of atmosphere, yet somehow it left me cold – just didn’t grab me. I’m not sure why – maybe because, although I liked the characters, they all remained pretty much the same at the end. Ok, they liked/respected each other more, but it seemed that they were fundamentally unchanged by their interactions. I was curious to know how the girl had become so self-possessed and determined by the age of 14, but I guess that’s a different kind of story. What did you make of it?

    I remember being quite excited when Hustle first started – it did feel slick and shiney and almost American. But, again, I didn’t find the characters interesting enough to encourage me back for a second series.

    I’m really enjoying Boardwalk Empire; after a slow start it’s really grown on me, to the extent that I really look forward to each week’s instalment (a rarity in our culture of immediate gratification). I wondered, at first, whether Steve Buscemi, having generally been in supporting roles, would have the presence to carry a lead role like this, but he’s brilliant. He brings a real sensitivity and vulnerability to a dubious character. In fact all the ‘good guy’/bad guy lines are nicely blurred – they are all very believable. It’s rather slow moving, but I like that and with the longer episodes it gives situations time to develop. The only problem I have with it is that I can’t tell some of the men apart (yeah, I know, gets me into all kinds of trouble!) Well, they all dress the same and wear their hair the same and it’s dark, and, well, maybe I need a bigger TV!

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