Within the plot of Inception, the big question concerns how can you implant an idea into another person's head so that the person receiving the idea actually thinks it comes from his or her own intention. While the film depicts this form of mind control as a futuristic mystery, we must ask, isn't this the central trick of contemporary culture and capitalism? Doesn't advertising get us to desire things and then makes us think that these desires come from our own free will.
In other words, what appears to be a cutting-edge manipulation in the film is the central mechanism shaping our culture. In fact, one of the biggest illusions sold in popular culture is the illusion of individual control.
Since people want to believe that they are in control of their destiny, they must convince themselves that external desires are actually internally derived. Within the context of Inception, the ideas implanted into people are called viruses, and we are told on several occasions that once an idea enters someone's mind, it continues to spread and replicate. However, the film also stresses that people will defend against viral ideas, and so the implanters of the viruses have to find a way to trick the mind into thinking that the parasite is the product of the receiver's own intention.
Once again, we can see this science fiction storyline as simply mystifying the way everyday pop culture works. Fashion and hot news items enter our brains from outside, and they circulate and spread through our thoughts. Likewise, the World Wide Web can be seen as a giant shared external brain prone to viruses and the viral media.
Perhaps the most important way to understand a film like Inception is to realize that it reflects important aspects of our lives in a distorted and fictionalized way. In other words, we are confronted with some depressing truths, but since it is just a fiction, we do not have to take those truths seriously. For instance, the movie may allow us to see how we are being manipulated by advertising into thinking that we desire the objects they want to sell us, but this critical insight is undermined by the fictional nature of its presentation. Like so many other contemporary productions, everything that is criticized in the film is also repeated in the making of the movie. Thus, as we are shown the destructive results of living in a fantasy world, we are watching a fantasy.
One of the central plots of the story is that the main character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is responsible for his wife's suicide because he implanted in her unconscious the idea that they are trapped in a fake world. Since the wife wants to escape her dream, she decides to kill herself. After his wife's death, the main character feels horrible guilt and decides to re-enter his unconscious so that he can rejoin his wife who now only exists as a memory. At first, the message appears to be the standard movie message that we should not mistake fantasy for reality, and we must learn to accept our lives as they are. Thus, the wife killed herself because she failed to realize that she was living in a fantasy-dream world, and by the end of the film, the husband, our hero, also realizes that he must give up his fantasies, memories, and guilt by affirming the reality of his actual family.
This common message of favoring reality over fantasy is portrayed ironically in a fantasy film about fantasies. Call it contradiction or hypocrisy, but once again we find the media attacking the media as it produces more media about media. Like a parasitic virus that cannot stop replicating and circulating, pop culture resembles the implanted ideas, which are the real subject of the film.
However, the reason why we cannot stop the viral spread of media memes is not because we fight them off with an army of internal defense mechanisms; rather, the media viruses are always implanted with their own protective defenses. In other words, while the film wants to pretend that our minds are populated by self-controlled defenses, these defenses are actually produced and disarmed by the viral media itself.
The media not only wants us to believe that all of our desires come from our own intentions, but we are also told that all of our defenses are derived from our efforts at self-preservation. The reality is actually the opposite: our desires and defenses come from the external media. We are back to where The Matrix left us. When Neo asks Trinity what it means that all of his memories have been implanted by the matrix (the media), he also wants to know what is left of his individuality. In response, Trinity tells him that the matrix cannot tell him who he is. Yet, if all of our desires and memories are media messages, hasn't the matrix (as the media) defined us?
Like The Matrix, Inception plays on the idea of a shared dream, which we can read as another metaphor for film itself. But what these films may be pointing to unintentionally is the idea that our world has entered into a third space where there is no clear difference between fact and reality.
This means that virtual reality represents something that is both real and fake at the same time. Like The Matrix, this film appears to approach this truth, but then turns back on itself and holds a mirror up to its own mirror. In The Matrix, they create a simulation of the virtual reality, and as the sequels progress, there is the idea that we are always in another virtual version of a virtual reality.
Likewise, with Inception we are told that we are in a dream that is in a dream that is in another dream, and the result is that by the end of the film, no one knows if we are in reality or still in a dream, but perhaps this is a very truthful way of seeing our contemporary world.
The danger of new media is not so much whether the content is corrupting or enlightening, the problem is that it eats away at all of our fundamental oppositions between truth and reality, technology and nature, self and other, and memory and perception. We are so saturated with media representations that we can no longer distinguish fact from fiction. As the film argues, people dream so they can wake up, but what happens if we can only live in fiction.