It's the last day of class before the exam, and I promise my students at the very beginning that we will get all the way to their adulthoods ... and end with the film Inception. I pretend to myself that they care - that they think "no way, Professor Blum won't possibly make it to Inception or find a way to work it into the class." Of course, many of them haven't seen the film. Most of them don't care what I promise or don't promise. But for me, it's fun. And, to me, Inception is the place to end, because it emphasizes three critical points about the contemporary age.
First is the information age. The film is all about information. The characters are trying to steal information from various global companies by any means necessary (even if it means entering dream worlds or destroying emotional connections people have at the subconscious level). Information is hidden, stolen, sought after, and killed for. It is information that powers, deceives, and leads the characters on their journeys.
Second is the instability of reality. In the film, the lead character Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) never really knows when or where reality is. He has entered so many dreams, gone down so deeply into them, and created so many new worlds just from his imagination that he is unsure where the real world ends and this one begins. And characters in the film question the very nature of reality. Who is to say the dream world is not the real world? The question easily applies to the digital age. Who is to say that Facebook friends aren't real friends? Who is to say that the World of Warcraft isn't a literal world? In the dream world, one character (a forger) is able to transform himself into any number of guises. Sometimes he's an older man; sometimes he's a young, beautiful woman. In the modern world of cosmetic surgeries, of digital avatars, of performance-enhancing drugs, and of airbrushed photography, this character speaks to the ever-changing ability of the human body. Unlike The Matrix where there is one reality of real life and another of fake computer-generated life, Inception delves into the possibilities of levels of unreality with no real reality at all.
Third is the problem and deep profundity of extraction. Sure, the film is about inception - literally planting an idea in another's mind and having it grow organically. But the characters are much better at extraction - at taking information. Extraction can also be a key to another reality. While humans of the late twentieth and early twenty first century have become adept at making various new realities, they have built it upon extreme extraction and transformation of the natural environment. The extraction of fossil fuels, of metals, of minerals, of woods and grasses and soils. Major Problems has an excellent essay from the Sierra Club, but it probably needs to do a better job with the environment (or perhaps battles over global warming). The modern age is built upon a deep and profound transformation of the natural environment. The characters in Inception can change their worlds dramatically (build castles, temples, and roads instantly), but when they do the world of the dreamer realizes it and feels pain. The dreamer dislikes another force changing her atmosphere and topography. There is an environmental change - one contingent upon extraction - that makes the inception of new digital and dream worlds possible.
And this brings me to a new initiative by Coca-Cola. They have recently started a drive to donate funds to the World Wildlife Federation from purchases of special Coke cans. Proceeds will go to support a habitat for polar bears. So - to help the polar bears, one can purchase a cola product (of course, you could just donate directly). The bigger point is this: through entertainment and consumption, even environmental issues have become part and parcel of the extraction industry. This is the game of inception, I would argue, the game that Christopher Nolan is trying to unmask for us. Movies, commercials, advertisements - they're all elements of inception where ideas are planted into our minds, but to fully stick we must come to think they are self generated or valuable to reconciling us to others and the world.