One of the reasons I am such a big fan of watching films I love many times is that it is so pleasurable to think of the ways a film affects one differently over time, not just because you’re never the same person watching it due to changes in your personality but also because your cinematic tastes change the more films you open yourself up to. Thus, it was a lot of fun to recently reconnect with Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, not only because it’s a great film in its own right but also due to the fact that it shares themes and/or ideas with the movie of the moment, and another personal favorite, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, both of which are so blazingly intelligent and exciting and original that you do have to see them several times before you find their associations with things that might have influenced them in more than skin-deep ways.
The Truman Show depicts a world that to Truman Burbank, its protagonist, is supposed to seem like a great dream: he is married to a lovely wife, he has a caring best friend, a well-paying job that he seems to enjoy and that affords him plenty of free time, and, finally, he lives in a city recently voted as the best place to live in in the world. Yet Truman begins to realize that this utopia is a dream, and by definition cannot last, and he starts, somewhat paranoically but nevertheless still gently, to look for clues as to why and how his world does not seem real. The grace that Truman shows in attempting to escape from his “dream” state is the film’s biggest difference from the action heroics of Inception and even The Matrix, the latter of which I will not discuss here because I’ve already written about its dystopic attributes at length in the past (To read my essay comparing Blade Runner and The Matrix, click here). This grace is the film’s biggest similarity to another contemporary film that I will not discuss at length in this space but is well worth checking out, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, whose protagonists’ discoveries of their tragic fates (I will not spoil the film’s major twist, which occurs early in the film but is so powerful that it needs to be witnessed at the same time as the film, and not before) leads not to their trying to escape but instead leads to their trying to understand, a quality that is so empathetic that it lends the film a heartbreaking humanity that few films can match. But I digress.
What Inception does share with The Truman Show is the idea that dreams can, at the blink of an eye, turn from good to bad due to their very nature. Dreams and dreaming are thought of in such polarizing ways in western culture, which both of these films are clearly aware of and want to explore. In fact, the mere word “dream” can be used in polar opposite ways depending on the situation. For example, when a parent or any caring figure wants to impress upon another person that the world carries vast possibilities for anyone who remains open-minded, they tell that person to follow their dreams; and yet, when a person posits a view that is controversial or is far from becoming a reality, they are met with the swiftly scathing comment, “You’re dreaming” (Of course, one can argue that in the former case dreams are meant in the metaphorical sense while in the latter the literal sense is being used, but the problem still remains that dreams cannot help but be polarizing because they’re being discussed on one or two levels and it’s not always easy to figure out on which level they’re being discussed or whether they’re being talked about on both levels at the same time). Dreaming can be so freeing because, as Inception’s Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) puts it, it allows us to create new things and worlds and perceive how the world is being changed by these creations at the same time. Nevertheless, as Cobb describes later on in the same conversation with Ariadne (Ellen Page), dreaming can be disturbing too because it’s very hard to figure out when a dream starts, and when a dream ends is followed in a nanosecond by one’s waking up, which makes it very difficult to remember on what note the dream ended. Ergo, the dreamer’s inability to perceive their past or future while they are in a dream disallows them to place themselves on the steady footing of routine and tradition, which in turn makes dreams increasingly difficult to control.
Moreover, these films earn a lot of their tension and power by considerably complicating the audience’s ability to point to clear heroes and villains, by having key, sympathetic characters (Truman in the first film and Mal in the second) being brought into dreams they do not want to be in by those, such as Christof in The Truman Show and Cobb in Inception, who love them and pronounce that they are trying to save them. Thus, although Truman’s grace and innocence continue to show as he becomes more and more aware of the artificial nature of his life, and make him very easy to cheer for as he attempts to escape it, this viewer was nevertheless quite disarmed by Christof’s lovely final conversation with his de facto son and consequent disappointment at having lost him. Similarly, the fact that the mind thieves of Inception succeed in accomplishing their goal continues to astound me after five viewings of the film because in theory I should be thoroughly appalled by their disturbing mind control, and their means to an end are nevertheless slightly disturbing in practice, but that feeling goes away in the face of the difficulty of their task and the stakes for which they do it, not only to create healthy competition (and, hopefully, innovation) between businesses but most importantly to repair a father-son relationship.
Therefore, we have the main reason why both of these films are so powerful: they’re about dreams, dreaming, and ideas, and the maddeningly complicated ways all three of these things can be so healthy for us but can quickly turn into what Cobb deems the most resilient, highly contagious parasites, for they can envelop us in a haze that is very difficult to escape because we often don’t know it’s there.