INCEPTION: Transhumanist Dreams Resolve Grief

INCEPTION is a science fiction thriller, about a transhumanistic capacity to access and influence the mind by tapping the subconscious through dreams. It's billed as a film about corporate espionage. I say it's a film about resolving universal human issues around grief and sudden death through highly developed dream therapy.

The Hettle Rule is operant in this blog. Paul Hettle is a filmmaker and an important film educator.  I went to film school after I was a physician.  Hettle's style of teaching is the opposite of the medical education model. The Hettle Rule is: "Only acknowledge the positive while screening footage". This is his way of encouraging more of what he wants to see. He totally ignores horrendous errors, not wanting to inadvertently reward them.   Though it was the 1990s, this was a twenty-first century way of teaching.   The Minghella Corollary to the Hettle Rule is: "Never assume that anyone doesn't need to know when they are hitting on all cylinders, be they Oscar winning directors, cinematographers, actors or producers." There is so much good in the film INCEPTION, applicable to bioethics screen reflection, that I am compelled to think about it and to encourage others to do so as well.

INCEPTION is embroidered with references to the combined applied science technologies of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, architecture, chemistry, physics and sculpture.  With training in all of these, those of my household took an hour post-screening to be sure we had the plot straight and that it was consistent. We did and it was. This film is very likely going to be a major cultural phenomenon. Missing it will be like having missed M*A*S*H (Altman 1970).  INCEPTION is a good film for teaching clinical ethical issues. Its story turns on tension between key plot points: 1) lack of full understanding about the science underlying dream probing technology and 2) applying the science of dream probing technology without full informed consent of those at risks. There is also more than a passing nod to issues around world energy supply, depression, suicide, and intergenerational prolonged grief.

INCEPTION's application of film art and science is strong.  It is reminiscent of the first viewing of THE SIXTH SENSE (Shyamalan, 1999). These films build a world and a language which the viewer has to learn and follow.  You need to be awake and stay awake, start to finish. The rapid rate of cuts and images on the screen speak loudest to a post internet generation. However, the directorial and script structures honor classic film styles. The recurrent visual of "the maze" is homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Hitchcock, 1959) protagonist, Roger O. Thornton, trapped like a mouse in a maze, in the extreme long shot on the grounds of the United Nations.

Classic film grammar is also used in INCEPTION but with a twist. The twist is that the script kaleidoscopes classic techniques.  An example would be the classic film technique known as the Griffith Escape. A simple version of the Griffith Escape: the camera cuts between the damsel in distress tied to the railroad track, the speeding train, and the cavalry in route to her rescue. The closer the train gets the shorter the interval between the cuts, heightening suspense approaching the climax. The plot of INCEPTION raises each shot to the power of four in the escape, demanding the viewer to function not in three dimensions but sixteen. The Kaleidoscope geometry expands likewise to heighten the sense of resolution. Bookending of themes, at the beginning and end of the story, are similarly mathematically assembled.  Further, each actor is moving in 4 story lines, simultaneously and together as an ensemble.  Albert Einstein would have loved this film for its ability to bend time and space. INCEPTION is a platform not only for exploration of a fictional technology, but also of film technology's influence on individuals and cultures.

Science fiction and horror films are often used to teach bioethics.  The prototypical film example is the monster built by Frankenstein (Whale, 1931). In Frankenstein, we see both scientist and society taught the lesson not to play God. The same lesson about new technology has been continuously taught over seventy years.  INCEPTION differs from much of horror and science fiction. This film explores the conflicts and dangers of a new technology without demonization of the technology itself. Instead, it shows how such access to the mind might serve humanity and enhance individual growth; as a dream therapist may do.

Transhumanism is a philosophical movement linked to bioethics, largely through the principle of beneficence; the obligation to do good with scientific knowledge. Transhumanism is known for exploring ethical issues around science beyond last century's negative portrayals. Though operant in much medical and other life-enhancing applied sciences, futurist films serve as the philosophy’s most frequent venue for re-examination of cultural attitudes around science and technology.  The film, INCEPTION, is an example of a complex exploration of cultural concerns around thought manipulation through dream technology and offers an atypical resolution. The resolution is the dissolution of the wall that separates the idea from the application; the concept from the reality. INCEPTION is about the expansion of human potential beyond its known physical and psychological limitations, complete with the inherent risks and benefits of the tasks.

INCEPTION. 35 mm. Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA. Warner Brothers. July 16, 2010 (148 mm)

For more Film/Bioethics on this site see: "Lighten Up" slides, 0.019, 0.020 (Informed Consent), .032 (Aristotelian Plot Curve), 0.059 (Camera Angle), 0.060 (Meaning of Shot Size to the Viewer).


Anonymous said...

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- Henry