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The Dystopia of Inception

By Taylor Marvin


Last week I rewatched Inception. It’s an engaging film, but I think what’s really interesting about Inception isn’t its layers upon layers of dreams but the bizarre society hinted at in the film.

When the movie premiered last summer there were some interesting reactions to the politics implied in Inception. Matt Yglesias had an interesting read of the film’s bizarre political economy:

“It’s clear that Saito really wants to see that competing conglomerate broken up. The events depicted in the film are not cheap. Instead of investing all that time, energy, and money in a longshot cinematic dream-busting effort, wouldn’t it make more sense to just launch a PR and lobbying campaign to get anti-trust authorities (or other regulators) to do the job? That’s all even perfectly legal. And the film makes it clear that Saito has a fair amount of political pull as is.”

I’d go farther. At the film’s close, Saito is able to make Cobb’s murder charge go away with one phone call. It’s amazing how much political influence Saito has – one call, and twenty minutes later Cobb is able to pass through US customs. This implies that the American judicial system has become much, much corrupt in the near future setting of Inception. While the modern US judicial system clearly has its faults, it’s inconceivable that even an extremely wealthy and powerful foreign business executive would able to instantly overturn a years-old murder charge today. That Saito is able to do so is a strong insinuation that the American government in the Inception universe has decayed into a plutocratic dystopia far more corrupt than in our world.

This theme goes deeper. Yglesias makes a point to wonder why Saito doesn’t attempt to break up Fischer’s energy monopoly with legal public relations and lobbying efforts. However, there’s good reason to doubt that these legal means would be effective in the world of Inception. We’ve already established that in this future powerful businessmen essentially have unlimited influence over the US judicial system. Similarly, the movie also depicts a world where corporations are able to essentially hunt and murder at will, and where government regulatory oversight is so restricted that Saito is able to purchase a foreign airline in days. This lack of government power extends to law enforcement as well – despite his highly public stature, Saito is able to spend months in close contact with wanted criminals without anyone noticing. Essentially, the world of Inception is a future where governments are feeble and corrupt and most real power is held by unsupervised large international conglomerates. While this background isn’t essential to the plot of the film, it is interesting that few reviewers noted Inception’s dystopian elements, which is interesting because these themes are actually fairly obvious – a reality where industrial spies freely steal secrets through dreams while being hunted by armed thugs isn’t possible in a well governed world.

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