Planting an idea undetected into another’s mind, subconsciously in this case, is the central concept of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) goes a step further by planting a person in another’s body through their mind. In his book Speaking into the Air, John Durham Peters points out that if telepathy—presumably the only communication context more immediate than face-to-face interaction—were to occur, how would one know who sent the message? How would one authenticate or clarify the source?
Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real
All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
— Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street”
The idea of planting an idea in someone’s mind, once known to some as memetic engineering, is not new; however, conceptualizing the particulars of doing it undetected is. Subconscious cat-burglar Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in extracting information from slumbering vaults. After a dream-within-a-dream heist-gone-wrong, he’s offered a gig planting something in one: and idea that will grow to “transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” Cobb reminds me of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) in the 1984 movie Dreamscape. Gardner is able to enter the dreams of others and alter their outcomes and thereby the outcomes of “real” situations. Cobb and his team do the same by creating and sharing dreams with others. The ability to share dreams—or to enter other worlds together via dreams, computer networks, hallucinations, mirrors, lions, witches, wardrobes, what-have-you—seems to be a persistent human fantasy. Overall, Nolan does a fine job adding to that canon of stories.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff gets theory-checked mid-film when Cobb’s partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt—standing in for Heath Ledger?) explains inception with the “don’t think of an elephant” ploy. What are you thinking about right now? Exactly. The problem is that you know why you’re thinking that right now. Successful inception requires that you think you thought of the idea yourself, independent of outside influence. It’s the artificial insemination of an original thought, “pure inspiration” in Cobb’s terms.
For better or worse, this concept (which takes the entire first act to establish), its mechanics (designer sedatives to sleep, primitive “kicks” to wake up), and the “big job” (a Lacanian catharsis culminating in the dismantling of a global empire) are just the devices that might enable the estranged Cobb to return home to his children. His late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard—standing in for Brittany Murphy?), or rather his projection thereof, haunts his dreams, jeopardizing his every job. Mal is a standout strong character and performance in a cast of (mostly; see below) strong characters and performances. She is beautiful, scary, and maintains an emotional gravity intermittently missing in this often-weightless world. She is the strange attractor that tugs the chaos along. Whenever the oneiric ontology of Inception feels a bit too free-floating, Mal can always be counted on to anchor it in anger and affect.
“Just think, one day your wife is cleaning the cat litter and she gets a worm in her, and that worm ends up in her brain. The next thing that happens is she gets an idea in there, too. And it’s hard to say whether that idea is really hers or it’s just the worm. And it makes her do certain things. Predator things. Eventually, you realize that she isn’t the same person anymore. She’s not the person that she used to be. It’s gotta make you wonder whether you’re really married to her or married to the worm.” – Colin Tate, Possessor
Head hopping in daylight hours, the protagonist in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) hijacks bodies via brains to carry out assassinations unscathed. Once the hit is in, she returns to her own body by forcing the host to kill themselves. Like the Sunken Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), the cognitive contrivance in Possessor pushes one consciousness out of the way of another. Once in control of a new body in a new social context, the operative is able to perform heinous acts in their name—namely murder-suicides.
When Tasya returns from a mission, she has to recalibrate to the real world in her own body. One of the tests for this involves a number of analog totems. This is interesting both in that the characters in Inception use such totems—Dom’s is a spinning top, Ariadne’s is a chess piece—to reality check their own worlds, and in that the analog world is said to be our native space as humans. The first of Tasya’s totems in the test is her grandfather’s pipe. The second is a mounted butterfly. “This is an old souvenir,” she remembers. “I killed her one day when I was a child and… I felt guilty… I still feel guilty.” As much as the butterfly and her memory of it serve to anchor her here, her guilt is the real anchor. Just like Dom’s guilt over Mal’s suicide, guilt is our private connection to others.
The seed of every story is a conceit, an unrealistic event or idea that the rest of the story sets out to explain. Suicide notes notwithstanding, the survivors of a loved one who has taken their own life can never really know why they did so. The living can always see another option. If nothing else, Inception and Possessor both succeed in explaining the suicide of a completely rational person, but I think they succeed at much more than that.