Space & Innovation

Inception's Flawed Science and Logic

The hit film Inception is a interesting mind-bender, but does damage to logic and science along the way

"Inception," the new film by Christopher Nolan (director of "Memento" and "The Dark Knight"), topped the box office this weekend, grossing over $60 million. It's an interesting mind-bender, but does some damage to logic and science along the way.

The plot of "Inception" is too complex to effectively summarize (at least without giving away too much of the plot), but involves a man named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate espionage artist who has the curious (and largely unexplained) ability to steal secrets from other people's minds while they dream.

Cobb is an international fugitive who can't return home to see his kids, but a rich business magnate named Saito promises to fix Cobb's legal problems if Cobb can successfully implant an idea in the mind of a business rival. Cobb assembles a team, including a forger, a chemist expert in anesthesiology, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant architecture student who can design dreamscapes in which Cobb can work.

Roger Ebert, a critic I greatly admire and respect, wrote in his review of "Inception" that he had found at least one plot hole in Nolan's previous film, "Memento," and that "Maybe there's a hole in ‘Inception' too, but I can't find it."

Roger, let me help you out on this one. There are many plot holes, errors, and gaffes in "Inception"; allow me to highlight a few. (Spoiler alert!)

First of all, the main character's motivation - to be reunited with his children - is completely bogus. Cobb is an international fugitive because he is supposedly being sought on murder charges in the death of his wife.

This seems plausible until we see the actual circumstances of her death: She committed suicide by jumping out a window of a building opposite where Cobb was when she jumped. There's no way that Cobb would or could ever have been charged with her murder. (Memo to Nolan: police and forensic detectives can easily tell the difference between a suicide jumper and a victim who was pushed-especially when they are in different buildings.)

If Cobb had half a brain, he'd have happily returned to the States to have the murder charges laughed out of court. I haven't seen a script with this level of ignorance about the legal system since 1998′s Ashley Judd dud "Double Jeopardy."

When Cobb is testing Ariadne to see if she's up to the task of creating a virtual new world, he gives her a test, asking her to quickly draw a maze that would take a person at least two minutes to solve. After two unsuccessful attempts at rectangular mazes on some graph paper that Cobb quickly and easily solves with a pencil, Ariadne turns the paper over and draws a spiral design on the blank page.

This impresses Cobb (and presumably the audience), as it shows her "thinking outside the box." Except that according to Cobb (and what we see of the puzzle), Ariadne drew a labyrinth -- which would take mere seconds to solve, since a labyrinth has only one path.

It is the same path from the outside to the inside, and therefore isn't a maze at all (that's why labyrinths are popular among New Age devotees for meditation: no thinking or decisions are required to complete the pattern).

Instead of Ariadne solving Cobb's task with brilliant bravado, she completely failed.

Speaking of failure and success, a big part of the film's premise is predicated on the success of the titular inception. If Cobb successfully implants an idea into the target (that is, if the whole point of the film works), Saito will pull some strings that will reunite Cobb with his children.

That's all well and good, except that there would be no way to know if the inception was successful or not -- and even if the idea was successfully implanted in a person's consciousness, that doesn't mean that the target would necessarily act upon that idea.

Most of us have plenty of ideas -- -good and bad, practical and impractical -- just having an idea doesn't mean we can or will act upon it. Put another way, Saito doesn't merely want the idea implanted; he wants it acted upon, and the only way to know for sure if the whole plan was successful is when it is acted upon weeks or months later.

Until then, a competing or contradictory idea might come into the subject's head and scotch the whole plan; ideas that seem brilliant after a few beers one night are often dismissed in the cold light of day.

Then there's this howler, spoken by Cobb: "They say we all use only a fraction of our brain's potential."

Yes, Christopher Nolan (who's said to have spent a decade writing the screenplay for "Inception"), trots out this debunked old brain myth. As I have written about on many occasions (including for the urban legends reference page Snopes.com), the idea that we only use a small part of our brains is a complete myth.

In fact, medical studies have repeatedly shown that humans use all parts of the brain. I don't blame Nolan for making the mistake, as it's a common error. But if he's going to spend 10 years on the script, you might think that he'd double-check the facts in his main character's dialogue -- especially if Cobb is supposed to be the world's top expert on how the brain works.

Let's hope Nolan's next film isn't about a famous painter who casually declares that orange is a primary color (about or a historian discussing Thomas Jefferson's role as America's first president).

Oh, and by the way: when U.S. citizens re-enter the United States, their passports are not stamped by immigration officials.

I don't mean to come off as snarky, but surely a smart screenwriter like Christopher Nolan can do better than this. Unless, of course, these were not real mistakes but instead intentional hidden clues about the real story ...