Inception: The City of Dreams

This article is part of a series on representations of the city in film in 2010.

Even before Inception was released, a number of architecture blogs, including one of my favorites, BLDG BLOG, had begun to analyze the stunning architecture and cityscapes of the film, yet no one I’ve seen has gone into depth in analyzing the urban symbolism of the film.

In my earlier post, I suggested that there are two basic types of urban films, those that celebrate a certain identifiable city and those that present a (often dystopian) metacity. Both are important for students of urban identity. The first type is a sort of active project of creation of urban representation, while the second is often legible as a morality tale of urbanity: what we should believe and fear about urban life and how to interpret cityspace.

Inception is a very interesting case of the latter. Since the city that we see is created in the space of Cobb’s (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) dreams, it must fall into the second category… not a specific place, but a metacity. Students of urban history certainly noticed the similarities between the cityscape and Corbusier’s Voison Plan for Paris. At the same time, the vision is not fully dystopian. The city presented is a city of dreams, created by Cobb and his wife through years of building, and not a city of nightmares.

Corbusier's Voison Plan of Paris

Cobb's Dream City

Indeed, I believe the very fact that it is a cityscape that he imagines, rather than a pastoral landscape that is so often presented as a dreamscape, is very important to changing cultural perceptions of urbanity.

Cobb’s city is also one of memory, pieced together from a nostalgic built fabric. In his “neighborhood,” he and his wife reassembled each of their former homes, removing the context that they once occupied and placing them along a monumental boulevard, set apart as sculptural objects by a reflecting pool. Like a Lynchian mental map, Cobb’s dream city pulls together the temporally and spatially symbolic collage of lived spaces as a monument to his life.

At the center of the city is the home Cobb and his wife have constructed. A massive, mid-century modernist skyscraper on the outside, the interior reveals a well-maintained craftsman with a back yard. As Cobb explains, “We both wanted to live in a house, but we loved this type of building. In the real world we’d have to choose, but not here.” This discourse is straight out of Moshie Safdie’s 1960’s plan for Habitat ’67 in Montreal, a real life attempt to bridge urban density with suburban amenity on a man-made peninsula in the St. Lawrence Riverway in Montréal.

The very fact that American films have begun to showcase urbanity in a positive light is a significant change from the mostly negative films of the 80’s and 90’s. The 90’s and 00’s reductions in urban crime, the gentrification of downtowns and the introduction of Guiliani and Bloomberg’s “luxury city” certainly seems to be having an effect on the (let’s face it) mostly upper-class, mostly white, mostly men who make films. In the next article of this ongoing series, I’m going to examine the city spaces created in the science fiction television series Caprica (the prequel to Battlestar Galactica), in which a gentrified, bourgeois Caprica City is paired with its evil virtual twin, New Cap City.