With opening weekend box office receipts of $62.8 million, it’s clear that the film “Inception” appeals to a broad audience, but Silicon Valley in particular is burning with love for this movie. And I can see why: let me address that question on multiple levels.

With opening weekend box office receipts of $62.8 million, it’s clear that the film “Inception” appeals to a broad audience, but Silicon Valley in particular is burning with love for this movie. And I can see why: I loved Inception because I am a geek and a techie at heart. Why does being a geek mean that this movie appeals to me?  True to the spirit of the movie, let me address that question on multiple levels. (Don’t worry — I’ll try to do this in a way that doesn’t have too many spoilers).

First, and most superficially, this is a mashup of movie genres that resonate with geeks: The movie combines science fiction, espionage, con games and action movie elements, with requisite car chases and gun battles, spiced up by some excellent special effects (Paris folding in on itself is to die for).

Second, the hero is a good-looking geek — and so is his female colleague. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) works with a team of hackers — including a really smart, beautiful female geek (I am officially in love with Ellen Page) — who together set out to hack wetware, rather than software. He is deeply passionate about his work and unable to draw a line between his personal and professional pursuits. That’s something geeks can all relate to. But it gets better.

Third, they are attempting a hack that no one else has done before — implanting an idea in someone’s brain so that the person truly feels it is his own idea. If you’re the kind of geek who yearns for detailed schematics of the technology behind all of this, you’ll be disappointed – there are none. This is a movie for the Dungeons-and-Dragon crowd, who are prepared to suspend disbelief in the interest of the game.

Fourth, this team of hackers creates designer dreams, defining elaborate settings and choreographing action so that the “players” end up doing things according to plan – well, at least most of the time. Many critics have put down the movie because the dreams are neat and orderly, not messy and chaotic — but that’s the point, these are geek dreams, carefully programmed in advance, like a video game. In fact, these aren’t even really dreams; they’re artificial constructs that have clear rules and complex labyrinths that must be explored in order to progress.

Fifth, these dreams have multiple layers, with clear protocols for moving from one level to the next. Sounds suspiciously like a technology stack.  But like most technology stacks, even the best defined interfaces sometimes yield unexpected ripple effects across the layers – often something happening in one layer of this dream world results in some kind of disturbance in other layers of the stack. Damn it, can’t we eliminate those messy interdependencies?

Sixth, we have a doomed love story. Cobb spends a good part of the movie yearning for his lost wife, regretting and reliving the loss. A key message of the movie, underscored by the Edith Piaf song that repeatedly plays throughout, is that regret is a draining emotion that one must learn to let go.  It is perhaps not coincidental that the lost love’s name is Mal – French for bad. What geek isn’t driven by regret over a lost love or at least a lost opportunity?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are unresolved mysteries. The movie does not neatly wrap everything up in the end.  We are left with major uncertainties that trigger some vigorous debates among those who have seen the movie, with evidence to support very different interpretations of the end. The end very likely may be just a beginning, true to the title of the film. There is much more to be learned. Nothing less would satisfy a geek.

John Hagel heads a research center in Silicon Valley and is the co-author of the recently released The Power of Pull.  His website is www.johnhagel.com.

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By John Hagel

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  1. and the movie was shot in 4K

    1. Scott Langendyk Michael Monday, July 26, 2010

      It was still shot on film.


      1. Most of the film was shot 35mm with some 65mm and HD. All that was converted to 4k for post. The final print was 70mm for IMAX and 35mm for regular theaters.

  2. The Leonardo Code « Log24 Saturday, July 24, 2010

    [...] "7 Reasons Why Techies Love 'Inception'," by John [...]

  3. well i’m not big fan of movies but watch only some of the quite acclaimed movies only and this buzz makes me to watch this movie.

  4. Loved the movie. Saw it twice. It is a story that if pitched to me @ a bar, sober, I would laugh and say “Huh?”. 2 Drinks in and I am sold.. 2 tickets stat! Good work Christopher Nolan creating new mythology.

  5. dreamsburnred Saturday, July 24, 2010

    Loved the movie :), don’t know why some don’t.

  6. Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. Mostly this was because I’d seen the main concepts from this movie done better in previous movies. Satoshi Kon’s anime movie “Paprika” covered the same ground, and was more visually interesting. Mamoru Oshii’s “Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer” also touched on the same subjects, and had better pacing and a more interesting plot. Not to mention “Dreamscape” and “The Cell”, which did the same thing. Hell, the situation with Cobb’s wife killing herself because she didn’t know if she was in a dream is exactly what happened to Sam Tyler in “Life On Mars” (the BBC original, not the American remake). So, yeah… not so impressed.

    1. That’s not why Sam Tyler killed himself.

      Just because an idea has been explored doesn’t in itself any less appealing. How many ways have we seen a Shakespeare play reworked?

      Solid film that did us all the favor of treating us like we had a brain to tell a fun story… really not much more too it than tat. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

    2. All of those movies (especially Paprika) are more concerned with the distortion and blurring of the line between dreams and reality. Inception is quite clear about what is a dream and what isn’t, and is more concerned with the psychology of the target and of Cobb. The movie begins and ends with the idea that an idea is the most dangerous of all, and with the revelation about the projection of Mal the audience comes to an understanding of why that might be.

      Cobb’s first act of Inception has repercussions in both Mal’s and his own mind, so much so that his subconscious actively works to trap instead of expel. The story is more about his personal manifestation of guilt than about layering dreams. The blurring of the line between dreams and reality is only presented at the end as a mind bender, not a central idea of the film.

      Also, you could find any number of examples of things that happened in Inception that happened in other movies, such as your comparison between Sam Tyler and Mal Cobb. Individual scenes and events can be compared to an infinite number of like stories that have been told. What is important is under what context they are presented. The suicide of Mal is important not because she believes that she’s still dreaming, but because Cobb put the idea in her head that it was true. His entire character revolves around the idea that it was his fault.

  7. I saw it today. It was ok.
    The top spins at the end but it wobbles.
    To me, this means Cobb is no longer dreaming.

    That being said…

    Fischer is about to dismantle the business empire and Saito benefits when that happens.
    This just doesn’t make any sense.
    First of all, how do they know for sure Fischer will dismantle it?
    Why would Fischer think it’s a smart idea to dismantle it?
    If he dismantles it, it will be a stupid business decision.
    And if he dismantles it because it’s better for the world, it’s stupid as well. If you want to create a better world, you stay in control, and you make others do the right thing.
    If Fischer dismantles it, someone else like Saito will go after the monopoly.

    Geeks like things that make sense. Try to make sense of this, pls.

    1. Did you watch the movie? The whole point was that they weren’t trying to convince him that it was a good business decision or good for the world to split up the company, but that his father loved him and wants him to be his own man by creating his own legacy and not using his fathers.

  8. Artruro Jayson Saturday, July 24, 2010

    I’ve yet to meet someone who liked or has even seen this movie. All the techs and geeks I know only do real tech and don’t watch movies. Everyone can do CGI on their own computers that’s better than the movies. Buy Vue 8 or download Anim8or for free and you can make your own CGI better than any movie. You’ll never have to see a movie again. Pretend you’re a drunk detective trapped in a video game. :)

    1. True, nobody that I know likes movies either. We should all create our own garbage CGI because that’s all movies are, and is the only reason people see them. All the techs and geeks you know only “do real tech”? Have you ever talked to a person before? Please remove yourself from the internet immediately.

    2. I used to do real tech. I became a real tech addict. My family and friends were tortured by my love of real tech. I withdrew from the world. Didn’t go to movies or watch TV. I did real tech all day long. When the urge for movies came up I made my own CGI for free which was better than the movies I never watched. Fortunately, I got counselling. I don’t do real tech any more. I don’t do CGI. I got help and now all I do is life!

  9. “Third, they are attempting a hack that no one else has done before — implanting an idea in someone’s brain so that the person truly feels it is his own idea.”

    Anyone who has ever tried to get anything done in the workplace that requires approval knows that this is attempted and achieved perhaps on a daily basis.

  10. @k
    The breaking the monopolies a side issue. Cobb takes the job in order to get back to his kids, nothing more, nothing less.

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