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.