Films in which dreaming is central to the story, characters, or theme are themselves somewhat like dreaming.[1] When we enter a film world, we activate certain features of our minds that may be the same as when we dream. While other types of art — reading a novel, listening to music, or viewing a painting – may activate some aspect of our minds, none are as all encompassing as the medium of film. Film arguably engages a larger share, if you will, of our perceptual apparatus. Consequently, film lends itself quite nicely to stories that, in one way or another, engage us in dreams.

Another similarity between dreaming and watching films (and maybe also significant thematic features of the films themselves) is the experience of escape. In sleep, we escape the stresses and burdens of our waking lives; in dreams, we often live dramatically different lives, sometimes doing the impossible or accepting peculiar happenings we would otherwise find bizarre or at least questionable.

Escape is not the only exit possible from our lives. Surrender is another. When we sleep, we surrender ourselves to the unknown, to a dreamless state that may be deathlike. We surrender our control to dreams, just as when we watch a film, we surrender our own life narrative to another’s vision. We do so with no small amount of naïve trust that we will come out of it okay — even when we go to see a horror film like The Exorcist.

Dreams and film have a long history together. Dreaming or the dream-state is called an oneiric metaphor in film theorizing, enlisted as a way to describe or interpret the dreamlike nature of film. Rather than classifying film as a reproduction of reality, the theorist asserts that film is dreaming or reflective of the dream state. For example, when we watch a film, we do not pay attention to the physical apparatus used to support the moving image — the actual film strip, digital equipment, projector, or screen. Instead, we enter the film world in a way that feels quite similar to our dream states. In this way, fiction, image, dream and reality blend into a continuous whole.

Can you know what is real? 

One of the most prevalent questions posed by the fact of dreaming is whether or not we can ever know what is real. This question is at the heart, for example, of both Inception and The Matrix. In fact, The Matrix assumes, but does not argue forcefully that we can know the difference, whereas the former leaves us in limbo through the very last frame.

The Matrix’s hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves) lives a rather dull life working at a mundane day job where he is known as Mr. Anderson, but after hours, he is Neo, an intrepid computer hacker. Neo cannot shake the niggling feeling that something isn’t right within the world he lives. It’s not long before that feeling becomes a reality — Mr. Anderson learns that what he thought was real was actually just a computer-simulated life. He might as well have been dreaming, since the massive computer — the Matrix — has hooked people up to a simulator so it can derive energy from their brains. What we’re not told, however, at least not in any substantial way, is how Mr. Anderson — now Neo — can distinguish the simulated world from the real one. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), member of the rebel group who has escaped the Matrix and recruited Neo, explains the distinction this way:

What is real? How do you define “real”? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. This is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end of the twentieth century. It exists now only as part of a neural-interactive simulation that we call the Matrix. You've been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world as it exists today....

So much for a criterion, a standard, that allows us to tell the difference between dreaming and waking. But at least the film raises the question.

Thinkers like Plato,[2] Zhuangzi,[3] and Aristotle[4] initially wondered about the distinction between dreaming and waking, but it was Descartes[5] who put the problem of distinguishing dreaming from waking squarely on the map as a major epistemological issue. For if we have no means to distinguish dreaming from waking, then we cannot tell what is real and so cannot be said to have knowledge. Of course, for someone like The Matrix’s Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), knowledge isn’t important. If the simulated life of the Matrix feels real, and is actually more comfortable than the real world, the choice is a no-brainer. As he sits in a simulated restaurant eating a simulated steak with a simulated Matrix bad guy, he says, “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

Unlike The Matrix, Inception’s main character, Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), does not move from a dream world to a real one. Instead, he moves back and forth, maintaining a sort of awareness in the former that allows him to get back to the latter. In fact, each character who works with Dominic enters the dream state with a totem, an object which allows the owner to know if he or she is in a dream. Eventually, however, the two worlds become blurred to the point that he is — and we, the audience are — unsure which is which, totem or not. Even Ariadne, otherwise aptly named, cannot help Cobb or us.

This line of reasoning also leads us to another question: what exactly is a dream? Some, like Descartes, say it is like waking experience — in our dreams we are aware of seeing, hearing, feeling emotions, and so forth, just as we do in our waking lives. Since the perceptual component is the same, we take it that the conscious states are also the same, and so conclude that the dreaming and waking states are experientially the same. We then wonder what standard we could use to tell the difference between dreaming and waking. Before we know it, we’ve landed ourselves in the sticky wicket of trying to distinguish the real from the unreal.

Others[6] think dreaming is closer to imagining, which is what we do when we tell stories. On this view, a distinction is made between what’s going on in the dream contrasted with what goes on while we dream. “When something happens in my dream, reality tends not to follow suit.”[7] Suppose a lion chases us in our dream. That does not mean a lion chases us while we dream. In other words, we’re not entitled to infer from seeming beliefs we develop in a dream to the same belief while we’re dreaming, since when we dream we merely imagine things happening. This distinction allows us a criterion to determine the difference between dreaming and waking, thereby avoiding the sort of skepticism heralded by the experiential criterion Descartes proposes.

In a film, however, the action that takes place in the story happens while the film is playing. So, if dreaming and movie watching are similar, then the emotions we feel and beliefs we develop while watching the film are concurrent with, if not one and the same as, those emotions and beliefs we feel and develop in our dreams.

If we push this notion of dreams as imaginings just a bit further, we find ourselves in the territory of hallucination. After all, what is a hallucination except the perception of something that, in actuality, is not there? If film and dream are similar, then, what does all this tell us about our enduring fascination with film? One inference that would be interesting to explore at this point is, assuming a mental affinity between watching movies and dreaming, and assuming the in-while distinction, that entertainment is not possible. In other words, the sorts of emotions and beliefs we feel and develop over the course of a film are real, not mere diversions. That, however, is a topic for another time.



[1] Philosopher, Colin McGinn, makes an even stronger claim. In The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, he argues that watching a film and dreaming are, “deeply united despite their formal differences”. (Random House, 2005)

[2] Plato, “Theaetetus” (158a-158d), from Plato: The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton University Press (2005).

[3] The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press (2013).

[4] Aristotle, On Dreams, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, translated and edited by Richard McKeon. Random House (1941).

[5] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, translated and edited by Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch (CSM), Cambridge, 1984.

[6] Ernest Sosa, “Dreams and Philosophy” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 79, No. 2, Nov., 2005.

[7] Ibid., p. 8.