The Matrix versus Inception: Dreaming of reality

In both films we are like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into metaphysical worlds of Neitzsche and Jung,where the very existence of reality is questioned. But which is better?

Aleyha Ahemed September 10, 2010
The Matrix versus Inception - our table stood divided at two all. The waitress was the deciding vote. Which would she choose? I handed her the tip, whispering Matrix, Matrix, Matrix, under my breath.

Inception. No doubt about it,” she answered.

Considering the decade that has spanned between the films, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Matrix is a sci-fi film from a different generation to Inception and therefore incomparable, but you’d be wrong.

Indeed when writer and director of the film Christopher Nolan was asked in a recent LA Times article whether or not Inception would be another second-life film akin to Avatar and Surrogates, he responded, "I think ours is of an older school ... more of The Matrix variety and the concepts of different levels of reality.”

This comparison is not just a testament to the enduring quality of the Wachowski brothers’ trail-blazing 90’s film, but it is also a reflection of a similarly original concept and revolutionary effects in Inception. In both films we are Alice falling down the rabbit hole into metaphysical worlds of Neitsche and Jung, worlds where the very existence of reality is questioned and the boundaries between what is our perceived reality and what is actually real are blurred.

The same overarching question is asked- which is better- living in ignorance in a false reality or surviving in the harsh real world? There is a common focus on an awakening of the human condition- a realisation that we have lost touch with reality, living our lives through devices rather than real interactions. The protagonists in both films straddle the boundaries between reality and fiction and between good and evil. Neo a hacker and Cobb an idea thief- are both dubious characters, on the fringes of society.

But which is film is better?

Cinematography: 1-0 to Inception.

Both are beautifully shot and contain effects considered revolutionary for their time-‘bullet time’ in the Matrix and a CGI folding of Paris like a two dimensional map in Inception. We could argue that many of the special effects that make Inception visual eye-candy would not have been available around the time the Matrix was filmed which would make the two films visually incomparable. However, Nolan’s use of ‘practical methods’ wherever possible, the revolving hotel corridor scene used a set on steel I beam rings connected to electric motors with the actors on wires, make the film exceptional without extensive use of CGI.

Script: 2-0 to Inception.

The Matrix contains some of the most prolific lines in film history so much so that they have been parodied and imitated endlessly since its release. However, watching it last night, ten years later, I couldn’t help but giggle at some of the lines. There are scenes in which Keanu thinks out loud and lines such as ‘I know kung fu’ said in the inimitable way only Surfer-accented Reeves can, that date the film. The soundtrack doesn’t help either. While Inception contains conversations reminiscent of seminal moments from the Matrix (Cobb compares ideas to viruses in the same way Agent Smith compares humans to viruses) it does not fall into the cheesy one-liners sci-fi trap and contains momentous lines including the train riddle that are almost lyrical in their employ. And a killer soundtrack to boot.

Plot: Inception-2, The Matrix-1.

When Nolan created the idea of dream architects and an idea heist, he invented a world that is based in something we all know. While the Matrix is set in a futuristic world that has no real basis in our reality, Inception feeds off the idea that we all dream; we all know what it is to be dreaming- concepts such as dying in a dream causing you to wake up are well observed and cleverly placed into the storyline. This unites the audience.

However, many other aspects of dreaming aren’t even considered. Nolan picks and chooses which aspects fit the storyline. While dreams bring the audience together, they also work against the believability of the film. We all dream in different ways and no one can truly depict what it is like to be in another’s dream. Add different dream layers to the mix and the complexity can overwhelm the viewer. Perhaps the quick pace of the film can deceive them as they watch, but afterwards they are left unsatisfied with the explanations they have been given.

The Matrix, on the other hand, is a seamless film, both cinematically and in its linear story. It creates a battle between good and evil, computers versus humans and simplifies a complex sci-fi concept. The trade-off we are faced with is between imperfect complexity and flawless simplicity.

The winner is...

Only one movie has managed to include a complex emotional storyline into a sci-fi plot. Regardless of its flaws, Inception recreates the question we have all asked ourselves at some point: Is this really happening or am I dreaming?

And, to be fair, only one film hasn’t been tainted by straight-to-DVD quality sequels.

Inception wins. For now.
Aleyha Ahemed A London-based filmmaker. She has lived in Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Colombo and Karachi and writes on films. She tweets as @aleyhaa (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Muhammad Ali Zahid | 13 years ago | Reply Sachal you are right.
Sachal | 13 years ago | Reply Also, bear in mind that while borrowing heavily from the Matrix, Inception does not offer the same level of suspense. We the audience are not afraid of the characters dying. Matrix had "your mind makes it real" which meant, death is death in any world. While inception does try to complicate things by the "if you die this deep you will go into limbo" we know its a state from which Leo has returned and can be returned from. So when the bullets fly and the cars overturn, we don't really care if our heroes survive.
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