Inception, Toy Story 3 films are more than child’s play — they’re an exercise in philosophy

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Cassiel Chadwick

“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”

A phrase so simple reaches surprisingly deep into the profundity of human thought: It reminds us of sweeping movements in philosophy and history; it questions our fundamental meaning in life; it epitomizes one popular conception of existentialism.

And it’s also a line from Pixar’s “Toy Story 3”—a children’s film that broke box-office records for animated features after its June 18 release.

Such a strange pairing is rare in our entertainment industry. How can philosophy be entertaining? It’s largely the work of dead, white men. Who cares if there’s some ineffable essence of The Good, or if you’re just a brain in a vat?

The phrase “who cares” has, in many ways, defined philosophy, especially in contemporary times. It’s an esoteric, arcane topic, often irrelevant to the interests of the average individual.

So how can a movie like “Toy Story 3” afford to portray philosophical thought? With its $200 million budget, the film certainly classifies as a Hollywood production, but where most blockbusters cater to an imaginary audience seeking pure entertainment, “Toy Story” does quite the opposite.

Two scenes highlight this. One takes place across a dumpster’s threatening maw. Lotso, the film’s main antagonist (and a teddy bear, at that), has a brief, intense exchange with Woody, the protagonist, that explores the film’s philosophical foundation. “You think you’re special, cowboy,” Lotso shouts. “You’re a piece of plastic. You were made to be thrown away!”

My natural reaction to his words, as I can assume Pixar intended, was to scoff at his nihilistic sentiments: “But Woody can think and feel! He’s not just a piece of plastic!”

Yet Lotso, in those few words, invoked a long tradition of existential thought — the idea of “nothingness” in particular. Martin Heidegger, an influential German philosopher, introduced this term to describe our ultimate relationship with anxiety. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, anxiety, is the “collapse of (one’s) practical immersion in roles and projects,” the condition that one “can no longer ‘gear into’ the world.” When this collapse becomes total, we experience “nothingness.”

While this can seem vague conceptually, “Toy Story 3” moves us beyond logic and into the realm of emotion. It makes us feel what Heidegger meant. In the film’s turning point, we learn that Lotso’s owner unintentionally abandoned him. After finding his way back home, Lotso makes a startling discovery: An identical toy replaced him. Suddenly, his personal “role” in existence falls apart. He feels Heidegger’s anxiety, and understands the absence of meaning. In those few moments of storytelling, we vicariously experience Lotso’s existential crisis.

Suddenly, this villain seems remarkably human, and his comments, understandable. Still, that scene couldn’t have prepared me for the inferno to follow.

I mean this in the most literal of senses. Near the film’s end, our protagonists find themselves faced with Lotso’s words in the most painful of ways: a belching, horrifying incinerator.

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Perhaps one of the most tragically moving scenes I’ve experienced in film, this moment evoked the evanescence of life in profound ways. Suddenly, these characters we had come to love were accepting death.

Death often plays a large role in film, but few movies can invoke existentialism alongside it. Death serves as the final “anxiety” for many, as it disjoints us from our conception of meaning. Where most plots treat meaning as a given, Pixar dedicated an entire film to the question of its existence.

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Another summer blockbuster, “Inception,” also explored philosophy, but in a different school of thought. Released on Jul. 8, “Inception” was No. 1 at North American theatres on its weekend release, garnering $60.4 million in ticket sales, and eventually becoming the seventh highest-grossing movie of the year.

Philosophically, “Inception” follows in the tradition of thought-experiment films like “The Matrix,” giving us a non-existent scenario that helps us understand our own experience.

In brief summary of the film’s plot, Dom Cobb is a dream thief who steals information from the minds of wealthy businessmen. Exiled from the United States for unknown reasons, a man commissions him to plant an idea in the mind of a powerful CEO, in exchange for Cobb’s return home. This involves entering others’ dreams by way of a machine.

From its start, “Inception” questions the nature of reality and truth. Where we rely so heavily on our perception, how can we know that a dream is not reality when everything looks just as we would expect it?

While “the Matrix” was content to stop at the question, “What can we know of our daily experience,” “Inception” moves even deeper: “What can we know of anything?” Epistemology – the investigation of knowledge – is an entire field in Philosophy dedicated to this question.

Questioning knowledge seems somewhat technical in the context of traditional philosophy – as in Descartes’s “Meditations”. “Inception,” however, makes us care deeply about it. The music, cinematography and characterization infuses philosophical thought with emotion and meaning, making us relate to otherwise abstract concepts.

“Inception” also differs from “The Matrix” in its comfort with ambiguity. “The Matrix” presented the viewer with falsehood and truth, whereas “Inception” never quite settles on any definition of reality.

Many reviews of “Inception,” professional or otherwise, comment on the film’s ending – an homage to Truth’s evanescence. Early on in the plot, we learn that, as individuals in a world of dream thieves, we must use a “totem” as a reference point – some sign that the world we see is real, and not a dream. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top which falls in reality, but forever stays level in the dream. After all of the story’s chaos subsides, and Cobb’s reward finally seems at hand, the camera pans to the top, spinning, spinning. Wobbling. Spinning? Wobbling?

Cut to credits.

The film leaves us with an unparalleled sense of unknowing, leading us into such questions as, “Can we trust our senses,” “Can we justify anything,” or even, “Am I dreaming?” These are all classic epistemic quandaries.

So, if the entertainment industry can inspire these questions within us, what else can it do? Philosophy, since Socrates’s time, has (ideally) been a place of logic. But, eventually, pure logic becomes irrelevant to daily life. Could the same principles be understood through storytelling? How far can emotion reach into philosophy? Could we structure an entire curriculum of philosophy on films of the future?

Idealistic questions, without doubt. But I have hopes that “Toy Story 3” and “Inception” opened some minds–moviegoers’ and filmmakers’ alike.