Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers. Originally I had sought to write a review of “Inception”, with the intent of being just ambiguous enough to shelter the fragile minds of those who have yet to see the movie. However, after further thought, I have decided that I no longer care about those who haven’t seen it (now that I am no longer one of you…so, suck it and assimilate) and that it would be far more interesting to do a write-up in which others who’ve seen it can add comments containing their own interpretations, thoughts and opinions.
Therefore, proceed with caution, as the information contained within this article will affect your movie-going experience…but on the bright side, you can now lean over to your friends and pretend that you have it all figured out before it happens.
For those who have seen it, I would like to point out that I have seen the movie once and am writing this while the details are still fresh in my mind and is therefore based upon my own understanding of the material, my interpretations and small details I picked up on. As such, I may inevitably leave something out, which is where you all come in to help fill in any gaps or to simply add your own thoughts / review in the comment section.
To be fair to those seeking a review, here you go: “Inception” is one of the most original and creative premises I have seen in a long time. Go see it. Now. When you do, you have permission to play with the rest of us. Contrary to what people say, it is not like the “Matrix”. That was based (at it’s core) in theology and philosophy. The only legitimate comparison is the alternate reality angle, but remove the special effects and a more accurate-ish premise comparison is the 1984 film, “Dreamscape“. Go see, “Inception”. That is all.
Alright, let’s get on with it already…
in·cep·tion – noun – 1. beginning; start; commencement.
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when you wake up that you realize something was actually strange”. – “Cobb” / Leonardo DiCaprio
The science-fiction conceit presented within “Inception” is simple: What if we could all share the same dream? If so, how could others use or misuse that technology? In the simplest explanation I can offer, “Inception” is about the ability to enter the dreams of others and either steal information (extraction) or plant the seed of an idea (inception)…the latter being more difficult, dangerous and complex.
Directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan (“Memento”, “The Prestige”, “Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”), Mr. Nolan wants his audience to think and therefore the movie does not insult your intelligence by over-explaining, spelling out or slowing down so that everyone can catch up. In short – keep up or get left behind – as some scenes will only offer a quick (and sometimes frantic) explanation and the Director will move on, assuming you grasp the full concept.
Evidence of this was during the Paris scene, in which I exhaustedly attempted to absorb, process and fully form my understanding of the concepts Cobb was explaining to Ariadne, while also fully comprehending the next wave of information being simultaneously thrown at me. I am a very dialog driven movie-goer, as I generally like to use all of the information presented to me to flesh out what I think is going to happen next or to pick up on small nuances throughout the movie.
Now, from this point forward, I feel that attempting to write an explanation of the movie in paragraph form would be too difficult, as the film is very complex with many layers. I am also going to assume that you have seen the movie and will not waste time setting the premise and context for every comment to follow. Therefore, the remainder of this write up will be presented in Q&A form to make breaking down the movie easier for all.
Technology exists in which people can enter the same dream. It is said that we use 10% of our brains while awake, however more brain power is unlocked when we dream via access to our subconscious. Through “extraction”, it is possible to enter the subconscious of another person (for instance, the CEO of a large corporation) and steal information from their minds in a high-tech version of corporate espionage. It is required that all participants be hooked up to the same machine in order to share a dream. The target is usually captured & sedated in order for the extractors to enter their minds and when they awake, they (the target) simply feel as though they are awoken from…well, a dream, and not aware of anything else that happened.
Only one person controls the dream, it is their subconscious driving the events. For example, in the first Inception dream sequence, it was Yusuf controlling the dream. If you recall, he was drinking champagne before they entered the dream with Fisher Jr on the plane, therefore when they entered the dream it was raining (because he had to pee in real life). It is said that if we are cold when dreaming, our subconscious might conjure up snow or cool wind. If we are hot, our dreams might create a scenario in which we are in a warm locale etc.
Each dream requires an architect to create the levels (Ariadne) in the real world and then teach the level design to the dreamer. The subconscious of the target begins to fill in the details of the dream, in which information can be extracted, but the dreamer drives the events of their particular level. The architect can create a dream level / locale that is familiar to the target, or a generic “city” or “room” for their subconscious to fill. The levels can be creative and the target’s mind will still accept them, as in our dreams we find it plausible to fly, breathe under water etc. In the beginning scene, the second dream level is a room in which Saito’s subconscious fills it with bodyguards, party guests and other details that feel real to him.
It is possible to enter a ‘dream within a dream’, which is why it is necessary for there to be a team. Depending upon how many dream levels you go into, each level has to be ‘hosted’ by one individual. For instance, in the Inception deep dream sequence, the first level was owned by Yusuf, driving the van. The second level was Arthurs as he tried to set explosives on the elevator. The third was Eams at the snow fort. The final level was limbo. In the case of Inception, it was necessary to be able to go into deeper levels of subconsciousness in order to meet their objective.
Extraction: We were introduced to this in the beginning of the movie with Saito. Cobb is essentially hired by one corporation to infiltrate the mind of the head of a competing corporation by stealing secrets and valuable information for a price. A dream level is developed for the person, their subconscious begins to fill in the necessary details for extraction and Cobb populates the dream world with the target, manipulating their subconscious (in a dream world that feels as authentic as reality) to reveal the necessary secrets.
Inception: The namesake of the movie and a far more difficult goal to achieve, believed to be impossible. Inception is literally that, the inception or beginning of an idea that is planted into the mind of the target. The objective is for the target to believe that the idea was their own, which requires the need to plant the inception of that idea in their mind. Where extraction is taking away…inception is leaving something behind.
The example given in the movie is this:
Arthur: “If I tell you to NOT think of an elephant, what do you do?”
Saito: “Think of an elephant.”
Arthur: “Right, but the idea did not come from you, you can trace it’s inception to my telling you not to think of an elephant.”
So the tricky part is planting a seed small enough within the target’s mind to make them believe that the idea was their’s in the first place (and allow their subconscious to ‘grow’ from that seed as though manifested as their own organic thought) …hence the attempt to plant into Fisher’s mind, as though the idea was his own, to break up his father’s company after his death (which is also a competitor to Saito’s company).
Four. This is specific to inception as the concept of planting an idea as though it was the target’s own requires you to go deeper into their subconscious. In this case, it meant exploring Fisher Jr’s relationship with his father at its basest level and not just the introduction of an idea in the earlier levels of his subconscious. As I mentioned previously, the first level was owned by Yusuf. The second level was Arthurs. The third was Eams. The final level was limbo.
Extraction on the other hand (it appears), normally requires 1 dream level, 2 maximum to achieve success. This is evidenced by Saito being impressed when he learns he is in a dream within a dream (apartment / rug sequence). The purpose of which is to allow the target to think they have awoken to reality, only to really be within another dream construct.
It was basically a level of shared consciousness by all of the participants, where no one “owns” the dream. Due to the nature and strength of the sedative needed to perform inception, a simple ‘kick’ would not awake you from a dream state, yet would push you farther down into subconsciousness…aka: limbo. This is why, after Saito is shot, that simply dying in Level 1 would not awaken him in reality, but push him further down to the lower dream levels. It is here that it is very difficult to know the difference between reality or a dream, as you are so deep into your own mind.
To be in limbo, your mind must truly believe that you’re in reality and it is not a dream. The same goes for escaping limbo. To escape limbo you must truly believe that the world you are in is fake. The problem is, the deeper you go, the harder it becomes to distinguish between reality and a dream.
As a result, unless you know the dream / limbo is not real, using a ‘kick’ or killing yourself in limbo will not awaken you in the real world…you have to KNOW the world is not real. This also relates to Cobb and Mal and how they lived for 50 years in a state of limbo…a shared consciousness between the two of them in which they created a world of their own built on memories. Cobb eventually realizes that the world they had built was not real and he had to convince Mal of the same. This is where he performs inception for the first time…on Mal…and what leads to her eventual suicide in reality.
If you think the world you are in is real, you will age within the time that you are there. If you believe the world to be fake, you will not age. You see this in the beginning and the end of the movie, when Saito is an old man and Cobb is still young. Passage of time is relative to the level you are in…the deeper you are, the slower time will move in relation to reality…another reason Cobb and Mal aged 50 years in limbo, yet awoke as a young couple again only hours later in reality.
A “kick” is something that jolts you out of the dream state. It works on the premise that when you fall in a dream, you always wake up before you hit the ground. Or why you never die in your own dreams. During extraction or inception, the sedative does not affect your inner ear function or equilibrium, therefore a “kick” or jolt in a dream level will awaken you. By disrupting the equilibrium of the dreamer you are able to wake them. For example, when Cobb was sitting on the chair and was pushed into the bathtub or when Arthur performs the elevator explosion or when Yusuf’s van drops off of the bridge etc.
This is where I thought it got fun (and creative). As you get deeper into the levels, it required orchestrated kicks in order to awaken you in higher levels, until you eventually awake in reality again. Therefore, if you are on Level 3, you need a kick to awaken your ‘dream self’ on Level 2, another kick to awaken you on Level 1 and a final kick to awaken you again in the real world. I thought that this was a cool concept and added a lot of tension near the end of the film.
In most instances (extraction) falling, jumping off of a building or getting killed in a dream will wake you up in the next level or back to reality (depending upon how many levels deep you are). But inception is different, as you are heavily sedated and essentially so deep in your subconscious that you are in a dream, within a dream, within a dream, within a dream.
Also, usually a signal will be given to the dreamer to make them aware that a kick is coming. After the signal is given the kick is performed. Music was used as this cue by placing headphones over the ears of the dreamer for each level, then the dream version of them would alert the others that the kick was coming or if they had to coordinate a kick on a lower level before a kick could be performed on an upper level (still following me?). I found the music selection clever, as they used Edith Piaf (I’m a fan)…especially since the actress who plays Mal (Marion Cotillard) also played Edith and won an Oscar for her role in, “La Vie En Rose“.
You’ll also notice that Christopher Nolan brought together a few additional folks from his previous movies, most notably the “Batman” franchise he was instrumental in resurrecting out of suck-ass-itude.
Each Inception dreamer needs to have a totem to let them know when they are dreaming and when they are back in reality. Cobb’s totem was a small spinning top that would spin eternally in the dream state, but topple in reality (following the basic laws of physics, which can be suspended or manipulated in a dream but not reality). Arthur’s was a loaded die in which only he knew the weight and feel. Ariadne carried a chess piece that she created.
It is important that no one else hold your totum (sounds dirty). Doing so could allow that person to replicate its weight, feel or behavior in a dream level.
The safes are your subconscious’s creation. It is a subconscious device created in which you hide your deepest secrets, represented by a safe in the dream world. For instance, Mal hid away her totum in her safe (the top Cobb eventually carries), by laying it down still in the safe, as she no longer wanted to know if the world she and Cobb created was real or fake. When Cobb performs inception on her, he is able to find her (subconscious) safe and plants the seed for establishing that their world was not real…as she had to believe that she came up with the idea for herself and not think the idea came from Cobb. To do this, he spins the top in her safe (which spins perpetually in the dream world), which on a subconscious level makes Mal begin to believe their world is fake.
Once an idea is implanted in a subject’s mind in the dream state it remains there and it grows, like a virus or a disease. Cobb and his wife Mal were trapped in Limbo and they didn’t know it wasn’t real for years. Cobb finally figured it out, but couldn’t convince Mal. So he had to perform Inception on her to plant the idea that she had to die in their world in order to get back to reality. However, this idea followed her back to reality and she committed suicide. It is also why Cobb knows that for inception to work, only a small seed of the idea must be planted in Fisher’s mind, as planting too much could have disastrous results…as evidenced with Mal. That is why it must be the inception of an idea, of which the target believes originated with them.
Back to Cobb and Mal. In the movie, we find out that they lived a lifetime – 50 years – in limbo (their fake world that they created) and killed themselves (using a kick) as an old man and an old woman by laying their heads on a railroad track…thus bringing them back to reality as a young couple again (which I’ll explain shortly). Problem is that the seed Cobb planted through inception in limbo, followed Mal back to reality and she began to think that their real life together was also fake…leading to her suicide / real death by jumping off a building, as she thought this would be another “kick” back to what she perceived as true reality.
Another point about Limbo, both when Cobb and Mal were there – as well as when we learn that Cobb is recreating another world in which he is keeping memories of Mal (and therefore keeping her alive in his subconscious and why she starts popping up in other levels) – is that these worlds were created from memories only, making them inexact cheap copies of the originals. This includes Mal. Although Cobb is trying to keep her alive through his memories and subconscious out of guilt for performing the inception that leads to her eventual death, he is not able to recreate her in the dream world exactly as she was in the real world, due to our imperfect memories. Doing this, creating a level out of memories, pushes them deeper into limbo and could be another reason they were there for the equivalent of 50 years.
Time passage varies greatly in each level of the inception dream sequence. The deeper the dream level, the longer the amount of time passes respectively. Therefore, five minutes at Level 1 could be fifty years at Level 4 (limbo), as witnessed by the age of Saito in the ending of the deep dream sequence. But you only age if you don’t realize that you are in a dream, which is why Cobb remains younger, although he has probably been looking for Saito for years in limbo. What could have been 50 years in limbo for Saito (again, 5 minutes in level 1), was only a few years (if that) to Cobb, even though they entered limbo at roughly the same time…difference is that Cobb had already been there with Mal and knew it was not real.
This is why you saw the van falling off of the bridge (dream level 1) so slowly in juxtaposition to the hotel level, the snow level and limbo. The Director was very cleverly showing how the falling of the van (which would normally take seconds to hit the water), took hours in the hotel or years in limbo….still follow me?
The never-ending staircases are paradoxes (logical fallacies that can’t exist in reality). Though Ariadne designed the levels and probably designed the staircase, in the level where Arthur uses it he’s the dreamer. Similar shortcuts were worked in to the snow dream by Eams. Ariadne tells Cobb about them when they need a faster route to the fortress. As stated previously, only the dreamer for each dream level knows the layout of the level created by the architect, as their subconscious drives the events and is why Cobb was not originally aware of the shortcut in the snow sequence.
Projections are items and people that your mind creates to populate the dream world in order to make it more ‘real’…and part of why we think dreams feel so real or even why in a dream you may create a projection to represent your boyfriend/girlfriend, although the dream version does not look like the real person…of which you realize (and keep to yourself) when you wake up!
Cobb tells Ariadne to never create levels based on real places, because the details come from her memory which can be dangerous when creating a level for a target, including accidentally adding her own subconscious projections (another reason Mal keeps popping up from Cobb’s subconscious). Therefore it is best to only create general details, a street lamp, a generic bridge or street, but never with specificity…allow the target to populate those things themselves, which aids in extraction.
I thought an interesting twist to this is that if too much is strange or unusual about a dream level, the target’s projections will begin to hone in on the cause. This was seen during the hotel dream as the world started acting ‘wonky’ and Fisher’s projections began staring at Cobb, Arthur and Ariadne…until Cobb revealed (as part of the plan) that Fisher was in fact dreaming. The projections behave a certain way (aggressive, if need be) as long as the dreamer thinks they are in reality. To counter a dream world that acts or goes awry, the target’s projections will seek out and ‘destroy’ what they perceive to be the cause of the anomaly…hence the staring, which would have eventually devolved into their attacking Cobb, had he not revealed on level 2 that Fisher was dreaming, in order to get him into level 3.
You also saw this during the Paris scene when Ariadne essentially “folded” the city on top of itself (which was friggen awesome, by the way). It became too ‘out of the ordinary’ for the projections (people) in the street, who began to stare at her and become aggressive by walking into her and starting to hone in on her as the cause…like white blood cells attacking a virus.
Basically militarized projections. Extraction is not a secret, therefore heads of large corporations or those that fear someone might be after their secrets, can hire other extractors to essentially protect their subconscious from attack. These extractors train the minds of those who think they might be a target, to identify when their subconscious might be under attack in a dream state. Fisher had this done, which is why the plan does not go off as intended by Cobb and the team and why Saito gets shot. Fisher thinks he is in reality, but his subconscious knows he is not and it activates the ‘security measures’ of projections that attempt to protect him.
As in real life, the dreamer’s dream can be affected by things happening outside of the dream. If you get cold while you’re asleep, sometimes people dream of ice or snow (as referenced earlier in this post with Yusuf and the rain). If a person falls out of bed, sometimes they’ll dream of skydiving or falling in their dream.
Therefore, when the van in the dream level (1) above the hotel (2) falls off the bridge, the motion of those inside the van is thrown off, and that feeling of falling carries over into the dream, making it seem as though there’s no gravity in the hotel level (2) below the van level (1). This effect does not, however, seem to extend any further than one level in a dream within a dream within a dream.
To add to this, Arthur needed to tie all of the dreamers together, as it would be too difficult to simulate gravity on each of them individually during a kick. How do you simulate falling when there is no gravity? You can’t kill them in the dream, as it will push them into limbo. So Arthur ties them together and puts them into the elevator. He then simulates ‘gravity’ by setting the explosive charges to catapult the elevator just enough that the dreamers floating inside would ‘fall’ and hit the ceiling…thereby producing a ‘kick’ to awaken them in level 1.
Saito is shot on the 1st level of the dream, but doesn’t die until the 3rd. If they resuscitated him on the 3rd level, it would only bring him back to the 2nd where he was still dying, and if he survived that, then it would only bring him back to the 1st level where he was dying even faster (keep in mind the relative time passage on different levels).
Meanwhile, since Fischer was shot on the 3rd level and sent to Limbo with Mal, his “bodies” on the other two levels were not injured. The kick from the defibrillator timed correctly with the falling sensation he experienced after Ariadne pushed him off the building was enough to bring him back to level 3 where he could complete the mission of looking in his father’s “safe”. If she had shot him down in Limbo, he probably would have woken up in reality and the mission would have failed.
This was an uncontrollable projection from Cobb’s subconscious. It was the train that ran over he and Mal when they were an old couple in Limbo, to give them the kick needed to wake up in reality. Cobb’s incessant return trips to different levels of his own mind and in limbo, to try to recreate a world for him and his memory of Mal, began to have adverse side effects in other missions. He had refused to let her go and his memory of her (and trying to keep her alive within them) was causing unwanted projections.
It is also why, in the beginning, Mal makes an appearance with Saito and shoots Arthur…as killing him would wake him up, but wounding him would keep him in the dream state and in (subconscious) pain.
You like that? Christopher Nolan doesn’t like to tie things up in a neat little bow and prefers instead to allow his audiences to come up with their own conclusion. I am, of course, referring to the final scene in which Cobb is able to return to his children and as the camera pans away, you see that the top (remember totums?) he spins when he got home…is still spinning. To add a little extra tension, just before the credits roll, it seems like the top with topple over (meaning he is back to reality), but then also appears as though it could continue spinning (dream state)…and the movie ends there. Nice.
I interpreted this a couple different ways:
1. Here’s my reasoning for why the top may have kept spinning: Note that at the end of the film Cobb’s kids haven’t aged at all. They match his memory of them exactly, which I assume is outdated, since he’s been away from them for a long time. Although he finally sees their faces (which he hadn’t been able to do previously), they are also still wearing the exact same clothes as in his memories of them.
Also, it is clear that his father-in-law (“Miles” played by Micheal Caine) was a pioneer of accessing people’s dreams and judging from the dialog, this later lead to extraction and inception on Cobb’s part (who at one point was obviously an architect). Originally, the military developed the ability for people to slip into each others dreams. This was so that soldiers could practice killing each other with no time passing or anyone getting hurt. I venture that Miles was involved in its development.
Mal obviously also experimented on dreams with Cobb, hence their life in limbo together. They establish Miles as a professor near the beginning of the movie and he happens to be working with and recommends a student that suits Cobb’s need for a new architect (Ellen Page’s character).
Additionally, when he greets Cobb at the airport at the end of the movie, I heard a faint, “you’re welcome” and then lastly there is a quick shot of him grinning / smirking as he turns away from the scene of Cobb hugging his children before it pans to the spinning top.
This suggests that it may have all been a dream concocted by Miles to allow Cobb to be happy again and to see his kids exactly as he remembered them. To add to that theory, if he (Cobb) believes he is living in reality with his children, he (along with his kids) will continue to age as he did with Mal in Limbo…perhaps never knowing the truth and perceiving the dream as reality.
2. ANOTHER theory relates to the fact that you’ll notice that Cobb is wearing a wedding ring in all of the dream sequences throughout the movie, but never in reality. At the end of the movie, when he is reunited with his children again, he is not wearing the wedding ring. So THIS could suggest that the top DOES stop spinning!
Do you hate me yet? 😉 Basically it is inconclusive, as there is always something that will contradict any theory you come up with…which is a testament to the complex layers that can be found within this movie and I venture to guess more will be found with repeated viewings.
If you were to ask me personally what I thought, I would lean towards the dream world in the end. The fact that his kids haven’t aged, are wearing the same clothes as his last memory of them, are playing in exactly the same way as when he last saw (and had to leave) them and the hints relating to Michael Caine’s character…I would say it was a dream level concocted by Caine.
Now, I am sure people will counter this theory by bringing up the faces of the children and how could Cobb see them in the end, but not in his memories? However, keep in mind that it is established very early in the film that the children are staying with their grandparents (Caine and his wife)…who HAVE seen their faces and could include them in a dream level created for Cobb, especially if I am correct about Caine’s character’s early involvement / contribution to sharing dreams.
What do you think happened?
As you can see, “Inception” is a complex and multi-layered film asking you to think. Visually it is eye candy, but beneath the special effects is a deep and complicated script. If you are the kind of person who generally says, “I don’t get it” after complicated films, I would advise you to skip this movie and let your brain rest from all of the reality television you have been feeding it. The originality found in the premise was most interesting to me, as it opens up a whole host of questions and potential discussions about what is possible in our dreams.
Believe it or not, I feel that I have only scratched the surface when it comes to discussing the different aspects of the plot and it is taking a certain amount of self-control in order for me to not continue discussing certain scenes and how they could be interpreted or understood.
As I referenced previously, I am inevitably going to leave something out; therefore I invite you to add your own thoughts, opinions, favorite scenes, questions or theories in the comment section. Do you agree or disagree with some of my “assessments” of the movie? What to add something to an area that I discussed? Have a few questions about scenes or concepts that I didn’t cover? The floor is yours!
All in all, “Inception” is one of the best movies that I have seen in a long time. It was not formulaic, nor did it assume the lowest common denominator in terms of the audience and their ability to comprehend the film. The movie is 2 hrs and 28 minutes long, but I would have happily sat through over 3 hours thanks to the fast-paced nature of the film and how every scene provided another integral piece to the puzzle in terms of understanding the plot.
Alright, it’s your turn…what did YOU think of it? Add your comments in the section below.
Thanks for reading my take on it!