I…I Think I’ve Got It! Trying to decipher Inception

Posted on 20 July 2010 by ShepRamsey

As I write this, the box office numbers for Inception’s opening weekend have just come out, and with a total take of about $60.4 million, it seems to be doing pretty well for itself.  Whether or not it’s going to be “huge” like I predicted remains to be seen.  Inception was always a movie that, if it was going to be a massive hit, it would build more like Avatar (which made a similar non-earth-shattering $77 million its opening weekend) and benefit from word-of-mouth and staying power, rather than the huge-first-couple-weeks-followed-by-a-sharp-and-steady-decline, like, say, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

So, I’m still confident that this movie will grow large and be a pretty sizable hit.  Will it be Dark Knight huge for Christopher Nolan?  No, probably not.  But it’ll be pretty big, and that, along with a wealth of great reviews and that new and improved 10-slot Best Picture ballot (not to mention the obvious weight it will carry in the technical categories), I’d say it’s an early shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination.  In a year of five, perhaps not, but I can’t see anything standing in its way this year.

But am I deluding myself?  It wouldn’t be the first time, I suppose.  See, I’m informed by the internet community, as I’m sure you are too, because you certainly didn’t run across this article in the Wall Street Journal.  And on the internet, we are all abuzz about this movie.  And the more people are talking about it, the more I think about the whole thing, and it’s consuming me—or at least the movie-obsessed part of me, which is a pretty big part, I guess.  For instance, right now I’m torn between writing this article and watching Memento, two decisions completely informed by my over-the-top consummation with Inception.  Right now, I’m going for the article, as it’ll make me feel more productive.  (Oh, did I mention I’m listening to Hans Zimmer’s Inception score right now too?  Yeah, colour me obsessed.)

As of this writing, I’ve seen Inception three times, with more on the way, most certainly.  Quaid and I were at an early screening last Monday, then I took my fiancé to the Thursday-midnight showing on IMAX, and then we caught it again on Sunday.  After the first viewing I thought I had pretty much everything figured out.  And on one hand, I did.  After all, in a gist-of-it sort of way, the movie really is pretty easy to understand so long as you’re paying attention (I’m talking to you, Rex Reed).  The details, however, can be a bit mystifying.

When I saw it the second and third times, already knowing the mechanics of the plot helped to enhance the experience as a whole.  I enjoyed much more Cobb’s backstory and I felt the emotional impact of that through-line much more strongly than the first time.  My head was clear and I was able to enjoy it out of pure entertainment.

However, with my mind that clear, it freed up some room for new questions to enter my head afterwards—questions that range from the ‘Wait, what?’s to the ‘How the?’s and everything of the sort.  And now my head is bursting and I’m feeling dizzy and disoriented and I think I need to brain-barf all over this computer screen.

I have to say, though, that one of the things that impressed me most about Inception is that for each question I’ve come up with so far, there seems to be a perfectly logical answer—as if Chris Nolan was thinking ten steps ahead of me for everything.  OK, drop the “as if”—he was.

So I know these articles and discussions are a dime-a-dozen right now, but I’m throwing my hat in the ring and anyone who sees fit to agree, disagree, or build on what I have to say is strongly encouraged to do so!  Bear in mind that I’m completely open to the fact that even after seeing it three times, I have totally missed something.

If, however, you haven’t seen the movie yet, then by all means—please do!!  And then come back and join in the fun!  Just don’t read this now because this is all basically one great big SPOILER!! Anyway, let’s get started.

Now, the sequence of events at the end of the film is a tad confusing—and I do mean a tad.  I sincerely believe the overall plot of Inception to be pretty easy to grasp.  It’s not the kind of movie where you’re right at the climax, angry and muttering to yourself, “I have no idea what the hell is going on!” (My go-to movie for that feeling is the virtually incoherent Mission: Impossible 2.)

For me, Inception works kind of like any piece of modern machinery—you know that it works (if not how), you know how to use it, and both of those facts demonstrate its usefulness to its necessary extent without fail.  In other words, whether you’ve got it all figured out or not, Inception succeeds in being one hell of a cleverly entertaining blockbuster (and that alone is a pretty admirable accomplishment).

But, like with all that fancy machinery, some of us are just dying to open the damn thing up and see how it works.  It’s a tricky little movie, and it’s easy to overthink certain aspects and get a few of the rules of the world a bit jumbled up.  Personally, though, I think I’ve finally cracked it.

Okay, so let’s talk Level 3 now–the snowy-vista hospital fortress.  One common misconception that I’ve seen is that Level 3 is Fischer’s dream.  I thought this for a bit, too.  It’s all because Ariadne has that pesky line of dialogue right before they enter Level 3, where she asks “Who’s subconscious are we going into?” and Cobb says “Fischer’s.”  It’s my belief this line was put there to avoid any confusion that they might be going into Browning’s subconscious (since that’s what they told Fischer they were doing).  Unfortunately it just created more confusion.

See, there’s a difference between whose dream they’re going into and whose subconscious will be filling said dream—that’s the whole idea behind dream-sharing.  Cobb explains this when he is telling Ariadne the rules of dream-sharing in their stroll through her dream-Paris.  (It makes a lot of sense, really—after all, you don’t want the target creating the dreamspace; you’ll never find a damn thing!)

With that said, it’s actually Eames’s dream in Level 3.  This is explicitly stated by Cobb in a line of dialogue that I must have missed the first two times and I guess a lot of others did too.  Also, it’s Eames who Arthur puts the headphones on in Level 2 (the hotel) for the music cue—because Level 3 is Eames’s dream.

So, because of the strength of the sedative being used, when Fischer is killed by Mal in Level 3, he is sent down into limbo, where Mal keeps him captive to lure Cobb back.  Cobb and Ariadne go down into limbo to find him and kick him back up to Level 3 so that the inception can be successfully performed.

While in limbo, Cobb confronts Mal and admits to performing inception on her, thus planting the idea that consumed her and caused her to kill herself.  In doing so, he finally comes to term with his guilt.  Meanwhile, Ariadne pushes Fischer off the balcony when she hears the music cue to give him the kick needed to coincide with the kick that Eames is giving him with the defibrillator on Level 3.  Fischer wakes up, goes to the safe, and confronts his subconscious projection of his father who feeds the idea back to him to split up the company.  Mission accomplished.

Back down in limbo, Mal is upset with Cobb’s deception and brutally stabs him in a subconscious crime of passion.  This is bad news for Cobb because his resulting death will kick him out of limbo, where he means to stay so that he can search for Saito (who has died as a result of being shot in the city landscape of Level 1) to remind him of their reality and their arrangement to let him go back home.  However since Cobb was stabbed by Mal—and death is the way out of limbo—he presumably gets kicked back up to Level 1 and drowns in the van, sending him back down to Level 4/limbo.

Remember that just because we don’t necessarily see Cobb die in Level 4 and kick up to Level 1, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  One of the most simultaneously fascinating and maddening things about Christopher Nolan is the fact that he doesn’t always give you every piece of the puzzle he’s making.  Especially in a film about dreams, it seems like a pretty vital component, thematically, to leave a few details out, and make you question the logic.  It’s all the more refreshing when, with a little extra thought and applied logic, it still manages to add up.

After he drowns in the van, Cobb washes up on the beach–the shores of his subconscious and the limbo that he now shares with Saito.   This time, however, he is confused and out of touch with reality since he was sent there through death in a dream from which he was too heavily sedated to wake up.

Now, it’s important to remember that one’s perception of reality is key to emerging from limbo alive.  Unfortunately for Cobb, when he died in the van in Level 1 and was sent to limbo, his death created the ultimate mind-wipe which confused him and made him perceive limbo as his reality.  (If he were to continue out his days there and die an old man, while he would probably wake up, his mind would be completely gone–because in the reality he believes in, he is dead.)

He is found on the beach and brought in to see Saito, who is now an old man–because the way time flies down in limbo, he’s been there for much, much longer than Cobb (although on Level 1, their deaths were just a matter of minutes apart).  The spinning top reminds them both of their true reality and their arrangement.  With their subconsciouses now aware that their world is fake, they are able to escape from limbo through death and with their brains intact.  They wake up, Saito makes the call, and all is well, the end.

Whew!  That was tricky.  And I may very well be wrong about several details, but I think—for the most part anyway—I’ve finally got it!  If I am wrong, please–tell me!!  What do you think??

But even if I’m not wrong about that, I’d be all kinds of wrong if I thought I was actually done right here.  Now there’s this business of the last shot—you know, the one that’s got everyone all frazzled?

First, let’s acknowledge that the real question behind the last shot is simply a matter of whether or not the top falls or keeps spinning.  That’s the only thing that Nolan withholds from us.  If it stops, then the only real conclusion you can draw is that the whole movie was totally straight-forward with us and everything was as portrayed—little to no room is left to think anything else.  If it keeps spinning, however, it opens up a whole mess of possibilities!

When I saw the movie the first time, I thought there were only two possibilities: the top falls and it’s real, or the top keeps going and old-Saito never killed Cobb and himself, thus not waking themselves up, which only sent Cobb further into a dream-delirium where, at least now at terms with his guilt, he is at liberty to see his children’s faces in his dreams again.

The latter seems more likely.  I would be inclined to say the former, because I’d love for Cobb to return to his children in reality, but the fact that in that final scene, he’s in the same room, looking at his kids from the same angle, and they’re doing the exact same thing and wearing the exact same clothes as in his memory (not to mention the fact that they don’t look as old as they sounded on the phone at the beginning of the movie) leads me to believe that this is all a new (and healthier, at least) development of Cobb’s subconscious.

But I’m not totally satisfied; it’s still kind of a downer.  There’s another possibility—sort of a way to have your cake and eat it too.  This scene could simply be a stand-alone dream.  After all, though we didn’t see old-Saito actually shoot him in the dream, we did see him reach for the gun—what else was he gonna to do with it?  Maybe he did wake up with Saito, and Saito made the call and he went back home, but somewhere along the way, he fell asleep and had that dream—now that he’s free of Mal’s influence, he is now able to dream without the machine.  At first, that idea makes the scene seem a little arbitrary and silly, but it fits with the emotional/thematic through-line of the movie—it’s representative of Cobb’s newly peaceful subconscious.  I think I like this one—it’s a way to reach that redemption while staying within the poetically surreal cinematic language that encompasses the nature of the film and makes the scene the most powerful.

Of course, I’ve also seen some that subscribe to the philosophy that Mal was right all along—that Cobb was the one who became delusional in their shared limbo and once he consents to kill himself in what he perceives to be his reality, he will wake up and be back with Mal and his kids.  I don’t buy this one.  I think there’s most likely a good argument to be made for it (especially when considering the spinning top totem and just whose totem it actually is), but I still don’t quite buy it.  If this was the case, not only would it render the heist plot completely superficial and worthless, but it wouldn’t make sense with Cobb’s admission that he had performed inception on Mal, and his entire emotional journey would be a joke and a lie.

Some might say that the heist plot is superficial and worthless, and that that’s a big indicator that it was all in Cobb’s head—after all, a common complaint against the movie is that Cobb is the only character that’s really developed—maybe that was done on purpose; maybe everyone else in the movie was a projection of Cobb’s subconscious.

This reasoning, I don’t quite buy either.  True, we don’t really see or hear from anyone else’s subconscious except Cobb’s, but remember that only one person (the “subject”) can have their subconscious inhabited at a time.  Because Cobb is the only one who has been to limbo and been able to create something there, he is the only one of the team whose subconscious can penetrate the levels of the shared dream.

And besides, this is Cobb’s story, and for the script to further develop the supporting characters (and bring along any skeletons they might be keeping in their closets) would horribly clutter up the whole affair.  This is still a movie, dammit.  The supporting players in this story are developed perfectly fine through a wide range of really terrific and subtle performances.

All theorizing aside, though, if you think that it’s not Nolan’s desire to trip you up a bit, you’d be dead wrong.  Just think of the scene after Cobb tries out Yusuf’s sedative in that creepy dreamer-opium-den.  He wakes up and rushes to the bathroom to splash water on his face and take a look at his totem.  Saito interrupts him and we never see him successfully spin the top.  Many point to this scene as evidence that Cobb was dreaming the whole movie–or at least from that point on–but I believe it to hold a different significance.  After all, at the end of the movie, the spinning top would have meant nothing to Saito if he hadn’t seen Cobb trying to use it in this scene, and thus he never would have remembered his true reality.  Just because we never saw Cobb spin the top in the opium-den scene doesn’t mean he didn’t do it later—he probably did; Nolan just chose not to show us that—a piece of genius misdirection, if you ask me.  (Unless I’m wrong, and he is dreaming!!)

On one final, more cynical, note, let’s humor the idea that this was simply a way for Chris Nolan to defer any responsibility for anything that doesn’t make any sense.  If it’s all a dream, then that can easily allow for logic lapses, and so any that you find within the narrative can be chalked up to the fact that it was all one great big dream anyway, right?  Thus it’s a case of lazy filmmaking.  Well, if you sincerely believe that, then I defy you to take a close look at the plot, scale, and filmmaking expertise of Inception and sincerely call it lazy.  For me, it’s a wonder to behold.

On the other hand, I’ve seen some detractors of the film discrediting it for not being “dream-like” enough (Jim Emerson comes to mind); too actiony, too linear, not “out-there” enough.  I beg to differ.  First off, this allegation completely ignores certain facts.  One is that the dreams are being orchestrated by characters using their conscious minds to create a landscape and sequence of events that will comprise the dream, and so the dreams in question would logically be more controlled environments than the average dreams that we have every night.

Also, if things didn’t seem quite surreal enough for you, then you might have missed certain dream-like details that don’t call deliberate attention to themselves, such as the endless stream of attackers on the motorcycle chasing Yusuf (when one falls off, another one is still always on).  In fact, I’d wager that many viewers haven’t noticed this at all–and there’s more to see with every viewing, I promise.

Now, if the film seems like a grounded non-dream-like/semi-realistic action flick in tone (and I agree that it does), then I ask you to remember this line from Cobb: “Dreams seem real when we’re in them; it’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”  The same sentiment applies beautifully to the film itself—I’ve seen the movie three times now and each time—while I’m watching the movie—it seems perfectly logical, working like a well-oiled machine. And when I think back upon it, that’s when my memory for small—but crucial—details escapes me, when I jumble up the exposition, and when certain things don’t quite seem plausible or even logical.  For me, Inception encompasses the present-tense dream experience on film—if the bizarre surrealism of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive understands how we remember dreams, then Inception, with its fantasy-laced straight-forward logistics, understands how we experience them.

So with that in mind, doesn’t that last shot seem somewhat crucial?  If you left a movie that took place almost entirely in the landscape of dreams feeling like you had it all figured out and there was nothing to think about, wouldn’t you be just a tad disappointed?  For me, this whole thing is a blast and I hope people continue debating it for years and years to come.

But whether or not the ending renders certain events real or fake, as an emotional and philosophical development of the movie it is an absolutely vital redemption for Cobb’s guilty subconscious.  This, I’m sure we can all agree on to be fact.  As far as the narrative of Inception goes, the ending can mean any number of things—choose the one you like and go with it.  But in light of all the pages and pages of conjecture, the constant scratching of heads, the endless discussion and theorizing, and the fact that it’s consumed many of you in the same way it’s consumed me, if that last shot is anything, then it’s most certainly Chris Nolan performing inception on us.  Well. Fucking. Played.

SIDE-NOTE: Since publishing this article two days ago, I’ve since gone back and revised and expanded it a bit.  Now, normally I would never do this, but—aside from the fact that Inception is the kind of movie that inspires a stream of “and another thing…and another thing!”—since the article hasn’t garnered any comments thus far, then I haven’t yet started the discussion I sought to start, and deem myself at liberty to amend my thoughts for the sake of clarity, newer inspiration, and generally better writing.  So there.  (PS, this is now the longest ChopShop article to date by almost 1,000 words.  If you stuck with it this long, you deserve a cookie and a great big hug.  Thank you!)

4 Comments For This Post

  1. Kavorka Says:

    I would hate it if it was all one big dream, just like with Donnie Darko: either way he goes back to the beginning to kill himself supposedly saving the girl which makes the past events in the film seem quite unnnecessary.

    Peraonally I’d like the ending to be real but the most possible I think is that it’s a dream.

  2. Keaton Says:

    I feel like many people who say he’s awake at the end believe such just for the sake of having a happy ending. And that annoys me.

  3. tom stazer Says:

    Excellent overview, touching on a lot I have been thinking about. Especially in terms of misdirection. Familiar with the structure of suspense stories, i just knew – KNEW! that the first architect was gonna turn up later and all throughout I kept expecting him to turn up in cahoots with Saito. Nolan – and some of the audience – know that the character who disappears offscreen early, with no explanation of what happens, is usually the person who’s going turn out to be behind the scenes, or rescue or hero when all seems lost. Even Toy Story 3 cranks out that old trick, with the aliens running off to the claw.. only to return and save the day!!
    I half hope that that original architect is in the background somewhere of those dreams – but it likely is another genius misdirection trick for those who are watching closely.

  4. Georgia Says:

    I stuck with it to the end! Where’s my cookie? Haha. Great thinking about Inception. Whether it’s a dream or not (or whatever it is), I bet we’ll all surely be watching it even 50 years from now.

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