Understanding Inception

Inception is a great movie. Perhaps one of the greatest of all time. You should see it without reading reviews, or learning anything about the film beforehand. For those of you who have seen it, some thoughts about various meanings are below the fold.

First some resources: Six Interpretations and Five Plot Holes, by Peter Hall. Cinema Blend has a helpful FAQ and glossary. TechEBlog provides a useful graphic of the dream levels. To keep things straight, let’s adopt their terminology of level 1 (“reality”; takes place in Paris, Mombassa, the airplane cabin), level 2 (dream of the kidnapping of Fischer), level 3 (hotel dream), level 4 (ice world dream), and level 5 (“limbo,” perhaps; Cobb & Mal’s beach city, and Saito’s oriental mansion).

As the above sources details, there are some plot holes which seems difficult to resolve. There are two meta-explanations: One, the movie-makers made mistakes. Two, the incongruities are clues to what’s really happening. Namely that everything in the movie is a dream.

The all-dream theory is well-developed in this essay by Devin Faraci of C.H.U.D., comparing Inception to Fellini’s 8 ½, a film about making a film. It’s not at all a cop-out, in the sense of Fifties-era Superman comics in which Superman marries Lois, but then the whole episode turns out to be Lois’s dream.  In support of the all-dream theory, Faraci points out that the chase scene in Mombassa (which is supposed to be at level 1, Reality), ends with Cobb being trapped between two walls that are closing in (classic anxiety dream), and then rescued by Saito, who just happens to pull up in a car at the right moment. Further thoughts on Inception as a movie about movie-making here, by Maria Bustillos. 

When you think about it, the whole Mombassa chase sequence (which reminded me of the chase sequence at the beginning of Disney’s Aladdin) is quite unrealistic, although it’s the kind of chase sequence we accept as “real” in movies. And there’s plenty of other stuff on Reality level 1 that, on second thought, doesn’t seem very plausible in real life. For example, Saito buys a transpacific airline in a few days. Really? Buying an international airline usually takes longer than that.

I differ from Faraci in his conclusion that the final scene proves that Cobb is still dreaming. The ending is deliberately ambiguous. We don’t know if the top will fall. While it’s true that Cobb’s children are playing in the same place, and in the same posture as when Cobb last saw them, and wearing the same clothes, they are wearing different shoes, and they are played by different actors. Further, Cobb wears a wedding ring when dreaming, but not when in level 1, and at the end of the movie, he has no wedding ring. However, none of these facts are decisive proof that level 1 itself is not a dream. They’re just proof that the movie ends on level 1.

Now if the whole film is a dream, one might say that Cobb has just decided to stay in dreamspace, hanging out with his children and father. The story arc is about Cobb progressing from being tortured by doubts about what is real, to being content with being happy and not worrying about reality. One might theorize that Mal was correct in discerning that level 1 is still a dream; she escaped, and the movie concludes with Cobb achieving peace about his decision to stay behind in dreamworld level 1.

Fair enough. But here’s an alternate understanding. Cobb, the guy whose dream we’re watching, is not in true Reality (level 0) a professional dreamer who can get into other people’s dreams. He’s just a regular guy having a very elaborate dream. And it happens to be a dream in which Cobb learns some important lessons about himself, and Reality. When Fischer wakes up on the plane, Fischer knows that there was not really a pinwheel in his father’s bedside safe. But finding the dream pinwheel has helped Fischer grow emotionally, and make progress in his own real life. There is an obvious parallel between Fischer’s cathartic confrontation with his personal demons on level 4 (ice world) and Cobb’s confrontations on level 5 (getting rid of Mal, and—with Saito—remembering to come back to Reality). A more subtle point is that Cobb is continuing this process of discovery, of personal reintegration, when he returns to level 1; there, the barriers that have kept him apart from his children disappear, and he reintegrates into his family. When he wakes up, eventually, into level 0, he will have all the insights he gained from dream levels 1-5.

Maybe real-life Cobb has been feeling bad because he wife walked out on him. Or maybe his real-life anxieties have nothing to do with a spouse. Someone named “Mal” can represent all kinds of pernicious influences or obstacles. Is Ariadne (who in Greek mythology gave Theseus the string which he used to escape the Minotaur’s maze, and who in Inception creates the maze for Fischer which will lead him out of his own mental prison) a projection of the part of Cobb’s personality that he needs to help him escape from Mal? Is she his real-life psychotherapist?

The real answer is that we don’t know the meta-story around the movie, but we do know that the movie invites us into the creative process of creating the meta-story, and there is not necessarily only one true answer.

One can reduce Inception to a didactic 1969-style moral like “There’s no reality. Just whatever makes you happy.” And it’s also true that no-one can fully answer the movie’s “Am I dreaming?” question, namely “How did I get here?” You may have scattered memories from when you were a baby, but those memories could just indicate a very long dream. However, blithe unconcern for reality vs. unreality is not entirely consistent with Cobb’s realization that Mal and he needed to escape from their fifty-year excursion in level 5.

More broadly, Inception plants many diverse ideas in the audience—multiple ideas for every person who sees it. Like the characters in the airplane sequence, when we watch the movie we experience a shared conscious dream. Like almost all performance artworks, Inception is a deception; it is an unreal artistic construct which we choose to believe for a while, in order to find a deeper understanding of reality.

Inception is not only about dreaming, but also an optimistic invitation to awaken to the creative possibilities of sharing imaginations—as some people do when participating in the creation of a film, and as we all can do with our diverse talents when we share our dreams with others, and they share ours.