Inception is a perfect example of the Neptune archetype on film, not just because of its themes, but also due to its reality dissolving effect on the viewer. It’s a heist movie about dreams – ambitious and visually stunning, especially on the big screen, although not particularly dreamlike. For that you need David Lynch, not Christopher Nolan.
The movie is constructed like a maze with multiple levels and twists and turns. Some say it’s confusing but it explains itself clearly and isn’t hard to follow if you pay attention. However, there’s a lot of exposition so it rewards multiple viewings. It also has multiple interpretations and there’s no right answer when it comes to the ending which is deliberately ambiguous.
Like all great films, Inception has many themes including dreams and memory, cinema and the process of filmmaking, and the power of the subconscious in how you interpret your perception of reality. The film blurs the line between dreams and reality so effectively that you can read whatever you want into it, so how you interpret the ending depends on what you want to see.
Before we go any further, here’s the obligatory !!**SPOILER WARNING**!! This film probably can’t be spoilt but if you haven’t seen it, go watch it first because its power is most effective if you don’t know what to expect.
The story is quite simple, even if the execution appears complex. The protagonist is Dom Cobb, an extractor who steals information by infiltrating people’s dreams. His latest target, Saito, sees through the ruse but then hires Cobb to take down his main business rival by performing an inception. This involves implanting an idea rather than stealing one. Cobb claims it can’t be done, but Saito makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
Cobb is desperate to return home to his family but can’t because the authorities believe he killed his wife. Saito promises to resolve this problem if the inception is successful. Cobb assembles a team including architect Ariadne, identify forger Eames, chemist Yusuf, and point-man Arthur. The target is Robert Fischer whose father is about to die leaving the family firm to his son. Saito wants Fischer to break up the company.
However, the inception doesn’t go to plan and Cobb’s subconscious wreaks havoc when Mal, the projection of his dead wife, shows up and starts killing people. Several members of the team end up in dream limbo where Cobb has to confront his past in order to complete the job and return to his family in the real world – or does he?!
The central question at the heart of Inception is whether you can tell the difference between dreams and reality. The film creates confusion by using false awakenings and layering dreams within dreams. Scenes are set ways that appear realistic but then events unfold that make you doubt your perception of reality. Such as when Cobb runs down an alleyway that narrows and he gets stuck, reminiscent of the way this can happen in dreams.
The dreams created by the team are designed like a maze in order to trap the target – the person they’re extracting information from, or in this case, implanting with an idea – and to disguise the boundaries of the dream. This is done using paradoxical architecture, such as the Penrose stairs, also called the impossible staircase because it ascends on a continuous loop – as seen in M.C. Escher’s lithograph Ascending and Descending.
Each level of the dream has a different perception of time. The deeper you go through the layers, the longer the time feels and the further away from reality you get. If you go too deep into the dream, you end up in limbo – raw, infinite subconscious – and can become trapped there for years.
And this is where the film starts, with Cobb on the edge of the ocean in limbo – adrift in the subconscious. He’s in exile from reality and himself and desperate to return home to his children. He wants to be sure he’s living in the real world and is even ready to shoot himself in the head if he believes he’s dreaming. But he can never be sure.
Cobb is an unreliable narrator or protagonist. He contradicts himself and does things he tells others they shouldn’t do. In the opening dream, he says he can’t trust Mal but then asks her to sit on a chair to hold his weight and, of course, she moves. Later he claims inception isn’t possible but then admits it is because he’s done it.
Is this self-deception, or is he lost in a dream world? Does he even want to know what’s real?
Cobb is lost in the labyrinth of his own mind, like the myth of Theseus hunting the Minotaur. Ariadne, as psychopomp, guides him through the maze and helps him to face his own version of the monster in the form of Mal. She represents his shadow, a manifestation of his guilt and regret which has come to define him.
The only way Cobb can dream is by reliving old memories of his wife, but Mal has become malevolent. She won’t allow him to create anything new and this is keeping him away from his children. But her destructiveness is really Cobb attacking himself. When Mal sends a freight train down the middle of a street, it’s Cobb’s shadow sabotaging the dream.
Like Orpheus descending into Hades to bring Eurydice back to life, Cobb descends into the underworld of limbo to confront his shadow and retrieve the lost parts of himself. By confessing his guilt to Mal, he’s able to let go of the past and heal his fractured psyche and return to wholeness.
Robert Fischer, the target of the inception, goes through a similar descent and return, and his emotional arc depends on Cobb’s. Fischer believes his father was disappointed with him, despite successfully running the company on his behalf while he was sick. But Cobb plants the idea that his father was disappointed because he tried to follow in his footsteps rather than becoming his own man.
After finding a handmade windmill from his childhood in the safe beside his father’s death bed, Fischer decides to break up the company and be true to himself instead. The windmill represents a return to innocence, a reclamation of lost childhood (shades of rosebud in Citizen Kane).
By helping Fischer to reconcile with his father and become an individual in his own right, Cobb is able to heal and return to his children and be their father again. So Fischer and Cobb are mirrors of each other.
In fact, it may be that Cobb is the real target of the inception, and there are many clues that we may be inside his head for the whole film. Perhaps Miles, his father-in-law and the man who taught him how to create dreams, has enlisted the team to persuade him to come home. As he says when Cobb visits him in Paris looking for an architect:
“Come back to reality, Dom.”
This statement is too direct and obvious to work as an inception and Cobb is able to reject it easily. But there are other phrases that get repeated several times, starting with the question Saito asks him:
“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man, filled with regret waiting to die alone?”
This statement resembles the kind of phrase the team uses to plant ideas in Fischer’s subconscious. It hooks into Cobb’s feelings of regret and encourages a positive emotional response. He later uses these phrases himself in order to bring Saito back from limbo, saying he’s come back:
“To remind him of something he once knew. That this world is not real.”
This is also the same idea that Cobb planted into Mal’s subconscious – the idea that led to her death – and it appears to have infected him too. Mal asked Cobb to “take a leap of faith” and jump from the window in order to wake up, but maybe she was right. Maybe Mal is alive and Cobb is still asleep and she’s been trying to get his attention ever since.
In Mombasa, the team visit Yusuf to test a sedative which allows people to dream for 4 hours a day giving them 40 hours of dreamtime. When Eames asks if the people come every day to sleep, a man answers:
“No. They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality.”
And turning to Cobb, he says:
“Who are you to say otherwise, sir?”
After this scene, Cobb rushes to the bathroom to splash water on his face and use his dream totem, the spinning top. This is a reality check and allows him to be sure he’s awake. But he’s interrupted and drops the totem. From this point on in the film, we have no idea whether or not Cobb is dreaming.
However, the totem might be a red herring because it’s not his. The top used to belong to Mal, and as Cobb tells Ariadne, she would spin it in a dream and it would never topple. So if the top falls, Cobb believes he’s in reality. But this would only be true for Mal – not him. Where is Cobb’s totem?
Then again, according to Arthur, a totem only tells you whether you’re in somebody else’s dream, not whether you’re awake. So Cobb’s fixation with Mal’s totem is curious, and this also raises questions about the ending.
When Cobb finally arrives home, he spins the top to check that he’s awake while Miles calls to the children. Cobb walks away from the totem without checking to see if it falls. He’s more interested in embracing his children. Behind him, the totem spins and spins…
All the way through the film, Cobb has persistent visions of his children playing in the sunshine. It’s his memory of the last time he saw them before leaving the country. When he sees them again, they appear to be just as he left them. They don’t seem to have aged and appear to be wearing the same clothes, so he could still be dreaming.
However, the filmmakers did cast two sets of children of different ages so they are technically older, although it’s hard to tell and they were made to look virtually the same. We don’t know how long Cobb has been away from home, so it’s plausible that these are his real children and he’s now awake.
Cobb takes a leap of faith and chooses to be with his children. He walks away from the spinning totem because it was Mal’s – it’s part of his past and he he’s ready to let it go. He doesn’t need it anymore and it’s doubtful it gives him useful information about reality anyway.
It’s possible that he chooses to believe in his children regardless whether they’re real or not. But this would undermine the entire emotional journey he’s been on if all he had to do was choose between one fake reality and another.
Cobb is ready to stop running around inside his own head in a dream world and come back to reality. When he was in limbo with Mal, he wanted to leave because it didn’t feel real. He chooses to leave Mal behind when he realises she’s not real – she’s just a shade. So he must choose to be with his children because he feels they’re real.
Finally, the presence of Miles at the end suggests this isn’t the same memory of his children as before and that Cobb is finally awake.
How you see the ending depends on what you want to believe. For a life-affirming ending, Cobb wakes up and returns to his children. For a darker, paranoid ending, he’s still trapped in the dream and has chosen to give up trying to return to reality and may not even know what that is anymore.
But you don’t have to choose one or the other. Cobb – and the film – exists in a liminal space, an in-between state like a bardo realm.
A bardo is a transition between one state and another, and comes from the Tibetan Buddhist teaching Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, usually known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The word comes from bar meaning ‘in-between’, and do meaning ‘suspended’ or ‘thrown.’ It’s most often associated with the after death state but can also be applied to many other situations.
According to this teaching, you’re pretty much in a bardo realm all the time because of the nature of consciousness and reality. The four main bardos are:
- The bardo of this life – from birth to death, which also includes the bardo of dreaming and the bardo of meditation
- The bardo of dying – the process leading up to death and the dawning of the true nature of mind or Ground Luminosity
- The bardo of dharmata – the after death experience of mind or Clear Light
- The bardo of becoming – the intermediate state between death and rebirth
Bardos are when you have the greatest possibility for awakening if you can recognise it and see through the illusions of the mind. Every moment can be seen as a bardo, suspended between the past and the future – the Now in which life appears to arise. As Francesca Freemantle explains in Luminous Emptiness:
“Anything whatever, after it has arisen and before it passes away, takes place within the bardo of this life, appearing to exist and to be absolutely real. … External appearances seem to be quite separate from the mind, because of our dualistic habit of dividing experience into subject and object, but gradually we come to see that they are indivisible and that all appearances are the spontaneous play of the mind.”
We don’t see reality as it is because our subconscious influences how we interpret what we see. To make matters worse, the brain fills in the gaps of our perception and constructs reality in a kind of controlled hallucination. We’re dreaming all the time, running around inside our own minds and imagining all sorts of crazy things.
Such as: I’m awake right now!
Regardless whether Cobb is awake or dreaming, the real target for inception is you – the audience. The spinning totem plants the idea that you might be dreaming and the world isn’t real.
Near the end of the credits, the Edith Piaf song used as a cue to bring people out of the dream, begins to play, signalling it’s time to wake up…
“Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.” – Carl Jung
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Images: film stills