As you might guess, this entire article is full of spoilers for Inception, so if you haven’t seen it, go see it before reading any of this. We’ll wait.
When the first trailers for Inception debuted, it had people asking what it was all about. Now that the film has hit theaters, it has people asking what it’s all about. As the antidote for the mindless action flick – yet staying tucked away in the world of the accessible – Christopher Nolan has created an intense work of art that promises to prompt theories well into the next decade.
What follows is three different explanations for the film. You can decide how correct any or all of them are.
The Jungian Archetypes
Rich Knight at CinemaBlend offers a great portrait of what the characters of the film may represent personally to Dom Cobb by using the age-old Jungian archetypes. Knight asserts that Cobb is asleep through the entire film and that these characters are the subconscious manifestations of a mind slipping away. Arthur as the hero of the story, Mal as the dark shadow, Ariadne as the female presence in the male mind. It’s a fascinating read, and it seems spot on from the casual psychoanalyst’s perspective.
The site also has a great set of rules for the film’s world alongside a glossary of terms.
Inception as a Metaphor for Filmmaking
In what might be the best exploration of the film, Devin Faraci at CHUD offers a graceful breakdown of the characters and situations as they relate to the world of filmmaking and the catharsis of a great story. Even the audience has a role to play. He, too, asserts that Dom is dreaming throughout the entire film and that he’s billed himself as the director in order to have some control over the entities around him. Leonardo DiCaprio likened his character to the main man in 8 1/2. Could Inception be Christopher Nolan’s autobiographical waking dream?
A Half-Remembered Dream
As for my personal take on the film, I choose to believe that Dom and the rest of his team are all real people inhabiting a real world where dream-infiltration is possible, and that Dom has truly joined the waking world at the end of the film.
While I loved reading the other explanations and while I think there’s a certain beauty to Devin’s piece, they ignore the true genius of the film – it’s ability to project different truths at the same time. There will never be a singular accepted reading of the movie because it offers something different for everyone. There will be strong arguments heading in several directions, there will be hangups for each interpretation to explain away, but the we’ll never know if the top kept spinning.
The film opens with Dom being dragged in front of Saito with only his gun and his totem on him. This places massive importance on Dom’s top from the onset as it acts as a touchstone for Saito and for the audience – a mysterious object that will have to be explained. That explanation, that importance lies in the top’s ability to show whether Dom is awake or inside a dream. It’s a compass that points the way home. If you choose to, you can discredit that importance by viewing the top as a dream construct itself. Another confusing artifact that has power only because Dom believes that it does.
There’s an argument claiming that since it was once his wife’s, the totem Dom holds may not be a physical object at all, but one that shows he’s still tied to limbo.. However, it’s also a fair reading to accept that he kept the physical marker she used as a keepsake after her death.
Some have called into question the strange way in which Mal commits suicide, but it’s hardly proof that Dom is dreaming the entire time. Yes, instead of a tear-filled scene in a hotel room, there’s a tear-filled scene on the ledge of a hotel room where Mal has seemingly rented a second room from which to jump. While it’s odd, it’s also explained in the film.
Mal tells Dom her plan to incriminate him in her death if he won’t jump with her. She rents a second hotel room across the way in order to be a safe distance from the man who might physically stop her from jumping and leaves him with the ultimatum of joining her or facing criminal charges of the most severe kind. She’s staged an elaborate set for him to be caught in (or for investigators to find later), and she’s made sure that he can’t stop her from going through with what she feels she has to do.
The Structure Changes
The rules of the “dream world” differ greatly from those shown in the “real world” segments of the film. The most telling is the reaction of crowds. In the dream world, the crowds are manifestations of the subconscious, and they get violent whenever they spot an intruder. There are few examples of crowd scenes (which may work against this argument), but the bystanders on the streets of Mombasa don’t turn and stare creepily in unison at Dom or lunge for him – leading me to believe that those segments really do take place in the real world (since people are responding as people in the real world would).
This creates a clear dichotomy between when Dom is awake and when he’s asleep.
It’s easy to discredit this view by accepting that Dom’s subconscious has created different sets of rules for different levels of his dream state: when in the first layer of his dream (“the waking world”) things react a certain way and when in the lower layers of the dream, things respond as per the rules set out in the film itself. However, both views are equally sensible, rational and likely.
The structure of the film itself also points to Dom being awake.
Without delving into the nit-picking nitty-gritty of how dreams are supposed to look, there is one conceit that has to be accepted when believing that Dom is asleep the entire time: that the audience is viewing his dream. If the entire world of the film is Dom’s dream, then the entirety of what’s on-screen is created by Dom’s subconscious. This may be a small detail (all arguments about this subject boil down to small details), but there are scenes without Dom in them. This goes for both the “real world” and the dream worlds down below. Ostensibly, if Dom is the unreliable (and unwitting narrator), there’s little chance that he would have the subconscious power to visualize all of the scenes and conversations that he wasn’t/isn’t present for.
Again, this digs into the structure and limitations of dreams, and very well could be a simple production choice in order to make the story flow better, but it’s a small, sharp thorn in the side of the argument that Dom is dreaming for the entire run-time.
The presence of scenes without Dom is something that has to be explained before the idea that he’s been dreaming can be fully accepted.
Dom spends the entire movie trying to get back to his children. In the end, he does so. Perhaps this act is one of unlocking a subconscious memory he couldn’t quite grasp, but the simpler explanation is that he gets off the plane in Los Angeles and goes home to his children. They may look exactly the same as they did in his memories, but that belies the fact that we don’t know how long he’s been away from them. Was it several years or only six months?
Before rejecting the shorter time period in consideration of the depth of his agony, ask a parent how long it would be before they went crazy from being separated from their children.
Sure, the ending is done in a dreamy way, but it’s also done in a very traditional, filmic way – using a montage of scenes to show what the audience is already expecting. The tension is released once we see Dom go through customs without being tackled by the police, so the rest is a downhill jog to wave goodbye to his friends and end up in the same living room he regretted leaving all those years ago.
Never Fully Accepting
Like dreams and their ephemeral meanings, Inception is not something that will fit neatly into any one box or any one interpretation. This may be Christopher Nolan’s vision, but he’s given the audience a lot of toys to play with and a lot of leeway to create what they thought the film was about. Was it about letting go? Was it about the nature of reality? Was it about returning home? Was it about the fulfillment of dreams? All of the above? None of the above?
The real beauty of Inception is that there never will be an accepted reading of the film. It’s not one certain way – and the best proof of that is the last shot of the film. By never seeing the top fall or continue spinning past the point of physical believability, Nolan has left the movie open-ended for a reason.
All three of these explanations have a solid ground on which to stand even if they don’t all completely agree. Nolan and company have provided that solid ground (and just enough cracks) to make most interpretations feel correct even if there are a few details that don’t quite seem to line up. Luckily, a rational explanation is never too far away.
And then the chair falls out from under you.
How did you interpret Inception? Is Dom asleep the entire time or does he really make it back to his children? Is one result less satisfying than the other?