July 29, 2010

The Ultimate Explanation Of Inception

Cobb being distracted.JPG
the object circled in red is a distraction

(spoilers; you may want to start with this intro post first.)

I'll start at the end: the top will fall.

Take a moment.  How do you feel?  You're probably not satisfied, whether you agree or not. There's no relief to it, no "aha!" moment, no catharsis.  That's because the top doesn't matter.  You are looking at the wrong thing.

To explain how this can be known, you have to consider three metaphors that Nolan makes explicit.


First, the labyrinth:

inception title shot.JPGOh, look, a maze.  And Ariadne auditions for Cobb by drawing mazes, and builds model mazes; and of course her name is neck deep in the metaphor of the maze.

But then nowhere in the movie is there an actual or metaphorical maze.  Arthur says they need a maze to better hide from the projections, but they don't actually do this, right?  When Ariadne draws her mazes for Cobb, he rejects the square mazes and is satisfied/stumped only by the circular classical labyrinth.

And anyway, mythological Ariadne didn't construct the Minotaur's labyrinth-- Daedalus constructed it for her-- she merely showed Theseus how to get out of it.  But she didn't need to: a classical labyrinth doesn't have multiple dead ends; it is a single winding path that leads either in or out.


But Theseus, like the audience, upon being shoved inside wouldn't have known the form of the labyrinth-- dead ends or single path?  So to be able to find the Minotaur, he needed to know which way to go, and Daedalus told him: downwards is the only way forwards.


And so it becomes clear:  it's not an actual maze, it's a labyrinth, which brings us to the second metaphor: the paradoxical staircase.

A single path, that ends up back on itself.

penrose stairs.jpg

The staircase defies geometry because it is fixed in a single perspective.  If you alter that perspective, then the illusion is revealed.

Hence, Arthur and Ariadne can walk around and around the stairs passing the woman who had dropped her papers; and Arthur could sneak up on his attacker by going down the stairwell.  When the perspective changed, then Ariadne and Arthur had to stop walking; then  the surprised attacker could be pushed off a ledge. 

But each of those times required a choice by Arthur to "see" the staircase from another perspective.  Seeing it from a different perspective changed the reality.

Cobb's not trapped in a maze, he's trapped in a paradoxical staircase, covering the same ground over and over.  He doesn't need Ariadne to lead him out; he needs her to clue him into another perspective.


The third metaphor seems to be the wedding ring.  When he's in a dream, he wears a ring; when he is in real life  there is no ring.  So easy?  Then why did Cobb insist on using the top-- something that Mal had touched and hence defeats the purpose of a totem?  Why not just look at his ring?  Well, give it a try yourself:

cobb with gun.jpgcobb at table and bar.jpg
cobb and ariadne.jpg

Pay close attention to how difficult it is to see Cobb's left hand.  Right hands abound; left hands are hidden in pockets, under tables, in shadows.  Now that I've said it, you'll be astonished at how obviously deliberate it is that DiCaprio is hiding his left hand from us--  except at certain moments.  Nolan is actively frustrating your attempts at determining whether it's a dream or not.

Why so many long gun battles and fight scenes?  Can't they just dream of being at the safe or past the bad guys?  No. That's how we signify (male) conflict in movies; on the way to catharsis, you have to fight. 

All of this is the expression of the third metaphor, which is really the theme of the movie: resistance.

cobb and arthur.jpgI said I only want to be shot from the right


Does Inception remind you of The Matrix The Matrix brothers wanted you to reference Baudrillard's idea of a simulated reality substituting for "real" reality.  However, their execution was flawed.

The Matrix is a great movie but a poor expression of Baudrillard's philosophy. The Matrix is quite straightforward, there's no confusion, no paradox: you're either in the Matrix, or you're in the real world.  You may not know you're in the Matrix, but that doesn't change the fact that you are, or are not, in it.

A true Baudrillard Matrix would be a single fake world that became so real that you no longer needed the original.  The whole world becomes a fake; there is no recourse to the real world.  You'll know it happened when you look at a copy of something, the original of which you have had no actual knowledge, and say, "oh, that's so authentic."

The dream does not have an external reference, it is not an illusion of reality, but a simulation not based on anything real. Cobb is specific about this when teaching dream architecture to Ariadne-don't use memories (which reference reality).   What becomes real for Cobb and every other dreamer is the simulation. The dreamer merges their memory of reality with the architect's imagination into the symbolic. Only death is beyond the scope of the simulation-- and even that, levels deep, was a real possibility.  Other than that the simulation becomes the reality. Fischer never reconciled with his dad, but Eames set him up to dream that he did, and upon waking behaves as if he did. He was shown a simulation of a reconciliation and merged into it his memories and wishes.  Is that not real?

Cobb had the same catharsis.  He dreamt-- four levels down-- a catharsis with his wife that never actually happened "in real life."  But that doesn't matter, not for Cobb or his kids.

What makes the film so perplexing is precisely the ambiguity necessary to get across the point about simulation. If the narrative clearly identified totems, who was dreaming, and how many levels down we were, it would be clear to us the audience the difference between  simulation and reality.  But that's not the point of the narrative, indeed, it tries to frustrate that inclination.  The point is catharsis.


The problem with making the distinction "dream vs. not dream" is that it fails to get you off the staircase.  It's debatable, but probably likely, that Cobb was on the phone with his kids in real life, and dreaming when with Ariadne in the cafe.  But why should we believe that he's wanted for his wife's murder? And that a Japanese tycoon can alter a gigantic criminal justice bureaucracy with a ten second phone call?  Why doesn't he just move his kids out to Paris? It's more plausible that "the police want to get me" is a projection of his guilt; I can't go home...I can't face my kids... Looked at from this perspective, what's dream and what's not is irrelevant to Cobb.  If it matters to you, that's your own baggage.

You want to know what's real?  His wife is still dead.  That's real, very real, everything else in the world, no matter how real, is less real than that.  But they had their time together, (however brief and incomplete it may have been in real life, however sudden and savage and wrong was her death.)

It's time to let her go. 

What's keeping you on the staircase is the fear that getting off the staircase means you'll never see her again.


In the warehouse, Cobb explains that Mal was possessed "by the idea that their world wasn't real."  Adriadne tries to comfort him: "you're not responsible for the idea that killed her."  But of course he thinks he was.  He implanted that idea into her head in their 50 year dream life, she lay on the tracks with him so they could die/wake up, but that idea stuck into her real life-- so she jumped from a building.  That event gave him his guilt.  It is irrelevant whether her jumping happened in a dream or in real life-- he still carried a guilt around with him.

The top isn't the totem, and the wedding ring isn't his totem.  The totem is his guilt-- "this is my fault."  It is his origin.  It is his inception.

He incepted himself.


Miscellany: many trains, Kyoto, freight train in the street, Cobb and Mal's suicide train, the train underneath the moving bridge which Yusuf drives off. Train is a common metaphor for thought, one track mind, train of thought, get back on track.

Water: stream of consciousness, put under, sleep deeply.  Symbol of the unconscious: fear death by water.


If you're busy looking for what's dream and what's not, you're just trapped running the staircase.  You need to change the perspective.

Cobb has Fischer hostage in the warehouse; he tosses Eames disguised as Browning next to him and says, "you have one hour!" (to figure out "the combination" to the safe.)  Exactly one hour later (yes, I timed it), Fischer and the real Browning escape from the submerged van and swim to the shore, where Fischer proclaims he will break up the company.  Yay, the plan worked, inception worked. 

But if that dream time matches our (the audience's) real time, then are we dreaming?

Inception is also an allegory of filmmaking or narrative construction. It's a movie about it's own making.  It describes how the simulation (movie) is constructed and manipulated so as to become the reality.

So change the perspective.  Forget about the top, forget about the ring, look elsewhere.  The children are wearing black shoes throughout the movie, until the final scene where they are wearing white sneakers.

black then white shoes.jpgBut be careful, that doesn't tell you what's dream and what's not, it tells you that they have changed.  That's what's important.  It may be a dream or it may be real, but they are now different-- they aren't a memory

Others have observed that in imdb, the children are played by two pairs of actors, two years apart.  In a movie about narrative structure, are we supposed to ignore the structure of that movie?


("We have to buy out the cabin... and the first class flight attendant."  I know just the gal; and I'll throw in a kid, for free.)

So either he is truly awake at the end and about two years have passed since Mal's death; or he's still asleep, but has moved past staricasing memories and moved into new dreamspace.  It doesn't matter to Cobb.

What matters isn't whether the top stopped spinning; what matters is that Cobb didn't bother to find out.


(special thanks to pastabagel for his perspective)



Thank you, once again, for ... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 2:47 AM | Posted by Grayumm: | Reply

Thank you, once again, for making me think about things differently, much like the staircase.

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As my wife points out, the ... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 9:28 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

As my wife points out, the totem is only for determining if you're in somebody else's dream...

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Second thought for comment:... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 9:44 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Second thought for comment: My favorite part of the movie was that it was stopped just so in order to leave the audience wondering whether the top would fall or not.

Your post points out details about the children which mostly resolve that question - indeed, the top was about to fall. But the rest of the points you brought up make it still as satisfactory.

Credit, then, to Nolan - if you think about the movie hard enough, you can resolve the initial puzzle (the top at the end) that he puts before you, but if you keep going, that still doesn't detract from the movie.

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There were three 199... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 11:07 AM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

There were three 1999 movies that addressed this kind of simulation vs. reality dichotomy; both The Thirteenth Floor and eXistenZ did it better than The Matrix, but eXistenZ did it best of the three. If you want to see the issue addressed in its full PKD ambiguity, I highly recommend eXistenZ.

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holy shit you are a genius<... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 11:21 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

holy shit you are a genius

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Very sharp analysis. I've ... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 12:30 PM | Posted by Trent: | Reply

Very sharp analysis. I've always thought that Nolan is far more intelligent and purposeful than film analysts like Armond White tend to give him credit for, and you've explained why.

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So, you are in a narrative.... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2010 2:59 PM | Posted by CMC: | Reply

So, you are in a narrative. And while you are in that narrative, you can dream up future narratives (e.g. 50 years in a city of your own making) but they fall apart --they are not plausible, somehow don't work because, ultimately, something in your present narrative doesn't make sense or is unresolved. Hmmm. You are in a narrative. But you can't dream up future narratives that will make sense. Because your present narrative is flawed, i.e. itself doesn't make sense, isn't plausible. (Isn't he a bit like you and me?!) But if you dream up a (future) narrative that challenges your present narrative.... If you _let_ yourself dream up a future narrative that challenges your present narrative... If you let someone (your unconscious? your subconscious) dream up a future narrative that challenges your present narrative, maybe you will discover where the flaw is; maybe you will wake up to yourself; wake yourself up? [And when he came to himself... Luke 15:17]

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it wasnt the real browning ... (Below threshold)

July 30, 2010 4:26 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

it wasnt the real browning swimming to shore. it was still the forger, as the van was the first level dream.

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It's not particularly damni... (Below threshold)

July 30, 2010 5:48 PM | Posted by Wilb: | Reply

It's not particularly damning to your argument, but the interpretation of the idea of the word labyrinth is flawed.

The labyrinth that Daedalus constructed was definitely not a single winding path (it's pretty easy to escape on of those), but a complex maze. The 'classical' interpretation of labyrinth was in fact created long after the myth, and cannot be used to describe the labyrinth in the story of Theseus.

The use of the name Ariadne implies that Cobb is trapped in a maze (as in the myth), not a winding path (the classical labyrinth). You can still have a endless loop in a maze, so the perpetual staircase metaphor still is valid.

The symbolism of Ariadne changes, however. She didn't 'clue' Theseus into an exit; she gave him a way to retrace his steps. Cobb's life (as he knew it) ended when he preformed the inception on Mal, so it only makes sense for Ariadne to lead him out through another inception.

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What does everyone think ab... (Below threshold)

July 30, 2010 10:35 PM | Posted by Brad: | Reply

What does everyone think about the kid's faces being his totem? We never see their faces but at the end ins supposed real life we see their faces.

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Hi, actually, the part abou... (Below threshold)

July 31, 2010 3:19 PM | Posted by Mehtamoomoo: | Reply

Hi, actually, the part about guilt that you stated was wrong. The police is after his because in the flashback, where cobb's wife is standing on the edge of the building, she says that he can also jump with her because she got her lawyer to file a report that he killed his wife. She said that way he has a reason to jump with her. The police is after him because of the report she got her lawyer to make.

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Hi, actually, the part abou... (Below threshold)

July 31, 2010 3:20 PM | Posted by Mehtamoomoo: | Reply

Hi, actually, the part about guilt that you stated was wrong. The police is after his because in the flashback, where cobb's wife is standing on the edge of the building, she says that he can also jump with her because she got her lawyer to file a report that he killed his wife. She said that way he has a reason to jump with her. The police is after him because of the report she got her lawyer to make.

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Glad to see that not everyb... (Below threshold)

July 31, 2010 4:50 PM | Posted by Anewpairofeyes: | Reply

Glad to see that not everybody fell for the red herring that the top provided at the end ;)

At this point, I am amazed by all the different 'endlessly rising staircases' that the movie presents. Each ambiguity perpetually shifting the resonant meaning of the film.

I definitely agree that one of the least interesting levels of analysis is to sort out real from not real.

Funny enough, isn't that quest for authenticity what lead to Cobb's trauma?

Both he and Mel were absolutely convinced that they had a better handle on what was 'real' than the other.

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I guess your own totem is a... (Below threshold)

August 1, 2010 1:51 AM | Posted by The Chosen One: | Reply

I guess your own totem is a human female; in your dreams you may be sleeping with some sexy, young thing, but in reality it's just your hand. You have wasted way too much time and money rewatching this movie. Just like the Dark Knight, Inception is not religious enlightenment but simply a film. You have incepted your own mind in several ways.

I. To believe there is more to the film than there really is; you believe that you have left the staircase, gaining a better perspective when in reality you are stuck in the overly contrived but entertaining universe that Nolan creates in his films.

II. As for the ending of the film, my take is that it is a ripoff. We have seen this pony before. Total Recall featured our hero, uncertain of whether he saved the day in reality or only in his dreams. Just like in Total Recall, we cannot achieve catharsis in believing that it was all a dream, just like Brian alleged we would feel ripped off that Stewie didn't really make an attempt on Lois's life. Thus, your human mind, like most others has found catharsis by incepting your mind that he really is not dreaming at the end.

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I see dead people. ... (Below threshold)

August 1, 2010 1:29 PM | Posted by Ted: | Reply

I see dead people.

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Thank you very much for suc... (Below threshold)

August 1, 2010 9:08 PM | Posted by PhyOS: | Reply

Thank you very much for such explanation, it has cleared some things.

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Love the explanation, but f... (Below threshold)

August 2, 2010 10:10 AM | Posted by Jake: | Reply

Love the explanation, but for me the entire movie is summed up in the last few moments. In most movies like this, I get pissed off when it ends on a cliffhanger. For this one, I didn't care. Sure, there was a brief moment where I was asking "Did it fall or not?" But within a split second, I came to the ultimate realization, I just didn't care if it did or not. Not because I was pissed off, but because it didn't/doesn't matter. That's what makes this movie so masterful. Your posts are just icing on the cake.

I am curious on one topic though, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. What would you say about someone who saw this movie and gets hung up on whether the top falls or not, versus someone that saw it and realized it doesn't matter one way or the other?

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Some very clever points.</p... (Below threshold)

August 2, 2010 10:20 AM | Posted by oldmess: | Reply

Some very clever points.

Just have to point out (as another post has done before) that it is NOT real Browning that escapes the van with Fischer in the end. It's clearly the forger, as the director even gives us a progressive shot, first showing Browning having a dialogue with Fischer and then moving the camera behind Fischer's face, leadind into an image were Browning's face is no longer his but Hames'. /sorry for my bad english :P

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"Then why did Cobb insist o... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2010 4:34 PM | Posted by Kenan: | Reply

"Then why did Cobb insist on using the top-- something that Mal had touched and hence defeats the purpose of a totem?"

This reasoning is flawed. The reason no one was allowed to touch the totem is so the person can't recreate it in their own dreams. However Mal is dead and can therefore not dream, so the top's function as a totem stands.

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Brilliant explanation! ... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2010 6:04 PM | Posted by Juliana: | Reply

Brilliant explanation!

Thank you,you actually have enriched my points of view!


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lol. pwned... (Below threshold)

August 6, 2010 1:32 AM | Posted, in reply to The Chosen One's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

lol. pwned

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wow, you actually managed t... (Below threshold)

August 6, 2010 12:15 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

wow, you actually managed to over analyze this stupid movie and come up with ridiculous explanations, much like my pretentious literature teacher used to back in college.
"He incepted himseld" hahahaha. can you be more full of shite?

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Minimally useful informatio... (Below threshold)

August 7, 2010 3:08 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Minimally useful information here, I felt. A little too deep for the lack of explanation I felt there was by the end of this.

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<a href="http://www.528491.... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2010 4:21 AM | Posted by Juan: | Reply

http://www.528491.com/ Are the numbers a 'inception-information' that Cobb makes believe to himself trying to solve all the puzzle? The numbers are around constantly in all the movie... the numbers are in the same dream or in the same level?

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"What matters isn't whether... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2010 10:46 PM | Posted by Josh: | Reply

"What matters isn't whether the top stopped spinning; what matters is that Cobb didn't bother to find out."

this really hits the nail on the head. only the audience is left watching the top in the last frame, cobb realizes it's a red herring. nicely done

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I thought it was about the ... (Below threshold)

August 9, 2010 1:08 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I thought it was about the American dream. And religion.

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"What matters isn't whether... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 2:15 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"What matters isn't whether the top stopped spinning; what matters is that Cobb didn't bother to find out."

Take that you literal nerds. Thank you. I wish more people would pay attention to the message instead of the literal picture.

I also hated Dallas.

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Reading a lot of these comm... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 2:22 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Reading a lot of these comments I realize that art education at the moment is very poor. We've done society such a disservice by making it so easy to dismiss the analysis of art and communication.

Many comments in this blog post exhibit very negative views to any kind of interpretation. This is really sad. It bothers me that any semblance of intellectualism that isn't immediate engineering (thus excluding mathematics) is frowned upon.

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Brilliant analysis, thank y... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 4:47 PM | Posted by Nicolas Papaconstantinou: | Reply

Brilliant analysis, thank you for laying it all out. You are done a disservice by the presence of some of your commenters.

It's a common fallacy made by those that are not inquisitive, or that have little or no abstract intelligence, that questioning narrative motivation of a writer or director, or making a critical analysis of a piece of art or entertainment, is somehow a huge effort or expenditure of energy on the part of the analyst, when the truth is that more often, interpreting these things, or articulating them in an article or blog-post is almost second nature to some of us, and doesn't take any more effort than, say, memorising a top-ten of our favourite uber-slams using quotes from obscure Family Guy episodes might take someone else.

(Sometimes, thrashing all this stuff is even FUN! It's hard to believe, but in the same way that people with physical aptitude enjoy exercising their bodies, people with smarts get actual pleasure out of, y'know, thinking about stuff!)

I can understand the desire to argue the validity of a point of view, and that sometimes that argument can become a little heated, but I can't think of anything more ignorant or full of negativity than mocking someone for actually having a point of view in the first place.

(Worse, I'm not actually convinced that it is always a lack of abstract intelligence or interpretive skill that causes it - if someone can reel off three pieces of pop-culture movie or tv analysis to explain why you're wasting your time on a piece like this, it's obviously more a case of self-hating geekery than it is honest, snarky pragmatism.)

It is infinitely more effort to comment on one blog which you think has no real value than it is to write that blog in the first place, or comment on a dozen that you actually respect, so I have no idea where these people get the energy from.

I'm going to be following your blog with interest from here on in. Great, intelligent stuff. I'd like to have spent more energy discussing the actual post, but really, I think your interpretation is pretty sound. Love that you make the point that Nolan's point in that last scene is that it doesn't matter one way or another whether it's a dream - showing us the top spinning down would undercut that point narratively, and I think it's fair to assume a little mischief on his part, because he must have known that it would drive people into a frenzy.

Actually, thinking about it: Would there have been any way to prove anything in that scene except that it's NOT a dream, really? What I mean is, you can show the top falling, but how long would you have to leave the camera on it to show it NOT falling? Isn't it impossible, really, to show evidence of something like that NOT happening?

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I enjoy interpretation and ... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 5:26 PM | Posted by Ted H: | Reply

I enjoy interpretation and analysis, and I enjoyed both of the posts made on this blog about Inception. However, if the analysis is correct, Inception sets a pretty high bar of obscurity, as well as a high level of education needed to understand its references. For me, the message is not quite worth the price of admission. The ending left me with the same sense of being "had" that I got from the movie "The Sixth Sense." That movie may have had a message as well, but I can't remember it and don't really care. Unfortunately, the same goes for Inception. I’m happy for anyone else who got something from Inception, or was deeply moved by it, but at some point this analysis seems about as fruitful as a detailed fashion analysis of "The Emperor's New Clothes." At what point, are we bullshitting ourselves about what's actually there in this movie, and/or about its value?

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We don't see the totem stop... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 5:36 PM | Posted by britmic: | Reply

We don't see the totem stop spinning in the final scene. Therefore, we are in somebody else's dream. Somebody's else's construct: Nolan's.

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Hi, Ted,I don't re... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 7:34 PM | Posted, in reply to Ted H's comment, by Nicolas Papaconstantinou: | Reply

Hi, Ted,

I don't really agree about the "high bar for obscurity". One thing that has come up again and again in conversations with people I know is that actually, "Inception" isn't a really complicated movie - it's just complicated "for a mainstream movie". It's a sight less ambiguous or obtuse than, say, "The Hurt Locker". Or even, really, the latter half of The Matrix saga. Nothing it asks it's audience to consider is as obscure or "out there" as you'd find in most science-fiction writing, and is small-change metaphysics compared to the majority of what happens in the comic medium.

But I do take your point, and I think if I had a problem with it at all, it was that Nolan's deliberate decision to leave the camera on the spinning top for as long as he did at the end was perhaps a little too twee and knowing, and for many it made it impossible NOT to drop the film into the sub-genre of "twist" movies that The Sixth Sense sparked off, and audiences have become jaded too.

Without that lingering moment, which was wry and worthwhile but not vital, the question is there for people who want to analyse, but it isn't what the film becomes ABOUT for the wider audience. I also think the tease of the first scene was a bit too deliberate an elbow-nudge for the audience - something he's largely resisted in Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige - it didn't fit the narrative architecture, and made too deliberate a challenge to an audience too willing to turn on a movie.

The nearest example I can think of is Blade Runner, which could be enjoyed as a fairly straightforward - if sometimes weighty - piece of science-fiction noir, unless you went looking for the questions. Most of the things that drive someone to question in that movie - such as the piano signature and photographs in Deckard's apartment which lead people to question his true nature - can be written off as atmospherics on a superficial watch.

At the other end of the scale, of big-budget mind-benders, there's Total Recall, as mentioned by one of the other commenters, which is confusing because it repeatedly tells you that it's confusing, despite the actual narrative being pretty a-to-b-to-c action-man does action-things.

I think Shalayaman's goal, which I think he nailed in The Sixth Sense, by the way, was to play with the medium and see how easy or hard it would be to lead an audience to a wrong conclusion, if you didn't tell them you were leading them. The thing I really appreciated about that film, watching it later on, was that it didn't cheat, but it also didn't overplay it's hand, but the problem with it is that it became defined by it's twist, and by some pretty aggressive marketing or hype ended up defining how audiences approach movies, too, with one eye constantly looking for the hand at the edge of the curtain. (Perhaps The Usual Suspects actually started this off, I don't know.) But at it's core, I don't think The Sixth Sense really HAD a message... I think Shalayaman has always been a Hitchcock, rather than a Cronenberg or Lynch. It's just a cracking ghost story and magic trick, that got too popular for it's own good.

And to LOOK for a message in Inception is possibly selling it short, too. There are themes in there, for sure, but I think the value - what made the price of admission worth it to me, at least - was the sheer volume of ideas, visually/superficially, technically, and conceptually, that it had going on. Whether it all held together in the end - something which we could argue forever! - doesn't bother me, because most films aren't all-the-way perfect. There is enough in there to pick over and play with that I'm happy. This isn't work, after all, and we make our choices about how much we want to take out of a given entertainment experience - the price of admission was less than two pints of beer, and watching Ellen Page bend cities to her will for three minutes, or that cute guy from Third Rock Escher-fight for five, is MORE than worth two pints of beer to me.

(For what it's worth, I think the suggested readings of the film that are given here are given in quite an academic way, and as such it gives quite deeply referenced arguments, but I don't think one needs a particularly deep education to understand the ideas put forward in the film... It's just that Nolan put a lot of easter eggs into the objective detail of the film that a really well-read person - or someone logging a lot of internet time - can use to bolster their reading. I didn't get half of the references mentioned, but pretty much came to the same conclusions that this writer did.)

Also, I'd just like to clarify that in my previous comment, I wasn't talking about comments like yours - you're questioning the value of the interpretations and the process, but you're not belittling the act of thinking about it full-stop. It's cool!

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Nicolas-I think yo... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2010 10:29 PM | Posted by Ted H: | Reply


I think you're right about what it pulled off and the amount of detail--as well as the amount demanded to understand it as fully as the Last Psych and some of the commentors here do--for a mainstream movie.

For people not versed in the references and analysis, many seem to be able to enjoy it as a roller coaster ride or an action movie. I had a hard time with it on that level because I couldn't suspend disbelief through the different levels. The necessity for anesthetic at each level, and "kicks" from one level into another were too much for me. It wasn't so much that I couldn't follow the levels, I just couldn't believe in the necessity, for anesthesia entry and kick exit past the first level. I guess there had to be something, but once you're dreaming, can't you just dream of another dream, and if you get kicked in level 3, isn't that enough to wake one to full consciousness?

It was beautifully shot, acted, and directed, and I've never seen anything like it before, but...I was kind of seeing/imagining spoofs halfway through, and I'm thinking a lot of the mainstream audience who liked it missed the point--I know I did!

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Honestly, I think it did ma... (Below threshold)

August 14, 2010 3:40 AM | Posted by ka-fish: | Reply

Honestly, I think it did matter to Cobb whether he was dreaming or not. When letting go of Mal he tells her that he can't except his version of her because she isn't real and whole. His memory of Mal, as good as it was, couldn't reconstruct all her "perfection and imperfection", so he has to let her go. Why, then, would he stop caring about that just a few hours later?

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Yeah, I can totally see tha... (Below threshold)

August 14, 2010 7:35 AM | Posted, in reply to Ted H's comment, by Nicolas Papaconstantinou: | Reply

Yeah, I can totally see that - problematically from a story point of view, I think Nolan HAD to keep the mechanic of dropping further levels and kicking back up from them the same, because he needed the confusion over whether or not one was dreaming to stay in the foreground... it's almost a macGuffin, in that regard, because you're right - dreams, being constructed of imagination, don't need those rules, but if the rules aren't constant, we and the characters can tell the difference. So Nolan created a story solution to a logic problem, and it doesn't necessarily fit with the "anything goes" element of dreams.

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Some people complained abou... (Below threshold)

August 14, 2010 12:07 PM | Posted by Cheese: | Reply

Some people complained about the movie aesthetics, saying that "dreams are bizarre in real life" and that, but they had to appear realistic in this movie to achieve Nolan's goal, which was making people uncertain whether each part of the movie was a dream or not.

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I have no problem with the ... (Below threshold)

August 14, 2010 7:36 PM | Posted by Lauri: | Reply

I have no problem with the dream realism. Most of my dreams are totally realistic except I'm often able to float at will. Other than that, people and events could actually happen. I just don't have freaky dreams (as an adult). Kind of wish I did for fun and creativity.

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The two sets of children on... (Below threshold)

August 15, 2010 10:01 PM | Posted by anon: | Reply

The two sets of children on the imdb and credit listing can easily be explained. there are two memories of his children the first is the memory of them just before he left them to go into hiding, the same memory that haunts him at certain stages in the film and are the same children at the end. The second younger pair of children exist in a different scene where he is in the elevator with ariadne and arrives at a memory of a beach where he sees mal with his two children when they are very young playing in the sand.

it is never really stated how long away he has been from home though so it would be hard to tell is his children should have aged a lot or not at all.

There are theories though that cobb's dream state either exists throughout the whole film or starts when he samples the extra strong sleeping formula where afterwards his check on the totem is disturbed by saito in the bathroom so he and we as the audience cannot be sure if he has truly awakened from that sleep state.

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Having just seen the movie,... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2010 5:57 PM | Posted by Matches Malone: | Reply

Having just seen the movie, I can tell you it's a classic indeterminate ending, and I normally abhor those, however, this time, it worked.

Remember the inception of his wife. If as you say, he also incepted himself, then it doesn't matter if the top has fallen or not. This journey, has ended. Roll credits.

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Dude, the dreams aren't rea... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2010 11:42 AM | Posted, in reply to Ted H's comment, by syntaxfree: | Reply

Dude, the dreams aren't really dreams. The shared dream is the cool, workplace-less sitcoms where unemployed people live in apartments and drive cars they couldn't possibly afford. Remember, the dream is something very abstract that grows on its own.

Many of TLP's posts are about dreams inside of dreams. But hey, Alone, bring in some technical posts! What about Seroquel XR part 4?

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"Scrawler" wrote this on Th... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2010 11:56 AM | Posted by Ted: | Reply

"Scrawler" wrote this on The Fountain Pen Network (they have a thread going on Inception): "I watched it last night. The IV's and the machinery are really incidental to the intent and questions the movie raises. They are in affect a Deus Ex Machina. The mechanism is not the point. The point is about that age old philosophical question "how do you know you are not a butterfly floating around in space, dreaming that you are a human alive on earth". I plan to watch it again soon, to try to pick up on some of the subtleties I may have missed. But the ending, showing that he was inside his apparently dead wifes dream, is a real kicker, suggesting that she was in fact right and killing herself was a release into a higher existence. This then leads us to the question of life after earthly death, as proposed by several religions. I give this movie a straight A."

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You're confusing this movie... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2010 12:48 PM | Posted, in reply to syntaxfree's comment, by Matches Malone: | Reply

You're confusing this movie with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

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If indeed it is the dead wi... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2010 12:52 PM | Posted, in reply to Ted's comment, by Matches Malone: | Reply

If indeed it is the dead wife's dream as you suggest, then I just lost two and a half hours of my life that I'll never get back....

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It obviously is not, and Ma... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2010 1:34 PM | Posted by Cheese: | Reply

It obviously is not, and Mal's shadow is just a projection of Cobb's subconscious. I don't know where you got that from.

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Totally agree. It does not ... (Below threshold)

August 24, 2010 5:50 AM | Posted by Wilbur: | Reply

Totally agree. It does not matter if it is a dream or not, which is why the screen blacks out and he walks away. He accepted whatever it is. The kids changed, but so slightly, since they are built on his actual memory of them. He accepts to finally face them but since they are a memory he cannot make too drastic a change to them as he does not know what they actually look like.

I like the revolving theme you pointed out. Everything is circular, like a classic clock. The stair case, the mazes, even the diagram he drew to Ariande where he said the mind is constantly processing and creating a dream (he even drew it clock wise). He drew a line and said i need you to be here, creating.

I think the whole movie is that line Nolan is creating a superficial movie for us to process (like you said a movie about making a movie) with paradoxes to make us think... he incepted us.

Now, back to the circular theme. the movie starts with him landing ashore of limbo onto Saito's property.

The movie basically ends with landing ashore onto saito's propert, except, just like the clock ends and begins at 12(which means two different things each time) Saito is now old. This landing is somewhat different than the beginning, even if he is in the same spot.
The top is his totem, or at least for us it is made to believe it is his, (maybe it is ours as the viewer).

Cobb says that he goes into the deepest darkest place in his wifes brain and looks at the top then spins it. This then incepts her and flips her world upside down.

Here, the top is her totem.

I think, the top is his (out ours) as the only person who is definately not in this movie is his wife. She is only a projection. So, just as no one knows the other persons top, he does not know hers (in actuality, since she is never shown as anything more than a projection or memory) so he substitutes his as hers. This messes her up big time.

Read into it more: he is constantly told in the movie that he "confuses reality with unreality". Michael Caine (forgot his name) Michael Caine told him to get to reality, so did ariande, so did his wife. He is almost hinting to himself to wake up throughout the movie. He accepts the world he is in as reality, but could it be that by spinning the top in the deepest part of his wifes mind, he actually did it to himself? And if at the deepest level he believes this top is spinning, where it was not, than is it not spinning.

So, at the end it does not matter, because whether it is spinning or not, he does not care. he accepts this to be his reality.

the top glitches, then looks to recover, then boom. a little bit of a hitch to cobb at first , then eh, who cares, hey guys! end movie.

I made a point that htis whole movie is a dream, elsewhere, and it infact has nothing to do with anything more than presumptions and creating of my own.

Which is why this movie incepted us. We process what Nolan created, and analyze it. that is the beauty

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In year one..Black jack wou... (Below threshold)

August 24, 2010 2:22 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

In year one..Black jack would say after reading this.... I FEEL MORE INTELLIGENTER..hahahaha

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Absolutely love this theory... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2010 3:27 PM | Posted by Pop Chassid: | Reply

Absolutely love this theory, and I think you do a great job of going through all the pieces of the puzzle. I even used it to support my own theory (which you can see at: http://popchassid.com/inception-dream/

I think that Ariadne might be seen as the "Director" and maybe Cobb could be the audience and the experience it has to go through to reach a true enjoyment of the movie. In fact, I'm sure there are many details that could be examined from this perspective.

Great job.

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No spam, Pop Chassid. Thank... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2010 4:31 PM | Posted by Cheese: | Reply

No spam, Pop Chassid. Thanks.

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Does it count as spam becau... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2010 4:51 PM | Posted, in reply to Cheese's comment, by Pop Chassid: | Reply

Does it count as spam because I put up a link? If so, I apologize. I really did use and love this blog, and linked to it on the blog I mentioned. Sorry again :)

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Pop is doing what's known a... (Below threshold)

August 30, 2010 9:36 AM | Posted, in reply to Pop Chassid's comment, by Matt Katz: | Reply

Pop is doing what's known as a notice of use. That's fine. When I derive from you, it is good manners to let you know that I used what you made.

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OK, nice analysis; but how ... (Below threshold)

September 23, 2010 4:13 AM | Posted by yaj: | Reply

OK, nice analysis; but how about a different take? What if Mal was right? What if they were both still dreaming? Her jump from the building was her jolt back to a real reality. Cobb's dilema was that his dream world had become too "real" for him to let go of. His only conflict, being unable to see his children. That's why it didn't matter in the end if the top fell or not. In other words, the whole movie is a dream, Cobb's.
There is of course the question of Cobb using Mal's totem, but another poster has suggested that if she were really dead, it would matter; and of course the whole of this post is that the totem doesn't matter at all, which is true. It or any other totem wouldn't matter because all of it is meerly a dream in Cobb's head. He's still lying on the floor of the home he shares with Mal, while she is trying to figure out whether to wake him or not. Remember "real" time vs dream time.
How did Cobb's father-in-law manage to beat the plane to LAX, when Cobb had just spoken to him at the university in Paris earlier that day? The passing from airport security to his home, the same home from his "dreams", with no travel interlude. Something alluded to in the beginning of the film as being evidence of a dream. There is more, but you get the picture.
In the end, this is not all that different from 'Momento'. At the films end, you find out that the director has just been jerking your chain for the past 2 hours, and that nothing really matters. Not the ending, the outcome of the characters he's spent all this time building for you, nothing. It's all an illusion fabricated for no other purpose than to keep itself going for the length of the picture. The real "inception" is that you paid money to see what you thought would be a great film. While certainly entertaining, a film whose primary message is that it really doesn't have nay meaning at all, can hardly be considered great. Of course that doesn't matter to Nolan. He has your money. :)

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And I'm glad he has my mone... (Below threshold)

September 23, 2010 9:52 AM | Posted, in reply to yaj's comment, by Cheese: | Reply

And I'm glad he has my money.
What you point out are just hints, but you can't tell for sure that it is the truth.

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"What matters isn't whether... (Below threshold)

September 26, 2010 8:33 PM | Posted by baba: | Reply

"What matters isn't whether the top stopped spinning; what matters is that Cobb didn't bother to find out."

My perspective is that what matters is that the audience is entranced by the top. The top is a hypnotic device that the director (Nolan) uses to "incept" an "idea" into the minds of the real world audience. That idea has to do with the gnostic concept that "life is a dream". The plot of the movie is unimportant except that it is so complicated that it creates a "labyrinth" inside the mind of the viewer, which the viewer gets hopelessly lost in.

You can find my review titled "The mad world of Inception" here:

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Movies that make one see t... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2010 8:44 PM | Posted by Mused: | Reply

Movies that make one see the world they live in from a different perspective like Inception do not come around ever year (Contact, The Matrix, Gattacca). After watching Inception I remembered personally that the only way I know I'm dreaming is after I wake up. And while I'm awakening, my dream starts deconstructing itself violently like depicted in the movie. To me the very ending asks the question "are we dreaming in this life?". When we die will we wake up to a new reality? Mal was as adamant as Cobb was with others when she explained that they were dreaming and she wants to rescue him. Maybe she was right. How can he know unless he wakes up? At the end he chose what dream world in which he wanted to accept as reality.

The children didn't seem to age to me, and it came back to the exact scene in which he last saw them. They were playing in the yard, the Grandmother yelled, they came running. Maybe the whole movie was a dream and he woke up . Who knows? The spinning top is a product of a dream so it can't tell reality, if it falls he wanted it to. The spinning top is his own desires and perspective. He realizes this at the end, which is why he ignores the fate of the spinning top.

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God.. i really don't unders... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2010 10:58 PM | Posted by berg: | Reply

God.. i really don't understand this movie.. it makes me feel so sick because it's been built with lots of out of this world ideas that makes the viewers like me so curious.. i want to know what really is inception.. but it's pretty difficult to understand. this movie makes me go crazy.

please help me understand more CLEARLY. :(