“…the first two things you need to realize about INCEPTION:
1) Only one scene takes place in the film’s real world. All worlds depicted are dream layers.
2) There are only four real characters in the film: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio); Miles (Michael Caine); and Cobb’s two children. The other characters, save Cobb’s wife Mal, are strictly constructs of the dream.
Much scorn has recently been heaped on both the lack of “dream imagery” and the “rules” of INCEPTION‘s dream worlds, and the almost pedantic statements of the latter throughout the film. But all these are central and necessary, Nolan also playing his script on several levels at once. From the moment INCEPTION begins, we – and the “characters” in the film, beginning with Ken Watanabe’s Saito – are told how the mind blurs reality and dreamwhile in the dream. In the first scene, Watanabe is “awakened” to the idea that he is already in a dream, to his surprise. When he “awakens” for “real” following Cobb’s failure to rob his mind, he’s caught off-guard when he finds he’s still a dream, but a different dream. When Cobb later inducts Ariadne (named for the princess who in Greek myth provides Theseus with the means to escape the inescapable labyrinth; this is no coincidence) into his heist crew, he meets with her at an outdoor café and asks, “How did you get here?”
As far as the audience is concerned, there’s no mystery until the subjects come up; Cobb and Adrienne arrive at the café, Watanabe at his meeting, via the simplest of film conventions, the cut and the fade in, respectively. Nolan’s challenging of this conventions as story mechanics is his invitation to view events in INCEPTION as never being what we think we’re seeing. This holds true across the board. The heist is not a heist. The objective is not the objective. The least seen character – Miles – is the most important.
This is important to perceive about INCEPTION: inception. It’s not a heist film. The “heist” is simply setting, or, in the film’s terms, architecture. It’s “real world” is just another dream level that Cobb believes is the real world, as Saito believed the world he first appears in is the real world. The chase in Mombasa tips us off that Cobb’s world isn’t real, in the scene where he escapes gunmen by fleeing down an alley whose perspective never changed with Cobb’s position, until he (barely) slips through the narrow far end, reflecting the “Escher staircase” Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) demonstrates later to Ariadne.
If nothing we see in the film is real, bits of reality slip in. While there’s no way to judge the accuracy of the tale, we can pick up from context that Cobb’s tale of his tragic adventures in the dream state with wife Mal, and the “inception” he puts in her mind that inadvertently causes her to kill herself are not only, at heart, true, but form the emotional core of the film, though the circumstances of her death, as described, and Cobb’s subsequent flight from murder charges, make no apparent sense except in dream logic. Again, Nolan plays with the idea of the invisible hand: Mal’s persistent state as least developed character in the film makes her one of the mostdeveloped, since what we see of her is not Mal herself but a vengeful manifestation of Cobb’s overbearing guilt over her death. His guilt taints all his experiences, and constantly taunts him to take his own life, for atonement. Offsetting but not quite balancing the guilt is Cobb’s guilt over abandoning his now functionally parentless children – but he can see no way to get back to them, since if he tries he’ll be punished for Mal’s “murder.”
And this is what INCEPTION is really about. It all takes place in Cobb’s dream, though (we can infer) controlled by Miles, who’s credited with inventing the “group dream” technology in the first place, with “dream architecture” strictly controlling the circumstances and imagery to prevent the dreamer from recognizing his environment as a dream (hence the lack of talking dogs or women with horse heads, though the freight train down main street was a great bit of imagery) and “the rules” constantly reiterated not only as an expositional gimmick for the audience but to constantly reinforce them in Cobb’s mind. (This suggests Cobb is as much in hypnotic state as dream state, but it’s no secret dreamers are more open to suggestion.)
The entire film, save for the last scene, is an elaborate game, designed to turn Cobb against his subconscious (as he later does with Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer), force him to confront his conflicted feelings about Mal once and for all, and drive Cobb to the depths of his own subconscious where, via his message to lost Saito in his desert island fortress (Cobb’s own “safe”; the “guards” – also Cobb’s subconscious defenses – are “tricked” into dragging him inside the safe, where he needs to be) an idea can be “incepted” into the core of Cobb’s psyche in such a way that he seems to have thought of it himself (again, as is spelled out via the Fischer plot). A very simple idea:
We have to go home.
Once that idea is placed there, events pass in a blink. Cobb and Saito return to the dream jet, signaling the success of the plan. Subsequently Cobb passes through customs – a final test to make sure Cobb’s subconscious has fully accepted the inception – and then he moves through the only scene in the film genuinely dreamlike, as all the other players freeze in place and watch with beatific smiles as he passes among them, heading toward the exit. And Miles – the only player on the scene not directly involved in the heist – is abruptly there to greet Cobb with equal giddiness, and guide him “out,” the indication that Miles is the “dungeon master” of the whole thing. (It’s also the conversation with Miles in Paris early on that plants the initial idea – you have to go home to your children – that Cobb carries with him to his depths.) Then Cobb and Miles are home; Cobb pauses a moment to disbelieve it – he starts his talisman, the top, spinning – but accepts his children as his reality and goes to them. The top itself is a red herring. The talismans are set up as a means for the dreamthieves to tell what’s the real world and what’s not – Arthur states you never share yours with anyone so they can’t copy it – but the top isn’t Cobb’s, it’s Mal’s. It has no objective reality for him, and ultimately can point him nowhere but back to her. But he abandons it for his children, and the top’s faltering spin – there’s really no question that it’s collapsing –is the end of the story. (It’s possible the other characters are real people also taking part in the shared dream, but there’s no strong indication of that, and some indication – occasionally knowing things they shouldn’t be able to know, if it can be chalked up to intent and not sloppiness – they are strictly constructs.)…”
- Chicago Sun-Times – What the heck is ‘Inception’ about anyway? “1. The most straightforward interpretation: Saito hires Cobb and his team to plant an idea in Fischer’s mind. They succeed, and Cobb is rewarded with a trip home, where he is finally reunited with his children. He will never see his wife in his dreams again. The last scene is...
- EntertainmentBlur – Inception Explained “Half Reality, Half Dream, End Reality: These theorists believe that Inception was very straight-forward. Cobb put together a team to perform an inception on Fischer Jr. He did so because the one thing he wanted most was to be reunited with his children again, and that’s what the powerful Saito...
- SCI FI TV: Inception – The Alternate Viewpoint “As the film comes to its conclusion. Dom gets what he wants and settles in to live happily ever after. He resolves his issues deep in his subconscious and emerges purged of the ties that bound him into a dream world of recurring guilt and pain. Here, perhaps, is the...
- Slate – Five Ways of Looking at Inception “READING 1: Saito hired Cobb and co. to plant an idea in Fischer’s mind. They succeed, and in the end Cobb really does go home to his kids. READING 1A: Saito hired Cobb and co. to plant an idea in Fischer’s mind, but the ending—everything from the moment Cobb “wakes...
- Nolan Fans Forum – My Theory on Cobb and the Ending “I am convinced that Cobb is still dreaming at the end from some pretty cohesive clues; of course, please debate with me on my theories! I’m quite sure now, but I might not have caught something that you did . 1) The two sets of children: In the credits, there...