Obviously, this post is going to contain major spoilers to the film, so if you haven’t seen the mind-blowing thriller yet, do not read any further (unless you want to trade in the element of surprise for clarity and understanding, though I don’t recommend it).
Just like performing an inception, it is important to start out with the simplest ideas and understanding them. So let’s start with the basics…
The dream consists of the dreamer, who is the person whose dream you’re actually in. Every dream level must have a dreamer. In the case of planting the inception in Fischer Jr.’s mind: Yusuf is the first level’s dreamer, Arthur is the second level’s dreamer, and Eames is the third level’s dreamer.
Each dream also consists of a subject, usually the person whose subconscious you’re trying to extract information from. This person is usually not aware that he or she is dreaming, unless something out of the ordinary happens to tip him or her off. The subject clutters the dream with projections, people created by the subject’s subconscious. When the subject begins to realize he’s in someone else’s dream, his projections become violent towards the dreamer.
Also, there is an architect involved, who is in charge of constructing the dream world. It’s the architect’s job to make the world as real as possible, full of details and paradoxes so the subject and the projections don’t realize they’re in someone else’s dream.
If you die inside of a dream, you wake up. This is the usual case, though during the heist that involved a powerful sedative from Yusuf and the many layers of dreaming the team climbed through, that wasn’t the case. For that instance, if someone died they would fall into Limbo. That is explained later on.
This is the single most important item in the movie.
It is a common misconception that the totem is used by the owner to figure out if he’s dreaming or not. That is not entirely accurate.
This is what the totem does: the owner uses their unique totem to find out if they’re in someone else’s dream or not.
It does not necessarily mean that they’re dreaming themselves.
The sole purpose of the totem is to avoid being trapped in someone else’s dream. This is why it’s important never to reveal the totem and how it works to anyone else. Only the owner is supposed to know exactly how the totem will function in reality and how it might react differently in a dream.
Arthur’s totem is the loaded die. Only he knows exactly how the die works. Even though he told Ariadne what his totem was, he never revealed to her how it works. In this case, if he suspects he’s in someone else’s dream he could roll the die and the result will prove to him whether or not he’s in reality.
Ariadne’s totem is a bishop that is hollowed out. It’s never explained in the film how her totem works.
The main totem in the film is Dom Cobb’s.
History: The idea of the totem came from Cobb’s wife, Mal. Her totem was a top. When she spun the top in someone else’s dream, it spun forever. Of course, when she spun the top in reality, it would eventually topple over.
Clarification: When Cobb spins the top and it topples over, that merely means he’s not in someone else’s dream. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not dreaming himself.
Note: Since Ariadne knows how his totem works (along with Mal)… well, you make the assumption here.
Note: Also, Saito does handle Cobb’s totem in Limbo, but Saito doesn’t know how it is supposed to act.
The Wedding Ring
There is apparently much significance with this item (though there’s a chance it’s not significant at all). Throughout the film, Cobb was either wearing a wedding ring or he wasn’t. So what does this mean?
He had the wedding ring on during the scenes that were “dreams.”
He had the wedding ring on during “flashback” scenes.
He didn’t have the wedding ring on during scenes that were “reality.”
Clarification: During the ending scene when Cobb gets off the airplane and is reunited with his children, he does not have his wedding ring on.
Plenty can be assumed from this. We can assume that the ending must be reality. We can assume that the ending reality must be linked to the rest of the reality throughout the film. Or maybe we can assume the ring stood for the guilt that Cobb held onto Mal, and once he got rid of the guilt, he no longer wore the ring since Mal has been let go from his subconscious. This, of course, then suggests that the conclusion is a dream.
There is a lot of confusion about what it means to be in Limbo. The film discusses it briefly and it plays quite an important part. Let me try to offer my explanation.
Being in Limbo is a shared state of mind. It’s described as an “unconstructed dream space.” Since Cobb is the only one of the group (if not the only person ever) to be trapped in Limbo, that’s why limbo contains his creations.
So when Saito dies in level three, he is sent to Limbo. Meanwhile, Cobb ends up dying by drowning in level one while he’s in the van. The amount of time from when Saito dies and Cobb is just a few minutes, but because the mind functions quicker with each level, it translates to decades. That is why Saito has aged tremendously and Cobb hasn’t. Also, because Cobb has been to Limbo before (with Mal) that entire dream world is cluttered with his creation. Saito has just populated it with his projections.
During the end, Cobb and team successfully performed the inception on Fischer Jr. They all wake up on the plane, aware of everything that has just happened (except for Fischer Jr. of course). We watch as Cobb retrieves his luggage at the airport and continues to check through customs. Since he was an international fugitive prior to the heist, he’s obviously nervous. But Saito remains true to his word and makes the phone call to allow Cobb through. All of the team members smile at Cobb as he walks through the terminal.
Cobb is met by his father-in-law, Miles, and he takes him to his home where his children are playing. Cobb takes out his totem and spins it on a desk, but is interrupted by his children running in from outside to greet their father. Cobb runs to them and gives them hugs and kisses.
The final shot of the film focuses only on the totem. It’s spinning perfectly on the desk. As the shot zooms in close, there seems to be a subtle indication that the top was decelerating. But immediately after that, the screen cuts to black.
So what does this all mean? One of my frustrated friends stated, “The whole movie made sense, but those last five seconds messed it all up!” Because the film ended before we were able to see if the totem toppled or not, we’re left with the doubt that what we thought was the “reality” story-line was actually real.
Audiences everywhere released a unanimous moan with the few chuckles, the proper reaction of Nolan’s cruel trickery. My friend was right though, if it wasn’t for those final five seconds of the film, there was a very clear-cut and linear story-line to follow through that separated itself from the mess of multiple level dreaming. And I can see Nolan smiling at us right now. You brilliant bastard!
Nolan made the quick cut to spark this epic debate that has infected the blogosphere and given his masterful film even more word of mouth than it already would’ve received. So what do you think happened? After all, this whole movie is a maze, right? While Ariadne had two minutes to make a maze that took one minute to solve, Chris Nolan took ten years to make a maze for us to solve. How long will it take us? It’s time for me to provide the many possibilities.
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 offered him. So Cobb trains a team and embarks on the dangerous mission that takes him and his crew layers deep into the dreamscape. Eventually, they succeed and Cobb is reunited with his children. The end.
As stated in the film, dreams start off in media res. You don’t remember how it started or how you got to a certain place, and that’s exactly how every dream in the movie is shown. The very first scene shows Cobb washed up on shore. He just wakes up there. If you think of every dream in the film, we’re thrown in the middle of it along with the characters. Yusuf is standing in the middle of a rainstorm, Fischer Jr. is talking with Eames (in disguise) at the hotel bar, Cobb is staring through the scope of a rifle in the middle of a snowy mountain fortress, etc. Those are dreams.
But in the reality story-line, there is a back-story to every character. There are flashbacks, memories, and understanding where each character came from and how they got there. Cobb is a corporate raider that performs extractions to steal people’s deepest secrets. The back-story goes on and on revealing he was an architect and has two children, but he’s been traveling on foreign soil because he’s wanted for murder of his wife in the States. Even the other characters know they’re in the reality world. Miles (Michael Caine) is Cobb’s father-in-law and also Cobb’s mentor. Ariadne is one of Miles’ brightest students and becomes the team’s architect. And Cobb works with people he knows prior to when the movie began, Eames the forger and Arthur the point man.
As discussed above, the significance of the wedding ring is another reason why the reality story-line is in fact real. The only times when Cobb is wearing the ring are during flashbacks (when Cobb is still married to Mal) and when he’s dreaming (where Mal is still present through his subconscious). In the real world, Mal is dead and therefore, Cobb doesn’t where the ring.
On a film-making perspective, the reality story-line of the film has to be reality. If it’s not, then are you implying the entire film is a dream? What’s the purpose of that? Even with films that the majority of screen-time is a dream still has a few scenes in reality (The Wizard of Oz, Mulholland Drive). The entire movie cannot be a dream because it just doesn’t make sense. There would be no meaning to anything and Christopher Nolan is too good of a director to create something without meaning.
The “Reality” Story-line is a Dream
There are plenty of things that are casting a lot of doubt in people’s minds that what we’re supposed to assume is “reality” is in fact a dream.
- The children didn’t seem to age throughout the movie. On top of that, they’re seen with the exact same clothes on in the exact same position as they were from Cobb’s memory from before he left. Coincidence?
- The chase scene in Mombasa really does play out like a dream sequence. Cobb avoids way too many close encounters, he avoids bullets flying for his head, he pushes through an alley that got narrower and narrower, and he’s conveniently rescued by Saito. Was this all just “too convenient” or was it just like every other action film?
- At the ending after they succeeded the inception when Cobb is walking through the airport, it certainly felt like a dream with the blasting score and the slow motion walking. All of the team members look at Cobb with a smile, and there is Miles waiting to pick Cobb up. Everything works out like Cobb wanted. It was his dream come true… or was it?
The problem with the theory that Cobb’s reality is a dream is that Cobb cannot dream without being sedated to the machine.
Also, if you believe the entire movie is Cobb’s dream, or possibly someone else’s dream, then what about the scenes throughout the film that focuses on secondary characters. If it’s Cobb’s dream, then how could the characters like Ariadne, Arthur, Eames, etc. have scenes without Cobb? Or maybe they’re simply projections… but that doesn’t work since Cobb’s projections attacked Ariadne in Cobb’s dream during training.
Half Reality, Half Dream, End is a Dream
In this theory, the entire “reality” story-line is in fact a reality. Cobb really did assemble a team and performed the inception on Fischer Jr. What is a dream is everything after.
When Cobb gets off the airplane, he has gotten rid of the reason why he can’t dream anymore. He has terminated the guilt he felt for Mal’s death and now can dream. So while the entire movie did happen like it was shown: the plot to pull of the heist was reality and then the four layers of dreams happened until they finally succeeded the inception. But the final scenes (that really did feel and look like a dream) was actually Cobb dreaming. When he is reunited with his children, that is Cobb’s dream and he doesn’t care if it’s real or not.
How is this possible? Well, since Cobb controls his totem, whether the top falls or keeps spinning is simply based on what Cobb believes in. If it falls, then he has accepted that his dream is a reality (just like the way Mal believed their world in Limbo was real). If the top doesn’t fall, he believes he’s in a dream. But we don’t know if the top falls or not. It wobbles, which could mean that Cobb doesn’t quite know what he believes in anymore. He might have a shaky grip on what is reality and what is a dream.
It’s interesting to point out how Cobb doesn’t look back or wait to see if the top stops spinning. All he ever wanted was to be with his children again and he finally achieved that. He doesn’t care if he’s in a dream or not.
Mal was correct all along
Mal and Cobb have been stuck in limbo for fifty years where they grow old together and construct a world for themselves that includes memories of their past houses. When they commit suicide on the railroad tracks, they wake up in a world that Cobb believes is reality, but in fact it’s a dream. No matter how convinced Cobb is that they’re in reality and their children are real, Mal doesn’t believe him. She knows they’re still dreaming and they need to commit suicide to get back to the real world. The problem is that Mal won’t do it without her love, Cobb.
This explains why the things that happen in “reality” seem like a dream, such as the children never aging, the alley shrinking in Mombasa, and how the top doesn’t stop spinning at the end. Mal is waiting for Cobb to finally understand that he’s in a dream world. Unfortunately, Cobb undergoes an emotional ride that concludes in him letting go of his wife. At the end, he’s happily with his children without Mal. The reason why he doesn’t turn around to see if the top is spinning is because he doesn’t care. His dream has become his reality.
The “Reality” Story-line is Someone Else’s Dream
The trick to this theory is how people know what Cobb’s totem is and how it works. As Arthur stated when he was telling Ariadne what a totem was, it’s a no-no to let anyone else know your totem and how it reacts. If someone else knows it, they’ll be able to structure their dream and will know the properties of Cobb’s totem, so if he spins it they know exactly what he’s looking for.
This means that all of the “reality” scenes could be someone else’s dream… or maybe just some “reality” scenes.
There was an inception being performed on Cobb
Just like how Cobb and team performed the inception in Fischer Jr., theorists are saying an inception was performed on Cobb. If this is the case, then what was the idea they wanted to plant in Cobb’s mind? That would be to finally get rid of the guilt he was holding onto his wife and finally let go of her.
How could have this been possible? Let’s explore the very elaborate plan:
When Cobb is recruiting his team members for the heist on Fischer Jr., he visits Yusuf, the chemist. They bring him downstairs where a number of elderly people are sleeping and dreaming. Cobb tests out the sedative to see how potent it really is. When he “awakes” from his dream, he goes into the bathroom to wash his face (something we all do to wake ourselves up). He then spins his totem, but it falls to the ground. Before Cobb can do a proper spin, Saito interrupts him. It’s possible that Cobb is already in someone else’s dream at this point.
In the movie it’s stated that the target must realize the idea of his inception by using positive emotion. As Cobb said in the movie, positive trumps negative every time. We see throughout the film as Cobb goes through an emotional transformation. He bears the weight of incredible guilt that he was the cause of his wife’s death. He couldn’t let her go because of that. He trapped her memories and often visited them, driving him mad and making her memory a dangerous and uncontrollable part of his subconscious.
Theorists point out that Ariadne was very attentive to Cobb’s emotion and history… maybe a bit too concerned. She wanted to know what was wrong with Cobb and she found out. Once she did, she wanted to help Cobb get rid of the guilt. She was there to witness Cobb’s elevator of memories; Cobb revealed Mal’s suicide to her; and she was there when Cobb finally had his realization that he had to let Mal go.
Mal represented the evil in Cobb. She was a danger to everyone else that joined a shared dream world with him. He couldn’t control her. I’m not exactly sure who would’ve wanted to perform the inception on Cobb. Maybe it was the corporation he worked for. Or maybe it was Miles. Maybe Miles knew that Cobb had to let go of Mal for him to safely be with his kids again and for him to be the father his children desperately needed. It must be noted that Miles is the one who gave Ariadne to Cobb. Also, Miles is the one who picks up Cobb from the airport.
This theory would explain why the children never seem to age nor change their clothes. They’re simply a memory that Cobb keeps thinking about. The children is Cobb’s positive driving force that allows him to finally get rid of his guilt for Mal.
The problem with this theory is we don’t know exactly what the inception was against Cobb. We don’t know what the motive was for the inception. We don’t know who wanted the inception performed. There is a lot of assuming that takes place with this theory, but if you can push all that aside, this theory is a pretty neat idea.
There was an extraction performed on Cobb, then an inception
What if there was an extraction performed on Cobb, which was for Ariadne to find out what Cobb’s totem is and how it worked. This extraction was done in the first layer of dreaming, which is Ariadne’s dream. Then they went on to perform the inception on Cobb to get rid of his guilt that he was holding on for Mal.
- It’s all Mal’s dream
- Mal is a forger and is in disguise as Ariadne
- Mal and the children don’t exist
- They’re in Saito’s dream
A poll on Entertainment Weekly asked if the last scene involving Cobb with his kids again was a dream or reality. 51 percent believe Cobb was in a dream while 49 percent believed it was reality. Has there ever been a film that was split almost evenly right down the middle before?
Whichever theory you believe in or don’t believe in, there are a few things that are for certain. Christopher Nolan has made an incredibly unique film that is as mainstream as it is independent. It stands out as a success on so many levels: a popular fiction, a sci-fi thriller, a complex heist, a heart-breaking drama, and probably its biggest feat… an acclaimed, original movie. Once you take a step back from all the theories, analysis, and discussion, you can appreciate Inception for its beauty, power, and genius. Well done Mr. Nolan.