Inception is rapidly becoming my favorite movie of all time. I first saw it during the midnight premiere back in 2010, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I remember being mesmerized by its originality and unrelenting assault on my mind’s stamina.
It took another dozen viewings of the film, however, to persuade me that this is one of the best films of my lifetime, and the first truly great film of the 21st Century.
Let me explain.
For me, a truly great film isn’t really like a masterpiece. A masterpiece, after all, is more about critical praise and the apex of one’s career. Inception is great in a different way. It’s just smart. It didn’t receive universal, critical praise (though it got some) because it completely went over the heads of almost everyone.
For all of you who think you “get” the movie, I sincerely doubt that more than a handful actually caught everything that was going on in the story.
Here’s a test to see if you did: do you think the ending was a cliffhanger? Because if you did, you are dead wrong.
Let me be clear about something. I’ve seen this movie backward and forward, so what I’m about to get into is just a summary of what I’ve personally discovered, combined with some great insights provided by the research of others.
Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this and get that taken care of.
I believe the entire movie was a dream, and we are supposed to arrive at that conclusion. Nolan implants countless clues that point to this, but he works to make sure that even the clues themselves are ambiguous.
The first clue? To catch it, you have to watch the movie at least twice. There is a line in the movie when Cobb points out that our dreams always start in the middle of something, but not really the beginning. We never think about “how we got there” as he puts it.
Inception begins in the middle of Cobb’s story, as well as the middle of a dream heist. We aren’t introduced to Cobb, Arthur, or Saito. We are given a brief look at the end of the story, and then the movie just shifts seamlessly into the dream heist.
What does that remind you of? When we recall a dream, we typically start at the end (Cobb and “old” Saito) and try to remember how it actually started, but we can’t remember how it really started and just start somewhere in the middle.
So, let’s say you buy that. The whole movie was a dream. Doesn’t that make you mad? Well here’s Nolan’s genius: that shouldn’t matter. We get mad that the movie was just a dream and say, “Why bother watching a movie that didn’t really happen–” and then you realize that the movie is fiction anyway.
That is just one example of why this movie is so amazing. It has scores of themes you didn’t even think were possible to associate with the film. And it takes work to sort this all out.
Back to the first statement that everything was a dream. Maybe you’re not convinced? I’ll give you more clues. The basis for the “It’s a dream” theory is based on how limbo works. When the “kick” happens, namely suicide here, you go one level up in the multi-level dreams.
Cobb explains to Ariadne that he and Mal, his wife, ended up in their world-building limbo because they were experimenting with multi-dreams and Cobb pushed them too deep. He says they grew “old” together and eventually committed suicide on the train tracks to go back to reality. But here’s the thing…that would have sent them only one level up.
Cobb believes inception is the reason Mal went insane and killed herself, but it was actually true. If they died in limbo, it would be impossible for them to return to reality again unless they died again and again. Totems mean nothing here because the totem Cobb used was Mal’s, and he even broke the rules and explained how it works to Ariadne, compromising its purpose. (Talking about the totems alone would take up this entire article by the way)
Another clue that they were in a dream when Mal killed herself: She trashes the hotel room to make it look like Cobb killed her so that he will eventually join her, but when he approaches the window, she’s across the road in another hotel room. If you look closely, it’s the same hotel room, plus it would make no sense for her to go to the other side. Cobb even proves that he doesn’t catch how that’s odd when he tells her to come inside and motions for her to come into the window he’s currently at, even though she’s across the street.
One of the characteristics of a dream is that weird things happen that we don’t catch. When the dream was happening, strange things happened that we didn’t realize were major “plot holes” or illogical until we woke up and actually thought about it.
The entire movie is like this. The fast (and sloppy) editing, the one-dimensional characters all revolving around Cobb, the walls closing in on Cobb for no reason during the chase scene in Mombasa, bodyguards coming out of nowhere to attack him, Saito showing up just in time to save Cobb, and so many more examples all lead the diligent audience to believe that this is really just a dream.
After all, do we really believe that an energy tycoon that is smart about money would actually buy an entire airline just for the heck of it? And then said tycoon would risk his life in order to take part in the mission? It doesn’t really make sense the more you think about it.
Watching the movie play out, it’s hard not to catch that it is clearly an allegory to filmmaking. When watch a movie, we are watching what is essentially a dream. Plot holes and the like exist because the director is trying to explain his “dream.”
Nolan himself has even admitted that he framed the characters around certain roles in filmmaking.
Cobb is the director: he leads the whole thing.
Arthur is the producer: he organizes everything.
Eames is the actor: he changes his appearance.
Ariadne is the screenwriter: she designs everything.
Yusuf is the special effects studio: he’s behind the technology to make everything work.
Saito is the bank-roller: he funds the project.
Robert is the audience: he’s the person they’re trying to plant an idea into.
Need more clues? We’re told during the movie that elements of a person’s subconscious creep up during the dreams. That’s why Robert’s number, 528491, appears so often in the movie. He initially guesses the number is a combination to his father’s safe. Later, the number shows up on a napkin, a hotel room, and eventually his father’s safe at the snow fortress.
This carries on throughout the whole movie. The number of the train that kills Cobb and Mal, when they are in limbo is 3502. The taxi number later on is 2305, and the hotel Mal trashes is in room 5302. This implies that Mal’s death happened during a dream. And in the image above, you can see 3502 on the train that appeared during Robert’s dream.
Here is the most important subconscious clue, since it has to do with the ending that ticked everyone off for being a supposed cliffhanger. The end scene when we watch to see if the totem will fall (and prove Cobb is in reality) is a red herring. A massive misdirection that serves to make us miss what’s going on in the background.
Remember, killing yourself only sends you one level up. We find “old” Saito and Cobb about to shoot themselves to escape limbo. If they did, then that means they would go back to the snow fortress. But wait, that was Fisher’s dream and Fischer received the “kick” already. If they went back a level up, that means there is nothing there. That means that the first person to die, Saito, would fill that dream with his subconscious, leading to the ending scene where Cobb supposedly reunites with his children.
How am I sure? Saito says that he always wanted a “house on a cliff.” In limbo, he is an old man living in a house on a cliff. At the very end when Cobb spins the totem and greets his kids, they say that they have just built a “house on a cliff.” This points to the whole thing taking place within Saito’s subconscious.
The beauty is how that can be a number of things. What if “house on a cliff” referred to Cobb’s subconscious being projected through Saito? That would mean Saito never existed. Honestly, there are countless ways to interpret this, but that’s not the point. The point is that this movie was designed in a way to make us understand that movies themselves are, well, inception.
I could go on and on about this movie, honestly. There are just so many ways to interpret and find new revelations within the narrative. That is why it is a truly great movie, and it pains me to see that so many people dismissed it because it went over their heads and a movie like this lost “Best Picture” to The King’s Speech.
I’ll leave you with some more crazy facts in case you’re interested:
DREAMS: Dom, Robert, Eames, Ariadne , Mal, Saito.
If you add Peter, Arthur, and Yusuf, it spells DREAMS PAY (their profession is to make money by stealing from others’ dreams).
Hanz Zimmer created the entire soundtrack for this movie using only one song that is slowed down and sped up: the song used to initiate a dream is over, which is “No Regrets (translated)” by Edith Piaf. Seriously, even the blaring trombone composition is taken from that song. Also, the very last word in the song is “mal” which coincidently refers to the character Mal.
The running time of the movie is exactly 2 hours and 28 minutes long, which is how long the song “No Regrets” is when translated to minutes and seconds.
Ariadne is a mythological princess who aids Theseus in escaping the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The name is also associated with Ariadne auf Naxos which is an opera that is essentially a “play within a play.”
The movie is based on Cobb’s mission to get home. His first name, Dom, literally means “home” in Latin (think domestic).
One last thought, a lot more about this subject can be found in this book, Inception and Philosophy, by Kyle Johnson. I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve been told it goes even deeper into the movie and what it all meant. Click here to check it out.
137 thoughts on “Everything You Missed When You Watched ‘Inception’”
Not sure how I found myself at this article. Maybe I’m in the middle of a dream. However, I have always believed the entire movie was a dream. Saito I believe plants an inception in Cobb’s mind toward the beginning when he promises Cobb can “go home” if he completes his mission.
This is certainly possible. It completely avoids the problem I mentioned of the impossibility of dreams withing dreams.
He did go home as everything is now in Saito’s subconscious. Look into it. Saito created a dream in which Cobb was home entirely out of his subconscious.
I love that there are so many ways to think about this movie. If things were supposed to be real and they went on that mission through all those layers of dreams, and then it seems Cobb does wake up and he is on the plane with the others and they all look at him, and then he sees them all at the airport, which is where he meets Cain’s character that takes him to his kids and we then see the spinning top and are left to think that was all in a dream. Well what I am trying to get at is wouldn’t that mean that if he saw them in the plane and airport that none of them made it back to reality either? But then if it were all a dream, were those people supposed to be real, or was the whole movie himself trying to wake up? I myself have had plenty of dreams, it happens when I nap heavily, that I am trying to wake myself up in my dream and at some point in my dream I will think I am awake until something doesn’t make sense and I finally wake up. That feeling I get from trying to wake myself up is what makes me think that maybe this entire time it is himself trying to wake up and he has to construct this elaborate dream because he has gone so deep that he is just desperate to wake up. Makes me think it could be what a coma patient feels.
I think you guys and the reviewer are totally over thinking it.
The movie is meant to be based in reality and when they go under sedation is when they are dreaming.
His wife chose voluntarily to believe the dream world was the real world and it wasn’t
The only way Leonardo could change this was to convince her the dream world was in fact a dream
While he was successful in getting them to commit suicide and come to reality he didn’t plan on his planting to stick in real world hence he knew inception was possible
Way too much overthinking going on. Have seen this movie 10 plus times.
You can’t compare when him and mol went into a dream to later in the movie because later they had to go down more layers of dream conscious under heavy sedation
The piece spinning at the end is great as it puts a question over if the whole movie was a dream but that’s all…. And it also keeps the movie open to a sequel!! So don’t overthink it.
Remember only Leonardo knows the weight and spin of the loaded die
He is simply making sure his happy ending of getting his life back in America is actually real.
Over thinking it guys!!
The top was Mals totem, not his… she also knows the weight and feel of it, and someone else also could as well in a higher lever than cobbs concieved base reality and we would have no way of knowing about it.
The Snow Fortress dream is actually Eames’s. Look it up. Otherwise, a completely flawless answer.
I think even this theory, that Inception is all a dream, is another misdirect about Inception’s main point. The setting of the film, a dream world, is a macro version of a micro psychological process; being haunted in one’s dreams and nightmares caused by a traumatic event. The film isn’t set in a dream or in the real world. It’s set in Cobb’s mind.
If anyone has been through trauma, you will know that one’s brain replays the events, or similar events, in one’s dreams and nightmares. One becomes stuck in reliving the trauma. People who haven’t suffered this cannot begin to comprehend how strong the effect is. I didn’t until I suffered PTSD. I thought that people must be exaggerating, but the mind goes onto autopilot and it is impossible to control at first. Especially on one’s own.
It can impact one through day dreaming or invasive thoughts and rumination. One can easily lose touch with reality as suggested to Cobb by his father-in-law.
I think Inception is primarily about deep traumatic feelings of guilt, running away from one’s family in shame, inventing excuses and stories to avoid facing up to one’s responsibilities and then finally overcoming them.
Cobb’s actions resulted in the death of his wife and the mother of his kids. He has clearly gone ‘on the run’ rather than ‘face his children’ such is the horror. He blames himself and cannot face his children (see their faces) because he is trapped in the dreams and memories of his dead wife and his role in her death.
His father in law asks him to come back to reality and introduces him to Ariadne who is really a therapist helping Cobb come to terms with his guilt. And through persistence and guidance Ariadne successfully gets Cobb to face his memory and his mind’s projection of Mal and acknowledge she is just in his find, a representation of his feelings of guilt and shame. When he finally faces up to this, he comes back to reality and is able to travel home to be with the father in law and children. He can face them and his family. He sees their faces and walks away from Mal’s totem. It’s not about whether its spinning or not. Or if he’s dreaming or not. He’s leaving Mal behind or rather his trauma.
Why then, are there so many theories obsessed with the ending and dreamworld setting?
I think Nolan went too overboard with exposition when describing the setting for the film, that people got obsessed with it. He wanted to create a rich and amazing world, he does this in all his films. Its great, but in this case it needed a strong actor to keep us focused on the real story.
Unfortunately Ellen Page was perhaps a little too young and not strong enough of an actor when she played the role. Not her fault, she did well for her level – she was essentially miscast. Her performance didn’t ‘punch through’, not helped by titans like Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and DiCaprio putting really good performances. So her ok-ish performance and ‘out of place’ youth didn’t hold the interest compared to watching Cotillard for example. They were competing for Cobb’s sanity and whilst her character wins, Page didn’t convince. Yet this was a central role in the meaning of the film, so it got missed by a lot of people.
It took me about seven viewings to figure this out. Mainly because I had become bored of the action sequences so concentrated on the dialogue and started to suspect that the plot holes weren’t plot holes after all, Nolan isn’t that sloppy.
I believe this might be a possiblity but not everything adds up. Maybe the reason Inception begins in the middle of Cobb’s dream heist is because it was a DREAM heist and it was showing the audience that they were in a dream, not the entire movie was a dream. The part you explained in Limbo where killing themselves would only bring them up one level is true so that is a clue to something, but you have to remember when Inception was preformed a second time round, they were heavily sedated and when he and Mal were experimenting there is no mention of sedation which leaves us with a question mark. But the answer to that question is that it WASN’T Cobb’s idea to sedate Fischer, which implies that the thought never occured to him otherwise he would’ve done it in his experimentation with Mal. I completely DON’T understand why Cobb was motioning Mal to come inside when she was on the other side of the building — that was completely mind baffling to me and I thought it was stange from the beginnning but the totem is a whole different ball game. If the totem was Mal’s then it wouldn’t work with for Cobb because the purpose of a totem is that its unique to you and only you know the precise weight and function of your totem, so the top is completely useless. I read somewhere that Cobb’s wedding ring is his totem and if you look closely in the movie he only wears his ring in DREAMS. Cobbs says “In our dreams we are stll together” so in all the dream scenes Cobb’s wedding ring is clearly visible on his left hand. But in reality it is non-existant. So if this was all a dream he would be wearing his wedding ring the entire movie.
This article has a huge amount of logic holes, enough that it actually felt like reading a satire blog halfway through the artice.
Here is the biggest hole for you:
>but when he approaches the window, she’s across the road in another hotel room. If you look closely, it’s the same hotel room, plus it would make no sense for her to go to the other side.
Really? If you didn’t get the reason for that, you maybe should stop analyzing movies.
Obviously there would be no way for her to talk to him, if she was in the same room with him, because he would have been able to stop her from jumping. And wow, newsflash, hotel rooms look the same, have you never seen a hotel with multiple buldings next to each other, which belong to the same hotel?
Also in my opinion, if someone comes up with the “Not Cobbs Real Totem” theory, any argument is lost at that point.
this is dumb
You missed something: Saito was not the first to wake up from limbo, Cobb was. Saito reached past the totem for the pistol, then we see Cobb wake up. Also, you must’ve missed the part in Japan before Cobb and Arthur go to the helicopter…..the top topples. It shouldn’t have if the entire movie is a dream. Right?
Here’s what I know: Cobb’s totem was never confirmed to topple in Mombasa, so it’s possible they never awoke from that massive community dream sequence.
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There is a book about inception in amazon that claim by a wireless device its possible to do inception over the wall! Is that possible realy? Address of book in amazon:
The Train Number its subconscious from Hotel Room Number that Cobb and Mal Always Use.
Saito Die On Level 1 and goes to Limbo.
Level 2 and Level 3 Saito : Auto Die
Dom Goes Limbo Twice in the Mission
He goes Limbo Manually, he share the Limbo Between Him (Dom), Ariadne and Robert.
He got stab or The Building collapse, and send Him upward level.
Level 3 gone : he goes up again
Level 2 gone : he goes up again
Level 1 : He drowned and die, and goes Limbo again. Saito and Dom still connected by dream device. So they share the limbo.
2nd Limbo : In 2nd Limbo Dom washed up on sea shore again and meet with Saito, who he Share the Limbo Realm from level 1 dream.
Mission Time :
The Mission is 10 hours. ( In level 1 dream its 8 days and 8 hours)
If they finish the mission only on day 1 on Level 1 dream. So the team waiting a week on level 1, until they waking up.
Let say Dom and Saito die in 2nd Limbo when the mission only run 3 hours in real world.
and Let say they goes into blank or no dreaming state until the drug wore off. 7 hours with no dream often feel shorter.
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Great entry, but I disagree on the hotel-room-thingy. Mal had lured Dom to a hotel room that was trashed, so that the police would find signs of a struggle. Then she was sitting at the same level across the narrow street. In another building. This was so that Dom couldn’t stop her, and once she fell down to the middle of the street, it could easily look like she had dropped from the same window that Dom was in. So it was all elaborately planned by Mal to frame Dom.
In summary, Inception is a movie that performs an inception on the viewer. And the idea that the movie is trying to incept, is that inception is possible in our own world, trough really good film making. The crew in the movie is a movie crew. The final layer is our own reality, and the movie is an intellectual meta comment on the power of film making. How, if you as a film maker, can make the viewer forget that he is watching a movie, an get really immersed in the story, you can transfer ideas, ideology, knowledge, to the viewer, in a way, that makes the viewer truly believe in them, as if it were his own ideas. Nolan is pulling a Mr Charles on us, telling us that an inception is taking place, but in a way that makes the target (us, watching the film) think we are not the target, and thereby lowering our guard against it.
I believe the details about how his wedding ring is showing up in the dream world, and not in the real world, and all the details that prove the ending was reality. I would also like to point out, and add to that side of the argument, that his friends were the only ones to look at him in the airport. If he were dreaming, the people in the airport would’ve started attacking his friends, just like he described would happen in one’s dream.
if it was all a dream, mal would appear in “reality”. just because you die in a dream doesnt mean you disappear from it. it is a dream, and anything can happen in a dream. also, in “reality” nothing weird happens, like in dreams. it was all real life. case closed.
Can’t be all real life because the brain having a dream is operating at full speed so the brain in a dream, which doesn’t really exist, can’t go any faster, so the dream within a dream can’t run 400 times real life speed.