Since the initial release of The Pixar Theory, there have been countless changes and updates to the Pixar Theory timeline. Since it can get a little complicated (and nutty), I put together a new and improved outline that follows the book and includes all of the recent and upcoming Pixar movies. Enjoy!
The Pixar Theory
Every Pixar movie is connected. I explain how, and possibly why.
In 2012, I watched a video on Cracked.com that introduced the idea (at least to me) that all of the Pixar movies actually exist within the same universe. Since then, I’ve obsessed over this concept, working to complete what I call The Pixar Theory, a working narrative that ties all of the Pixar movies into one cohesive timeline with a main theme. Another, longer, title is “The Grand Unifying Theory of Pixar Movies.”
This theory covers every feature-length movie made by Pixar Animation Studios since 1995. They include:
- Toy Story
- A Bug’s Life
- Toy Story 2
- Monsters Inc.
- Finding Nemo
- The Incredibles
- Toy Story 3
- Cars 2
- Monsters University
- Inside Out (in Part 2)
- The Good Dinosaur (in Part 3)
- Finding Dory (in Part 4)
- Cars 3, Coco, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 will be included in the upcoming book
The point of this theory is to have fun and exercise your imagination while simultaneously finding interesting connections between these fantastic movies. The trick is not take any of it too seriously. If you would like to experience a shorter version of this theory, check out the visualized Pixar Theory Timeline.
In fact, I highly suggest you watch this video I made with Screen Junkies/Fandom below. It more thoroughly lays out this theory and its most complex ideas. It’s also a far more “current” version of the theory compared to the rest of this post. Plus, it has more movies included! Enjoy.
The original Pixar Theory:
As of this writing in 2013, Brave is the first and last movie in the timeline. Obviously, this movie about a Scottish kingdom during the Dark Ages is the earliest time period covered by the Pixar films, but it’s also the only Pixar movie that actually explains why animals in the Pixar universe behave like humans sometimes.
In Brave, Merida discovers that there is “magic” that can solve her problems but inadvertently turns her mother into a bear. We find out that this magic comes from an odd witch seemingly connected to the mysterious will-of-the-wisps. Not only do we see animals behaving like humans, but we also see brooms (inanimate objects) behaving like people in the witch’s shop.
We also learn that this witch inexplicably disappears every time she passes through doors, leading us to believe that she may not even exist. Don’t get ahead of me, but we’ll come back to Brave. Let’s just say that for now, the witch is someone we know from a different movie in the timeline.
[Some of you have pointed out that the animals in Brave gradually regress back into an animal state, disproving the idea that this is the source of animals acting like humans. My rebuttal is simple. They regress because the magic wears off. Over time, their evolving intelligence grows naturally.]
Centuries later, the animals from Brave that have been experimented on by the witch have interbred, creating a large-scale population of animals slowly gaining personification and intelligence on their own.
There are two progressions: the progression of the animals and the progression of artificial intelligence. The events of the following movies set up a power struggle between humans, animals, and machines.
The stage for all-out war in regards to animals is set by Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, and Up, in that order. Notice I left out A Bug’s Life, but I’ll explain why later.
In Ratatouille, we see animals experimenting with their growing personification in small, controlled experiments.
Remy wants to cook, which is something only humans explicitly do. He crafts a relationship with a small group of humans and finds success. Meanwhile, the villain of Ratatouille, Chef Skinner, disappears. What happened to him? What did he do with his newfound knowledge that animals were capable of transcending their instincts and performing duties better than humans?
It’s possible that Charles Muntz, the antagonist of Up, learned of this startling rumor, giving him the idea to begin inventing devices that would harness the thoughts of animals, namely his dogs, through translator collars. Those collars indicated to Muntz that animals are smarter and more like humans than we think. He needed this technology to find the exotic bird he’s obsessed over, and he even comments on how many dogs he’s lost since he arrived in South America.
But then Dug and the rest of his experiments are set free after Muntz’s demise, and we don’t know the full implications of that, but what we do know is that animosity between the animals and humans is growing steadily. Now that humans have discovered the potential of animals, they are beginning to cross the line. To develop this new technology, the humans begin an industrial revolution hinted at in Up.
[Some have pointed out that Muntz was working in South America before the events of Ratatouille. This is true, but it is not explicitly stated how and when he developed the collars. Also, we know Ratatouille takes place before Up for several reasons. In Toy Story 3, a postcard on Andy’s wall has Carl and Ellie’s name and address on it (including their last names to confirm). This confirms that in 2010, the time of Toy Story 3, Ellie is still alive or hasn’t been dead long. This supports the idea that Up takes place years later.]
In the beginning of Up, Carl is forced to give up his house to a corporation because they are expanding the city.
Wait a second. What corporation is guilty for polluting the earth and wiping out life in the distant future because of technological overreach?
Buy-n-Large (BNL), a corporation that runs just about everything by the time we get to Wall-E. In the“History of BNL” commercial from the movie, we’re told that BNL has even taken over the world governments. Did you catch that this one corporation achieved global dominance? Interestingly, this is the same organization alluded to in Toy Story 3:
In Finding Nemo, we have an entire population of sea creatures uniting to save a fish that was captured by humans. BNL shows up again in this universe via another news article that talks about a beautiful underwater world.
Lines are being crossed. Humans are beginning to antagonize the increasingly networked and intelligent animals.
Think about Dory from Finding Nemo for a second. She stands apart from most of the other fish. Why? She isn’t as intelligent. Her short-term memory loss is likely a result of her not being as advanced as the other sea creatures, which is a reasonable explanation for how rapidly these creatures are evolving.
It’s likely that the sequel to Finding Nemo, which is about Dory, will touch on this and further explain why. We may also get some more evidence pointing to animosity between humans and animals.
[Some great users have pointed out that Dory is actually more intelligent and shows signs of growth due to her ability to read and communicate with whales. This would actually show signs of how the animals are beginning to change in intelligence gradually.]
And that is the furthest movie in the “animal” side of things. When it comes to A.I., we start with The Incredibles. Who is the main villain of this movie? You probably thought of Buddy, a.ka. Syndrome, who basically commits genocide on super-powered humans.
Or does he? Buddy didn’t have any powers. He used technology to enact revenge on Mr. Incredible for not taking him seriously. Seems a little odd that the man went so far as to commit genocide.
[A lot of people have been arguing about where The Incredibles actually takes place because we see technology from modern times and the 1980s even though everything has a 1960s vibe. This is cleared by Brad Bird, the director, who says the movie takes place in an alternate 1960s, which means the movie opens in the 1950s.]
And how does he kill all of the supers? He creates the omnidroid, an A.I. “killbot” that learns the moves of every super-human and adapts. When Mr. Incredible is first told about this machine, Mirage mentions that it is an advanced artificial intelligence that has gone rogue.
Mr. Incredible points out that it got smart enough to wonder why it had to take orders. The omnidroid eventually turns on Syndrome, and starts attacking humans in the city. Why would an A.I. want to just attack randomly? Do machines have an inherent hatred of humans?
The movie even shows clips of the superheroes with capes being done in by inanimate objects, such as plane turbines…accidentally.
But why would machines want to get rid of humans in the first place? We know that animals don’t like humans because they are polluting the Earth and experimenting on them, but why would the machines have an issue?
Enter Toy Story. Here we see humans using and discarding “objects” that are clearly sentient. Yes, the toys love it Uncle Tom style, but over the course of the Toy Story sequels, we see toys becoming fed up. But wait, toys and inanimate objects aren’t necessarily machines, so how do they have some kind of intelligence?
Syndrome points to the answer. He tells Mr. Incredible that his lasers are powered by Zero Point Energy. This is the electromagnetic energy that exists in a vacuum. It’s the unseen energy we find in wavelengths and a reasonable explanation for how toys and objects in the Pixar world draw power.
By the events of the Toy Story movies, we are in the 90s until 2010. It’s been 40-50 years or so since the events of The Incredibles, giving A.I. plenty of time to develop BNL.
Meanwhile, Pixar is hinting at dissatisfaction among pockets of toy civilizations. The toys rise up against Sid in the first movie. Jesse resents her owner, Emily, for abandoning her. Lotso Huggin’ Bear straight up hates humans by the third movie.
Toys are obviously not satisfied with the status quo, providing a reason for why machines and objects alike are ready to take over.
So, by the 2000s, the super-humans are all but gone, and mankind is vulnerable. Animals, who want to rise up Planet of the Apes style, have the ability to take over, but we don’t see this happen.
Also, A.I. never takes over humans by force. Why do you think that is? It’s reasonable to assume that machines did take over, just not as we expected. The machines used BNL, a faceless corporation (which are basically faceless in nature) to dominate the world, starting in the 1960s after the Omnidroid fails to defeat the Incredibles.
In each of the Toy Story movies, it’s made painfully clear that sentient objects rely on humans for everything. For fulfillment and even energy. It’s hinted at that the Toys lose all life when put away in “storage” unless they are in a museum that will get them seen by humans.
So machines decide to control humans by using a corporation that suits their every need, leading to an industrial revolution that eventually leads to…pollution. When the animals rise up against the humans to stop them from polluting the earth, who will save them? The machines.
We know that the machines will win the war, too, because after this war, there are almost no animals left on Earth. Who’s left?
Because the machines tip everything out of balance, Earth becomes an unfit planet for humans and animals, so the remaining humans are put on Axiom (or Noah’s Ark if you want to carry on the Biblical theme where Wall-E is basically Robot Jesus and his love interest is aptly named Eve) as a last-ditch effort to save the human race.
On Axiom, the humans have no purpose aside from having their needs met by the machines. The machines have made humans dependent on them for everything because that is how they were treated as “toys.” It’s all they know.
Meanwhile on Earth, machines are left behind to populate the world and run things, explaining human landmarks and traditions still being prominent in Cars. There are no animals or humans in this version of Earth because they’re all gone, but we do know that the planet still has many human influences left.
[Some have noted that the world of Cars can’t be after humans left because there’s no pollution shown in the movies. If you look carefully at Wall-E, however, the world is never shown during this time, so we don’t really know how badly the Earth was polluted.]
[It’s possible that the machines sent humans away to curb overpopulation and fix the environment without them, but the world was drained of resources as a result of machines populating the Earth. That would explain why the machines abandoned Earth entirely, leaving only Wall-E behind.]
In Cars 2, the cars go to Europe and Japan, making it plain that this is all taking place on Earth as we know it. So what happened to the cars? We’ve learned by now that humans are the source of energy for the machines. That’s why they never got rid of them.
In Wall-E, they point out that BNL intended to bring the humans back once the planet was clean again, but they failed. The machines on Earth eventually died out, though we don’t know how.
What we do know is that there is an energy crisis in Cars 2, with oil being the only way society trudges on despite its dangers. We even learn that the Allinol corporation was using “green energy” as a catalyst for a fuel war in order to turn cars away from alternative energy sources. That “clean” fuel could have been used to wipe out many of the cars, very quickly.
[Someone pointed out that “all in all” means the same thing as “by and large” making the connection between Cars and Wall-E even more substantial.]
Which brings us back to Wall-E. Have you ever wondered why Wall-E was the only machine left? We know that the movie begins 800 years after humans have left Earth on Axiom, governed by the AutoPilot (another A.I. reference).
Could it be that Wall-E’s fascination with human culture and friendship with a cockroach is what allowed him to keep finding fulfillment and the ability to maintain his personality? That’s why he was special and liberated the humans.
He remembered the times when humans and machines lived in peace, away from all of the pollution caused by both sides.
After Wall-E liberates the humans and they rebuild society back on Earth, what happens then? During the end credits of Wall-E, we see the shoe that contains the last of plant life. It grows into a mighty tree. A tree that strikingly resembles the central tree in A Bug’s Life.
That’s right. The reason no humans show up in A Bug’s Life is because there aren’t a lot left. We know because of the cockroach that some of the insects survived, meaning they would have rebounded a bit faster, though the movie had to be far enough in the timeline for birds to have returned as well, though they’re noticeably less intelligent than the bugs.
[I’ll admit, the trees looking similar isn’t enough to support the idea that A Bug’s Life takes place after Wall-E, but there’s definitely more reasons for why it’s likely. Also, I’ll bring the tree up again later because it appears in Up as well.]
There’s something strikingly different about A Bug’s Life when compared to other Pixar portrayals of animals, which leads me to believe it takes place in the future. Unlike Ratatouille, Up, and Finding Nemo, the bugs have many human activities similar to what the rats in Ratatouille were merely experimenting with.
The bugs have cities, bars, advertisements, their own machines, know what a bloody mary is and even have a traveling circus. This all assumes that the movie is in a different time period.
The other factor that sets A Bug’s Life apart from other Pixar movies is the fact that it is the only one, besides Cars and Cars 2, that doesn’t revolve (or even include) humans.
[Okay there is a a lot of contention over the idea that A Bug’s Life takes place post-apocalypse, but hear me out. The reason I am so inclined to push the idea is because of how different the bug world is from the “animal” movies. No other Pixar movie has animals wearing clothing, wild inventions, animals creating machines, or so much human influence like bars and cities.]
[In Finding Nemo, the most human thing we see is a school, and even that is pretty stripped down. But in A Bug’s Life, we have a world where humans are barely even implied. At one point, one of the ants tells Flik not to leave the island because there are “snakes, birds, and bigger bugs out there.” He doesn’t even bring up humans.
[Yes, there are some humans, like the kid who allegedly picked the wings off of the homeless bug, but that still fits in a post Wall-E world. Also, the bugs have to be irradiated for them to live such long lifespans. The average lifespan of an ant is just 3 months, but these ants all survive an entire summer and allude to being around for quite some time by saying things like “this happens every year.” One of the ants even says he “feels 90 again.” That works if you accept that the ants are sturdier due to evolution and mutated genes.]
There’s another Pixar movie that was supposed to be released in 2012, but it was cancelled and replaced with Brave. This movie was called Newt, and I believe it might have fit in this part of the timeline post-Wall-E. The movie’s supposed plot: “What happens when the last remaining male and female blue-footed newts on the planet are forced together by science to save the species, and they can’t stand each other?”
A movie about an endangered species rebuilding itself could lend itself nicely to this theory, but since the movie was never released, I’m just speculating.
So what happens next? Humanity, machines, and animals grow in harmony to the point where a new super species is born. Monsters. The monsters civilization is actually Earth in the incredibly distant future.
[Someone wisely pointed out that in Monsters University, the college is said to be founded in 1313. If we’re really in the future, then that means the monsters could have reset society and begun using their own calendar. That could mean Monsters Inc. takes place up to 1400 (or more) years after A Bug’s Life.]
Where did they come from? It’s possible that the monsters are simply the personified animals mutated after the diseased earth was irradiated for 800 years.
[Not during Wall-E. I would guess that it took hundreds of years after Wall-E for the animals to become monsters]
Whatever the reason, these monsters seem to all look like horribly mutated animals, only larger and civilized. They have cities and even colleges, as we see in Monsters University.
[An issue some have found is that this doesn’t properly explain what happened to humans. I haven’t settled on a theory I really like yet, but I’m leaning towards the idea that monsters and machines eventually forgot that they need humans and got rid of them again, not realizing their mistake until all humans died out. Another explanation is that humans just couldn’t survive on Earth anymore.]
In Monsters Inc., they have an energy crisis because they are in a future earth without humans. Humans are the source of energy, but thanks to the machines, again, the Monsters find a way to use doors to travel to the human world. Only, it’s not different dimensions.
The monsters are going back in time. They’re harvesting energy to keep from becoming extinct by going back to when humans were most prominent. The peak of civilization, if you will. Though a lot of time has passed, animosity towards humans never really went away for animals/monsters.
Monsters must have relied on anti-human instincts to believe that just touching a human would corrupt their world like it did in the past. So they scare humans to gather their energy until they realize that laughter (green energy) is more efficient because it is positive in nature.
[An alternative explanation that fits even better that some of you brought up: The machines and monsters created the time travel doors but realized that messing with time could erase their existence and change history. So, they falsely trained monsters to believe that humans are toxic and from another dimension, making it suicide for a monster to interact too much with their world.]
[Another issue is how the monsters seem to worry about kids “being less scared these days.” It’s likely that going in the past takes a lot of energy, so the monsters can only go back as far as the practice still returns a profit in energy. To them, they’re just moving through the same dimension of time, but the monsters at the top know that eventually, they’ll run out. This is why Waternose is so bent on capturing children and enslaving them.]
We even see a connection between A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. via the trailer we see in both movies. As you can see, the trailer looks exactly the same, except the one in A Bug’s Life is noticeably older and more decrepit, while the one in Monsters Inc. (where Randall is sent via a door) has humans and looks newer.
Look at the picture above. On the left is the trailer from A Bug’s Life and the one on the right is from Monsters Inc. The one on the left looks older and more rundown. Even the vegetation is noticeably dryer and there’s less of it. The trailer on the right has humans and the frame even includes tall grass and a tree hanging overhead.
[Some have argued that the trailer in A Bug’s Life should be nothing but dust. I disagree based on how barely intact other buildings were in Wall-E. They also bring up the bug zapper that is powered by electricity. The zapper could easily be solar powered, just like Wall-E. The bugs probably used it as a light source to signal other bugs to “Bug City.” Also, the trailer in A Bug’s Life never shows lights in the trailer like it does for Monsters Inc.]
That said, Monsters Inc. is so far the most futuristic Pixar movie. By the end, humans, animals, and machines have finally found a way to understand each other and live harmoniously.
And then there’s Boo. What do you think happened to her? She saw everything take place in future earth where “kitty” was able to talk. She became obsessed with finding out what happened to her friend Sully and why animals in her time weren’t quite as smart as the ones she’d seen in the future.
She remembers that “doors” are the key to how she found Sully in the first place and becomes…
A WITCH. Yes, Boo is the witch from Brave. She figures out how to travel in time to find Sully, and goes back to what she believes is the source: The will-of-the-wisps.
They are what started everything, and as a witch, she cultivates this magic in an attempt to find Sully by creating doors going backwards and forwards in time.
[Just to clarify: The theory is that Boo discovered a way to use doors to travel through time on her own, possibly by developing magic on her own. She probably went back in time to the Dark Ages to get more magic from the will-o-wisps.]
How do we know? In Brave, you can briefly see a drawing in the workshop. It’s Sully.
We even see the Pizza Planet truck carved as a wooden toy in her shop, which makes no sense unless she’s seen one before…(and I’m sure she has since that truck is in almost every Pixar movie). If you look closely, you can see the carved truck below.
You remember Merida opening doors and the witch constantly disappearing? It’s because those doors are made the same way from Monsters Inc. They transport across time and that is why Merida couldn’t find the witch later in the movie.
[A lot of people have brought up how easter eggs are scattered throughout all the Pixar movies. I barely scratch the surface, but a great theory offered by some that I support is that these easter eggs are planted by Boo either intentionally or accidentally as she travels through time to find Sully. Some support for that is the fact that every easter egg in Brave lies in her workshop.]
But wait. How did Boo travel in time in the first place, and why is she obsessed with wood? Boo must have discovered that wood has been the source of energy all along, not just humans. The machines and monsters in Monsters Inc. use doors because they’re made of wood and found a way to use that energy to travel in time.
[Many have pointed out how the door that banishes monsters is metal. That’s probably because wood is used to harness this magic, and using a metal door would stop a banished monster from going back through it.]
Obsessed with finding Sully, Boo travelled across the Pixar universe using doors.
[It’s even possible that the wood from the tree in A Bug’s Life is the source of Flik’s ingenuity, due to his fascination and respect for seeds growing into trees. The tree also bears a resemblance to the one in Up that Carl and Ellie frequented, which could be the source of Carl’s wild creativity in using balloons to transport his house.]
[This also explains why Flik and Heimlich from A Bug’s Life show up in Toy Story 2, which would be centuries before their time. Boo was trying to go to the future and could have fallen short by landing in the post-Wall-E time. She would need wood to keep time traveling, but there’s not much around yet, so she stumbles upon the tree in A Bug’s Life. She could have accidentally brought back a few bugs with her when traveling backwards in time.]
So Boo went back to the Dark Ages, probably because she could use plenty of wood there for her experiments or to study the will-o-wisps. We know that her first encounter with Mor’du ended with her turning him into a monstrous bear, but he regresses.
She probably wanted to turn him into a bear because Sully resembles a bear, and she is still trying to figure out where Sully comes from.
Does Boo ever find Sully? I like to think so. He surely reunited with her at least once as a child at the end of Monsters Inc., but eventually, he had to stop visiting.
But her love for Sully is, after all, the crux of the entire Pixar universe. The love of different people of different ages and even different species finding ways to live on Earth without destroying it because of a lust for energy.
And that is the Pixar Theory.
For Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Finding Dory, the story continues in Parts 2,3, and 4 respectively, so here are some other helpful links for your reading pleasure:
- The Pixar Theory – What about Planes?
- The Pixar Detective – an expanded universe novel that explains the theory as a full narrative.
Thanks for reading this. Be sure to say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni
All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar
Review: ‘Monsters University’
Does the prequel to the 2001 classic make a passing grade?
Everything You Missed When You Watched ‘Inception’
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.