Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception Theories Explained

I saw Inception twice within a 48-hour period. I'm obviously a fan. I've never been this engrossed in anything. I've read hours upon hours of message boards and blogs and held discussion after discussion with friends and co-workers about this film.

This post isn't for making a case for why this is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen or calling out moronic movie critics who seemingly panned it only because they couldn't take the extra effort to understand the film or open their mind to the infinite possible interpretations in this fantastical world. SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM.

I'm writing this post because I want to spur the same type of conversation that I've been reading about on other websites. I'm going to analyze and give my explanations at the most simplistic level. I'm not going to attempt to validate or invalidate all of the myriad theories regarding the movie, though they are very interesting. Even though I feel the story and most of the loose ends came together for me at the second viewing, there are still a few lingering questions. I'm not necessarily going to answer them, but I'll put them up for discussion. If you don't agree with what I have to say, have alternative thoughts or notice I'm just plain wrong, please leave a comment.

I tried writing a cohesive story around this subject, but I found that the easiest way to address this was to do a Q&A format. So, here goes nothing. I recommend listening to the musical score while reading.

Q: Was the end scene where Cobb finally meets his kids reality or a dream?
A: I believe it was reality. If you follow the film at the simplest level and just try to understand it based purely on what was on the screen and how the story developed, it makes a lot of sense if you believe the top ultimately falls at the end. I understand there are a multitude of theories for both sides of this argument, and you can dive really deep into alternate meanings, symbolism, etc., but just looking at what was presented on the surface, it was hard to believe the end scene was a dream. 

Q: Who was dreaming in each level of the Fischer mission?
A: Level 1 was Yusuf. Level 2 was Arthur. Level 3 was Eames. The 4th level was limbo.

Q: What is limbo? 
A: Limbo is the deepest level of subconscious. It's just pure subconscious and populated only with the dream remnants of anyone in your shared dream who has been to limbo before. This is why you see the remnants of Cobb and Mal's world when Ariadne and Cobb go to limbo to find Fischer and Saito. 

Q: How do you get to limbo?
A: You get to limbo two ways: 1) by dying in the dream while under the level of heavy sedation Cobb's crew was under during the Fischer mission and 2) voluntarily by going into deeper dream levels. Both of these are proven by 1) Saito and Fischer ending up in limbo after dying on the 3rd dream level and 2) Cobb/Mal's experimentation and Cobb/Ariadne going into limbo to find Fischer and Saito.

Q: When Mal and Cobb were in limbo together, how did Cobb know he was dreaming, and how did Mal lose track?  
A: It seems as though Cobb and Mal shared the top as their totem, but Mal refused to see it for its purpose any longer. She loved limbo and her life there, and that is why she locked it away (not spinning) in the safe. By locking it away, she was removing her last and only clue that would let her know she was in a dream. Cobb knew better, and that's why he tried inception on Mal. He planted the idea (spinning the top in the safe), and because of his experience and how he used the totem against her, he was adamant on not letting other people touch his totem.

Q: What was the inception that Cobb had tried before?
A: The inception was on Mal, and it was the spinning of the top in the safe. As I mentioned, Mal had no desire to return to reality and wanted to stay in limbo. She created her childhood home and the safe within the replica dollhouse to represent the deepest part of her subconscious. When Cobb wanted to go back to reality but needed to convince Mal, he planted the idea that their world wasn't real by spinning the top and locking the safe. Because it was the first time he'd tried it, he didn't realize the idea would stick in her mind and "grow like a cancer" even when they awoke in the real world. That is why she thought she was still in a dream and wanted to kill herself to supposedly get back to reality. In her head, the top was always spinning, and she would never be in reality.

Q: Why was Saito so much older than Cobb when they met in limbo? 
A: Remember the rule of time in dreams -- the passage of time increases exponentially the deeper your dream level. Saito died in the 3rd level while protecting Fischer's body, and Cobb drowned in the 1st level when the van went into the water. Time was moving so much faster for Saito than Cobb, and Saito died before Cobb. So, Saito had even more time to age.

Q: What happened in the final scene when Saito picks up the gun? 
A: One theory is they shot themselves or each other to get out of limbo. However, I believe the sedative simply ran out. Saito and Cobb awoke as they were making their descent into LAX.

Q: Why did Cobb go to find Saito? Why didn't he just leave him in limbo and wait until they both woke up? 
A: Saito was lost in limbo. He had no idea he was in a dream. Saito thought that was his reality, so he would not remember the agreement once he woke up. Cobb had to find him to remind him of why they were there so Saito could honor the agreement once they woke up.

Q: What was the significance of Cobb dropping his totem on the bathroom floor after awaking from the chemist's (Yusuf's) basement? 
A: It allowed Saito to see the totem for the first time. It would be the catalyst to trigger the verbal exchange between he and Cobb and remembering each other in limbo during the closing dream scene when he's an old man and Cobb is dragged from the beach.

Q: Does the wedding ring theory hold true? 
A: As far as I could tell, it did. The wedding ring theory holds that Cobb wears his wedding ring in the dream scenes and flashbacks. When he's in reality, he is not wearing a ring. He was not wearing a ring when he was talking to his kids, when he was being chased in Mombasa or at the end scene. This is another reason why I believe the top ultimately fell over at the end. 

Q: Do the kids age? 
A: Yes and no. The kids do age because there is a scene in the sequence where Ariadne sneaks into Cobb's dream and he's taking her to the different levels of his elevator. There is a scene with the kids at a younger age. In every other scene with the kids, they are the same age and wearing the same clothes. This accounts for the credits having two different actors for the kids at the different ages.

Q: Is there any significance or symbolism to the names "Ariadne" and "Mal?"
A: It appears so. In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus exit the Labyrinth. In Latin, "mal" means "bad." I think the connections are obvious.

Q: What do levels of the elevator represent? 
A: It seems simple enough -- the levels appear to represent the highs and lows of Cobb's memories with Mal. The top levels were his best times, and the bottom levels were the lows. As Ariadne descended, you saw the dollhouse, the train and the hotel room in the lowest floors. 

Q: Was Miles the father of Cobb or Mal?
A: I believe Miles was the father of Cobb. I can't imagine Mal's father would've been so pleasant with the person responsible for his daughter's death.

Q: Was the chase through Mombasa by the Cobol henchmen real?
A: I believe it was. Firstly, I believe in the wedding ring theory, and he wasn't wearing the ring. Thus, it was reality. Secondly, if those were projections chasing Cobb, everyone in those scenes should've been projections chasing him. However, it was only the Cobol henchmen.

There were a lot of other questions that I can't even posit an answer. Check them out, and weigh in: 

Q: How did Miles end up in LAX? How did he know he was supposed to pick up Cobb? Was he ever apprised of the plan? 
Q: What happened to the grandmother? Was it Mal's mother or Cobb's mother?
Q: How was Fischer's mind already militarized against extraction? How common or well-known is extraction in this world? Is it something for which he would've prepared?
Q: After Saito drops off Cobb and Arthur from the helicopter, he asks Cobb to take a leap of faith (regarding being able to return to the U.S. to be with his children). Just before Mal jumps off the ledge, she asks him to take a leap of faith (die to get back to reality). Is there something deeper here?
Q: Is it possible that Cobb, not Fischer, was the target for inception?

There are innumerable questions and theories for this movie. I could go on and on, but I'm going to stop it there, and let you guys chime in.


  1. My main difficultly with the ending is that the kids were wearing the exact same thing, and playing in the exact same position as Leonardo had always dreamed them. Seems like far too much of a coincidence for me. That said, I like to think it was reality because any other theory hurts my brain.

    Q: If there was no gravity in Level 2 because there Yusuf(and everyone else) was weightless in Level 1, how could there be gravity in level 3 when Arthur(and everyone else) was weightless in level 2?

    I may have to go see it again. Twice.

  2. My thoughts on the kids wearing the same exact clothes is that Nolan made that choice for the audience. It would create the greatest emotion when we finally saw Cobb reuniting with them. Throughout the entire movie, all he wants to do is see his kids' faces, and he sees them only wearing those clothes. It's like a form of closure. You're building up and building up and all you see is the kids in those clothes. It seemed only right to have them in those clothes again.

    I forgot to speak about their ages. I think it's fine the kids didn't age much in reality from his dreams. It seems that not too much time has passed. When talking on the phone with James early in the movie, James asks if Cobb is with mom. That suggests that the memory of her is still fresh in his mind, and her death was fairly recent. Also, I like to think that Cobb was on the run only for a short period of time.

  3. @TheFlintSkinny When Saito is shot in the first level Cobb informs everyone that the pain will decrease in the next levels. This suggests that the ability to detect physical changes in the prior levels decreases the further you go in. So everyone's inner ear would have more difficult detecting the changes in gravity and thus not affect them in the other levels.

  4. Fischer was an important businessman, and so was Saito. Saito also knew a good deal about extraction, so I assume that it was something that people with power/money were trained for/against since they could be targets for extraction "kidnappings".

  5. Q: Is it possible that Cobb, not Fischer, was the target for inception?

    He may have been the target of Ariadne... leading to your correlation of Ariadne leading Theseus out of the labrynth. Cobb didn't accept the reality of letting Mal go until he and Ariadne were in Limbo. Ariadne told Cobb the idea of letting Mal go somewhere in one of the other levels (maybe even while being awake)... In the same way they had to take Scarecrow (forgot his movie name) 3 levels deep so he thought the idea of breaking up the company was his own.... Cobb had to revisit limbo to think the idea of letting Mal go was his own choice.

    Good movie... think I'll wait for DVD to see a second time though.

  6. I saw the movie again last night and have some more thoughts.

    I think Miles was Mal's father, not Cobb's. His demeanor around Cobb did not seem "fatherly", and Miles also introduced him to Ariadne as "Mr. Cobb" - seems like an unlikely way to introduce your son to someone, especially since they would have the same last name.

    I'm also assuming Cobb spoke with Miles ahead of time about the details of when he would be arriving. Cobb already dropped off presents for his kids when he went to see Miles in Paris, so it sounded like Miles went to the US somewhat often. He may already have been in the US when Cobb made it over.

    Not sure what happened to the grandmother - maybe she was still there but just not shown. I think she was Mal's mom because she had an accent over the phone, and so did Mal.

    I do not think that Cobb would be target for inception. I haven't read too many theories, but it sounds like some people think that Cobb may have been the target to get him to let go of his guilt for killing Mal. This means they tried to go down at least 5 levels just to make him forget his guilt? It seems like an incredibly risky inception, risking that his brain will get scrambled if he gets killed in one of the levels (assuming he was heavily sedated in "real life" as well). It also doesn't make sense to me that the chasers in Mombasa could be projections, because they shouldn't have been converging on him. I think it's interesting to think about, but it's looking way too much into it.

    Was he really not wearing the ring in his house at the end? I couldn't see his left hand.

  7. I am just as obsessed as you are. Unfortunately, the film didn't come out in Spain until this last Friday (Aug 6), and I'm trying to figure out when I can see it again. Ugghh, I agree with you, when you pointed out the moronic movie critic. How annoying! As I have only seen the movie once, I can't comment too much. I just want to say that I am with the group that feels that everything has been a dream ...

  8. for the person who suggested that the kids did not age, and that they were wearing the smae clothing throughout the movie, i want to clear that up for you. they actually did age. if you do more researc, youll see that two different sets of kids were used in the movie. also, they were wearing different clothing at the end of the movie. in one of nolans interviews, he says that the girl was wearing a pink dress in the dreams, but at the end of the movie, she was wearing a white tshirt underneath a sleeveless pink dress. i see this as an attempt of nolan trying to confuse the audience. another thing, saito was also in the car, which means he drowned with cobb. the only way to explain his age difference compared to cobb in limbo is that because cobb was there before and has a firm grip on relaity, he was much less affected by time. saito on the other hand was losing his grip on reality, and therefore aged much more quickly. i also have a theory. please feel free to comment on it.

    it clearly explains the rules of dreaming in the movie. however, it never says what happens when there is no dreamer for a dream level. each level in the inception attempt had a dreamer for it. but what about limbo, you ask? well my belief is that because cobb had already been there, it was his dream they were in. (for example, mal was in it. she happens to be a projection of his mind.) so, as long as their are dreamers, they keep going down levels. but maybe, and this is just a theory, when there is no one else to be the dreamer, they go up a level. this would clear up the confusion on how saito and cobb got out of limbo. because they died in limbo, the thid level, the second, and the first, and there was no longer a dreamer to conjure up a dream, they went up the levels until the eventually reentered reality. this would also explain away the sedative problem, since there was no dreamer to have a dream for the sedative to work. this is one theory, and happens to be mine lol, but please comment and give me your opinions.

    ps. i dont want to ruin the movie for anyone, but why didnt cobb just fly his kids over to him???

  9. jake raymond8/18/2011 4:34 AM

    just to let you know although it may not look like it the costume designer for the movie reviled that the kids are in fact wearing different clothing. But the give away is that the cloths aren't that obvious but the whole movie the children are wearing black shoes and in the final scene their wearing white shoes.

    btw if someone already wrote this i couldn't be bothered reading sorry.