inception theories!


i'm not even gonna bother talking about how it's been a long time since i've posted here, so busy, too lazy, yadda yadda. i'm just gonna get right into the one thing that seems to have dragged me back to blogging:



needless to say, spoilers ahead. if you haven't seen it, go see it. awesome movie, and you don't want it spoiled for you. however, if you have seen it, read on, because you'll need some basic knowledge of the plot to understand any of this.


so, when i first watched this movie, i ended up 100% sure he'd woken up completely, got home, yay, all happy! i think it's mainly just... such a feeling of affirmation and "YES! W00T!" at the end of the movie. it's interesting that so much of the movie revolves around the idea of catharsis. fischer's catharsis is explicitly referred to, yes, and it's significant that this is discussed in-movie in terms of "the bigger the problem, the bigger the cathartic payout." well, there's catharsis on a second level too: cobb's catharsis re: his wife. and if we're talking payout, poor little rich boy's daddy issues are small fry compared to dom's guilt over causing death of wife and loss of kids.

but then there's actually a third level of catharsis, and this is where the movie gets a little sneaky. the REAL catharsis behind all this is the viewer's catharsis: your 2 and a half hours of tension, relieved at the end with all these loose ends tying up beautifully. while the "problem" of watching a puzzling movie is hardly a big one, the thing is YOU'RE actually watching it. you're emotionally involved. so in the end, the biggest catharsis of all is your own, personal one.

so - yes. that's one point i wanted to make early on. keep it in mind, because i need to come back to it later.

back to the events of the movie, then. if we believe in this "cathartic ending" where everything works out -- fischer comes to terms with his father and believes his father was just disappointed he kept trying to follow in his footsteps instead of doing anything for himself (note: this is probably not even true in the "real world" of the movie. it's an idea created by dom's team in order to convince fischer of what his father actually wanted for him, and by doing so, convince him to break up his father's empire). on a thematic parallel, cobb comes to terms with his guilt over his wife's death. there's really no true/false there: his guilt is his own, and ultimately his acceptance/moving-on-ness is also his own. so, yes, if we believe in this cathartic ending -- then we believe the following:

1) prior to the events of the movie, dom and mal explored the world of the subconscious, delving deeper and deeper in to nested dreams.

2) something goes awry; they end up in limbo.

3) decades of perceived time go by. eventually mal resigns herself to staying and locks away her totem, choosing to believe her world is real.

4) dom practices inception for the first time, implanting the idea that her world is not real.

5) dom and mal commit suicide to escape from limbo. afterward, the idea that her world is not real remains embedded in mal's subconscious. finally, she commits suicide and frames dom in an attempt to get him to join her.

6) instead of joining her, dom flees abroad.

7) some undisclosed amount of time passes; he uses his skills to become a dream-thief. eventually, he lands the saito-fischer job.

8) despite difficulties, and despite actually dropping back into limbo, cobb successfully completes the job, escapes from limbo and all three layers of the dream, lands in LAX, and returns to his family.


now, honestly, this is the ending i WANT to believe in. it's the simplest, smoothest explanation, and therefore, by occam's razor, the correct one. beyond that, it's also the most emotionally fulfilling one. there's such a sense of ... lightness of the soul, or something, at the end of the movie. the music! his crack team, assembled for this one last uber-heist, now going their separate ways! his father in law welcoming him! his kids! the wobbling top! and the first time i saw Inception, i was dead sure he'd escaped from the dreams, he'd made it back to his family, fischer had worked out his own personal demons, and everyone was happy.

then i watched it another two, three times. and every time i watch it, the more i doubt this "happy ending." it's masterful, really: the movie implants hints and suggestions that perhaps all is not as dom cobb would like it to be as subtly and as deeply as the inception referred to in the movie itself. you'll notice there's a phrase in italics there. that's because i think that's as central to the whole idea/structure/theme of the movie as the idea of catharsis. in fact, these two things are linked -- but more on that later.

for now, let's consider the possibility that the happy ending is actually in some sense false. there's still some dreaming going on in there. now, i think in general the debate out on the great wild yonder of the internet tends to rage between two possibilities: 1) all happy (as stated above), or 2) dom gets stuck down in limbo after going in there to retrieve saito.

i actually think there's a third possibility, though. currently, i'm torn between these two options: 1) the ending i want to believe (happy ending), and 2) the "third alternative" i think is actually the case. it goes something like this. the first five steps are the same as in the happy ending:

1) prior to the events of the movie, dom and mal explored the world of the subconscious, delving deeper and deeper in to nested dreams.

2) something goes awry; they end up in limbo.

3) decades of perceived time go by. eventually mal resigns herself to staying and locks away her totem, choosing to believe her world is real.

4) dom practices inception for the first time, implanting the idea that her world is not real.

5) dom and mal commit suicide to escape from limbo.

-- but at this point, things are no longer as they seem. dom thinks they've escaped the dream completely. mal thinks they're still trapped. dom thinks she's insane, and we as the viewer are essentially seeing this story from his perspective. ergo we think she's insane too, but what if dom is an unreliable narrator? what if this is actually the case:

6) dom then gets trapped in a higher, but not fully waking, level of consciousness. he refuses to believe this world is not real.

7) mal makes a last-ditch gamble to force him to surface. she departs the dream world; dom does not.

8) after her departure, she presumably gives up on him (or simply hasn't returned yet -- given layered time dilation, a few days in real time could be weeks, months, or years in the dream). the mal we see in the dream is cobb's projection, which due to his own grief, guilt, and possibly some hidden anger at being abandoned and trapped, becomes this twisted banshee hounding his steps.

9) everything that happens in the movie -- everything -- is in fact a dream. we never see the real world at all.


now, i think that's a pretty radical interpretation, but i think there's a lot of evidence supporting it. i.e.:

1) the kids don't age.

this is probably the biggest point that can't quite be explained by the all-happy scenario. IF we believe that the "waking world" in inception is in fact the real world, then we never find out how long he's been a fugitive, but we can infer that it's been some time. we also know that he was originally perhaps something more akin to a scientist or an explorer. he was michael caine's protege --

(wtf is his char's name? michael caine is like morgan freeman: he only ever plays himself, but it's an awesome self *LOL*)

-- but after becoming a wanted man, he made his living as an extractor. that's made very clear in the movie: in that paris dialogue with michael caine, he says that his skills only had a few job options after becoming a fugitive. that implies he was not an extractor before the whole mal anniversary incident.

however, by the time the movie starts, he's been an extractor long enough to be "the best"; long enough to be an old hand at these jobs; long enough to have forged all these connections with semishady characters; long enough that one semishady character, the brit, can mutter that he's "still" working with arthur; long enough to call upon a shared past of experieneces/plans with arthur. there's an implication of months passing at the least. it feels more like years.

so how is it his children are still so young? the girl looks maybe 6; the boy is a toddler. kids grow fast at that age; their clothes change, their hairstyles change, their sizes change. yet when cobb goes back to them, they look exactly the way they looked in his memory.

2) shadowy mega corporations and assassins. really?

it seems a little weird that dom jets around the world working for these shadowy mega-corps with no explanation of how they get in touch with him. it's pretty bizarre that saito hires him to break apart a rival corporation For The Good Of Mankind. even weirder is when a previous, jilted corporation starts sending nameless, faceless, interchangeable assassins after Cobb in exactly the same way a militarized subconscious would were he dreaming.

of course, we buy into the idea that maybe he just lives in a near-future world where these extraction is an accepted fact and corporate espionage leads to violence and murder because we're used to suspending disbelief in movies, but this one in particular makes the point -- several times -- that our normal rules of moviewatching don't apply.

in fact, inception deliberately plays with our assumptions re: movie language. more than once, it uses cold-opening into a scene -- something we're very familiar with from any number of movies -- to actually insert us into a dream world where there was nothing before that instant we enter the scene. so what we see and don't see on screen does matte.

getting back on track: the point that dom's "real world" is suspiciously dreamlike is, in fact, explicitly made in the movie by the mal-projection. ultimately cobb rejects this suggestion (or rather, ignores it), but the significance of this suggestion is that mal is not real. mal is simply cobb's subconscious projected onto the image of his wife. thus mal's devil-advocating is really cobb's own doubt reflected at himself -- or, perhaps, his own knowledge that he's dreaming, which he has buried/lost, cropping up to remind him of what's real and what's not.

all that's a nice segue into:

3) subconscious warnings?

one of the weirdest scenes on the first watch for me was the one where the chemist, yousef, takes cobb to see his little subterranean opium den of dreamers. it just seemed out of place: a random slowdown featuring some random creepy old man in the middle of all that taut narrative. when i watched it a few more times (heh), though, i started to wonder if it wasn't a subtle message to the viewer. random-creepy-old-man makes a pretty big point of appearing out of the blue to say the people dreaming down there had made their dream their real world. then he directly addresses cobb:

"Who are you to say different?"

check out the look on cobb's face then. sure, maybe he's just creeped out by creepy old man. or maybe those words strike a chord in him.

if we then go with the idea that cobb's "real world" is, in fact, a dream, then the creepyoldman becomes just another projection of his subconscious -- and, therefore, another subconscious intrusion of his underlying knowledge that his world is actually not real.

4) people show up right when they're most needed for the narrative.

this is sort of linked to the above point. inception isn't a careless movie. the plot is smoothly and masterfully told. the film takes care to explain things and clarify things. deus ex machinae are used sparingly if at all once the main narrative gets underway.

yet before the whole dream-heist starts to unfold, shit just magically falls into place in the "real world". observe:

the movie opens -- okay, it opens in limbo, but the main story opens in japan. then as he's fleeing after a botched job, saito miraculously catches up to him -- supposedly because the architect betrays them -- and gives him a lift out of there in a helicopter.

then he's suddenly in paris. recall from earlier discussion that what we see and don't see in this movie actually matters. it's never explained how he gets to paris; he's just there ... where his father in law conveniently works as a professor of ... dream theory? at the university of paris. never mind that his mom in law is in LA with the kids; never mind that by the end of the movie he's there in LA to greet Dom. annnd, just as Dom needs an architect, his father in law happens to have the perfect suggestion: ariadne!

and then we're somehow in mombasa, and he's getting chased by projection-like Bad Men, only to be saved at the last second by Saito, who's also somehow in Mombasa. explanation for this massive deus ex machina? he's watching over his investment. CEO of a multibillion company is spending all his time secretly tailing his investment.

finally, we end up in australia, where fischer sr is dying, and despite all the corporate espionage and security and whatnot, this guy from off the streets manages to sneak all the way into the inner circle to get not only a look at the godfather, but also dad and son.

i'm not point all these things out to suggest that inception was poorly plotted. i think it's quite the opposite, in fact; i think these apparent leaps-of-faith are very deliberate, and underscore how oddly coincidental dom's "real world" is.

5) how deep was he the first time?

i.e., the first time he was in limbo. we know he had to have been at least two layers down: real world --> dream --> limbo. regardless, it was more than one; yet we only see him awaken once when the train hits him.

this could be simply a matter of streamlining narrative -- but then the movie is always careful to show the same number of awakenings as there were levels of dreams. and, as mentioned repeatedly above: what we don't see is as important as what we do see in the movie. so if we only see him awaken once out of limbo, then it's possible that, in fact, he did only come up one level -- which suggests the entire movie occurs within a dream.

6) inception, breaking into one's own subconscious, and The Whole Point of the Movie

so if we do believe that dom never woke up at all from the first trip to limbo, what's the point of the events of the movie? one possibility is that it's just the figments of imagination a trapped mind spinning its wheels to amuse itself churn out. but i think it actually goes deeper than that.

first, recall that if we believe that dom never woke up at all, then he's in his own subconscious the entire time. we know it's his and not mal's because mal was able to wake up without shattering the dream. as a result, everything he sees is his own subconscious reflected at himself: simultaneously, as he says early on, creating and perceiving his world so perfectly that he doesn't even realize it.

furthermore, through the course of the movie, he's actually doing what he thinks robert fischer is doing: breaking deeper and deeper into his own subconscious until he ends up in limbo again. and once he's there, what does he do?

he lets go of his wife's memory.

now, recall that Mal has always been trying to convince him that he's dreaming. the real Mal wanted him to kill himself to wake up. Dom's projected Mal wants him to stay in dreamland. either way, though, Mal is aware that Dom is dreaming. by letting go of her down in limbo, he's essentially implanting a suggestion in himself. he's doing exactly what the real Mal did in limbo so long ago: choosing to forget that his world isn't real.

so that's what the movie's actually about, if we follow this theory. it's about incpetion after all, but not mal's inception or fischer's. dominic cobb is unknowingly performing inception on himself: convincing himself to forget that his world isn't real. convincing himself to let go of the real world and his memories of it once and for all, and convincing himself to give in to the dream world he's created.

7) the totem!

last thing, then. no discussion of inception is complete without an analysis of the totem and the final spinning top scene. i actually have very little to say on this point, though. whether the top spins endlessly or not, whether it's even his real totem or not (since it was originally mal's), and what his real totem was if it wasn't -- all that is ultimately unimportant, imho. the totem is simply there to make us question whether or not dom "got out". the exact nature of its behavior are, in the end, dictated by the dreamer's beliefs. that is, it's only valid as a test of reality as long as the dreamer still has some subconscious idea of what reality actually is. mal was able to disregard her totem altogether; if dom was indeed still in a dream, whether his totem spins or topples is, in the end, dictated by what he believes.

i will also put forward the notion that since the top was mal's totem, not dom's, then perhaps dom's totem was actually his children's faces. up until the very end, he never looks at his kids' faces. he wants to, but he wants to see them "up above" in the real world. at the very end, everything seems perfect, and at that point, mal looks at his kids.

if we believe that dom never woke up at all from limbo, then the events of the movie have successfully implanted the suggestion that, in turn, allows dom to let go of the last piece of his subconscious reminding him his world is not real. by doing so, he allows himself to finally see the faces of his children in his own subconscious -- which is, in essence, that final act of "choosing to forget".


so those are my reasons: why i doubt the all-happy ending, and why i doubt dom's world is real at all. if i had to put my pet theory into a nice neat box, i'd say i think there's a good chance mal was right all along: dom WAS trapped in a dream, and while mal eventually abandoned him and got out, he stayed where he was and became the ultimate unreliable narrator. rather like mulholland drive or jacob's ladder, the entire film exists in the mind of one of its characters.

therefore, everything in the movie is seen through cobb's eyes. everyone in the movie is a projection of his subconscious. some represent aspects of his subconscious that try to help him heal/find closure/move on -- ariadne and most of his team, etc. others represent his own guilt, anger, and grief -- primarily mal. still others represent the small piece of him aware that he's dreaming, attempting to wake him -- mal, again, but also the creepy old man, and perhaps even kobo international's operatives.

but ultimately, inception is about dom's personal self-inception: the (successful) attempt to finally convince himself that his dream world is real, and by doing so, find peace. the reason everything revolves around fischer's catharsis is because that's essentially a projection/parallel of his own issues getting worked out. in the very end, his resolution is to completely seal away all reminders of the unreality of his world and to find his own inner peace.

... which sounds depressing, but i don't think it actually is. taking a step back from analyzing the movie and its meaning and What Really Happened, i think all that i've said so far is, in the end, utterly unimportant. i think the wider "meaning" of the movie, if there is one, is that it doesn't matter whether cobb's world is real or not. his catharsis is real. he began the movie a tortured man, uncertain of reality, determined to find the truth. he ends a much, much happier man -- even if that happiness if based on a delusion. his reality is what he makes of it.

this is closely linked to the idea that the totem is ultimately a reflection of a core belief. just as the totems show the characters the truth they want it to show them, or at least the truth they're capable of accepting, so too are they willing to believe in catharses that they want to believe in. and that gets back to my very first points on catharsis. fischer's catharsis is ultimately rooted in fiction: there's no evidence at all that his father wasn't, in fact, utterly disappointed in him and thought his son was a pale shade of his own glory. that doesn't matter, though. he wants to believe this. not only that, he's better off believing it. after going through his layered dreams, fischer achieved a sort of closure and inner peace that he'll carry with him no matter what. he's happy. he resolved issues with his father that might otherwise never have achieved resolution.

along the same lines, it doesn't matter whether or not cobb is dreaming or awake; whether he's really gone home to his family or if he's lost in his own subconscious. at the beginning of the movie, he's a tortured man. at the end, he's happy. whether or not his world is real, he wants to believe it. his emotion is real; his catharsis is real. that's the character arc he takes.

and, ultimately, that's our arc too. the greatest catharsis in this movie is the viewer's own sense of catharsis at the end: that feeling of affirmation and release. and, just like fischer's and cobb's, our catharsis doesn't depend on fact. it's a movie, in the end: by definition, a work of fiction. it doesn't matter what "really happened," just as it doesn't matter that the story told was not real. we want to believe it. we want to believe in it and its happy ending. in the end, fictional or not, we still get our emotional payout. and in the end, it's still one hell of a movie.