Even before it hit theaters on Friday, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” was one of the year’s most talked-about movies, and one of its most argued-over. But before you can form an opinion, you need to know what’s going on, something even a few seasoned critics seem to be having trouble with.
Like Nolan’s breakthrough movie, “Memento,” “Inception” is an elaborate, deliberately disorienting maze of interlocking time frames, only here the stakes are raised. Rather than challenging us to figure out what happened, “Inception” presents events that may not have happened at all. Set in the world of dreams, and dreams within dreams, the movie is the narrative equivalent of a set of Russian nesting dolls. Every time you think you’ve reached the center, Nolan pulls the film apart and shows us another world hiding within.
By structuring “Inception” as a subconscious heist movie, following a team of dream thieves led by Leonardo DiCaprio as they infiltrate the mind of business heir Cillian Murphy, Nolan provides a strong thread for us to cling to as we bounce between the concentric layers of dreams. But if you want to truly understand the mechanics of “Inception’s” world rather than simply go along for the ride, you need to see the film more than once and spend some serious time untangling its mysteries.
Or you can let us do the work for you. In the vein of our explainers for “Memento,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Southland Tales,” we’ve come up with what we think is a definitive recap of the movie’s spiraling plot, as well as a list of answers to questions the movie doesn’t quite answer directly. (If you want to skip to the Q&A, click here.) To an extent, this means reconfiguring the movie’s structure, since Nolan doles information out in bite-sized chunks, cramming stray lines of exposition into every scene as if he’s trying to plug a draft. Where the timing of the revelation is not critical to moving the plot forward, we’ve consolidated these expository amuses-bouches into more nourishing meals.
In many cases, that means revealing information long before the film gets around to explaining what it means, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to have it spoiled, you’ll want to stop reading now.
Seriously. Danger, Will Robinson. Here be spoilers.
Still here? Then dive in. If there are questions we’ve left unanswered, post them in the letters thread, and we’ll do our best to respond, updating the Q&A section with any egregious omissions. Now close your eyes, lie back, and let yourself dream.
* * *
The screen is filled with crashing waves. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) wakes up face-down in the surf. He sees two children playing in the foam, but before he can call out to them, he feels a machine gun pressed to his back. He is ushered into a Japanese villa surrounded by armed men, then into a room with elegantly paneled walls, lit by rows of tiny lanterns hanging from the ceiling. In work clothes and three-day stubble, Cobb looks like an escaped prisoner, and he hungrily digs into a plate of food, gripping the spoon in his fist.
At the far end of the table is an old Japanese man — impossibly old, his face covered in wrinkles. This is Saito (Ken Watanabe), the Japanese businessman who will soon employ Cobb and his team of dream thieves, although he’s hidden beneath layers of latex. He asks if Cobb has come to kill him. Cobb reminds him of someone, he says, “a man I met in a half-remembered dream.”
Cut to Cobb, now nattily attired in evening wear, and a much younger Saito in the same room. Cobb and his associate, Arthur (a sublimely spiffy Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are pitching Saito on the virtues of subconscious security. Without it, Cobb tells Saito, his business competitors can hire men called extractors to infiltrate his mind while he sleeps, and steal the most closely guarded of trade secrets right out of his dreams. “The most persistent parasite is an idea,” Cobb tells Saito. “Once it takes root in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
The only way for Saito to protect himself, Cobb says, is to hire him — the best extractor there is, and the only one who knows as many ways to keep people out as there are ways to get in. In order for Cobb to do his job, however, Saito has to share every piece of information he wants to safeguard. “If you have a safe full of secrets, I need to know what’s in that safe,” Cobb says.
While Saito thinks it over, Cobb and Arthur step outside. An unexplained rumble runs through the ground.
Cut to a dingy two-room apartment in what looks to be southeast Asia. Men run riot in the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails that explode in gouts of flame. Cobb, Arthur and Saito are asleep in various parts of the room, hooked up to a small metal case by a series of IV tubes. They are watched over by a fourth man, who is perspiring profusely. This is Nash (Lukas Haas). Don’t get used to seeing him around.
Back in the villa, Cobb sidles up to Mal (Marion Cotillard). In due time, we’ll learn that she is the embodiment of his dead wife, a fellow extractor. But for now, she’s just an elegantly attired femme fatale with whom he obviously has a history. She looks over the edge of the deck, at the rock and surf below, and asks, “If I jump, will I survive?”
Back inside, Cobb and Mal exchange a few words. “Do the children miss me?” she asks. But Cobb is all business. He ties a rope to the leg of Mal’s chair and rappels out the window, but no sooner has he taken the first step into empty space that he’s plummeting, the now-empty chair skidding across the floor. Evidently she’s not into playing the part of ballast.
Cobb drops down a level, cuts through the window and sneaks into the darkened villa, slipping a silencer onto his pistol. He drops two guards, each with a single shot, catching their falling bodies so they don’t hit the floor. Back in the room where we first met Saito, he slides back a panel and opens a hidden safe. He slips out a manila envelope.
Unfortunately, Saito catches him the act, and he’s not alone. Enter Mal, a gun pressed to Arthur’s temple. Saito reveals what he’s known all along: They’re all asleep, and this is a dream. If that’s the case Cobb says, then Mal’s is an empty threat, since shooting Arthur would merely wake him up. True enough, Mal admits, but only if she kills him. You can’t die in a dream, but you can feel pain, she explains, because “pain is in the mind.” She demonstrates by shooting Arthur in the leg.
A scuffle. Cobb grabs a gun and shoots Arthur in the head, killing him. In the apartment, Arthur springs awake, and goes to check on Saito. Meanwhile, the world of the villa begins to crumble; it was Arthur’s dream, and without him to sustain it, all hell breaks loose. As the walls begin to cave in, Cobb rips open the envelope and hastily scans the document inside, noticing that large blocks of text have been blacked out. Up above, Saito opens his eyes and grabs the gun hidden under his pillow, drawing on Arthur before he can reach him. Thinking quickly, Nash tips Cobb’s chair backwards, so his sleeping body falls into a waiting bathtub filled with water. In the villa, jets gush from the walls, a rapidly growing torrent that quickly engulfs Cobb. He wakes up.
In the apartment, which turns out to belong to Saito, Cobb’s men hold him at gunpoint as the rampaging mob outside grows closer. They try to obtain by force what they failed to get by trickery, but when Saito falls to the floor, he realizes something is wrong. The texture of the carpet is not as he remembers it, which tips him off to the fact that he is still inside a dream, and the villa was a dream within a dream. Saito assumes this dream is his, and therefore he is in control, but as the next explosion rocks the apartment, we move up another level, where a sleeping Nash’s head is jolted by the movement of a bullet train. It’s his dream.
Time to wake up. A young man places a pair of headphones on Nash and presses play. Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” fills the air, echoing through into the dream world, where Cobb and co. realize it’s time to go. They open their eyes in the train compartment, leaving Saito to sleep it off. Cobb announces he’s getting off at the next stop. “I don’t like trains,” he says.
A well-appointed hotel room. Cobb spins a small metal top, watching as it gradually slows and chatters to a halt. This is his totem, a way of telling dream from reality — a trick he learned from Mal. In dreams, the top never stops spinning, so he knows, for the moment, he’s home free. He calls his children, who ask, “When are you coming home, daddy?” He has no answer. He is a fugitive, unable to return to the U.S., or to see his children face to face.
The three-man team is scheduled to meet up, but Nash is late. Never mind. Cobb and Arthur head to the roof of the hotel, where they find a surprise: an even sweatier, more nervous-looking Nash, sharing a helicopter with Saito. Cobol Engineering, the company that hired them to extract the information from Saito’s mind, evidently doesn’t take kindly to failure; Nash feared for his life, and attempted to sell his partners out. Saito’s men lead a struggling Nash away, towards a date with Cobol Engineering.
With Nash gone, Saito makes Cobb an offer. Rather than extracting information from a rival’s mind, he wants Cobb to leave something behind: an idea, so neatly camouflaged that the target will never realize where it came from. In a word, inception. Specifically, he needs Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of his biggest business competitor, Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), to break up his father’s empire once the ailing old man passes. (Saito pays lip service to the notion that his motives are anti-monopolistic, since without a change in course FischerCo. will soon control all of the world’s energy supply. But basically, he just wants to hobble a rival so he can stay in business.) In return, Saito will clear Cobb’s name, with a single phone call of the sort powerful men in movies are so fond of making.
Cobb hesitates, but Saito presses the point: “Do you want to take a leap of faith, or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” The prospect of seeing his children is impossible for Cobb to pass up. First, however, they need a new architect to replace Nash. Architects design the dream worlds, dreamers dream them, and the subject (i.e. the target) fills in the rest with his subconscious mind. If the architect builds a fortress, or a bank vault, the subject’s subconscious will automatically fill it with whatever secrets they value most, which means the dreamers know exactly where to find it.
Cobb was an architect once, but he can no longer create, or even dream. Mal follows him wherever he goes, wreaking havoc on the dream and its inhabitants, and since she knows what he knows, he can’t design the dreams himself, or even know how they’re built. The rest of Cobb’s team knows the layout of the labyrinth, which gives them an edge on the subject’s projections: speechless, humanoid figures who act like subconscious antibodies. The stranger or more threatening the dream becomes, the more quickly they realize the presence of a foreign entity, and the more violent their response.
Time for the Avengers to assemble. First, the architect. Cobb heads to Paris, seeking a referral from his father and mentor, Miles (Michael Caine). Miles disapproves of the use to which his son has put his teachings, but he concedes Cobb’s point that, “after what happened,” the extralegal realm was the only place for him to ply his trade.
Miles introduces Cobb to his star pupil, Ariadne (Ellen Page). Up on the roof, Cobb subjects her to a test: design in two minutes a maze that takes him one minute to solve. Her first two attempts fail, but the third, made up of concentric circles, does the job. Then, they’re in a cafe on the streets of Paris. Cobb lays out the details of dream construction, and tells her a simple way to determine if she’s in a dream or not. Since dreams always start in medias res, if you can remember how you got to wherever you are, you’re in the real world. Can she remember how they got to the cafe? Sure, I mean, wait a minute — are we in a dream now? We are, and to prove it, Cobb blows a bunch of stuff up. Fruit stands explode, cobblestones pulverize, the windows of the cafe shatter and strafe them with breaking glass. They wake up in the dream team’s workshop, an abandoned warehouse littered with the remnants of a printing press.
Back in the dream, only this time, it’s Ariadne’s, not Cobb’s. The details look the same, but she’s in control of the architecture. She gives it a shot, folding the streets of Paris in half, so that the tops of buildings touch over their heads. Nice stuff, Cobb says, but be careful: such ostentatious maneuvering is sure to draw the projections’ attention, and cause them to attack her.
Ariadne creates a pair of enormous mirrored doors, facing each other so that they reflect each other infinitely, then shatters them with her mind. They walk on by the Seine, and Cobb recognizes a familiar landscape. He sees a vision of himself and Mal, nuzzling each other by the riverbank. He warns Ariadne: Never replicate real places, or real memories, lest you lose sight of the boundary between reality and dream. But it’s too late. The projections of Cobb’s subconscious pounce on her, and a knife-wielding Mal cuts through the crowd and stabs her in the heart. They wake up.
Cobb heads to Kenya to collect the team’s next member, but there’s one more lesson to be learned. In his dream, Arthur uses a Penrose staircase to show Ariadne how to disguise the boundaries of the dreams she build. From the right perspective (and, more importantly, with a wide-angle lens compressing the depth of field), the four-sided staircase appears to climb or descend infinitely, but look differently and you can see they cut off abruptly. He calls this “paradoxical architecture.”
In Mombasa, Cobb meets Eames (Tom Hardy), who forges documents in the real world and his own identity in dreams. Eames has his own thoughts on inception. It’s not impossible, he says, “just bloody difficult.” The trick is reducing the idea you want to plant to its simplest, most visceral kernel. That way, the idea can take root and grow naturally, so that by the time it flowers into action, its foreign origin will be impossible to discern. The subconscious responds to emotion, not reason, so you need to strip away any hint of politics or calculation. In Fischer’s case, this means translating the desire to dissolve his father’s business empire into more primal, Oedipal terms. Positive emotion trumps negative emotion, self-definition over destruction.
Eames points out one of Cobol Engineering’s thugs, watching from the bar. Cobb leaps out the window, and Cobol’s men chase him through the city’s labyrinthine streets. “You aren’t dreaming now, are you?” one taunts, as he lands a fist to Cobb’s jaw. Cobb squeezes through a narrow crack between buildings, almost too small for him to fit through sideways, and finds Saito waiting in the back of a car, door open. They drive off to collect the team’s final member.
Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is a chemist, responsible for formulating the compounds that allow minds to connect as well as the sedatives that keep the dreamers dreaming. Cobb tells him they’ll need to go three levels deep in order for the idea to take root: a dream within a dream within a dream. Impossible, Yusuf says, and yet intriguing. Saito announces that he’ll be coming as well. The team is up to six members.
Before they go, Yusuf pulls back a curtain and shows them the dreaming equivalent of an opium den. More than a dozen people lie on cots, tubes running from their arms to the ceiling. They are addicts: without the machine, they can sleep, but not dream. Or rather, says Yusuf’s wizened helper, “they come to be woken up. The dream is their reality. Who are we to say otherwise?”
Cobb hooks himself up, and we enter his dreams. Images flash by: the furious vibration of railroad spikes as a train approaches; he and Mal with their heads pressed to the rails. He wakes up.
Back in the workshop, they break Fischer’s idea into three parts, one for each level of the dream. On the first level, “I will not follow in my father’s footsteps.” On the second, “I will create something for myself.” And at the deepest level, “My father doesn’t want me to be him.” Ariadne will build each level to correspond to the desired objective. “I’m making the bottom level a hospital so Fischer will bring his father,” she says. Yusuf explains that they will be too heavily sedated to wake up naturally, so they’ll have to employ a “kick,” artificially stimulating the sensation of falling that wakes you from a dream. He has cleverly designed the sedative so it won’t impede inner-ear function, allowing the sudden drop to penetrate the layers of dream. They will use a musical cue — Edith Piaf again — to synchronize the separate kicks on each level.
In order to get access to Fischer’s subconscious, Eames needs to disguise himself as a familiar figure, so he finagles his way into a meeting with Browning (Tom Berenger), Maurice Fischer’s right-hand man and Robert Fischer’s godfather. Browning opens a door in his office to reveal a hospital suite beyond. Maurice Fischer is bedridden and incoherent, barely conscious. His son muses on the difficulties of their relationship. Browning points to a photo at his father’s bedside, of the two of them in happier times; a young Fischer blows happily on a pinwheel as his father looks on admiringly. Fischer demurs. He put the photo there; he doubts his father is even aware of its presence.
In the workshop, Ariadne grows curious about the “experiments” Cobb is performing when no one else is around. She slips into Cobb’s dream and finds him talking quietly with Mal, who is reminding him of his promise that they would always be together. Mal sees Ariadne watching and grows immediately hostile. Cobb, angry and a bit fearful, pushes Ariadne into a waiting elevator, the kind with an accordion-style gate that lets you see the passing floors. He jabs at the button for the twelfth floor. The gate opens onto a beach like the one in the opening scene, only this time the two children are joined by their mother, Mal. Ariadne realizes: these aren’t dreams. They’re memories. Cobb is deliberately reconstructing his memories of Mal to keep her alive inside his subconscious. Didn’t he specifically say not to do that? He did. Isn’t it dangerous? It is. But he can’t let them go. He takes her down several floors, to his apartment, to his memory of the last time he saw his children. He watches them through the window, playing in the yard, their faces turned away from him. He wants to call out, but he can’t, because he didn’t. A man is there, pressing a plane ticket into his hand. He has to go, now. A woman’s voice calls to the children in a French accent, and they run off.
Ariadne is appalled. Cobb is subjecting the entire team to the dangers lurking in his subconscious, without letting any of them in on the risks. She has to know what they’re up against, so she runs for the elevator, and closes the gate before Cobb can reach her. She presses the button for the basement level. On the way down, she sees another level: her hair blows back with the rush of a passing train. Then she’s at the bottom, in a hotel room strewn with broken furniture. Her foot crunches on broken glass, sending a high-pitched note singing through the air. Mal is there, immediately territorial and threatening. She picks up the jagged remains of a wine glass and advances on Ariadne, her violent intentions evident. Cobb appears and pulls Ariadne into the elevator, shutting the gate just in time. As they ascend, Mal screams wildly, then fixes them with an icy gaze.
They wake up. Ariadne reads Cobb the riot act. Architects don’t normally go along on jobs, but she insists that someone on this one know what’s going on inside Cobb’s mind. If it’s not her, fine, but then Cobb needs to tell Arthur. It’s settled. She’s going.
Maurice Fischer dies, which presents the perfect opportunity to access Fischer’s mind. It’s caper time. The team boards a 747 bound from Sydney to Los Angeles. Saito has conveniently purchased the airline, so that they own every seat in the First Class cabin barring the one Fischer is sitting in. The 10-hour flight should give them plenty of time, especially since the amount of time increases each time they drop down a level in the dream world. Minutes become hours become days become years.
Cobb slips a sedative into Fischer’s water glass, and he’s out. They hook themselves up to the dream machine and they’re out. To keep things straight, we’ll untangle the various strands of dream from here on out, rather than cutting back and forth between them as the movie does. So:
Level 1: City Streets
The team materializes on the streets of a modern city. It’s pouring rain; Yusuf, whose dream this is, forgot to empty his bladder. They steal a taxi and pick up Fischer, pulling a gun on him when he objects to the extra passengers. Cobb picks up Ariadne in a second car, but no sooner has she entered than they’re nearly flattened by a locomotive that comes barreling down the middle of the street. That certainly wasn’t in Ariadne’s plans. Cobb’s subconscious is out of control
Fischer’s mind moves to defend itself, with guns this time. He’s been trained in mental security, so his projections are militarized. Whoops. A gun battle and car chase ensues. They escape, but Saito is wounded. No problem, Eames says; we’ll just kill him and he’ll wake up. Cobb stops him. They’re too heavily sedated to wake up, he explains. If they die in this dream, their minds will drop into limbo, an “unconstructed dream space” from which they might never return. The only way to get out is to finish the job: go three levels deep and ride the kick all the way back to the surface. Saito’s pain will be less the further down they go, but he’ll keep moving closer to death unless they can finish their mission.
Dissension in the ranks, but the plan progresses. Eames transforms himself into Browning, and begins to scream in mock pain. He’s thrown into a cell with the hooded Fischer, as if he’s a fellow captive. Fischer doesn’t understand why they don’t ask for money. He’s insured for kidnapping, so no problem there. Browning says they’re asking for the combination to his father’s safe, which contains an alternate version of the old man’s will splitting up the business into its component parts. Fischer can’t imagine his father destroying everything he worked his whole life to build, and he doesn’t know of any safe. Think harder, Browning says. It must be something Fischer knows, even if he doesn’t know he knows it. Perhaps an emotionally resonant string of numbers, something particular to father and son? Fischer draws a blank. Their masked captors enter, and draw their guns. If you can’t think of the combination, just say the first numbers that come to mind. Fischer cringes and complies: 528491.
Fischer’s heavily armed subconscious is closing in. Time to go down a level. The team piles into the back of a van and hooks themselves up to the machine. Yusuf gets behind the wheel; he’ll stay on this level and avoid the projections, waiting for the right moment to apply the kick. Down we go.
Level 2: The Hotel
Given the unexpected robustness of Fischer’s mental security, Cobb opts for a risky gambit. He’ll alert Fischer to the fact that he’s in a dream and turn his own defenses against him. He finds Fischer at the hotel bar, dislodging a comely blonde who scribbles her phone number on the napkin in parting, and points out the sudden bursts of rain and the odd shifts in gravity caused by the careening of the van one level up. Think hard and you’ll remember, he tells Fischer: You were kidnapped. They brought Browning in. He was tortured — or was he? Did you see it? My God, Fischer realizes: this is all Browning’s doing. They’re in his dream right now.
In fact, we’re in Arthur’s dream, which makes sense since the hotel’s burnished interior is a fitting analogue to his impeccably tailored wardrobe. He and Ariadne head to room 491, directly beneath room 528, and he starts to apply explosive charges to the ceiling. These will provide the kick, which Arthur will trigger when he hears Piaf’s indomitable warble.
Cobb shoots two of Fischer’s mental security guards. Browning’s still after you, he says. We need to find him. Let’s look at the phone number that blonde gave you: 528-491. That must stand for something in the dream. Since we’re in a hotel, let’s try room numbers.
Cobb and Fischer head to room 528, and wait for Browning to return. It’s not Eames in disguise this time, but Fischer’s mental projection of Browning, who incarnates Fischer’s growing suspicions about him. Browning comes in and is subdued. We need to do to him what he was trying to do to you, Cobb tells Fischer. We need to go into his dreams. They hook Fischer up to the machine, knock him out, and then the rest of the team follows — not into Browning’s dream, but Eames’.
While the others sleep, Arthur holds off Fischer’s security detail. As Yusuf runs interference on the first level, the van rolls down an embankment, and the hotel rolls with it. As Arthur scuffles with an armed man, they move from the floor to the wall to the ceiling and back to the floor, adjusting themselves as their world turns counter-clockwise. Arthur gets off a shot and the armed man falls dead.
There’s another problem. Up one level, the van crashes through the railing of a bridge — the signal for the kick. But the others aren’t back from below, and with the van in freefall, there’s no gravity to make them fall. A weightless Arthur gathers the others’ bodies and ties them together with rubber tubing. He floats them down the hall and into the elevator, uses one brick of explosive to sever the support cables, attaches the other to the bottom of the car, and waits for his cue.
Level 3: Ice Station Fischer
A concrete fortress on a snowy mountainside. Fischer’s most closely guarded emotions lie inside, but getting in is going to be tricky and time is short. The van’s collision triggers an avalanche that throws Eames and Saito down the mountain, but they survive. Cobb thinks fast. They missed the scheduled kick, but there will be another when the van hits the water. That means seconds on the first level, a few minutes on Arthur’s, and less than an hour down here.
They’ve got time, but not much — not enough to make it through the labyrinth, even with a road map. There must be a shortcut, Cobb says. There is, Ariadne says, but I can’t tell you what it is; if you know, Mal knows. No time to worry about that, he says. She tells Eames: there’s a ventilation duct that cuts through the maze and leads right to the center.
Through the sight of Cobb’s rifle, they see Fischer arrive inside the fortress, and then Mal, dropping out of the ceiling with a gun in her hand. Cobb’s finger is on the trigger, but he hesitates, and then it’s too late. Mal kills Fischer, and then Cobb kills her. That’s it, Cobb says. His mind is gone and we’re finished. But Ariadne has a brainwave: We can follow him into limbo and bring him back. The hospital has a defibrillator, so all Eames and Saito need to do is revive him the instant before the kick, which on this level is an explosion big enough to destroy the fortress. Saito is close to death, but he has enough strength to hold off the guards while Eames plants the charges. Cobb and Ariadne descend once more, not into a dream, but limbo.
Level 4: Limbo
This “unconstructed” space turns out to be quite built up, although it’s seen better days. Cobb and Ariadne arrive on a shoreline rimmed with crumbling skyscrapers. Cobb has been here before, with Mal. They built a world together from their memories. He and Ariadne walk past apartment buildings and suburban houses placed side to side, all taken from various stages of Mal and Cobb’s life together. One particularly run-down facade, caked with grime, shutters hanging askew, is the house where Mal grew up. It was here that Cobb learned inception was possible. After he and Mal had spent 50 years in limbo, he grew concerned that they would never go back to reality — that Mal had deliberately forgotten there was such a thing. So he planted an idea in her mind, leaving her endlessly spinning totem for her to find. They killed themselves together, their heads on the train tracks, but even once they returned to the real world, Mal could not shake the idea that her world was not real. They had to kill themselves once more, to escape the last layer of the dream.
So she set a trap. On their anniversary, Cobb arrives in their customary hotel suite to find it trashed. He looks out and sees Mal sitting in a window across the way, her legs dangling in the void. This is the only way, she tells him, and she’s made it easy for him. She’s filed a letter with their attorney saying that Cobb had been threatening her, so her suicide will look a murder. His only choice is to take the plunge along with her, so they will be united in death. She drops, and Cobb cries out, but does not follow.
In limbo, Cobb and Ariadne seek out the last place where Mal and Cobb lived. This is where she’ll be, he reasons, and she’ll have taken Fischer as bait. Sure enough, there Mal is, sitting calmly in their former dining room.
Up above, Eames shocks Fischer back to life, which translates into bolts of electricity crackling across limbo’s sky. Only a few minutes left. Cobb makes a deal: he’ll stay behind if Mal tells him where Fischer is. Ariadne screams her dissent, but the deal is done. Fischer is out on the balcony, bound and gagged. Ariadne unties him.
In the fortress, Fischer punches the combination, 528941, into a massive vault door, which opens to reveal his father’s hospital room. The old man is dying, again. “Disappointed,” he murmurs. “I know,” Fischer replies. “You were disappointed I couldn’t be you.” His father demurs, his eyes filled with concern that he lacks the strength to respond. “No,” he says. “I was disappointed you tried.” He dies. Fischer punches the combination into the safe at his father’s bedside, which opens to reveal the will Browning told him about, and something else on the shelf beneath. Fischer ignores the will and pulls out a pinwheel, just like the one in the photograph he placed at his father’s side. This is the simple, emotional truth at the core of the idea: his father’s love for him.
In limbo, Ariadne throws Fischer off the balcony, and follows, hoping that the shock of their bodies hitting the ground will provide the needed kick. Cobb stays behind, but not for Mal. He’s realized that he has to let her memory go, and with it his guilt over her death. His memory surfaces once more of their children, playing, their heads turned away. She offers him a chance to see their faces, but he covers his eyes. He wants to see them in the real world, not here. He and Mal had their time together, and they grew old in the dream world. That time is over now. Still, Mal stays because he guesses, correctly, that Saito will have died by this point, and he has to retrieve his consciousness from limbo as he did Fischer’s.
On the first level, the van hits the water. On the second, Arthur triggers the explosives and the elevator shoots up the shaft, throwing the weightless bodies to the floor. On the third, Eames detonates the charges, and the fortress blows to bits. And on the fourth, Ariadne and Fischer hit the ground. Everyone wakes up in the first level of the dream, except for Cobb and Saito. Fischer climbs out of the river and takes a seat next to Browning (Eames again). He finally gets it, he says. His father wants him to be his own man.
This is where we came in. Cobb arrives in the Japanese villa, the wrinkled old man greets him. “Have you come to kill me?” he asks. No, says Cobb. I have come to remind you of something you once knew: that your world is not real.
Back on the plane, which is landing in Los Angeles. Cobb’s eyes flicker open, and he looks around to see the others, all freshly woken themselves: Fischer, Arthur, Ariadne. Saito looks groggy, but he quickly grabs for the phone.
At immigration, a moment of nervousness as the agent looks over Cobb’s passport, but he sails through. He passes the others, one by one, on his way out, and finds his father waiting for him.
Back, for the last time, in Cobb and Mal’s old apartment. The children, older now, are playing as they have in his dreams, their faces still obscured. Cobb takes the top from his pocket and spins it on the dining room table, then goes to meet them. They turn, and we see their faces. They are reunited at last. The camera moves from the reunion back towards the table, where the top is still spinning. It spins and spins, wobbling almost imperceptibly. It begins to chatter and hop, looking as if it might begin to fall at any moment, and then…
Blackness. Credits. That’s it.
Take a deep breath. Think it through.
Don’t tell me it was all a dream.
Can we come back to that in a minute?
Seriously. I’ll say up front that if Nolan wanted to provide a definite answer, he undoubtedly would have done so, and the fact that he didn’t is more significant than whatever conclusion you might come to.
Whatever. You probably think Tony Soprano’s still alive, too.
Actually… never mind. Let’s move on.
Speaking of pretentious: Ariadne? Really?
The fact that Nolan named his most prominent female character for the Greek woman who guided Theseus out of the Cretan labyrinth is a good sign Nolan was not concerned overmuch with subtlety. Put this way: Mal (pronounced as a homonym for “moll”) is French for “bad.” That thump you feel is a hammer coming down on your skull.
Less crashingly obvious is the source of Eames’ surname, a tribute to the American designers Charles and Ray Eames. Although they are probably best remembered for their iconic furniture designs, Charles began as an architect, and the couple made over a hundred short films together. One of their most important films, “Powers of Ten,” is structured as a single, exponentially accelerating pull-back from a couple on a picnic blanket through the layers of the earth’s atmosphere and out into the vastness of space. Like Nolan, the Eames were artists who expressed themselves in an industrial context — many of their films, sometimes credited to “the office of Charles and Ray Eames,” were produced for IBM — and, like that of a Hollywood director, their work balanced artistic expressions with practical concerns. Nolan would not be the first to compare movie directors to architects, who conceive and design massive structures but leave most of the actual building to others. (Cobol Engineering’s name may be a veiled reference to the Eames’ employer; IBM was one of the companies that helped formulate one of the earliest computer programming languages: COBOL.)
Cobb’s name isn’t a particularly resonant one, but it has special significance within Nolan’s oeuvre. A character named Cobb was a key figure in Nolan’s first feature, “Following,” a professional thief with a penchant for profiling his victims through their possessions. The parallels aren’t profound, but it’s one more indication that Nolan’s movie is at root about the art of filmmaking itself.
Here’s a question: Whatever happens to the dreamers’ body gets translated into the world of the dream, right?
Right. Nash’s head is jolted by the train, which translates into exploding Molotovs in his dream. Arthur’s face is sprayed with water, and a sudden rainshower erupts.
So why is it that when the van goes into freefall and the Level 2 dream becomes weightless, that doesn’t apply to each successive level? If Eames’ body is floating in space, why is there gravity in the world of the snow fortress?
The movie doesn’t answer that. But when Saito is shot on Level 1, Cobb says that his pain will lessen each time they go deeper into the dream, which implies that some stimuli penetrate more easily than others the barriers between dreams. Even three levels deep, Eames still feels the van hit the guardrail, because that’s a kick, specifically designed to echo all the way down. The more pragmatic answer is that while having one zero-gravity dream is a nifty tricky, having three is kind of boring.
What is the significance of the number 528491?
There is none. That’s the point. When Arthur tells Fischer to shout out the first numbers that come into his head, he’s effectively asking him to create meaning out of thin air. The combination is a red herring anyway, just a way to get Fischer and fake Browning talking about what’s in the safe and plant the idea that Fischer’s father wants him to break up his empire. Of course, even though the numbers are initially meaningless, they acquire meaning once Fischer is told they’re important. His subconscious comes up with a reason for them to matter. Still confused? Have a look at this.
It’s almost impossible to keep track of who’s in whose mind when. Does it matter?
Nolan acknowledges that it’s not easy to follow: Right before the dreamers head down to Level 3, an exasperated Ariadne asks, “Wait — whose subconscious are we going into?” But once you know what to look, or more importantly, listen for, the clues are all there.
The opening sequence is Arthur’s dream (the villa) inside Nash’s dream (the apartment). The training exercises follow a similar pattern: first the teacher (Cobb in the cafe; Arthur on the Penrose staircase), then Ariadne in her own version of the same environment.
The main mission is Eames’ dream (the snow fort) inside Arthur’s dream (the hotel) inside Yusuf’s dream (the city). Limbo is apparently limbo; it doesn’t belong to anyone, although Cobb can claim squatters’ rights.
One relatively easy way of keeping it straight is that the person whose dream it is stays behind in order to keep an eye on the place. Yusuf drives the van; Arthur fights the guard in the hotel; Eames sets the explosive charges. Is this simply a matter of convenience, or are dreams limited to one apiece? Can you fall asleep in your own dream? There’s no way of knowing, but it’s an important question.
“Inception” did seem a lot like “Shutter Island.”
It did, didn’t it? Leonardo DiCaprio as a man with a dead wife who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. You can even draw parallels as far back as “Titanic,” a movie about literally and figurative “letting go” of past loves. Either DiCaprio knows what kinds of characters he’s good at playing or he’s got some recurring issues to work out — probably both.
Actually, it seems like a lot of movies.
Nolan told an interviewer that Inception is “shameless… in its plundering of cinematic history,” which is another way of saying he steals everything that isn’t nailed down. Its basic story can be traced to an almost infinite number of heist movies, from “Rififi” to “The Italian Job” to “Mission: Impossible.” Whether this is metacommentary on the extent to which movies have taken over our dreams or just a lazy reliance on shopworn tropes — that one’s a toss-up.
More specifically, the sequence in which Gordon-Levitt and his assailant move from floor to wall to ceiling and back relies heavily on the “You’re all the World to Me” number from “Royal Wedding,” in which Fred Astaire dances his way around all four sides of a room. More than half a century later the “Inception” sequence was filmed using the same basic technology, in which the room and the camera rotate simultaneously to give the illusion of shifting gravity.
Stylistically, Nolan borrows the hall of mirrors from “Citizen Kane,” and the cavernous, highly polished hospital room which Fischer finds behind the vault door bears an unmistakable resemblance to the end of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Other visual reference points include M.C. Escher, whose llithograph Ascending and Descending is one of the best-known depictions of a Penrose staircase, and the British painter Francis Bacon, one of whose works hangs on the wall of Saito’s dream villa.
What it doesn’t sound very much like is a dream.
True enough. Some of the most piercing criticisms of “Inception” have come from those who accuse it of falsifying the nature of dreams, betraying the traditional of surrealists from Luis Bunuel to Terry Gilliam — which it would if it were attempting to join it. But “Inception” isn’t a movie about dreams. Let’s say that again:
“Inception.” Is not. About dreams. Not real ones, anyway. The dreams in which much of the movie takes place are artificial constructs, rational, rectilinear simulacra designed to achieve specific ends. The dreamers are lucid, exercising conscious authority over its landscape, which means that the mercurial logic of dreams never has a chance to assert itself.
Is it convenient that the worlds the dreamers construct so closely resemble the landscape of a James Bond movie? Well, sure. Warner Bros. isn’t about to shell out $200 million for Nolan to make some arty thesis film. But it’s not merely commercial calculation that dictates the goal-oriented nature of what “Inception” calls dreams.
So if it’s not about dreams, what is it about?
I’m glad you asked. The critic Glenn Kenny has posited that “Inception” is really a movie about video gaming, which certainly provides the inspiration for some of its dopier action sequences. But for me, it makes most sense as a movie about the shared dream of movies, those half-created, half-imagined worlds that are always co-creations of the filmmaker and her audience.
Consider Cobb’s advice to Ariadne about drawing from life without replicating it, which could double as a warning to a budding screenwriter too literally wed to “write what you know.” Or the notion that, in order for the incepted idea to take root in Fischer’s mind, it has to be stripped down to its emotional core, the way an actor will ground his performance by rooting it in his character’s most elemental needs. Eames uses the word “catharsis” to describe the desired result of the inception, a term that whose dramatic lineage goes back to Aristotle.
Cobb and Fischer’s parallel journeys both involve reconciling themselves with their past, coming to terms with it but also freeing themselves from it. If you read “Inception” as an analogue for filmmaking, then Fischer’s journey represents the artist breaking free from the influence of his artistic forbears, taking them apart and building something new from their component parts, and Cobb’s represents the creator freeing himself from the shackles of his own experience, gaining the ability to incorporate pieces of his personal history without being defined by it.
Save it, college.
All right, enough waiting. Was it all a dream or not?
Here’s why it matters. If you can’t fall asleep within your own dream, then what seems to be the real world at the end of the movie must, in fact, be reality. We see Cobb dreaming his own dreams twice: First in Yusuf’s opium den, and second in the workshop when Ariadne sneaks into his dreams. If, on the other hand, Nolan only leaves one dreamer behind at each level to prevent us from getting too confused, then the jury is still out. He deliberately toys with our perceptions, repeating key phrases like “leap of faith” at all levels of reality, and filming Cobb’s flight through the streets of Mombasa from an overhead angle that makes the city look like a labyrinth — just like those his team manufactures in dreams.
Here’s why it doesn’t matter. The last shot isn’t directed at Cobb. It’s directed at us. Cobb isn’t watching the top. He spins it and leaves it behind. If this is a dream, he doesn’t want to know. The decision of whether he finally finds happiness or whether he has merely retreated once and for all into his own memories is ours to make. Nolan builds the structure, but he leaves us to fill in the details, the same way the subjects elaborate on the dreamers’ skeletal architecture. We can’t share dreams in real life, but movies bring us close. They tell us a story, or a piece of it, but the characters live on inside our heads after the lights have come up. What happens next is up to us.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.