Our Latest Distraction: Inception

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Over the last week many of us at MLD took the opportunity to see Christopher Nolan’s film Inception. We’ve been very eager to have a spoiler-filled discussion, but wanted to give other people time to see it first. We all have a very fundamental disagreement about what even happens in the movie, and a line has been drawn in the sand about it. If you’ve seen it, please let us know whose side you’re on. If you see it this weekend, what took you so long? But you need to take a side as well. Note, the discussion below features tons of spoilers not just about Inception, but Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight as well. You’ve been warned.

Ryan: We can start with the easy part: we can agree that the entire film was a dream.

Angelique: Can we agree on that? That is a pretty big assumption to start this conversation with.

Ryan: If it is not a dream, then what parts were real and what parts were a dream and why?

KevinMLD: This seems to be the major problem people have with the ending. That it makes the whole movie not count or that it’s too ambiguous. One review I read had four interpretations of the spinning top at the end. Personally, I thought Nolan was being clear that Cobb is indeed asleep. What level of dream I don’t know. Could he still be in his limbo? I guess. It seemed clear to me Mal is not dead and her relentless appearances in his dreams may have actually been the real Mal trying to come in and wake him up. But above all else, I thought Nolan was abundantly clear that the top was not going to fall. Cobb is indeed in a dream.

PTB: I don’t think it’s all that clear that Cobb is asleep. I thought there was a possibility that it might all be a dream from the start of the movie and really looked and listened for clues; but in one viewing it’s too hard to call. I think it’s meant to be ambiguous and there are different reasons for doing that than simply saying it was all a dream. A major theme of the movie is defining what is reality and this approach lets the audience in on making that decision. Ultimately Cobb decides he doesn’t care since he walks away from the spinning top to be with his children.

The problem with seeing Mal as trying to wake Cobb up is that she’s shown trying to get Cobb to stay in limbo with her forever, not trying to kill him or do any of the things that we’re told would wake someone up.

Jayco: She actually does try and kill him at one point for sure: she stabs him when he comes back with Ariadne to get Fisher.

KevinMLD: But this appearance by Mal was in Cobb’s induced dream, correct? Does she ever say that at any other time? I can’t really remember.

Jayco: Yeah, I think you’re right. The final part of the movie is the only place where she explicitly asks him to stay. Nowhere else does she try trick him and denounce reality.

KevinMLD: I’m not 100 percent convinced by my argument that she’s intervening in his dreams. It was just something I was thinking about afterwards and I definitely felt like I need to see it again to make a decision. Having said that, Cobb’s already asleep which may be why he needs to have his dreams induced despite the rationale given in the movie for why other people have dreams induced.

Angelique: I agree with Pete. There is no reason to be certain everything is a dream. The totem does begin to topple. When they show it in the dream it is a perfect non-stop spin. Also – would you even consider their prep work in the warehouse to be a dream?

Ryan: Yes. I would consider every scene in the movie as a dream. The warehouse. The chase in Morocco. The final scene when he sees his children. Every single frame of this film was a dream.

Jayco: I think you also have to take a look at the story-telling aspect Nolan brings to any script. He doesn’t really try and fool the viewer, and I think Momento is a good example of this. It’s a complex story that slowly unfolds, but in the end, for the most part the viewer knows where they stand. If you look at Inception in that light, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the whole thing was not a dream. Whether the end is a dream is a different aspect altogether.

If you take the purported reality as true reality, then in those scenes Cobb is not wearing a wedding ring while in those where he’s dreaming, he is. In the final scene, he does not appear to be wearing a ring. This can be because he is in reality, or because he finally shed Mal from his subconscious and decided to move on and could be dreaming, but if it’s the former, it’s a good sign he’s awake.

Angelique: I’m glad Jason pointed out the ring. I had noticed that while watching the movie, but didn’t think of this sooner. The other point to it not being a dream is that in a dream you do not remember how you got there. At the end of the movie, we see them wake up on the plane, go through customs, Cobb meets his father, they go to the house, he sees the children. There is a clear progression from one place to another. He spins the top to make sure it is not a dream and I am going to state it again, it does wobble. It is shown spinning for some amount of time, and if you weren’t paying attention or you had fallen asleep or already left the theater, you may have not seen it, but it does begin to wobble.

KevinMLD: Cobb clearly establishes time works differently within each level of a dream and that at a certain level it can feel like decades pass in minutes of real world time. That we see a natural progression of events wouldn’t matter because the dream started before the movie did.

Ryan: If the whole film is a dream, whose dream is it?

KevinMLD: Cobb’s. It never occurred to me it could be someone else’s. Do you have a theory there?

Inception: Shots firedJayco: I think the movie tried to deter people from that assumption when they used Mal to critique Cobbs’ reality. As Ryan pointed out in his review, they’re very clear about setting up rules and following them, so I’m not sure it would all be Cobb’s dream. I think , this movie abides by the rules it creates, and that’s what makes it good.

Ryan: I’m leaning toward Ariadne critiquing Cobb’s reality. She was the one telling him that he had to get over his past. She was the one that held Cobb’s hand through the removal of his guilt over Mal’s death. She played the role Cobb played toward Fischer. Was the team real or were they projections of Cobb’s unconscious?

KevinMLD: If Cobb is asleep, they’re projections. Though, like I said above, Mal may not have been.

Ryan: I think the team, and primarily Ariadne, were real. They were not created, but were put together to help Cobb. Ariadne weaved her way through Cobb’s unconscious and, in a way, performed an inception on Cobb. She helped him get over his guilt.

KevinMLD: This is an interesting thought to me, because in my mind the whole inception heist was a manifestation of his guilt over the original Mal inception.

Ryan: If the team was real, then what was their role? Were they performing an inception on Cobb?

Angelique: The team is real. They aren’t the only extraction team. Fischer was clearly trained by a different extraction team. This is why he has security. If you want to argue that the entire movie is one big dream, then what about Nash? Or are you arguing that he was just a projection?

Ryan: If the team wasn’t real, then is it even possible to perform inceptions? Is everything that went on in the dream just an imaginary world created within the mind of Cobb?

KevinMLD: I think there was truth to the story of Mal’s inception resulting in Cobb’s guilt, so I believe it’s possible to perform inceptions… but if the whole story is a dream then maybe the extractions are part of his dream anyway. Maybe in the real world, it’s just something Mal and Cobb have experienced.

PTB: If it’s a dream, it makes more sense if it’s not Cobb’s in some ways. Otherwise, there’s no point to of all the extractions or inceptions. It’s also possible that the inception “the world is not real” had been performed on Cobb and that’s what’s keeping him in the dream. He can never truly wake up since nothing will ever be real.

Ryan: When Mal killed herself by jumping off the building, did she go back to “reality?”

KevinMLD: Yes.

Angelique: Hell no. I refuse to buy into any of this “it was all a dream”. Kevin, clearly you are wrong.

KevinMLD: That’s gimmick infringement and I will not tolerate it. I feel like you guys watched a completely different movie and I’m not sure I would like the one you saw.

PTB: There’s a metaphysical take on this too that the reality she went back to is in fact the afterlife and that all of human experience is on some level a “dream”.

Jayco: GAY!

Ryan: Yeah… umm… no.

PTB: Well put. Another point worth discussing is the nature of limbo. When Cobb and Ariadne enter limbo to rescue Fischer, are they entering Cobb’s mind? If so, I’m a little unclear on how Fischer and Saito get into Cobb’s limbo.

Jayco: So I think first you have to set up the chain of dreams before we can talk about limbo:

Detailed account of dream states in inception

click to enlarge

Jayco: When Fisher is shot and enters limbo, Cobb’s deep subconscious captures him and takes him to the space that Cobb and Mal have built. Ariadne and Fischer escape and Cobb purges his subconscious of Mal along with the world they built. Saito dies after Cobb’s return to the snow fortress, and limbo can then only be filled as a construct of Saito’s mind. Cobb is subsequently drowned in the van and enters Saito’s deep subconscious.

Angelique: I want to interject something my dad always liked to say about movies like this. IT’S A MOVIE. Not all questions have to be answered because it isn’t real. The point of the totem starting to topple but not being shown is so that the movie gets talked about like this. Clearly no one is wrong because it is meant to be ambiguous. Except for Kevin and Ryan. They are definitely wrong. They, unlike 99.99% of viewers, did not see the top start to stumble.

KevinMLD: Jayco, I think you were right to bring Nolan’s other films into this discussion earlier. Let’s look at his major films and what happens to the protagonists:

Memento – with Leonard lying to himself and deciding to hunt down Teddy
The Prestige – with Angier performing his trick every night not knowing if he was going to drown to death or end up in the back of the theater
The Dark Knight – with Dent becoming a villain for about five minutes so he can die semi-tragically and force Batman to choose to become a villain in they eyes of the people of Gotham.
What you guys are suggesting is that Inception is at its core a film about:

A dude willingly leading a heist that screws with someone’s mind
While a few obstacles pop up, basically everything goes according to plan
Cobb accomplishes all of this without facing any real consequences and gets to have a happy ending with his children
I was ok with how conveniently the heist played out and Cobb’s happy ending because of how clear I felt Nolan made it that the top was going to fall. The life he’s coming back to is a lie and his wife is alive. And all of his torment was for nothing. But he doesn’t even care since he gets to be with his kids again.

Leonardo DiCaprio InceptionPTB: It can also be taken as a story of Cobb’s redemption. He put an idea into his wife’s mind that ultimately led to her death and nearly destroyed his life. Here, he uses the same action to spare Fischer torment after his father’s death and free himself of his demons.

Jayco: Yeah, I took more of this redemption route as well. Because to say he’s willing to ignore everything just to be with his kids would be wrong. The point for Cobb was to free himself of his guilt. Mal offers Cobb his kids and he refuses to look because no matter what, he’s reminded of the guilt he carries from the inception he placed on her. (Although, if Nolan was going straight for spending time with the kids to be Cobb’s only motivation, I think it would have been more fitting at the end if one of the kids picked up the top before it could be found to topple).

KevinMLD: What you’re suggesting is the movie is saying it’s completely okay for Cobb to mess with someone’s head without their knowledge and potentially destroy their financial future, if a nice side effect is it eases some of their personal demons. Where in reality the film is showing that as a consequence of tampering with and seeking to control both his dreams and those of others, Cobb is now trapped in one. Plus, you’re still defending a movie heist that went way too according to plan with no real danger since the worst thing that can happen is you go to Limbo for awhile until someone comes along to rescue you.

Jayco: I think that’s what makes the movie a little more interesting, because if you step back, you shouldn’t be rooting for the protagonist. At least in a heist movie you can identify with the motive of the steal, but here, I don’t know that you can. Saito has clearly been shown as devious and self-admittedly untrustworthy. In the beginning, he told them this was an audition, and when he caught an expendable member of the team, Saito had him hauled off to presumably be killed. Can you believe that Saito is acting for the greater good by breaking up this world dominating power company? Fischer seems like a well-balanced, likable enough guy. Are we really to believe he would be a corrupt business leader? In the end, they gave Fischer some endearing closure about his father, but in truth, they destroyed their true relationship and replaced it with an undeserving lie. Nothing Cobb and his gang has done would be considered noble by me.

Ryan: Still, you supposed reality is one of the options when it is not. The entire movie was a dream or on some level of dream reality (including limbo). So, the movie comes down to two scenes:

1) The scene in Morocco feels so real. Everything makes sense within the story presented at that time.
2) Mal explains to Cobb that everything he is feeling is a dream just before the stabbing. The paranoia. The chases by unknown thugs. All of it fits a dream.

Once you start questioning Morocco, then the entire idea of “reality” for the viewer falls apart. Cobb is just so deep in his dream world that he has no idea what is real. In terms of the ending, it is nice that all of you think Kevin and I missed the point of the movie when pretty much everyone here missed the point of the ending. The totem did not fall. Secondly, the point of that scene was not to show whether the totem falls, but that Cobb didn’t care if it was spinning or not. He did not even stay to see if it fell. He saw his children and ran to see them. He got beyond his guilt with Mal and was happy. The movie was about Cobb and his guilt. The movie was not ambiguous in the least. It is very straightforward in its intent.

Angelique: Way to repeat what Pete said in the beginning Ryan. Good job. And clearly, if there are multiple interpretations, it is on some level ambiguous. Otherwise, we would not be having this conversation.

Jayco: Zing! Besides, you’re supposed to question Morocco. You’re supposed to go down that dead end road. You’re just not supposed to get stuck there. But I agree the last scene’s point was to show that Cobb didn’t care if it fell, that much is clear. But how you can say that the totem didn’t fall is beyond me. We just don’t know if it did. Personally, I believe a sequel is going to come along that pulls him back in to a job, throws a bunch of loops to the viewer, and then asks Cobb to reflect if it ever fell in the first place. He’ll then probably wake up in a cocoon like shell with hoses popping out of him before he’s eventually flushed down and picked up by Morpheus.

Ryan: Why do you, or anyone for that matter take stock in what the totem does or does not do? It isn’t Cobb’s totem. It is Mal’s totem. If you are taking the rules literally, then there is one totem per person. You cannot use someone else’s totem. The rules were clear. The movie was not ambiguous.

Angelique: The top was the first totem. Cobb set it up for Mal so she would understand reality vs. a dream. She still killed hersef. He kept the totem for himself because she is dead. Therefore, it no longer belongs to her.

KevinMLD: I’ve been thinking about this last point a lot and it makes me wonder if the movie actually does play by the rules it set up for itself or not.

Jayco: Well, if it was all a dream, I guess it wouldn’t have to, so that would strengthen your claims. Unfortunately for you, Christopher Nolan just announced on his blog (click here) what happens with the top as he discusses the sequel: Conception.

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  • Angelique said,

    LOL at Jason. HAHAHAHAHA

  • lydonwrites said,

    Even after reading this convo, I can’t wait to see the movie. Like any good piece of creative work, it inspires multiple readings.

    Now… let’s see which one I agree with!

  • Dave Z said,

    Angie is dead on. The top DID stutter at the end. We didnt see it fall, but it was a fairly clear sign. The fact that cobb didnt stay to look doesnt mean anything except that he was happy where he was.

    We also saw the progression of him getting to the house. It doesnt matter if time goes more slowly in sub-dreams. They never saw the progression of getting to a place before because it was a dream! It wasnt because of lack of time. Nolan is clearly saying something by showing that progression.

  • Rolan said,

    The top never falls, wobble or not, and to me it was odd that his kids did not age.

  • Angelique said,

    Rolan, The argument is not whether the top falls or not, it is whether it wobbles or is a perfect spin.

  • MissMichelle said,

    I thought that the team was real and that they went in to try and pull Cobb out of Limbo. I think that Cobb didn’t manage to get out when they were hit by the train but Mal did. Then Mal came back to get him out but couldn’t convince him to jump out of the window. The team was a last ditch effort which I think didn’t work.

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