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Guide for the perplexed: Inception

August 19, 2010

I realize I'm a little late getting to this, inasmuch as Inception was released in July and here it is the middle of August. However, it's taken a while for the fog to lift. Besides, this is one they'll be arguing about in film class for years. The way I look at it, I'm not behind schedule, I'm getting an early start. But first some business:


I do this mostly because protocol demands it. My feeling personally is that the more you know about this movie going in the better, unless you like spending two and a half hours of your life without the faintest idea what's going on.

Now let's get to work. We employ the Socratic method, known in modern circles as a FAQ:

So is the "real" world a dream or not?

This is the question on which most viewers fixate. In the closing moments of the Inception, the hero, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), spins a small brass top called a totem. A totem enables a dream traveler (the idea that you can enter somebody else's dreams is the basic conceit of the movie) to determine whether he's dreaming or awake. If Cobb's spinning top falls over, he's awake. If it keeps spinning, he's dreaming. In the last scene, the top spins for quite a while, wobbles a bit, and then …


Right, like anybody actually stopped reading. What happens is, the screen goes black before you see what becomes of the top. Whoa! Is this reality, or just a dream — an illusion? Well, technically it's an illusion, because it's a movie. The question is, is it movie reality (in other words, an illusion of reality), or movie illusion (that is, an illusion of an illusion)? I know what you're thinking: this one's deep.

Eh, not that deep. Here's the answer: neither. The point of the exercise is to keep you guessing. This is called ambiguity, an essential spud wrench in the modern artist's toolkit: if the audience can't tell what's going on, they'll take this as a sign of genius. It worked for James Joyce and numerous other creative giants, and Christopher Nolan, writer and director of Inception, figures it'll work for him.

Fine, but I think the top keeps spinning, because the last time we see it fall over is near the beginning of the movie in the room with the …

I get this from everybody. They think there's an answer. This is the sign of a shallow mind. Take it from me: there's no answer. Christopher Nolan is messing with your head.

But …

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Explain the beginning of the movie.

This is the reason they'll be talking about Inception in the film schools fifty years from now. Unexplained beginnings are a common ploy in movies — think Pulp Fiction. Normally you see a reprise of the beginning  at the end of the film, at which time what was formerly mystifying becomes clear. That sorta happens in Inception; the beginning repeats. Nolan's innovation is that when you walk out of the theatre, you're as baffled as before.

As the movie opens, we see the injured Cobb washed up on a beach. He sees a couple kids. A couple palookas see him. They find he's got a gun tucked in his pants. Cut.

We see an elderly Asian gentleman in a boardroom. He inspects Cobb's stuff, including the brass top that will figure so prominently. Then the palookas (one presumes) bring in Cobb, who engages the elderly gentleman in cryptic conversation. Cut.

We're still in the boardroom, and Cobb is still there, looking healthier but otherwise much the same, except now he's got a partner, Arthur. The elderly Asian gentlemen is no longer on the scene. Instead they're having dinner with a younger Asian man, whom we correctly surmise is the elderly gentleman, only fifty years younger.

We get no opportunity to consider the implications of this, because there now commences a long frantic sequence involving gunshots, yelling, fiery detonations, inexplicable seismic and meteorological events and general uproar that I won't recount in detail. (Here's a plot summary — see what you can make of it.) The gist is that Cobb and his partner Arthur are in a dream trying to extract vital information from the Asian man, whose name is Saito, only Saito sees through them, and a woman who turns out to be Cobb's wife, but who is actually dead, shows up and shoots Arthur in the foot, causing him to shriek, whereupon Cobb grabs a gun and kills Arthur, which is actually the smart thing to do because if you get killed in a dream you wake up, which Arthur does, only there's rioting and explosions outside the place he wakes up to, the significance of which isn't clear except that in an action movie it's always a good idea to have rioting and explosions.

Then Cobb and Saito also wake up (they've been hooked up to a dream machine, which looks like a combination game controller and intravenous drip) and exchange bitter words, after which Cobb throws Saito on the floor and threatens to kill him, but Saito feels the rug and recognizes that it's not the right one (it's his apartment), and instantly realizes that they're in a second dream. The rioters break in, and I'm not sure what happens next but I guess everybody gets killed (which maybe was the point of the rioting and explosions), because Arthur and Cobb wake up on a train and rather anticlimactically scoot, leaving the sleeping Saito behind them. Cobb then puts a gun to his head and spins the top, which falls over. Cobb is happy because that means he's back in reality (well, movie reality) and doesn't have to kill himself to wake up, and we're happy because we can catch a breath and think (assuming we can muster enough unscrambled neurons to make this feasible): what the foo was that all about?

We'll return to that. First, however, other important matters need to be explored.

How is dream traveling supposed to work?

This isn't explained. All we learn is that: (a) the point of dream traveling is industrial espionage, in which you enter somebody's dreaming subconscious and steal his secrets; (b) except you don't really enter the victim's subconscious — instead, the dream is hosted by a randomly selected member of the dream team, which has confusing implications to be discussed in greater depth below; (c) to design the dream you need a dream architect, a person of such staggering intellect that he or she can conceive, not just an entire world, but worlds within worlds (we learn it's possible to have three levels of dreams), which must be thought out with sufficient care that you get the rugs right; (d) to assess the talents of a potential dream architect, you have to see how good they are at drawing mazes, although mazes have nothing obvious to do with dreams or architecture (other than seeming vaguely cool and mysto) and don't figure in the movie that I can see; (d) for the most demanding dream projects, you want your architect to be an attractive young woman, or at least you do if you're Christopher Nolan. That's because, during the many stretches in this movie when the audience is utterly stumped, you know the males will be able to distract themselves by thinking: boy, that Ellen Page (who plays the dream architect Ariadne) sure is cute, whereas female viewers can luxuriate in the virtually uninterrupted on-screen presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, about which no more need be said. 

The most basic facts about dream travel remain a puzzle. For example:

  • A dream architect with the appropriate chops apparently can redesign reality on the fly. Ariadne does this on an early trial run with Cobb, causing Paris (I think it's Paris) to fold over on itself like an assemble-it-yourself corrugated box. This seems like a handy knack to have (if surely a bit freaky for everyone else), but Ariadne never exercises it later in the movie, no doubt because if you can simply conjure up (say) bulletproof shields in front of attacking goons or teleport yourself at will, you'd have a routine mission and a pretty dull flick.

  • We never see the process by which a dream is actually designed or loaded into the system, as it were, although I suppose in this age of off-the-shelf miracles we can assume it involves a Macbook Pro and a USB stick.

  • Returning to the question of dream hosting, we're given only the most cursory notion of how this operates, probably on purpose, because if you ponder the subject at all it makes your head hurt. We gather that (a) the dream takes place in a particular individual's brain, which all of the other characters then inhabit; (b) the host gets no more say than anybody else about what goes on in his subconscious — in fact, the other characters routinely drag in stuff from their subconsciouses; (c) once ensconced in the host's brain, the characters are then free to launch another dream in the brain of one of their number, who, let's remember, is a mental construct in the brain of dream host #1. What's more, at least three (and maybe four, but hold that thought) iterations of this process are possible.

Think about what this means. Dream host #1 provide the physical substrate for the first dream, the inhabitants of which create a second dream. Dream host #1 must in some way provide the substrate for this dream too — let's call him the metahost. The inhabitants of the second dream then create a third dream, for which dream host #1 is the metametahost. In short, dream host #1 (who in the movie is a character named Yusuf, a bright enough fellow but not one of exceptional gifts) at the end of the day is providing the cognitive processing power to support three nested universes. I don't know about you, but if I think about that for any length of time, I need a nap.

So what's up with this dream limbo thing?

This is the central mystery of Inception, in my opinion. In order to explicate it, I need to present the following stripped-down version of the plot, from which vast chunks have been excised to make the remainder even minimally comprehensible:

  • Saito, not one to hold a grudge, hires Cobb and his henchmen (plus one henchwoman, Ariadne) to implant a thought in the mind of one Fischer. This is called an inception, although why that and not implantation I don't know, other than possibly Nolan likes the word inception, whereas implantation sounds like it involves test tube babies and surrogate moms.

  • Cobb decides he needs a three-level dream to pull off the inception, which is the most difficult type of dream traveling stunt. This requires that all the dreamers be heavily sedated. The dream team boards a 10-hour Sydney-to-London flight with the unsuspecting Fischer, slips him a mickey, then (I guess) slips themselves mickeys (that is, the sedative), and commences dream #1.

  • Dream #1 gets off to a rocky start. The dreamers are driving in a city in pouring rain (dream host Yusuf confesses he had to go to the bathroom), they get inexplicably chased down the street by a runaway locomotive, and gunmen blast away at them. Saito, who has decided to come along, gets shot. One dreamer wants to kill Saito, thinking this will wake him up. But Cobb says no, revealing that, because of the sedative, any dreamer who gets killed now doesn't wake up but instead is sent to limbo, where he slowly loses his marbles. The rest of the dreamers, who for the past five minutes have been getting shot at on a pretty regular basis, realize: we're hosed.

  • Having no choice but to continue, the dreamers pile into a van, pull out their dream apparatus, and jack into dream #2. This lands them in a hotel. Events transpire that are of no concern to us. By and by the group embarks on dream #3.

  • The dreamers materialize outside a heavily-guarded fortress on a snowy mountaintop. Fischer needs to get into this fortress — never mind why. Much chasing, gunfire, and explosions.

  • Fischer, around whom the entire enterprise revolves, enters the fortress and is promptly killed. So much for that plan, says the disappointed Cobb. However, Ariadne has an idea. She proposes that she and Cobb follow Fischer into limbo, not by killing themselves, but by plugging themselves into the dream machine yet again.

It's fair to say things have been confusing up till this point. Now they get real confusing. Previously we've been lead to believe limbo is some vague netherworld. Now we discover it's actually the fourth level of the dream world, and you can get there by conventional means. (I use the word conventional loosely.) We resume our story:

  • Cobb and Ariadne arrive in limbo/dream level #4. After some irrelevant drama we'll ignore, Ariadne finds Fischer and pushes him off a balcony, then jumps off herself. We've been told the sensation of falling, also known as a kick, will send a dreamer back one level. (The sedative — remember the sedative? — leaves the inner ear unimpaired.) One wonders: then why couldn't they drop the wounded Saito off a balcony in dream level #1 to wake him up?  Never mind. Fischer and Ariadne return to dream level #3.

  • Now here's a problem, in my opinion. Fischer was killed on dream level #3. Somehow, when he returns there from dream level #4, he's cured. OK, somebody uses a defibrillator to revive him, but come on, the guy's got bullet holes in him. No matter. In no time, he's as good as new and embarks on further adventures, which we'll skip. Their mission accomplished, Fischer, Ariadne, and the other dream travelers then return to reality via the slow-boat kick method, one level at a time.

  • Meanwhile, Saito, who got shot on dream level #1 and has been feeling poorly ever since, dies on dream level #3 and goes to limbo/level #4. (I'm telling things a little out of sequence here. Sorry, I'm doing the best I can.)

  • The opening scene of the movie then repeats — Cobb washes up on the beach and is taken to see the now elderly Saito. Saito only dimly remembers dream travel, but Cobb has kept his wits about him. He evidently suggests (this happens offscreen): let's kill ourselves! Saito evidently responds: Sure! At any rate, all the dreamers, including Cobb, Saito, Fischer, Ariadne, Arthur, Yusuf and one other individual (Eames, lest he feel left out), wake up on the airplane. (Remember the airplane?)

  • Cobb is reunited with his children, his goal all along, and spins the brass top to make sure he's not dreaming. We never find out. 

The shellshocked viewer stumbles from the theater thinking: huh? Assuming we can get past the spinning top bit, we ask: What was Cobb doing washing up on the beach? Since he and Saito are both in limbo together, why doesn't he just go over and knock on the door? Why has Saito aged but not Cobb? Why, when the two (apparently) kill themselves, do they wake up? Aren't they still under sedation? More to the point, why do they go all the way back from level #4 to the airplane? Earlier in the movie when Arthur got killed he went back just one level. The confounded filmgoer thinks: I don't get it. I better see this movie again.

That's the beauty of it, I figure. Somewhere, undoubtedly in the dreamy state inhabited by the makers of blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan is smiling, perhaps idly spinning a top, and thinking: this is all going according to plan.

— Ed Zotti

Previous Paulina Street Journal Columns  

Doing right by the Kardashians
Urban explorers, part 2
Urban explorers, part 1
One in a trillion
Working for Barack
Digital psychosis

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