As I promised when I reviewed the movie last week, I went back for a second viewing to test out some theories that I had. What follows is an analysis and explanation of the plot of Inception based on two viewings, some research and discussions with friends who have seen the movie (including one who has seen it thrice).
Do I Really Want It Explained?
Before I get into it all — fair warning! Spoilers ahead. In fact, nothing but spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, why not? You really should see it before it gets spoofed and spoiled too much by everyone else.
And let me also just warn you that this analysis is going to be a pretty straightforward reading of the film. That’s not to say other readings aren’t ‘supported by the text,’ as it were, but this is the one I personally believe is best supported. If you are one of those types who prefers to have your opinion untainted, read no further. UPDATE: For a more complete breakdown of the film beat by beat, see this one at thestorydepartment.
Before The Explanation
First of all, I charged in the review that the way the opening scenes abruptly cut into each other was needlessly confusing. On second viewing, these scenes are not at all confusing. It’s fairly clear that the opening scene, between old Saito and Cobb, is a conventional “start at the end” teaser, as with Fight Club or Sunset Boulevard and that the bulk of the film is its flashback.
This is not, however, apparent to a first-time viewer, who recognizes that the ages of the men have changed and not the location. I know I assumed this was just how dreams were going to skip around in the film. So, yes, a bit needlessly confusing. Add to that Mal showing up — and disappearing — before we really know who she is, and I can see why the movie has been disorienting people. The good news is that audiences haven’t seemed to mind, so I guess I’ll just cop to being a film snob in thinking this was going to alienate ‘Movieplex Mike.’
Ariadne as Extractor
I also seem to have over-reached the opposite direction in thinking perhaps there was a further game Nolan was playing outside of the scenes we see. I wasn’t alone in thinking the character development was poor for Ellen Page’s character, an audience-surrogate if there ever was one. Why, after all, does she keep pushing for Cobb to confront his wife? The best explanation I could come up with is that she herself is an extractor, perhaps Mal in disguise, and that Cobb is her mark. I wasn’t alone in this, either.
Unfortunately, this theory just isn’t supported by the movie. What the movie calls the ‘real world’ is established twice by Leo spinning the top and it falling over — once in the hotel room after the failed job on Saito, right before Arther (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) enters; an almost time after testing the Chemist’s wares in Mombasa; the second time, my memory is hazy, but I think it followed the dream which Ariadne invaded.
Mal’s line in Limbo, where she questions a reality where he is chased around the globe by faceless corporations who are much like subconscious security definitely does explicitly raise the possibility that what the film presents as reality isn’t. But I think the spinning top is Christopher Nolan’s way of dismissing this idea.
You could still have this theory, or a similar one involving Saito or Arthur or Michael Caine’s Miles as the true extractor. It’s just that the film gives no clues that directly point to this. The only real question that Nolan explicitly leaves for the audience to decide is whether the top falls after it cuts to black at the end (and the movie audience screams).
So, Was The Happy Ending All a Dream?
There actually is no answer to this — sorry if this sounds like a cop out — unless there’s a clue I’ve missed. Some have said you can hear the sound of the top falling over after the credits start. This would indicate that, yes, it truly is a happy ending.
Alternately, I thought perhaps we were supposed to believe that because we do not see Cobb go back through each dream layer — he goes directly from Limbo to the plane — that the happy ending was a false self-deceptive dream. After a second viewing, it doesn’t seem like this is what Nolan intended. The only strange thing is that the dialogue between Cobb and Old Saito is different the second time around, with them taking each others lines.
So it really all comes down to whether you are a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full type of person, whether you believe Cobb reuniting with his kids is a dream or not. I’m a positive guy, so I’m going to believe that the wobbles of the top mean that it fell over shortly after the cut to black.
What about the rest of the plot?
It’s genuinely easy to miss the small signposts that Nolan and his collaborators leave to follow the basic plot, nevermind all the crazy theories that can be piled on top. Here is my brief summary, reconstructed from memory, so please just leave any corrections in kind language in the comments…
The first scene is Cobb in Limbo, rescuing Saito, who died in the third level of the inception attempt against Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy).
We then flashback to an extraction attempt against Saito. We are two levels deep. Arthur and Cobb are pretending to be consultants who can train him to defend against extractors. Unfortunately, Mal, as projected by Cobb’s subconscious, shows up and tips off Saito and his “sub-security” – the militarized subconscious that defends against such extractions. Nevertheless, thanks to a sleight-of-hand switch of envelopes, Cobb does get to see some of Saito’s secrets just as the dream collapses. But the documents have black censor lines, meaning Saito did not actually make his secrets vulnerable.
In the next dream level up, a fight ensues while an angry mob storms closer and closer to “Saito’s love-nest” apartment. When Saito’s face is slammed into the carpet, he realizes that he is not in his actual love-nest, he is in a dream version. This wrong detail is blamed on the architect, Nash (Lukas Haas).
The party breaks up on the train, with the minder for the top level of the dream, Tadashi, getting his pay from Cobb. When Saito wakes up, Cobb and presumably Arthur have already gotten off the bullet train in Tokyo.
Cobb in his hotel room that evening (next morning?) spins the top, the totem that was left behind for him by Mal the night she committed suicide. He sees flashes of this. He holds a gun to his head, ready to pull the trigger if the top doesn’t stop spinning. (At this point in the movie, the audience has no idea that this is what this means.) He is interrupted by a phone call from his kids, James and Phillipa. Phillipa is older, and angry he has left. James still doesn’t understand that their mother is dead. This suggests Cobb has not been on the run for long. A grandmother with a French accent ends the call, just as Cobb says he’ll send presents with their grandfather, meaning he is already planning to visit Miles.
Arthur comes to the door and tells them the helicopter is ready. Once they get up there, they find it occupied by Saito and Nash, the failed architect, who apparently sold out where they were. Saito offers them the “satisfaction” of killing Nash, but they don’t do it. Saito’s goons drag Nash away, and imply that rival corporation Cobal (sp?) will kill him.
Saito reveals that he was testing Arthur and Cobb, and proposes a job requiring Inception. Cobb initially balks, but takes the job because he believes Saito has the power to fix the charges against him in the US, and clear his name from the accusation that he killed Mal. It is unclear why Arthur also does the job. (Before you bring it up, the theory that Arthur has a homosexual attraction to Cobb is weakened by the scene where Arthur asks Ariadne to kiss him as a distraction.)
Cobb risks extradition to visit his father (father-in-law?) Miles (Michael Caine) at the university where he teaches, to give him stuffed animal gifts for the grandchildren and to recruit one of his students to be the Architect in the con they will pull on Fischer.
Cobb trains Ariadne, who demonstrates some cleverness when she uses mirrors to create the illusion of a long walkway, then shatters them to reveal that same walkway. Ariadne also learns that Cobb cannot control his projection of Mal while in dreams.
While Ariadne carries on training with Arthur, he goes to Mombasa (“Cobal’s back yard”) to find Eames, a master Forger. After a street chase where he is rescued by Saito, and they all go visit Yusuf, the Chemist, who demonstrates that he can create the powerful tranquilizers necessary to get enough sleep time in the various dream levels.
The team plans the job, with Ariadne teaching everyone but Cobb the layouts of locations – since different people will be the Architect for each dream layer. Cobb does not want to know the solution to the mazes, because that would mean that Mal would know them too.
The con will take place on a plane from Sydney to Los Angeles. If it is successful, Saito will make one call and Cobb will be able to clear customs. Saito buys an airline and arranges for Fischer’s private jet to have maintenance issues so that he’ll have to take a regular flight. They begin the con, with Cobb and Eames using sleight-of-hand to steal Fischer’s passport and subsequently drop the drug into his glass of water.
In the first layer of the dream, Yusuf is the architect and it is raining (thus the jokes that he should have peed before he went to sleep). They discover that Fischer’s subconscious is militarized, meaning he has had training to defend against extraction. This will be used against him in the second layer with the “Mr. Charles” gambit.
Before going deeper, however, Cobb reveals to Ariadne the full backstory of what happened to Mal and why he knows inception is possible. When they were stuck in Limbo, she chose to forget that it was a dream, symbolized by her locking the top in the dollhouse. Cobb had to convince her that they needed to leave and planted the idea of “your world isn’t real, death is the only escape” and their scene where they kill themselves on the train tracks provides the dialogue for her when she jumps from the hotel window in real life. This explains how a freight train ended up crashing through all those cars on a busy city street — it was created by Cobb’s subconscious.
There is a seeming discontinuity between Cobb’s later assertion that he and Mal grew old together and their ages when they commit suicide. My best explanation is that you can be whatever age you want in a dream, and that they chose to be young at that moment. Saito, because he is unaware he is in Limbo until visited by Cobb, ages normally.
The next layer of the dream is the hotel and it is Arthur’s dream. The reason the gravity is all funky, is that it is tracking exactly with the van driven by Yusuf. So when the van flips over 360 degrees, we get the awesome 360 degree hallway fight shot, and when the van is falling, the hotel has no gravity. This is bad, because Arthur can’t do the “kick” as he planned, and must improvise using the explosives and the elevator shaft.
The third layer of the dream is controlled by Eames. He leads the security on a ski-bound goose chase while Fischer and Saito infiltrate the base. Hearing the music, the team realizes there’s no time to do the normal route through the maze and they send Fischer and Saito through the ducts. Of course, if Cobb knows this route exists, so does his projection of Mal. Mal drops in and shoots Fischer, with Cobb unable to pull the trigger on her, confused as he is by his love for her. (But, he still shoots her anyway?)
There’s some confusion about why Saito can’t be revived by the electric paddles and Fischer, Jr. can. See the link at the end of this to get CinemaBlend’s take. Anyway, Ariadne, for no established motivation, encourages Cobb to drop into Limbo and confront Mal while they “save” Fischer and Saito.
In Limbo, we see what was “left there” by Mal and Cobb way back when. They designed the house they first lived in together, as well as many identical buildings. Cobb confronts Mal, Ariadne shoots Mal, she saves Fischer and jumps off the building in order to ‘wake up,’ leaving Cobb to find and save Saito.
Now we arrive back at the scene from the beginning, where Cobb washes up on the shore of the unconscious, seeking Saito. Presumably he kills Saito after Saito recognizes him, or Saito kills himself. Either way, they both wake up on the plane, and Saito makes the call that will lift his charges.
Stepping off the plane, Cobb is met by Miles, who takes him to see his kids for the first time in a long time (or a short time, since they don’t appear to have aged). We get the payoff of seeing their faces, perpetually denied throughout the film. The camera pans to the totemic spinning-top on the table, which spins and spins before… we’ll never know.
(See above for a discussion of the implications of this.)
Isn’t it weird that Nolan wrote a movie about someone struggling with the guilt of inducing a suicide after the death of Heath Ledger?
Yeah, kinda. But I think this is a stretch. I hope Nolan doesn’t blame himself for pushing Heath into a deep dark place for that performance. And, if he did, and this is his way of forgiving himself — well, then it lead to great art.
What’s that crazy French song all about?
This is a very famous song by French singer Edith Piaf, whom coincidentally Marion Cotillard portrayed in a biopic for which she won an Oscar. The title, “Non, je ne regrette rien” means, “No, I regret nothing.” It’s a song of defiance, like Sinatra’s “My Way.” The song has a long history with all kinds of associations, which you can read about on Wikipedia. Buy the song on Amazon.
My best guess is that Nolan chose it because it is a well-known song that has the right tonal qualities for the intentional ending of a dream. I doubt he would choose so central a song just as a joke reference to Cotillard’s famous Piaf performance, but maybe he did want to take advantage of knowing audiences’ subconscious associations.
UPDATE: Reader GU points out that the theme “I Regret Nothing” is the type idea one would want to plant in a friend’s head who is dealing with guilt over something, say, his wife’s death. This is hardly a smoking gun for the “all of it was a dream” theory, but it does seem like a good thematic reason for Nolan’s choice of the song.
FURTHER UPDATE: YouTube user camiam321 demonstrates that the main theme of the film is a slowed-down version of “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
What do all the names and numbers mean?
The names of the characters seem carefully chosen. I don’t think they have any meaning that is actually important to enjoying the story, just sort of easter-egg type stuff. Some of these are wild guesses based on themes of design, architecture, chess and dreams; others, like Ariadne and Eames, I’m pretty sure of.
Ariadne – In Greek mythology, Ariadne is the princess of Minos who helps Theseus solve the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. The thematic associations are pretty clear, although Inception‘s Ariadne is a maze-creator, not a maze solver. And she takes the lead in slaying the beast that is Mal.
Arthur – The most famous Arthur is King Arthur. If you really wanted to get conspiratorial, you could imagine that Arthur is actually in control of Cobb (see theory above) or that Arthur, because it sounds like Author, is the author of Cobb’s reality. Other possible inspirations are mystery writer Robert Arthur or Eric Arthur, Canadian architect.
Browning – The poet Robert Browning is probably the most famous Browning. Maybe some scholars can point out if any of his poems feature dreaming. Almost certainly incidentally, there is a WWII admiral named Miles Browning, who, according to Wikipedia, is the grandfather of actor Chevy Chase.
Cobb – There was a Canadian architect named Andrew R. Cobb, and there is still living an American architect named Henry N. Cobb. I think more likely, if Nolan had anyone in mind, it was Stanley Cobb, a psychiatrist who was a good friend of Carl Jung.
Cobal (sp?) – This unseen corporation has a very comic book feel to it. The name sounds like “cabal” or “cobalt”.
Eames – Charles and Ray Eames were famous husband-and-wife modern designers, just like Mal and Cobb are modernist designers in their shared dreams. While they are best known for their furniture, they also did architecture.
Fischer – Maurice Fischer and Maurice Fischer, Jr. run a large company that is based out of Sydney and seeks to control the “energy market.” While I can’t find a company that matches the description in the energy sector, Australian-American Rupert Murdoch of News Corp and his heirs certainly have some similarities. The name Fischer could be a reference to German architect Alfred Fischer or, more reaching further afield phonetically, the “Fisher of Souls” Jesus Christ or the “Fisher King” of Arthurian legend. Fischer also evokes famous chess player Bobby Fischer.
Mal – Judging by this baby name website, Mal is a real French name, and my suspicion is that it is short for something like Malorie. Mal in French and Spanish means “bad” or “evil” and she certainly is the antagonist of Inception in many senses. Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) is the title of a famous book of poetry by Charles Baudelaire. Once again, I’ll leave poetry experts to determine if there are any poems in the volume which may have inspired the character.
Saito – American audiences probably best recognize the name Saito as that of the Japanese colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai. There is also a Japanese psychologist named Tamaki Saito who researched people who withdrew from society.
Yusuf – This is the Arabic version of Joseph. In the Bible, Joseph is the human father (step-father?) of Jesus. In the Koran, Yusuf/Joseph is granted by God the power to interpret dreams.
528491 – These are the numbers that pop into Fischer, Jr’s mind when the ‘kidnappers’ demand a safe combination at gunpoint. I heard rumors that these numbers show up earlier in the movie than this moment. They do show up as the number that the Blonde (Eames in diguise) leaves for Fischer, Jr. in the hotel dream, and as the numbers of the hotel rooms in which most of the action takes place (528 & 491). Presumably, they are the combination that Fischer, Jr. enters at the center of the ice fortress to view the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage.
No doubt some crazy theories are going to be advanced about these numbers being a cipher for something. And they could be. But a simple alphabetic substitution doesn’t seem to fit. It’s too short a string and the 1 and the 2 don’t indicate digraphs. A ROT0 translation would be E-B-H-D-I-A, aka gibberish. More likely, these numbers or parts of them will be found in previous works by Nolan, just as one can find CRM 114 in the films of Kubrick, or A113 in PIXAR movies, or the number 42 throughout the works of Lewis Carroll.
That’s all folks.
Hope you enjoyed this early reading of Inception. It’s a dense, clever film and I’m sure more interesting things will emerge when we all get a chance to watch it on DVD.
Inception explained using computer folder structure…