Within A Dream: What Inception Means to Me on Its 10th Anniversary

Original poster for Inception.

Inception has a reputation for being confusing. From the moment it first came out 10 years ago its layered structure, blurring between the lines of dreams and reality, and memorable final shot that seemed to subvert a surprisingly rosy conclusion, prevented some people from fulling understanding it even as it became a hit. But, when you truly dig into it, Inception isn’t that complicated. That’s because it retells a narrative journey that is thousands of years old, powered by a want that is arguably as old as human consciousness: to go home.

It’s a longing that is somewhat ironic when you consider the first name and past of the protagonist, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). “Dom” means “home” in Russian, which is something he didn’t always value. Cobb was once a brilliant researcher in the field of dream sharing technology, eager to explore the deepest depths of the human mind. But Cobb has been forced to leave America and travel the world, using the technology he once valued because of its powers of creation to perform “extractions” of secrets from the minds of wealthy businessmen. It is one of these businessmen, Saito (a magisterial Ken Watanabe), who, impressed by Cobb’s method of attempting to steal from him, offers Cobb a deal. He’ll use his connections to allow Cobb to return home to his children in California, but only after he and a team perform “inception,” a term for a nearly impossible job where they plant an idea in someone else’s subconsciousness instead of “extracting” it. Cobb reluctantly agrees and goes about recruiting a team to perform this job.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb in Inception.

The first and arguably most important person that Cobb recruits is Ariadne (Elliot Page), a young student who will design the environments in the minds of others to which they will bring their targets. She also serves the important narrative function of being the person Cobb can explain things to so that the audience can understand them better. Cobb tells her about how the subconscious of others creates “projections” of people to populate the environments they will create, as well as the power of the dreamer to change the world of the dream. This leads to a moment where Nolan and his collaborators demonstrate their view of how reality can be bent in this world. Instead of the homemade surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the psychedelia of Doctor Strange, Nolan’s characters prefer to slightly skew their reality. As Ariadne makes a city block in Paris lift up over the city’s skyline, the projections of the pedestrians walking upside down undisturbed, both she and Cobb marvel at the wonder of the power human beings can have in their dreams. It is Nolan’s ultimate tribute to the power of the human imagination; the way people can take the visions inside of their heads and make them real, altering reality in the process. This thrill, of making a world bend to your desires, gives you a good idea as to why Cobb and so many others make dream sharing technology their passion. As Cobb’s associate (an unflappable Joseph-Gordon Levitt) will tell Ariadne, “There’s nothing quite like it.”

The folding street scene from Inception.

I didn’t think there was anything quite like Inception when I saw it for the first time. I was blown away by how it seemed to be a type of “arthouse blockbuster” that explored its protagonist’s guilt-ridden mind while offering the types of set pieces I loved in James Bond movies. I have many memories from that first screening, but my most indelible one came a little over half an hour into the movie. After recruiting Eames (a smirking, scene-stealing Tom Hardy in his first American film) to his team, Cobb notices some men hired by energy conglomerate Cobol Engineering to get revenge on him for his failed extraction of Saito. Cobb makes a break for it, and one of those Parkour adjacent action sequences that were so popular in American movies of the 2000s begins. It was at this point that my uncle, who took me to see the movie, left the theater to take an important call. As Cobb performed feats of action movie derring-do, I realized that I was experiencing an important milestone in the life of anyone who loves movies: my first time I was in a movie theater by myself. I was so stunned by the gravity of the moment that I didn’t even look at the screen. After looking right and left, processing the newfound strangeness of this environment now that a familiar figure was gone, I focused on a particularly appealing patch of darkness near the bottom of the screen until he got back. I remember sitting there, taking in a strange and exciting new feeling. At the time I couldn’t put the experience into words, how I enjoyed a kind of thrill at inhabiting a newly unfamiliar space, doing something adult, but now I realize that I have the exact word to describe what coursed through me as Hans Zimmer’s exciting score blared in the dark: freedom.

Once Cobb has finished assembling his team, they get to work planning how they will perform inception. These sequences, in which a group of people work together to create something fictional that will manipulate someone else’s point-of-view, have inspired people to read Inception as a film that is an allegory for filmmaking. In this reading Cobb is the director, Arthur is the producer, Eames is the leading man, Ariadne is the production designer, Yusuf the chemist who designs the drugs they will use on their target is the special effects wizard, and Saito is the financier (albeit an ideal one — who wouldn’t want their financier to buy them an airline?). While acknowledging that this wasn’t intentional, Nolan did confirm the validity of this reading in interviews with Wired Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. One reason that Nolan gave for why the team is so clearly an analogue for a film crew is because it was “just the result of me trying to be very tactile and sincere in my portrayal of that creative process.” The fact that Nolan compares this criminal team of people whose job is to create an elaborate lie to a team of filmmakers offers a fascinating window into his view of the creative process: one in which an artist uses fakery to make people believe something that the artist wants them to believe. Nolan would probably agree with this quote by Pablo Picasso: “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.”

The Team planning the heist in Inception.

When comparing Inception to films about creatives in the movie industry, it is tempting to start with 8 ½, another film in which a brilliant man feels hounded by his present-day life and is unable to stop himself from being haunted by dreams of the past. But a more unexpected and richer comparison can be found when you put Inception in conversation with Francois Truffaut’s 1972 film Day for Night. While Inception lacks the gallic gusto of Truffaut’s tribute to the day-to-day work that goes into making a feature film, it does have a similar admiration for professionalism. The sequences in which Cobb and his friends plan and, eventually, execute inception convey a type of creative thrill similar to the one Truffaut’s characters experience. One of them, whip-smart script supervisor Joëlle, resembles Ariadne in her intelligence and warm willingness to aid the “director” who is her boss. Most intriguingly, both films feature their “director” characters having nightly dreams of their past. But while Ferrand in Day for Night has a series of dreams that turn out to be positive (ones that the film implies to have inspired him to pursue his creative passion), Cobb forces himself to relieve memories of his late wife, Mal (an increasingly heartbreaking Marion Cotillard), a fellow dream researcher who died by suicide after she became convinced that her reality wasn’t real and shows up whenever Cobb is in someone else’s subconsciousness. It is her death, as well as the obsessive fixation on everything that her death has caused, that has led to Cobb being unable to move forward with his life. The grief at the loss of his wife and children, often expressed in quick shots of memories that were important to him or of environments intruding on the world of the dreamscapes in which he and his crew try to perform Inception, was something that touched a chord in me when I first saw it.

Dreaming in Day for Night.

It might seem odd that I would relate to Cobb’s grief when I first saw Inception. There were a lot of important firsts for me in 2010, positive firsts, that helped color my initial viewing of it. It was the year I entered high school, the year I began keeping a list of all the movies (over 1,500 and counting) that I have seen since February 20th, 2010, the day I saw Jaws for the first time. It was a year where I felt like the world was starting to open up to me in a different way, as I entered a new chapter of my life, similar to how the world of dream sharing technology opens up a new world of creation for Ariadne. But there was something else about 2010, something less positive, that would color not only my first viewing of Inception, but every other viewing of it I have had, and every viewing of it I will have. 2010 was the first full year I lived without my grandmother Elsa. Her death was the first one I had ever experienced of a loved one.

My grandmother Elsa and me.

My grandmother’s death was nowhere near as tragic as Mal’s. She was much older, 86, and had lived a full and happy life. But she died suddenly, and like Cobb, I never really got to say a proper goodbye. Over the years, I’d replay moments in my head with her: quick images of her listening to me tell stories or spending time with me. Much like Cobb’s memories, they were a kind of cold comfort: they provided more time with the person that I loved, but in a way that reminded me I would never be able to have a proper conversation with her or hug her again. The memories and images I’d cobbled together in my head and replay, over and over again, created a type of projection of her as I grieved her loss.

Cobb’s need to get over the death of Mal, so that he can return home, is mirrored in the dilemma of his team’s target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). He is the disgruntled heir to Fischer Morrow, who we meet taking care of his terminally father Maurice (Peter Postlethwaite), with whom he has a dysfunctional relationship. He wants his father to love him, to show the care and affection he did when Fischer was a child before his mother died, symbolized by a photo of the two of them where a young Fischer plays with a pinwheel. Cobb and his team try to give him the warm reunion with his father that he craves as a way to get him to break up Fischer Morrow, reflecting Cobb’s belief that telling a target a positive story will be more effective than a negative one. “We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis” Cobb tells his team, probably speaking from his own desire to reconcile with Mal and move past the raw emotions that he still feels because of her death. Both men need to remember something positive about their relationship with someone who has died — in Fischer’s case it is to remember that his father loved him, and for Cobb that he got to live up to a promise he made to Mal when he proposed. Despite the fact that Cobb’s team is causing him to dissolve a company that would provide him millions of dollars, there is a sense that they are doing something positive for Fischer. Even Eames, who never came across a snappy remark that he didn’t like, is interested in the vault which contains something that will allow Fischer to reembrace his father. When Fischer reconciles with his dying father, proving that the team has successfully performed inception on him, Eames smiles. He’s probably smiling because Fischer’s reconciliation means that they have successfully performed inception and they can leave safely, but there is just enough ambiguity to it to make you think that Eames might find the meaning that they have created touching as well.

Fischer “reconciling” with his father.

I’ve changed in the 10 years since I first saw Inception, and I always feel how I have changed whenever I watch Inception again. I can analyze its story structure faster now thanks to screenwriting classes that I have taken. Years of reading about how major American films consistently fail to properly represent people of color onscreen makes me wish that Inception had more than two characters of color in it, even if the filmmakers depict Yusuf and Saito as professional men who are good at what they do. But my biggest change in how I view Inception only came last year, when I realized something crucial about this film: almost everything bad that happens in it is Cobb’s fault.

It is Cobb who caused the heist in Saito’s mind to fail by bringing Mal into Arthur’s subconsciousness. It is Cobb whose desire to reach the limits of human subconsciousness landed him and Mal in Limbo, the space of “raw, infinite subconsciousness” where they spent 50 years, building things they could never create in the real world. Almost every failure in the film is attributable to Cobb, and even some of the innovations that characters such as Ariadne think to attribute to him — namely the totem that lets you know if you are dreaming or not — were actually invented by Mal. Most tragically, Cobb eventually admits that Mal only developed the belief that Limbo was her true reality and died by suicide to try to return to it because Cobb, desperate to return home, secretly performed inception on her to make her realize that she was dreaming. Cobb violated her trust and betrayed the love at the heart of their relationship, which fuels the guilt-filled dreams he has with her, desperate and impossible attempts to atone for what he did to her.

Mal (Marion Cotillard) with Dom.

This idea, of replaying things obsessively in your head despite your inability to change them, is at the heart of my favorite reference to Inception in popular culture, the “Virtual Systems Analysis” episode of the NBC sitcom Community. Abed, a brilliant yet eccentric man who has trouble connecting to others, forces his roommate Annie to run through simulations in which he pretends to be their friends. While impersonating his best friend Troy, Abed admits one of Troy’s secrets: that he didn’t get Inception, a fact which makes him cry. But this joke is more than a reference to the fact that “Virtual Systems Analysis,” like Inception, has a layered plot that some people would find confusing. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that its main thematic material is the same. Abed, as well as Annie, have fears that force them to replay scenarios in their head in an effort to avoid those fears. It is only when Annie, and later Abed, acknowledge that they do this that they are able to make tentative steps to stop. This idea of acknowledgement as the first step to recover from your fears or trauma is ultimately what allows Cobb to defeat Mal and attain the catharsis that he needs.

The scene in which he attains this release, by saying goodbye to Mal, is the exact opposite of the one where Mal died by suicide. Where she had all of the power in that scene — ordering him to come on to the ledge, presented in the framed as an equal to him — here Cobb holds all of the cards. He looms over her as she lies down, an effect of superiority accentuated by Nolan’s low angle close-ups of Cobb that make him look more imposing. Mal confronts him once again with the source of his guilt: that they never got to grow old together in the real world. But whereas, in the scene where she died, Cobb argued that the real world — represented by his children — was more important, here Cobb admits that their time in Limbo was positive in one respect: they really did get to grow old together, as they always wanted. Nolan even shows them as old people, walking through the city they built together, their aged hands clasped in loving devotion. That close-up of them holding hands, when I first saw it, reminded me of the warm and loving marriage my then 90-year-old grandfather enjoyed with my grandmother for over 60 years. That same shot, symbolizing a type of love and devotion that can survive for as long as consciousness allows on a plane of existence different from our own, has a different significance for me now that my grandfather is gone too. But the way Cobb faces his grief and pain face on, acknowledges that what he is feeling, and moves on by letting go of that pain, moves me just as much on my 4th viewing of this film as it did on my 1st. I cannot watch this scene without crying.

Cobb saying goodbye to Mal.

His mission completed; Cobb returns to his home in California. When he does, he stops and, as he has done throughout the movie, spins Mal’s totem, a spinning top that only stops spinning if you’re not in a dream. But this time he doesn’t do it with a gun in hand as he did the first time that he spun it, or frenziedly, as he did whenever he would wake up from a dream involving his projection of Mal. This time he does it out of a nonchalant curiosity, as if he would check his watch for the time. But that curiosity vanishes when he finally sees his children and is able to embrace them, home at last. But as he talks to them, we see that Mal’s top, even as it appears to wobble, still spins.

Which brings us to the question that people have been debating in the 10 years since Inception came out: is Cobb dreaming in the last scene? Some theories are that he has been dreaming the entire time (an echo of Shutter Island, the other film Leonardo DiCaprio starred in in 2010, which is also about a man trying to get over his grief and guilt at his wife’s death and features a twist in its third act), or that Cobb never woke up after Yusuf demonstrates his chemicals on him in Mobassa because we never see Cobb spin Mal’s top until it falls again after that scene. It would be disappointing if Cobb was dreaming, and the emotional catharsis he reaches isn’t real, but it would be the last part in a narrative pattern of people being disappointed that runs throughout Inception. Fischer gets disappointed by the Blonde Woman (really Eames in disguise) giving him a fake phone number. Yusuf gets disappointed that no one sees the cool maneuver he does with his car to save his teammates, and Cobb is disappointed throughout the film at not being able to go home. But the reading that Cobb is still dreaming also provides the active viewer an additional layer of pleasure. It makes you watch the movie more closely, searching for what the author Vladimir Nabokov called the “secret points” that could unlock a story’s true meaning. Those secret points can elevate a story such as Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters,” in which a brilliant young man whose cavalier approach to his relationship with a more brilliant young woman, whose differing ideas about the construction of reality he does not believe, haunts him after her death. The last paragraph in “The Vane Sisters,” which can be read on the surface as the protagonist finding enlightenment but contains a secret message revealing that his former girlfriend and her sister are manipulating him from beyond the grave, might be the literary equivalent to the last shot of Inception.

The engigmatic last image from Inception.

But there is another way to view the question of whether Cobb is dreaming or awake, perhaps best described by a line spoken by Bert Cooper in the “Nixon Vs. Kennedy” episode of the TV series Mad Men: “Who cares.” Cobb certainly doesn’t — he chooses to enjoy the moment he has longed and waited for on his terms, ignoring the certainty of reality represented by Mal’s totem and embracing the fact that, by ignoring it, he is no longer holding on to her memory in a negative way. He has emerged from the scariest thing in the world of Inception, Limbo, which represents chaos, to return to his home, which represents Order. It’s fitting then that the last audible line of Inception is Cobb’s son James happily yelling “We’re building a house!” A house, which is the second meaning of the Russian word “dom,” represents everything that Cobb has been eager to regain: security, certainty, a warm shield from the elements, a place where you can walk in and have people you love hug you. Inception draws from many different types of films — science fiction, heist, meta films about the creative process — to tell a cynical story about the need to be uncynical. It acknowledges that our lives are hard, that loss and failed attempts to connect with others make us feel pain, and that the pain we carry with us can blight our lives and prevent us from getting what we need. But it also argues that we can, through professionalism, a willingness to tell the truth, and a bit of fakery, find moments in which we can face the pain that has prevented us from growing and move beyond them for a shot at something that can ultimately fulfill us. Whether that reconciliation and catharsis that Cobb spoke of and ultimately found are based in an objective reality is ultimately beside the point. What matters is that he attains what we all yearn for and, if we’re lucky, what we get: a feeling of catharsis, and the joy of returning to a place where you feel at home.

Dom’s return home.

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Jesse Pasternack

Jesse Pasternack

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