The following contains heavy spoilers for Inception. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely need to see it at least once before reading this. Inception is one of the best films of 2010 and an incredibly original piece of work. Do not read any further unless you’ve seen the film.
Huge Spoilers beyond this point, you’ve been warned
For the past two weeks after several showings, a ton of reading and even more discussion, I’ve reached some conclusions about Inception. The purpose of this blog post is two fold. First, I want to explain Christopher Nolan’s intent behind the film. Second, I want to discuss the seemingly ambiguous ending of the film and explain how it isn’t actually open for interpretation as some people believe.
To explain Director Christopher Nolan’s intent behind the film, some background is necessary. Nolan has imagined making a film with a plot centered around lucid dreaming since he first became aware of the phenomenon as a teenager. He first started working on the script for Inception about ten years ago, shortly after dark sci-fi films like The Matrix and Dark City were released. He pointed to those (and a few others) as inspiration. Originally it was envisioned as a horror film, but the idea slowly evolved into the heist film that made it to theaters.
Nolan has said (regarding the estimated $200 million budget) that the human mind is full of infinite possibility and he wanted this movie to feel the same way. That makes for a very expensive movie. Hollywood studios don’t go throwing around that kind of money on anything other than a franchise very often. After Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight, grossed over $1 billion worldwide he finally had the leverage he needed over the studio to get his movie made with the total creative control he desired. Dangling the possibility of doing a third Batman film in front of the studio, they gave Nolan whatever he wanted to keep him happy.
Now we get to the intent behind the film. Inception is a metaphor for filmmaking. While there are other themes at work here (can one idea fundamentally change a person’s nature? / what is reality?), Leonardo di Caprio helped cement the intent of Inception as a metaphor for how Nolan makes films during an interview in which he referred to Inception as Christopher Nolan’s 8 1/2. Instead of using a more obvious connection to something like The Matrix, he chose to make an analogy about a seemingly obscure Italian film from the 1960′s. 8 1/2 is a film directed by Federico Fellini which has a very significant place in the history of cinema (side note – I had a film professor in college whose favorite director was Fellini and we spent a lot of time talking about him). 8 1/2 is well known because it was an autobiographical take on Fellini’s own approach to making movies. It is considered one of the greatest films ever made about the creative process filmmakers go through. Its influence is recognized everywhere by those who have seen it. At its core, Inception is a movie about trying to make a movie.
Nolan himself said in a recent interview, “There are a lot of striking similarities [between what the team does and the putting on of a major Hollywood movie]. When for instance the team is out on the street they’ve created, surveying it, that’s really identical with what we do on tech scouts before we shoot.” Leonardo di Caprio has also said that he based how he played his character on Nolan, who isn’t an action hero going sneaking through people’s dreams, he is a film director.
The metaphor gets deeper. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb who would be the director. Cobb is the ultimate creative force and vision behind the inception that takes place within the film. Marion Cotillard who plays his wife Mal represents the portions of himself a filmmaker brings to a project. It is impossible to make a film without it being a reflection of the director’s experiences, feelings and beliefs, all of which are manifested in Mal. The producer would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Arthur. He is the point man doing all the research and acting as second hand man to Cobb, ensuring that all goes according to plan and when it does, he is there with a backup.
Ellen Page’s character Ariadne is a brilliant young architect, making her perfect for the crew’s screenwriter. She builds the worlds in which Cobb creates the stories. Tom Hardy is Eames. In the film his character is a master forger, in the metaphor he is an actor. Often before he transforms into another character he is seen in front of an old styled make up mirror preparing for the part just an a classic actor would do. Ken Watanabe plays Saito, a character who insists on tagging along because he has the money financing the project and because of his stake in its outcome, even though his involvement is more of hindrance than help. That makes him the Hollywood Studio.
Finally Cillian Murphy completes the metaphor in his role as Robert Fischer or the audience. Fischer is everyone of us who has ever sat in a theater. The entire show Cobb is putting on is for Fischer and it is of the utmost importance that he believes it is real. This brings us to the most important part of the metaphor and the link to the outcome of the ending of the film. Both the act of constructing dreams and Cobb’s spinning top represent the suspension of disbelief. Cobb can’t totally trick Fischer into believing the dreams are real, just as a director can’t totally trick an audience into believing a film is real. However, they can both create a world in which in the back of Fischer’s or a viewer’s mind they know it is not real but chose to make a conscious decision to ignore that feeling. This is a fundamental part of the film, this is the suspension of disbelief. Just as a film begins to fall apart when it gets too ridiculous to believe, so do dreams literally fall apart in the world of Inception.
This brings us to the business of the spinning top. The film ends on a close up of the top, just as it appears to be wobbling, or does it? This has led some to speculate that the entire film was a dream.
The supporters of this theory cite a few main pieces of evidence. First is Michael Caine’s line about asking Leo to return to reality. Next are Cobb’s children who appear to be the same age at the end of the film as he remembers them from the beginning, even though a large amount of time has elapsed. The third piece of evidence would be the chase in Mombasa where Cobb runs from more and more security agents, then slips through an alley that gets smaller and smaller only to squeeze through to find Saito and Eames conveniently waiting for him. If the entire film is in fact a dream that would mean that the title Inception actually refers to an Inception Cobb does which is so elaborate it works on himself to convince him he has finally made it back to reality when he is actually still stuck in a dream. The final key piece of evidence here is that Ellen Page’s character is named Ariadne. In Greek mythology Ariadne helps Theseus enter the Minotaur’s maze, slay the beast within and then uses a ball of thread to lead him out from the end of the maze. In the context of the inception being against Cobb this would make sense.
All of this sounds very plausible, until you consider the alternative. Michael Caine’s line about coming back to reality could easily be taken both ways. The child actors who play Cobb’s children at the end of the film are different from those who play the children at the beginning on the phone. The chase in Mombasa is different from those in the dream world because in dreams everyone turns on the intruders, not just a few. Is Saito’s rescue that preposterous? Considering he had enough money to buy an entire airline, it isn’t a stretch to believe he has the resources to follow one person pretty closely. Finally the analogy of Ariadne from Greek mythology is like Michael Caine’s statement about reality. It can easily support either conclusion. Unfortunately for the people who think the entire film is one big dream, you cannot use a lack of evidence to prove that something exists. There just isn’t enough there to support the idea that the entire film is one big dream.
But what about the top?! It definitely keeps spinning! Prepare to have your mind blown. Totems are created for characters to remind themselves whether or not they are dreaming. The top isn’t Cobb’s totem at all. The top is very clearly referred to as Mal’s totem. Cobb spins it to remind himself not that he is in reality, but to remind himself of what he did to Mal and what he must do to make it right. His totem is actually his wedding ring. If you go back and watch the film again, you’ll notice a very significant detail. Every time Cobb is dreaming, he is wearing the wedding ring. Every time he is back in reality he is no longer wearing it. When he is dreaming the totem is there in the back of his mind as a reminder that he is dreaming. When he is in reality he has it put away like he advises Ariadne should do with her own totem to ensure no one will learn about it. Every single sequence of either dreaming or reality has a very clear shot of Cobb’s hand which he wearings the ring on. Don’t believe me? Google “Inception Wedding Ring” and you can find fan sites where people have pulled screenshots showing the ring or lack there of. The spinning top is merely a red herring to distract the audience. Another clever trick by the filmmaker.
The final shot of the spinning top is the ultimate nod to the suspension of disbelief. If the shot continues any longer and the top continues to spin, the disbelief falls apart at the most important moment. Because the film ends just as the top appears to start to wobble, the film has accomplished its goal of keeping the suspension of disbelief in place just long enough to sustain the story until it is complete. While it may leave some with an idea about how much of what they just saw was real. This idea was was implanted into your mind by the journey you took through the film up until the final shot, brilliant Mr. Nolan, absolutely brilliant.