Gamewatcher - The meaning of Inception


Cobb in Inception Occasionally, we take a detour from games into another area of pop culture (as we did last year with Dollhouse). We know that many in our community have seen and enjoyed Inception, and many have been puzzling over what it all means. Here's my take.

The meaning of Inception

I think I've figured out Inception.

If you haven't seen the movie, bookmark this page or favorite my tweet and come back. It'll still be here. We're going deep into spoiler territory. At least three levels, maybe more.

To set things up, first I have to semi-spoil another movie or two that you've probably seen (and if not, why not?).

Years ago, I wrote a newspaper article about Basic Instinct where I revealed the truth of the matter: The Ice Pick Did It.

Sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone. But the story was constructed in such a way that basically there was no real solution. Plotlines canceled each other out and the entire movie was an exercise in mental self-stimulation. It was fun, it was thrilling, it was titillating, but none of it added up in the end. The only thing you could definitively convict was the murder weapon.

Then there was Total Recall, which GrrlGotGame references whenever there's a movie that's ultimately a fantasy or vacation from reality: Blue Skies on Mars. You should have seen this one too (same director as Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven, and similar cognitive copulation). Basically, there are clues planted early on that, er, color the ending and negate any suspension of disbelief you might have invested up until that point.

So this begs the question: Is Christopher Nolan the spiritual heir of Paul Verhoeven (at least, pre-Showgirls Verhoeven)? He definitely likes to mess with your head. Look at Memento, which simulated short term memory impairment by telling the story backwards - so that you, the viewer, and the mentally damaged protagonist shared the same perspective on events. It was a genius move that dazzles me in its simplicity even 10 years later.

Which brings me back to Inception. The movie is dazzling, even mind-blowing. But the simplest solution is the one I've ultimately settled on.

Is it all a dream? Even the dream within a dream? My first thought at the end of the film was that the whole thing was a dream. Every bit of it. The levels? A distraction. The technology for entering dreams is never adequately explained, it's a MacGuffin (as Hitchcock dubbed his meaningless plot devices) designed to propel the story. Are we supposed to buy that this technology exists today? Or that it could exist in 5 years? 10 years? Our lifetime? It's a plot device, the sort of plot device that makes sense in a dream but falls apart five minutes after you wake.

Sound familiar? Yeah, the clues are there if you want to see them.

Then there's that moment in Mombasa when Cobb nearly gets stuck in an oddly formed alleyway. Like Alice in Wonderland, he fits in just fine when he enters but things get awfully tight at the end. Yet he narrowly escapes and magically lands right in the path of his benefactor, Saito. Each thing by itself might be plausible, but the two together form just the sort of coincidence you'd expect to find... in your dreams. Nolan is careful not to plant any definitive evidence in the "real world" sequences to confirm your suspicions, but the narrow alley pulled me just far enough out of the story to question it - and I believe this was intentional.

Now look at where they end up next. The dream factory, a basement populated by people who have chosen to make the dream world their reality. Hm. I wonder why that's given so much weight. I kept coming back to this scene and the line about the dream becoming people's reality. That tied neatly back into my original theory that the whole thing was a dream.

Can anyone name a place where people congregate to choose an alternate reality? The sort of place that's existed for hundreds of years and doesn't require any special technology, just organic ingredients? How about an opium den? I've never touched the stuff, but reportedy it "promotes vivid dreams and rich visual imagery as well as gentle euphoria" with "gentle, subtle, dream-like hallucinations very different from the fierce and unpredictable weirdness of LSD." One of my favorite authors in college, Charles Baudelaire, compared it to a woman "full of caresses and deceptions."

The opium den idea made it all click. But why would Cobb choose an alternate reality if he was so determined to rescue his young children from their judgmental grandmother?

More on that in a minute. But first, let's briefly consider an alternative interpretation.

My second theory on first viewing was that everything was real up until Cobb awakens on the plane. He never really escapes Limbo, but the crazy thing about Limbo is that it's like a dream and can take any form you want. The final scenes are his subconscious fulfilling his deepest desire - to be reunited with his kids. They finally turn around, they even have (subtly) different clothes.

But if it were all real, why wouldn't little James and Phillipa be at the airport with grandpa waiting to see their daddy? And what's the deal with the metal top in the final scene - does it stop spinning or keep on going? And what difference would it make really? Because ultimately, my suspension of disbelief was shattered enough that I continued to question the entire premise. The spinning top is meaningless if the whole thing is a dream - Cobb can make or ignore whatever rules he wants within the dream world. He can determine whether the top stops spinning or not, and what it all ultimately means to him.

Really, this is just more of Nolan playing with his audience's collective head. As with Rosemary's Baby, you never see the final outcome. Though people may insist they saw a demon child (or heard Cobb's top rattle to a stop), it's just not there.

So I went back to my first interpretation, but - again - I still wasn't sure why Cobb would choose the dream world beyond the idea of wanting to reconcile with his wife.

And then it hit me as I was driving home from my second viewing of Inception. THE 50 YEARS WITH HIS WIFE WERE REAL. Cobb is an old man now. He recently lost his wife. And he discovered the refuge of a lonely old man: an opium den. His mind invented a fantasy world where he's young and able to infiltrate dreams for money. He experiences action straight out of his James Bond-fueled childhood and reunites with and attempts to reconcile with his deceased wife, who probably passed away from more mundane reasons than the surface story would have you believe. A train accident might easily explain some of the subtext.

Arthur, shouldn't you be awake? The other great thing about this theory (and that's all it is, really - take it or leave it), is that it helps explain any other issues with the story. For instance, shouldn't Yusuf have woken up when the van first went off the bridge (or even earlier, when it flipped over on the embankment!) instead of continuing to drive his sleeping comrades along? And what about Arthur going all Matrix up, down and sideways on the subconscious defenses that tried to prevent him from setting up the improvised elevator "kick" to bring back his comrades on Level 3? Shouldn't all of that flipping about have woken him as well? Remember, the sedative did not affect the inner ear at all, so any falling or toppling should have woken up anyone who wasn't on the next dream level.

There's increasingly chatter about how when Cobb has his wedding ring on, it's the dream world. Again, any meaning you want to impart to this is fine - but a ring could just as easily appear and disappear in a dream as in real life.

In the end, it's just a movie - and a darned good one that mostly holds together anyway you want to interpret it. And makes for great post-screening debates.

But for me the whole thing reeks of poppy seeds.



Very interesting analysis. I personally thought that it was all a dream, but not only that. I thought that when Cobb and Mol (Mal?) awoke, they didnt really wake, but were still in limbo, only Cobb couldn't see it, whereas Mol could. And that their train suicide didn't bring them out of the dream, but only sent them deeper into limbo since they were still sedated. She had been trying to warn him that whole time, not only up until her death, but also afterwards. She had actually managed to free herself, by killing herself. I interpreted it as her entering his dreams and attacking characters that he had created, so that he would snap out of it and stop living in the dream world. When he eventually killed her, I took it to mean, that he is forever rejecting that he is living in a dream world. Now, it could be that I am wrong about most or all that I've said, or missed major clues, but what makes me think that it was a dream all along, is that at the end his children don't look like they've aged very much, considering how long he must have been away, and they "turn around" just as perfectly as he would like them to. It is interesting how different the movie becomes, depending with what perspective you watch it. But whatever the "real" explaintion, if there even is one, it is great to see a major action movie blockbuster inspire debate and discussion. I certaily wish there was more of that.


That's a good point about the alleyway. In any other movie I'd write it off as cinematic convenience but given the way Inception plays on so many other film tricks and tropes it deserves attention.

As for Arthur not waking up, the falling sensation has to happen in the dream in which they are aware, so I buy the spinning gravity stuff. Maybe Yusuf should have woken when the van flipped.

This movie is one place where I remain agnostic, so I won't weigh in on the likelihood of any interpretation of what's going on. But I can see how what you said is possible. It's kind of an ironic opposite of the usual "it was all a dream" ending.

And an off-topic point: You say Memento "goes backward" when it really goes back and forward and ends in the middle. I see that all the time--even Ebert said it goes backward. I give people the benefit of the doubt and I'm guessing that it's not so much a misunderstanding but just something that's okay to generalize because people still get the point. But I still gotta throw down a nerdy yellow card.


On second viewing, I found myself taking a much closer look at the characters and the role(s) they might represent in Cobb's sub-conscious... assuming that the entire thing is his dream (he's never awake) and that they are all parts of his subconscious. I homed in on two characters: Arthur (joseph gordon-levitt) and Ariadne (Ellen Page).
I think they represent his kids.
Think about it:
• Physically, each actor has traits of their "parents" (tall/lanky/handsome Arthur, diminutive but beautiful Ariadne). Yes, Phillipa and James are blonde in the "memory," but it's not unheard of for blondes to go dark later. (Or, if they are a "dream," he could be giving them Mal's attributes.)

• Ariadne is conveniently introduced to Cobb by Cobb's father-in-law… and wouldn't a grandfather consider his grandchild the greatest student ever? (Ideally, anyway.)

• Cobb's daughter Philippa is clearly the older child. She would be the one Mal/Cobb are telling to "watch your brother"... thus putting her in a position to be her brother's moral compass. Ariadne represents Cobb's moral compass in the movie.

• On a related note, Philippa is clearly the older child. Every parent has had a moment when they wanted to (needed to) fall apart, but they keep it together for their kid. Philippa would have been the first child to ground Cobb. Ariadne is the one trying to ground Cobb.

• On to Arthur. Arthur is the kind of person you WANT your son to be when he grows up: Smart, responsible, handsome, even-tempered... I mean, seriously, if you were faced with sending everyone to Limbo because gravity disappeared, wouldn't you have a toddler moment? But no, he just says, "How am I going to drop you..." and then comes up with a downright MacGuyver-ish solution.

• Arthur is also the voice of reason, the person who doesn't go nuts with the fantasy weapons (as Eames says, "You mustn't be afraid to dream big, dah-ling"), and also the one who explains how we know when things are real. The father projects what he wants to be on the child.

• Every parent I know (including myself) has dreamed about their kids as adults. Given that Arthur "dreamed" of growing old with Mal in Limbo, it is reasonable to assume he also dreamed about his kids as adults.

I could go on, but we'll keep this at the first level.


Here is my interpretation: It's a movie! Sure, there are some implausible moments such as the wall squeeze, but no more than you would expect from an action film. Nolan leaves you unsure at the end whether Cobb really woke up. The top spins unnaturally long at the end, but was that a little wobble?

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This page contains a single entry by Gamewatcher published on August 3, 2010 10:00 AM.

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  • Jon: Here is my interpretation: It's a movie! Sure, there are read more
  • GrrlGotGame: On second viewing, I found myself taking a much closer read more
  • Gamewatcher: Matt: I like your interpretation too! Nice. Lucas: Thanks for read more
  • Lucas: That's a good point about the alleyway. In any other read more
  • Matt: Very interesting analysis. I personally thought that it was all read more