Hailed The Matrix for this generation, Inception is definitely a mind-scrambler. As someone who has incredibly vivid dreams that are almost cinematic in plot, camera angling and characterisation, I remember being blown away when it was released. I saw it with my mother, who kept calling it ‘Conception’. That, my dears, would be a very different film indeed…

There are so many different interpretations and theories about specifics of the film, but I’m only going to give you my roundabout pop-cultural interpretation. (Seriously guys, don’t you know the tone of these articles by now?) If you want a more academic insight into the film, please see this article by the wonderful Maria Sledmere.

The premise of the film is that it is possible to enter and change a dream reality and to make someone aware that they are dreaming. A person’s mind is at their most vulnerable when they are asleep and it is the job of Dom Cobb, another troubled husband/father figure played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to extract personal and dangerous information from the ‘subject’ whilst they are unconscious. When we meet him, he is a freelance extractor attempting to obtain information from businessman Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, within a dream. It is here we are introduced to the concept of a dream-within-a-dream and the amalgamation of two of my favourite memes.

Yo dawg
The mission goes awry when Mal, as a projection of Cobb’s subconscious, causes the mission to fail. However, Saito realises he is still dreaming when he feels the texture of the carpet in, what is supposed to be, his apartment is wrong. Once someone becomes aware they are dreaming, they begin to realise they don’t remember the start of the sequence of events and the strangeness of their surroundings.

In the field, it is recommended that only two or three layers of dream are penetrated. This is because the lower into the subconscious you delve, the more dangerous it becomes, with dreamers losing themselves and their sense of reality.
Dreams are constructed by an architect who is the creator and owner of the dream, and the person put into this dreamscape is known as the subject. The cycle of creation and existing within that creation is seamless in the dream world.
The subject’s subconscious creates projections to defend the mind when it’s infiltrated. Cobb compares this to white blood cells attacking foreign matter within the human body, and ideas are described as viruses. Whilst the physics of a world may be changed, it is easiest when they are similar to reality so as not to alert the subject to the fact they are dreaming. The more layers of there are to a dream, the slower time passes.

To keep tabs on whose dream you are in, if in a dream at all, Cobb’s team use totems: small objects of personal value with a specific weight or unique physically quality known only to the owner. These totems become incredibly important in the film, symbolic of a one foundational truth: is this reality? It is on this established truth that the rest of a person’s ontology (the nature of existence or reality) and epistemology (what we know and how) can be built. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top which was originally Mal’s. Mal was Cobb’s wife, now dead, and her projection in Cobb’s subconscious sabotages the dream worlds Cobb enters. Cobb’s totem is the only one with a visual secret (the others we see are weighted) and not truly his, so the validity of the totem as a measure of reality is questionable.

Cobb accepts a deal from Saito: a shedload of money for his team, and Cobb’s clearance to return home to his children. In exchange, Cobb’s team will implant an idea into the mind of million-heir Robert Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy and his cheekbones), whose father (the late Pete Postlethwaite) is on his deathbed. It is in Saito’s business interest to have Fischer break-up his father’s empire, and the team use Fischer’s complex and frayed relationship with his father to their advantage. Morality is very much an elephant in the room here but never directly addressed by the team.

The mantra and plan for the mission is:
Level One – the city. The dreamer is Yusuf, who drives the van with the others in it. Fischer believes he is a hostage with Browning (actually Eames). The idea to plant in Fischer’s mind: I will not follow my father’s footsteps.
Level Two – the hotel. The dreamer is Arthur, who creates the musical kick for the others. The idea: I will create something for myself.
Level Three – the snowy mountains (psyched to learn this was filled near Calgary in Alberta Canada where I’ll be on exchange from September). The dreamer is Eames, who defends the fortress. Here is the safe which Fischer must unlock. The idea: My father doesn’t want me to be him.

Eames, played by the lovely Tom Hardy, is almost the psychologist of the group and a dab-hand at forgeries and impersonations. He studies Fischer Sr’s right-hand man and Fischer Jr’s godfather, Browning (Tom Berenger), and learns enough to imitate him. The ease in which Eames can impersonate Browning, or a woman later in a dream level, is frightening. It is like method acting gone mad, and makes me wonder about the personal identity issues Eames himself might be facing after some many missions playing someone else so successfully.

Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is a chemist who runs a shady side business where people pay to be heavily sedated for hours everyday. The figures are wane and listless, clearly taking no pleasure or trouble about themselves in this reality. Dreaming is an addiction for them, and heavy sedatives are the only way they can dream; the dream has become their reality. The sedatives work so well that ‘kicks’ are needed to wake up the dreamers to the level above and eventually return them to consciousness and reality. These kicks need to be precisely timed with a force or impact, and for the team the kicks are cued by music: Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je regrette rein‘, which means ‘I regret nothing’. This song is significant as Marion Cottilard who plays Mal portrayed Edith Piaf on screen and Cobb’s character is shackled by his regret and guilt. 

It is Ariadne (my Canadian home-gal Ellen Page), the new architect for Cobb’s team, whose namesake is the figure of an Ancient Greek myth of Thesus and the Minotaur and thus she is the mistress of mazes and labyrinths. I personally love a good maze; there’s something unsettling yet thrilling about being lost but doggedly sure you will recover your way.  Most people I’ve spoken to believe there are two main ways to find your way out of a maze: a) using some logical strategy such as ‘keeping left’ or b) trust your instincts and what you believe to be the right direction. This can also be applied to knowing reality from dream. The team encourage keeping rational tabs on the layers of dreams by memorising the mission plan, but a more intuitive way is through their totems.
Arthur, the glorious Joseph Gordon-Levitt, guides Ariadne through puzzles and paradoxes such as the penrose steps and she builds the dream layers for the mission to confuse the projections and buy the team time. Each dreamer knows something of the dreamscape design, but Cobb is excluded because he fears that if Mal in his subconscious knows the world’s secrets she will sabotage the mission.  

Whilst the main plot of the film takes place around the mission to incept an idea into Fischer’s mind, I’d argue the main and more interesting storyline is that of Dom Cobb. Consistently his personal demons haunt the team’s mission, and it is only Ariadne who tells him frankly that he must forgive himself and let go of his guilt and regret to allow the mission to succeed and for himself to move on and go home to his children. Ariadne is the figure of forgiveness and Mal’s foil. Mal within Cobb’s mind has come to represent his doubts about reality, his loss, regret and self-blame

Ariadne infiltrates Cobb’s dreams which are filled with memories. He has discouraged architects from doing this as creation of new ideas is always more positive than complete duplication or destruction. The creation of the dream and the creation of Fischer’s new persona as his own man are mirrored in the constructed of dreamscape by the team and the filling of this world by Fischer’s mind. It is he himself who fills the safe with his own treasured memories and he turns against his own subconscious to create the idea by himself; it is only suggested by the team.

Cobb’s memories in his dreams are moments he regrets, and are represented by a lift with the basement floor  which contains the memory of the night Mal died. 

It transpires that Cobb and Mal dabbled in dream layers further than a third layer, where things become unstable. They fell into Limbo, an empty dream space shared by the dreamers alone, and became god-like in creation and destruction. In dream time they lived for fifty years and whilst Cobb yearned for reality, Limbo had become reality to Mal. She locked her totem in a doll’s house in her childhood home, representing her denial of the truth she still knew – this world wasn’t realCobb planted the idea in her mind that the world wasn’t real and the only way to get back home to reality was death.

This idea of death as a release and the need to go ‘up above’ – as in dream layers – relates to ideas of the afterlife and a new reality. A ‘leap of faith’ is metaphorically and literally taken by all the characters and Cobb must act on his faith in reality.

Inception as a concept is seen at its most cruel and brutal here. Cobb feels responsible for planting this idea and when they woke in reality, old souls in young bodies, Mal still clung to the idea that the world wasn’t real and death was the only release. The projection Mal accuses him: “You infected my mind…you betrayed me”. Gripped by this idea, Mal legally and emotionally blackmailed Cobb to try and get him to commit suicide with her and return to ‘reality’. Cobb can finally lay his memories of his wife to rest, once he can let go of the fantasy of the dream and memory. He describes how his projection can never capture the flaws and perfections of the real woman, and as detailed as a dream is, it can never truly encapsulate the complexities of reality and people. This is the same way that inception, whilst the creation and planting of an idea, is never the same as true inspiration.

The film really is one of those that I keep coming back to. It’s themes are thought-provoking and I love anything that makes me explore the nature of dreams. Writing this article has made me realise how much more there is to explore. As Cobb would say, “It isn’t enough, we have to go deeper”. 

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