A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Like A Spinning Top | Discussing INCEPTION (Spoilers!)

In action, Directors, filmmaking on July 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm

In the third, of an unplanned trilogy of posts about Christopher Nolan’s newest movie, INCEPTION; I’m going to dive right into the spoilers and meanings (to me) of what this pretty great movie left me with. So, if you don’t want to be spoiled on what happens in the movie; then go no further.


First of all, let’s talk about the one thing that is carried over to this movie from (seemingly) all of Nolan’s other works. And that is obsession. In the Nolan-verse, it never leads to anywhere good, whether it wind up being cathartic for a moment or not. In MEMENTO, the short-term memory-loss afflicted Leonard (Guy Pearce) is obsessed with finding his wife’s killer. So much that he’s put himself on a journey, that will never end, to find a man that he will never remember finding – whether he does find him or not. In FOLLOWING, the movie preceding MEMENTO, we have Bill (Jeremy Theobald) who as a sort of “people study” randomly chooses to follow people, and then becomes slightly obsessed with following a man, named Cobb

(Alex Haw) – coincidentally enough – that reveals he has a peculiar habit as well; breaking into people’s houses. This leads to Bill becoming entangled with a blonde woman, whose house he’s burgled with Cobb. From there, there’s the classic film-noir setup (and as the movie is filmed in black and white, all the more fitting) of Bill being tasked to do a job for the woman and the disastrous results. Then finally – as I’m skipping the BATMAN movies, though there are definitely threads of obsession in there as well (the whole Rachel Dawes subplot in both movies that is paid off to an explosive conclusion in THE DARK KNIGHT) – there’s THE PRESTIGE. A movie about two men, arguably indecipherable in who is meant to be the “good guy” and the “bad”. They spend the movie attempting to one-up the other, each with dangerous and deadly results. It’s ultimate heart-breaking moment is when Angier (Hugh Jackman) tells his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) that he doesn’t care about his dead wife – the reason for the continuing battle between him and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) – he only cares about learning the secret to Borden’s trick. And the biggest hammer on the head moments are Michael Caine’s character, telling Angier that “obsession is a young man’s game” and that he can’t be a part of it anymore. There’s also Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) revealing how his own obsessions are leading to his own demise.

Powerful stuff, and how does it pertain to INCEPTION? The main through-line of the movie is that Cobb (here played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is desperate to get back to his children; that’s the main drive of the movie and cause for the repeated “hallucinations” he has of seeing only the backs of his son and daughter’s heads. But the main thing, and the downfall of Cobb in a certain way is the way that he is completely the opposite of Angier; he almost only cares about his dead wife (Marion Cotillard). And since he keeps her locked up in his subconscious, she’s able to repeatedly wreak havoc on his “job” which is to go into the mind of other people while they sleep. It’s only after he’s confronted her, let go of his obsession – so to speak – and of her that he’s able to return home and see his children again.

It is the one thing in Nolan’s work, that I think he does so well – to say he’s obsessed with obsession – that I think makes his movies so entrancing to me. We all have things that we’re focused on, to the point of obsession. Maybe not to the degree that Nolan’s characters are; but like in all entertainment, while we may find similarities between ourselves and the grandiose characters we watch or read about – it’s how much further they are taken, that leaves us breathless and wanting more.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump more into the other parts of INCEPTION, that I have not been able to get out of my brain. The main question that everyone seems to be thinking over, and discussing is whether the movie takes place or ends in reality or entirely within the dream-world. I’ve heard arguments both ways, I’ve seen comments that say watching the movie a second time makes it more clear in a certain way or another; and I have to say, I’m still not entirely sure. But, I’m going to come to that question more, later.


First of all is the main plot of the story – taking everything for what we see it as – people are still confused as to what’s happening where and how one level affects another. The main thing to remember is that the person that is awake on a dream-level, is the one that is the person whose dream they are in. So, at the beginning of the movie when Cobb and Arthur are talking to Saito, they are in Arthur’s dream. As soon as he is awoken, by the gunshot to the head; that dream starts to crumble – because he was awoken before the time was up. When all of the characters are awake in Saito’s apartment, they are in the dream of Nash (Lukas Haas), as identified when they scold him for making a faulty carpet. This is why when the “projections” invade the apartment, they only attack him. When they are all awoken on the next level, they’re in the “real world”, on the train in Japan.

During the final “heist”, so to speak, the levels are controlled by: Yusuf (Dileep Rao), when they initially kidnap Fischer and drive the van off the bridge; Arthur, when they’re in the hotel, and he’s fighting people in zero-gravity; and Eames (Tom Hardy) on the snowy compound level. When the

y go down to the next level – Limbo, as it’s called – to retrieve Fischer and confront Mal; they’re no longer, exactly in anyone’s dream. It’s just pure subconscious, which is why you can easily lose track of reality and grow old and lose your mind by the time you’re actually awoken. Limbo in the case of this story, is built by the person who has been there before – in this case Cobb. That’s why the world they enter is all of the stuff that he says he built with his wife long ago. So in effect, Limbo is in Cobb’s mind.

Some of the interesting ideas for the dream world of INCEPTION, is it’s use of impacting of a current world by the one above it. Again, as we have seen on the hotel level, where Arthur is left to fight off a number of “Projections”, in altered or zero gravity; this is because of the van swerving or diving off the bridge on the level above it. What a lot of people have wondered or criticized is why when Arthur opens the door, the rest of the team are all just floating in the hotel room, as opposed to having been tossed all around. My thought on this – and it’s not so much “well, it’s all a dream” as much as it is, they were dead weight (asleep). Arthur is flying all around, because he was running through the hallways, exerting force against gravity. So, when he’s running and gravity shifts, he flops around. Cobb and the rest were laying down, so when gravity switched or went to nothing, they weren’t opposing it, and therefore just lifted off the ground.

Certain people also wonder why the next level of dream – the snow lodge – isn’t also affected by the gravity shift. It could just be a flaw in the logic of the filmmaking, but I took it that those things only affected one level at a time, from dream to dream. But, then there’s the music, which is played as a warning, and I feel like maybe that breaks the rule. So, I’m not sure.

But, finally, there are the “kicks”.

We’re told and shown a number of times (poor Arthur), how a kick supposedly works. Yet despite that, the only time a character wakes up from just the imbalance of falling, is in-fact when we see the montage of Arthur. Every other time – at the beginning when Cobb is kicked into the tub; when the van is falling – no one wakes up until they hit the water. Seems a little like a tool that’s only utilized when it’s convenient. And I’m not quite sure how the kick that was supposedly used to wake up the team from the winter-hide-a-way to the hotel level in the elevator worked. I get what the idea was supposed to be behind the elevator idea. Arthur tied them to the floor of the elevator that was supposed to initiate the kick, when he set off the explosives to make the elevator drop (or was it going up?), but I just don’t know that I buy it’d cause the same “falling sensation” that a kick should.


Limbo has been another point of contention. How do you enter or leave it? To the first, how to get into Limbo. As it’s described in the final part of the movie; it’s that the sedative they initially took – in the waking world – is so strong that their minds won’t wake up, if they get killed in the dream world. So, instead their psyche essentially will go nowhere; or in other words, their subconscious will take over and make them forget that they’re dreaming.

Which is essentially what happened to Cobb and Mal previously, when they spent years creating their own world. Somehow Cobb was able realize they weren’t awake, and convinced Mal that their world wasn’t real – which was also his original inception.

When Cobb washes up on the shore, at the beginning of the movie and after Fischer and Ariadne have left Limbo at the end; that’s his entering of Limbo to approach Saito. I don’t quite get why, or how, he had to re-enter through the “Sea of Uncertainty”. We see in the emotional climax of the movie that Cobb and Mal, who also lost themselves in the dream world, grew old together – and maybe it’s because Cobb’s obsession with going further and further into the levels of dreams that kept him from losing sight of reality.  Saito is old, however, because he died in the dream world. This left his mind open for his subconscious to take over, and so he’s sat in the building, growing old and wasting away.


One of the most interesting things introduced in INCEPTION is the idea of “totems”. An item that only it’s holder should be intimate enough to know whether the weight of it is right or off, as it might be in a dream by someone else. The most interesting of these that we see is of course the spinning top. The only other two we get a glimpse of are Arthur’s loaded die, and Ariadne’s chess piece. The die I can see how it might work – in a dream it might come up as a number other than what the weight should make it land on. But, the chess piece, I don’t know that I get how it’d work.

Also, a big argument into the whole “was it reality or all a dream” argument is that Cobb’s top was actually his wife’s. And we see that it’s the tool used to implant the idea in Mal that her world – any world – is not reality. So Cobb using this same device to gauge his own sense of reality is questionable. The one thing I thought was going to happen when the totems were introduced, was that we would clearly see someone alter someone’s totem to screw them up – which as mentioned, we did. But, especially in the moment after Cobb wakes up from testing Yusuf’s drugs, and he goes into the bathroom to test his totem. We first see him drop it, and not get to test; but more importantly Saito was standing right there.

Alas, that’s as much as there really is about totems.


So, the end – and maybe the entire movie; is it real or is it all a dream? There’s two definite answers to this question as I see it. And the first, is the most meta-textual; it is all a dream. But, not of any of the characters in the movie. It’s all the dream of Christopher Nolan, and I believe that this is what’s meant to be said with how the movie ends. The top, which isn’t shown to either keep going, or to stop; is the last thing we see before we wake up. We wake up from the shared dream of Nolan’s mind.

Okay, so you’re calling foul on that position. But, in the end, it’s really the inarguable truth of the whole movie.

Now as for the movie itself. There are a number of things that point to it all being part of a dream of Cobb’s or some other character. This is most present in how people keep telling him to wake up, or return to reality, or to take a leap of faith. There’s the argument that it’s a little convenient that Saito shows up just in the nick of time to save Cobb from the Cobol guys. There’s also comments I’ve seen about how the building seems to close around Cobb as he’s escaping. In both cases, I think there’s a reasonable explanation that makes these two issue not mean that it’s a dream.

For Saito showing up; this is a regular staple of thrillers where an ally shows up to save the hero in a moment of danger. And if it’s good enough for the Millennium Falcon in STAR WARS, then it’s fine here. Also, it helps to build the mystery of exactly how Saito will fit into this whole scheme. For the closing building; the crack that he’s going through is built on a circular road from the front – as we see. So, it only makes sense that from the back the gap would be wider and then narrower at the front. Because architects usually have a thing about creating square buildings.

But the main thing for me, that leads me to believe that we actually do see both the dream and the waking world, is that we’re not given anything to say we’re not supposed to believe what we’re shown. An article I read, said that it’s because we, the audience, aren’t given a totem; something to prove to us what’s actually the real world or what’s a dream. If the movie was meant to all take place in a dream, or limbo; then instead of ending the movie with a cut-short image of the top spinning, it would seem that we should have a final image of eyes (Cobb’s most likely) opening.

Then cut to black.

The top, while it’s inferred that it could be a contaminated object, is shown a number of times falling over. The reason I think we see reality, is that in a dream world, where Cobb has deluded himself that the top does fall; then there wouldn’t be a mystery at the end after we’ve seen it fall a couple times. Plus, we even have a moment where Cobb spins his top and holds a gun up; showing that he’s prepared to pull the trigger if the top didn’t fall. Which says to me that he’s not looking to delude himself into staying in a dream. That is why I like the idea of ending the movie with it still spinning and leaving it up to us whether it falls and Cobb has fallen into limbo, where he’s happier just to be with his kids.

And that’s all I can think of. So, let me know how wrong I am, what I missed, or what your own thoughts are. I still hold that this isn’t my favorite of Nolan’s movies, but it’s definitely one that won’t leave my mind. The fun thing about movies like this – and most of Nolan’s work – are the discussions it starts; the differing of opinions (sometimes to the point of arguments and hate-mail); and most important how it seems to make people excited for movies. Which is an inception of it’s own.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Film School by Phone, John Muth. John Muth said: My thinking through of the mysteries of INCEPTION: http://wp.me/ps9nC-az […]

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