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Inception: Theories, Points & Counterpoints

by on July 29, 2010

Yappers Nick Rogers, Christopher Lloyd and Austin Lugar dissect and discuss “Inception’s” true outcome. Obviously, MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS, and please join the debate with comments.

Nick Rogers
One ticket to “Inception” should cost about $750. Theater ushers could then give three hours of college credit to departing patrons in lieu of mints.

Intelligent, witty and exhilarating, “Inception” knocks you flat with punches of sheer spectacle and pop psychology no other summer 2010 film (hell, no other 2010 film, period) has even bothered to throw.

So few movies demand such attention, and Christopher Nolan’s too busy throwing haymakers to hold the audience’s hand through this mammoth mindgame — a film that, at first blush, feels like the bravest, boldest, most bracing blockbuster since “The Matrix.” Its inter-dream audacity makes “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” look like a Little Einstein title.

Nolan’s latest dangerous tumble down a rabbit hole of perception, identity and memory might be his masterpiece. It might also be the one most open to narrative interpretation.


In many ways, being taken by “Inception” is like being swept up in street magic: For all its complexities and exposition, there are simple illusions and emotions at play that dazzle the most. The same thing went for certain episodes, and later the ultimate endgame, of “Lost”: For all of the scientific-notation talk of “constants,” it boiled down to love and togetherness.

Those are present in “Inception,” too — very much a story of fathers & sons and husbands & wives, albeit viewed through a grimy prism. We all have dreams of success and comfort for our children and spouses that we hope become reality. Well, in “Inception,” you may see those dreams play out (at least in part), but they might simply remain dreams.


While this doesn’t begin to detail everything that happens in “Inception,” here’s the main crux (which could serve as a recap for those who got temporarily lost). Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a single-minded man: He wants to get home to his kids, Phillipa and James, after being forced to flee the United States. The latest job presented to him by Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes that possible for him: Plant an idea inside a rival competitor’s mind to break up his company.

Think of this heist film as “Ocean’s Pi” and Dom — in DiCaprio’s best performance in years — as a man who values the solace of theft over the pain of creation for good reason.

Dom’s an international fugitive after authorities believe he murdered his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). In actuality, Mal took her own life.

After spending a lifetime in a shared subconscious with Dom — a lazy afternoon in real time — Mal didn’t want to leave to return to Phillipa and James, fascinated by the god-playing world she and Dom had created.

To persuade her to return, Dom performed “inception,” planting an idea in her mind — that idea being that the world they were in wasn’t actually real and that it didn’t matter if they died there because they’d always have each other in the real world.

The problem is that this belief carried over into the real world, which Mal also believed to be false and a place where they couldn’t actually die — tragically not the case when she took a nosedive off a hotel windowsill. (Here, “Inception” approaches the cautionary-tale aspects of “Altered States.”)

In the end, Dom, having carried out Saito’s heist mission despite breakneck complications, returns to Phillipa and James on American soil. But before embracing them, he spins his dreidel on a dining-room table. The dreidel is Dom’s totem, a unique way for him and him alone to discern reality from dreams. If it topples, he’s in reality. If it continues spinning, he’s in a dream. Although it audibly slows, Nolan cuts to credits before we know for certain.

Yes, “Inception” can be enjoyed on its surface purely as a cerebral ride with a wicked stinger tease. However, in a film that takes place within dreams, dreams within dreams, dreams within dreams within dreams and, in the climax, the raw landscape of the subconscious, it should surprise no one that the narrative’s face value could easily be discarded.

(On a side note, I don’t know whether “Inception” will contend for a Best Picture Oscar. But if there’s a better-edited film this year, I want to see it right now. At one point, Lee Smith simultaneously edits together five — count ’em, five — layers of consciousness with suggested hints to an invisible sixth.)

While I think it’s impossible to grasp beyond basic to moderate narrative understanding after the strap-in, hang-on feel of the first-time viewing (especially with Watanabe’s strained English-language dialogue), suggestions are sprinkled throughout that the final moments are all in Dom’s head (from the moment he willfully stays in Fischer’s subconscious to the final shot). In some regards, that makes it a mega, meta “Memento.”

Perhaps the entire film is, too, save for sequences in Dom and Mal’s initial shared subconscious and the torturous reality following their departure from it.

Here are my rationales, and Christopher Lloyd’s counterpoints, discussing the theory that Dom’s regained freedom and family in the finale are not to be taken as literal reality, but as a wish-fulfillment fragment of his slumbering subconscious.

As it’s said in the movie, “The deeper the issues, the stronger the catharsis,” and “Truth? What truth?”

1. Where’s Grandma?
Unless I missed her somehow, where was “Grandma” in that final scene? Dom’s mother was presumably watching the kids while Dom’s father, Miles (Michael Caine), was off at a foreign university, right? Subconsciously, Dom has no idea who’s watching his kids now or where they’ve ended up. He’d like to think they’re playing in the idyllic backyard of Grandma’s house, so that’s where he envisions them.

Chris: Maybe grandma and Michael Caine are divorced and hate each other.

Nick: That’s a big leap of faith to make. Given the family fallout resulting from Mal’s suicide, I’d think Nolan would bring that up were it to be true.

2. How old are those kids again?
As to those kids, notice how they never seemed to age. And, again, unless I missed it, there was never a specific amount of time mentioned that Dom had been away from them (although it was long enough for it to have become a burden). Perhaps they’re at the idealized age at which he chooses to remember them in his subconscious.

Chris: The kids did age. I know this only because I spotted in the end credits two different sets of actors. It said James, 20 months and James, 3 years, etc.

Nick: Good counterpoint. I saw that credit notation, too, but didn’t know whether they’d been played in a flashback sequence. I still think the lack of explanation for how long Dom’s been away — and presumably able to build some sort of business around his technology — seems suspicious.


3. One call solves it all.
After at least touching upon the intricacies of extradition in “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan pretty much just leaves it at the idea that Saito can make a call and get Dom back in the United States — and under his own name, no less. That seems like an atypical gap for Nolan and perhaps a tad too easy for it to be reality.

Chris: I thought of this same point. You could also argue that if he really wanted his life back, he could have targeted the governor of his home state and planted the inception: “I must grant Dom Cobb a full pardon.” Probably a lot easier to get to a governor than businessman Fischer (Cillian Murphy), or Saito, for that matter.

Nick: Ha. When you phrase it that way, it makes me think of Reggie Jackson believing he must kill the Queen in “The Naked Gun.” To me, a lack of explanation for Saito’s pull was the biggest smoking gun for the argument that the reunion is not to be believed.

4. Geek out on Greek mythology.
Nick: Apart from being the noble bearer of reams of exposition, Ellen Page’s dream-architect character is Ariadne, whose namesake is famous for giving Theseus (Dom) a sword and thread to lead him out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur (Mal). However, Theseus abandons Ariadne (much as Dom does in choosing to stay in the subconscious and not following Ariadne out). Perhaps Dom, like an addict, is creating loopholes in his mind that he thinks will lead him out and, in conjuring new characters in his mind, is drawing on his knowledge of Greek mythology.

Chris: Yes, the mythology allegory was fairly obvious, and I think just thrown in to show off how literate Nolan is.

Nick: Greek mythology: Always worth paying attention in class.

5. Arthur seems too good for that.
For me, this was the biggest huh-what: Dom’s heist pointman, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), doesn’t anticipate that Fischer’s brain would have had a militarized subconscious from training to prevent extraction/inception?! That seems unexpectedly sloppy for a notably fastidious guy like Arthur. Maybe that was another manifestation of Dom’s brain showing the impossibility of ever really getting home.

Chris: Meh. If he’s so fastidious, how come he didn’t notice Dom’s obsession with Mal that kept ruining their missions? Besides, it would be hard to know if an exec received dream training unless you tapped his dreams first. It’s not like there’s a Web listserv where dream companies post a list of their clients. Now maybe if you tapped the CEO of a dream company …

Nick: This is the sticking point that ties a couple of my theories together. OK, so the supposition is that Dom’s been away from his kids long enough to turn his dream-invasion technology into some sort of business, recruit a team and have people (like Tom Hardy’s Eames) who he’s worked with “in the past.” If Dom’s team didn’t teach Fischer in the art of avoiding extraction/inception, then who did? Is dream invasion a growth market? I don’t recall mention of any sort of competitor to Dom’s services.

Maybe, as there was no spoon in “The Matrix,” there is no business. Maybe Dom was just a scientist tragically caught up in his own research, now subconsciously envisioning this as a likely application for his work. (He could be forever asleep in an environment like the one Yusuf [Dileep Rao] shows him.)  Also, Arthur did know Mal was tampering with their missions; she shot him in the prologue dream with Saito. He just didn’t know Dom had stashed her away in a metaphysical memory hotel, as Ariadne learned when she took the elevator down to Dom’s brain basement.

Yes, I just typed that previous sentence about a major summer blockbuster.

Austin: I need to see it again for a lot of these points. During the movie, I had a theory that Mal was never real, but an inception planted by Arthur. That was mostly from odd lines like Cobb saying they met in a dream and seeing how her presence defines his entire situation. Their warnings about inceptions ran parallel to her involvement in his life. I’m not sure if that plays out, but I think it just works best as a thematic parallel.

I could just be the romantic or hopeful, but I’m not sure if I want to think that the totem keeps spinning at the end. Thematically, that just felt like less of a cliffhanger, but Nolan giving a “THE END????” type of shot. I think it’s too cruel to think that Dom doesn’t get to be with his kids at the end; even though it may just be a year or so in the real world, he had to endure potentially more than 100 years to get to that point.

Nick: That’s certainly an optimistic view and one that’s wholly possible. If Mal wasn’t real, though (an idea I’d love you to elaborate on), who fathered Dom’s kids?