The question isn’t whether Cobb is still dreaming at the end of Inception – but who was dreaming Cobb.
Inception (noun): the establishment or starting point of an institution or activity.
Inception is a beautiful film about the nature of reality. It’s constructed from a complex series of interlaced red herrings – but, because it’s so beautiful, it’s hard to feel short changed by that.
On release in 2010, the main bone of contention was the almost-twist at the end of the film, which leaves the audience wondering whether protagonist Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in fact still dreaming. The internet has almost as many theories about this as it does cat pics, but the one I lean towards is that what we see on screen is Cobb being beaten at his own game.
Reversal of fortune
Cobb is an ‘extractor’: a bounty hunter of dreams. He uses dream-sharing technology to infiltrate someone’s subconscious and steal their most guarded secrets. Then a powerful business man, Saito (Ken Watanabe), asks him to do the opposite – to break into someone’s subconscious but plant an idea.
“You’re asking me for inception,” Cobb tells Saito: “I hope you do understand the gravity of that request.” What Saito is asking for can change a man – it can come to define him. Earlier in the film, Cobb asks Saito what the most resilient parasite is: a bacteria? A virus … an idea?
“Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it – but it stays there.” ~ Cobb
That’s what ‘inception’ is, both literally and thematically. Inception is the act of planting an idea, and what the film goes on to show is one particular attempt to jump-start inspiration. But it’s also what the movie is about, with Cobb’s backstory revealing he’s done this before: he planted the idea in his wife’s subconscious that caused her to kill herself.
Inception is famous for its layers of meaning and dream within a dream within a dream concept – so it’s not such a leap to imagine that what Cobb thinks he’s doing to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is what’s being done to Cobb himself. Someone’s planting an idea in Cobb’s brain, and they’re go to great lengths to make it plausible: but what’s the idea, and why?
The dream team
Assuming the film does actually start in what we think of as reality, this is what we find:
- You can’t just tell someone to think something because, as point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains, the subconscious always knows it’s not an original thought. Like a body rejecting a transplant organ, the mind intuits the deception and rejects the idea.
- In order to get Fischer to generate the idea for himself, Cobb’s heist team uses a dream within a dream within a dream, taking Fischer further and further into his subconscious.
- Cobb’s team use their skills to make the deception flawless. New recruit Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the architect who creates believable and complex dream worlds; while forger Eames wears a number of disguises, including masquerading as Fischer’s Uncle Peter. It’s also Eames who claims the key to Fischer’s subconscious is his relationship with his father. That sets the scene for the actual ‘heist’: Fischer breaks into a safe which holds the new idea – that he can be his own man. Fischer therefore plants the idea for himself.
- The team also includes chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who mixes the drugs that keep them all asleep long enough to set-up multi-level dreaming. Yusuf has form in this area, seeing as he runs what looks like a modern day opium den, with chains of dreamers all hooked up to the same dream: “The dream has become their reality”.
- The team tell Saito they have “no room for tourists” but he comes along for the ride anyway. While he plays a significant role in the ensuring the successful plant, he has no pre-defined role.
Strike that. Reverse it.
Here’s what also happens in Inception:
- You can’t just tell someone what to think, because the mind always figures the deception – you have to make it believable; you have to coach the subject to hack their own subconscious.
- In order to get Cobb to generate the idea for himself, the team uses a dream within a dream within a dream to take him way down into his own subconscious.
- The team use their skills to make the deception flawless. When Saito dies and falls into limbo, Cobb has to go after him – so Saito, exactly as he says, is no tourist: he’s a key player. That sets the scene for the actual heist: Cobb can’t just be “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”, but he has to discover the idea for himself.
What’s the big idea?
Early in the film, Cobb hints that he knows inception can be done. In fact, we learn that he did it to his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Trying to snap her out of her attachment to the dream world, he breaks into her subconscious and plants the idea that her world isn’t real: she has to wake up. It backfires. When they finally awake, Mal is still convinced she’s dreaming; that this isn’t reality. Eventually she kills herself in order to return to the reality she thinks is still out there.
Cobb’s guilt and regret consume him. He can keep neither his dream world, nor his memories of Mal, clear of reality. Mal – his subconscious – constantly breaks through.
“You think you can just build a prison of memories to lock her in? You think that’s going to contain her?” ~ Ariadne
It’s interesting that Ariadne calls Cobb’s memories a constructed prison. When Cobb initially explains dream architecture to her, he explains they: “build a bank vault or a jail, something secure”.
While the heist is disguised as breaking into Fischer’s subconscious, it’s also a way for Cobb to face his own guilt and finally release Mal. It’s only by returning to limbo – supposedly to rescue Saito – that Cobb can find his way back to reality. Limbo is Cobb’s safe, and the entire plot is a means of getting Cobb back there.
The smoking gun
Inception is built around repetition. Plots mirror each other, and characters say the same lines several times but in different locations (“paradox!”).
The main trope is the idea of regret – or, rather, no regrets. Saito and Cobb discuss several times the idea of rejecting the fate of “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”. Cobb talks about the moment he’ll always regret. The dreamers use the Edith Piaf song Je Ne Regrette Rien (‘I regret nothing’) to cue the kick that wakes them up at each level of the dream world. The film’s soundtrack is also composed of that same song slowed down massively – something revealed at the very end of the closing credits. It’s as if someone is giving Cobb an audio clue throughout the entire film … it’s time to wake up and stop dwelling on regret.
Fischer’s moment of realisation comes when his father dies (or as he re-imagines it in the dream world). This is repeated one level down in limbo: Cobb re-imagines a death-bed scene with Mal, in which he finds his own truth. It’s not that he feels guilty about Mal, but that he’s ready to make peace with it:
“I couldn’t make you real. I’m not capable of imagining you in all your complexity and… perfection. As you really were. You’re the best I can do. And you’re not real.”
If Inception really is an intervention story, it’s not clear who ultimately pulls the strings. Ariadne, as the newest recruit to the squad, plays the part of the ‘audience’, in that Cobb explains to her (and therefore to us) how the technology works. Whichever theory you go with, it’s Ariadne who spells it out. It’s through her scenes/speeches that we learn how dream heists work, the significance of totems, and Mal’s hold over Cobb.
It seems strange for a neophyte to be quite so knowing; she even becomes something of a psychologist to explain how Cobb’s subconscious is manipulating him. Ultimately, she also spells out what they’re doing to Cobb:
“Your guilt defines her. Powers her. If we’re going to succeed in this, you’re going to have to forgive yourself, and you’re going to have to confront her. But you don’t have to do it alone.”
And Cobb isn’t alone. He has a whole cast of characters guiding him through the maze. As with her mythological namesake, Ariadne provides the thread that leads Cobb back to reality, just as she did for Theseus.
Notes & repetitions
- As with an intervention, several characters try to get Cobb to see sense. Miles tells Cobb to come back to reality. After being attacked by Mal, Arthur and Ariadne also try to reason with Cobb. Cobb rejects their ideas because his mind knows they come from someone else.
- When Saito and Cobb meet in limbo, Cobb repeats fragments of conversations with Mal. He speaks with confusion, as though he too is remembering something from a long time ago: that “this world is not real” and they have to “take a leap of faith”.
- While they’re not carbon copies, the hotel that Cobb ‘remembers’ when Mal jumps from the window is visually similar to the one used in the dream heist. Both have dark, brown colour schemes, and distinctive round lamp shades on the ceilings. Both are based on (but not exactly like) Cobb’s memory – just as he advises Ariadne in creating stable dream worlds.
- When Cobb goes to meet Miles in Paris, Cobb ‘appears’ in the lecture hall without Miles noticing him – suggesting that too is part of the dream/Cobb’s inception.
- Cobb tells Ariadne that the dreamer dreams the dream, but the subject fills it with his/her subconscious. Because Cobb is the subject, Mal is able to infiltrate at each level. None of the other characters (other than pseudo-subject Fischer) have this problem.
Other theories about Inception
- The film is an allegory for film-making. Eames changes his face just as an actor does, Ariadne is the screenwriter creating fantasy worlds, and Yusuf manufactures the special effects. That makes the viewer the subject of the inception, with the film planting several ideas for us to uncover: the nature of reality, for one.
- Cobb doesn’t wake up at the end of Inception, because he never work up previously. When Cobb and Mal initially climb out of limbo, we only see them wake up once (i.e., rather than ride the kicks all the way to the top as the rest of the team have to). Intervention or not, Inception is Cobb’s dream and he’s asleep the whole time.
- The spinning top isn’t Cobb’s totem; he never explicitly claims it is. His totem may actually be his wedding ring, which only appears when he’s dreaming. I’m not convinced by this, because of the way Cobb relies on the spinning top. In one early scene, he even spins the totem with one hand, and holds a gun in the other – ready to shoot himself awake if need be: that’s how much trust he puts in it. That said, Arthur’s claim that you can’t share a totem is troubling (or a red herring).
- Inception is one big dream: like any dream, the film starts in the middle, and we’re never entirely sure how we got there. I dispute this, because the film goes on to show exactly how we’ve arrived there. It’s a neat idea, though: the kick song we hear throughout, and which ends the movie, is actually the audience’s cue to wake up and return to reality. That actually ties in more with the allegory of film-making and how stories work.
- Director Christopher Nolan’s explanation of the end scene: it’s not a question of Cobb still being asleep, but that reality is what we make it.
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