It’s been another long stint since my last post, but after watching Christopher Nolan’s excellent Inception this week, I felt a review/analysis comin’, so here it is, with the ending of this movie fully explained!
As usual, I like to start my analysis with some notes on names, so let’s start with the name of the movie. “Inception” comes from the literal latin translation of “in” + “seize” (“-ception” is related to “carpe” in carpe diem). Figuratively, it means “seize in hand“. In English, the word means the start of a new idea or venture. Why is this important? Because in the film, seeded ideas come from “physical” things that must be held in hand. We’ll come back to this later.
While I’m not sure of all the name origins, I can take a guess at a couple. Cobb, the main character, shares his name with the protagonist from Nolan’s first film The Following, who was also a thief and interpreter. Eames the forger is named after the famous architects / designers Charles and Ray Eames. Yusuf the chemist is named for the Islamic version of the Biblical character Joseph (and his technicolor dreamcoat), a man taught by God to interpret dreams.
And finally, Ariadne the architect’s name is a direct reference to the daughter of the King of Minos in the Greek myth. I find that name especially important because in the myth, Ariadne helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur at the center of the maze. In the movie, she creates the mazes, but also helps Cobb defeat his minotaur as well (his ex-wife Mal) at the center of his own maze (limbo). Even her plan to have them jump into limbo together is a metaphorical handing of mythical Ariadne’s ball of string to Theseus, allowing him to come back from the labyrinth.
Since some people were confused about why Mal is in Cobb’s head, let me explain. Mal and Cobb went so far into limbo that they didn’t want to return to reality. Over dream time, as Cobb realized the dream wasn’t real, he had to convince Mal to leave. Taking her totem, he spun it into perpetual motion to remind her it was dream. Convinced by this inception, Mal went along with the escape, laying on train tracks reciting words she would later recall before committing suicide:
“You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You can’t be sure where it will take you. But it doesn’t matter – because we’ll be together.”
This idea that your current reality could be a dream is an idea-virus, as it has no final answer and leads to self-destruction. Cobb escapes this virus when Mal tells him to choose her reality. He chooses the real world even when you can never know if it’s really a dream or not. If you were keeping track, this happens all in Fischer’s mind, although when they reach limbo, Fischer is no longer in control and it is Cobb’s subconscious, triggered by entering Fischer’s limbo, that has taken over.
It’s this choice, picking which dream you want as your reality; that is the crucial question. And the final, most revealing shot in the film answers this. Did the top fall over? The movie answer is yes. While we can’t say that any layer of the movie is definitively dream or reality, the final shot happens in the layer where Cobb knows his top topples.
But this is not important to him. In fact, Cobb walks away from the top to tell us that he doesn’t care if it will topple because he’s chosen his reality already. The only one watching that top is us, the audience. The camera dollying non-diegetically towards the spinning top implies we’re the ones asking the question.
So the reality answer is no, where the cut to credits happens leaves us with only the image of the spinning top for as long as we can remember his movie. The movie, then, is itself a “dream”, it’s mere cinematic smoke and mirrors, and therefore if we were using Cobb’s rules it shouldn’t stop spinning. Nolan has done to us what Cobb did to Mal: plant a parasitic idea in our mind. The movie Inception is Nolan’s inception in us, and just like Cobb, it was done with what Eames described as the most subtle idea, a mere emotion.
For Fischer and Sakai, this simple token was a written will or document in a safe, for us (and Mal) it was the spinning top that became Cobb’s totem. These are things we can believe are “in hand”, the literal meaning of “inception”. The trick is the top in the last shot is not real, but we all choose at the end whether the top spins forever or topples, it’s humanly impossible to not pick one of these results. Therefore what we ultimately believe in means a conscious choice of dream or reality. We will “carry” the image of that last shot with us as proof, it becomes our totem.
And so the true answer is we choose what we want from the movie because just watching it is a form of lucid dreaming. While we’re watching the movie, it is our reality to interpret as we wish. And there is nothing wrong with that, nor any other reality we choose, cinematic or otherwise, spin or topple. I’ll leave you with the seminal words spoken in the opium den:
“They come here to be woken up. Their dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”
And that is the definition of the entertainment experience.