The closed loop: 9 notes about the mysteries of Christopher Nolan's Inception

A film is a ribbon of dreams.” ---Orson Welles

"I'm not sure what I just saw, but I liked it." ---overheard after watching Inception

(note: spoilers)

While I had issues with some of its cynical/ cheesy The Spy Who Loved Me action scenes, I liked the way Inception provoked all kinds of associations and questions:

1) Some opening definitions:

inception: the act of planting an idea in someone's mind in his/her subconsciousness via a dream (or dreams).

architect: the designer of a dream. Architects build M. C. Escher-esque mazes that disguise how they are closed loops. Ariadne (Ellen Page) gets the job of being an architect by drawing mazes that frustrate Cobb's ability to decipher them within a minute or two. At first, when she draws rectangular mazes, she does not succeed. When she switches over to a circular maze, Cobb is more impressed. Similarly, Inception circles back on itself by the end of the film.

extractor: the main person who steals secrets from people's dreams.

totem: a small device that can tell the dream infiltrating crew member if he or she is still in a dream. Cobb carries a top that he spins. If the top keeps spinning, he knows he's still stuck in a dream.

forger: someone who pretends to be someone else in a dream.

kick: the action needed to wake someone up, such as dipping him/her into a bathtub, reminiscent of the hypnagogic jerk, the sensation of falling when beginning to fall asleep.

2) Some authors, such as Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, liked to write in a hypnagogic state, when they had some access to the free associations of the unconscious. In Through the Looking Glass, for example, Alice suffers an Inception-like moment when Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell her that she's only a "sort of thing" in the red King's dream. When she starts to cry, Tweedledum retorts"You know very well you're not real."

3) The gang of operatives in Inception work much like specialized thieves in a heist film, but one can also compare them to the members of a filmmaking crew, with the architect being the set designer/ cinematographer, the extractor as the director, the forger (s) as actors, etc. More than most recent movies, Inception is about the making of itself, a meta-cinematic film, and it increasingly moves toward a feeling of enclosure in the psychological hall of mirrors or multi-layer wedding cake of its dreams.

4) Inception views like a revised and improved Shutter Island at times. Shutter Island has two large problems for me:

a) No sane insane asylum director would allow one of his clearly insane inmates to run free through the compound, attacking guards and blowing up a car, etc.

b) I found the big secret of the film--Teddy Daniel's wife flips out and kills her children--too melodramatic and histrionic, although it certainly justifies why Teddy (DiCaprio) would have to repress his knowledge of that crime and invent a system of delusions to replace it.

Similarly, in Inception Cobb has to repress what happened to his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) so that he can continue to meet with her in his dreams. As a projection of his guilt and love, Mal proves highly problematic to the success of his various missions to extract things from people's dreams. If Cobb is a kind of Daedalus who, along with Ariadne, manufactures mazes, Mal is the Minotaur. It makes sense that Ellen Page's character is named Ariadne, because she assists Theseus (also Cobb?) in overcoming the Minotaur. I'm not sure that she fully succeeds in Inception.

Both Shutter Island and Inception feature scenes where DiCaprio washes his face and looks in the mirror. Instead of fully repressing his memories, however, Cobb keeps Mal in a sequence of subconscious spaces much like floors in a building, what Ariadne calls a "prison of memories to lock her in." On the basement floor (reminiscent of Dante's Inferno and Angel Heart (1987)), she finds the room where Mal committed suicide.

5) Given how Inception can easily fall prey to solipsism, I liked the way Nolan emphasized Mal's, and by extension, Cobb's existential entrapment in this prison of memory-based artificial dreams. Is Nolan hinting at the Hitchcock-like power of the director using movies to revisit his obsessions? Is this dream entrapment a metaphor for our media-saturated age where, given unpleasant things like global warming going on outside, we manufacture air-conditioned high-definition environments of perpetual distraction and delusion? There's a scene early in Inception when Cobb comes upon a group of sleeping men in a near-perpetual dream state. Is this opium den-like atmosphere a metaphor for the audience of the film?

6) When Ariadne comes upon two mirrors facing each other, she brings them together to create an infinite series of reflections of herself and Cobb, much like a similar scene late in Citizen Kane. In the Orson Welles film, the mirroring emphasizes how Kane has gotten lost in his lying yellow journalistic media reflections, but what does the image imply in Inception? Something about the replicating dream reflections of Cobb's grief and guilt over Mal?

7) I especially liked the last scene of Inception where Nolan leaves it ambiguous as to whether the film has a happy or a sad ending. With dreamlike ease, Cobb arrives in the United States, breezes his way through customs, sees his gang cheerfully arriving as well, and then abruptly gets a ride from Miles (Michael Caine) to his own house where Cobb can finally see his long lost children. To check to see if he's dreaming, he spins his totemic top on a table, but then, for the first time in the movie, he sees his children's faces. Overcome with emotion, he walks up to hug them, and then the camera swerves back to the spinning top. Will it stop spinning? Shouldn't it have stopped by now? The top almost seems to slow down a bit, and then the movie is over. In the theater where I saw Inception, the audience loudly gasped. What just happened?

8) One could say the ending is perfect for the marketplace, which demands reassurance at the end of a movie for it to be successful. Or is the ending a perfect Rorschach test? If the audience wants a happy ending, Nolan has supplied it. That positively inclined audience member needs only to assume the top will stop spinning. Meanwhile, the more cynical critical types (such as myself) can assume that the top will not quit, thereby negating the entire mood shift of the end of the film, which makes the conclusion resemble the ironic "happy ending" of Robert Altman's The Player.

9) The last scenes do have a suspicious wish-fulfilling ease to them. Once their last plan succeeds, Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes a phone call to obtain official permission to allow Cobb to return to the States, but is that possible? What of the extra smooth quick transitions when Cobb arrives home so quickly? Why haven't his children noticeably aged? Perhaps, like Mal, Cobb has allowed himself to get trapped in a maze of dreams, a closed loop of his own, and by implication Inception's construction. In a manner reminiscent of the Bierce's conclusion for "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge," Nolan ironically ends his film with Cobb deluding himself of his wish fulfilled.

If Cobb dreams the end, who is responsible? Where is he sleeping? What's going on? At this point, I have no idea.

Related links:

Dileep Rao's interpretation of Inception
Salon's explanation of the movie
interview with Chris Nolan
Cinematical's 6 interpretations of Inception


Stephen Dedalus said…
Good post. I enjoyed your interpretation of the film as a sort of meta-representation of the filmmaking process itself.

In regards to the ending, I like this comment plucked from Slashfilm's discussions:

MJT 5 hours ago
The top spinning at the end can be interpreted in a few ways. The entire movie could have been a dream (and thus we went a dream, within a dream, within a dream, etc - one dream further than expected), and this was his way of solving those demons...but he's still only in a dream. The top spins on. We all saw the wobble, which of course leads to the discussion of: does it fall or does it keep going, but let's assume the latter for the time being.

The other is that they completed the mission, but Cobb was still stuck in limo. A new dream began when he woke up on the plane. We don't remember how dreams start - the cut to that shot of him waking up seemed to imply a new dream.

That said, in either case...who's dreaming? Is someone invading this new dream? Is it his own universe he created one more layer up?

I think a lot can be discussed about whether Cobb ultimately got what he wanted, even if it wasn't a genuine reality. But then, as this movie somewhat showed, where does reality end and the dream begin, and vice versa? As a friend of mine brought up to me after the movie, think of Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream.

During the movie, I realized all of these great actors signed on to do seemingly bland and undefined roles - but I credit Nolan too much to believe that they were truly boring characters. I started viewing them as parts of COBB'S projection, if the ENTIRE movie was a dream of his. Thus the architect who's young, careless, and a genius becomes a facet of COBB. Ergo, Ellen Page's character is a reflection of an aspect of Cobb. Each person's strengths and weaknesses, albeit at times somewhat vague, expands on Cobb's character. The world isn't populated with thin characters, but instead, Cobb's own projections of himself. Everyone in our dream's is a reflection of ourselves.

Under those suspicions, I loved the film even more. While it left some philosophical territory unexplored, the fact that this movie truly could be, depending on the interpretation of the ending, a giant character piece is absolutely fascinating. Every aspect of this movie - if the entire thing is a dream, which clearly I buy into - is thus an exploration of this one singular character, his hopes, his dreams, what his mind creates to deal with trauma, so on and so forth. Those tiny bits of memories may be the only genuine bits we saw of this man, while everything else is a sideways reflection of who he is. He is the man dreaming one layer above what we just witnessed in the entire film.

Just some thoughts. I'm interested if other people had similar or opposing views. I loved this movie, though I do tend to like movies that are a bit more emotionally involving, but this does quite a lot regardless, and I don't know if it would've worked fully had he emphasized the emotional aspects, for many of the reasons detailed above.

Read more: Inception - What Did You Think? | /Film

Also, what did you think of the trailer for "The Social Network"? Seems like it could be a legitimately good film.
Simon said…
I like the Slashfilm interpretation, but at the time I saw it, I just felt like assuming the happier ending, and that's what I'm gonna stik with.

Interesting ideas, anyway.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr. - I shall divulge more in my upcoming post after I see it a second time tomorrow.

Question: Why would the top necessarily go on spinning in the dream state? Everything else seemed to work quite realistically in the dream levels.
.Me said…
I just came back from the movie & I definitely notices parallels with Shutter Island. But I questioned whether he was still dreaming at the end because the children were in the exact same state they were in during all his flashbacks & dreams. When he finally came home, why couldn't they be watching tv or drinking lemonade, or something? They just happened to be in the in the back playing with the sand EXACTLY as in his memories/dreams??? If his 'thing' is locking up memories (like the elevator scene w. ellen page's character) maybe the ending was not reality...but I hope it was. :)
Forrest K said…
I loved that ending as well, and it's what clued me in to the film being about movies themselves. When the entire audience gasped, I realized that was our "kick," waking us up from the shared dream state of watching the movie. Very cool.
Thanks, Stephen,

The big danger with the whole movie being a dream is that can lead to a solipsistic dead end. Much of human culture comes from the friction between dreams and "reality." If everything is Cobb's dream, then that flattens out our ability to criticize the nuances of the film considerably. I prefer to think he got stuck in some version of limbo, but I also like the basic ambiguity of the ending. By that point, Cobb has talked enough about the slippery nature of dreams to prepare the viewer for the top to keep spinning.

Otherwise, I don't know about the social network. I found Jesse Eisenberg's previous schmucky persona distracting. The movie looks very Faustian, but I'm not sure if the central character is interesting enough to make it worthwhile (I'm not a big fan of Facebook).

Thanks, Simon. I can see why people went for the other interpretation, but the top-spinning theory strikes me as more fun. Inception suddenly looks very chilling, bleak, and ironic, kind of like the earlier version of Brazil or 12 Monkeys.

Thanks, Hokahey. I look forward to your better-researched interpretation. As for your question: the film needs some totem. It is MacGuffin-like in that it doesn't matter what it is. I was imagining Ariadne spinning her chess piece around.

Good point, .Me,

I think Inception prepares the viewer to doubt the last scene because Cobb sees the children in the midst of trying to con Fisher. There's an obvious lack of control, and Cobb knows it. One could say the whole end of the film gets increasingly destabilized by the hallucinatory appearances of the kids and Mal.

Nice theory, Forrest. Yes, there's something meta-cinematic in the way the camera moves away (for the first time?) from Cobb's perspective to focus on the top. It calls attention to the filmmaking process, and we become aware of the movie's trickery just as one wakes up from a dream.
Craig said…
I like your take on the architecture of the film, the ending, and your analogies to other mythological concepts and works of art. As you know the movie didn't work for me, so the image of the "audience" sleeping I took as more of a metaphor for my own boredom. Thanks, though, for an intriguing perspective.
jim said…
I am definitely going to be seeing this movie ASAP! Dark Night and Memento were such intriguing thrillers; they gave me high expectations for this movie. From what I've been reading, it looks like it is going to live up to my expectations. Can't wait to see what Christopher Nolan has done in this film!
Anonymous said…
I have a more muted take on the film. I was slightly annoyed by the loudness and jarring nature of the music, sound effects and action sequences. Most of the "readings" I can come up with for the ending and hence meanings for the film itself are pretty bland and "been there done that", save one:

I like the idea that the entire course of events in the film was a plot led by Michael Caine to implant an idea into Cobb's mind to give up on the dead wife and take a step closer to reality. In this reading, the whole storyline about corporate espionage was a harmless red herring (ultimately Cilian Murphy simply learns to like himself and his dad more, and to go forth and do good). In this way, we can see that Caine was the "real" forger, and he was actually the Saito character in the different dream levels, with Page as his aide (knowingly) in trying to implant the idea in Cobb's brain (didn't she seem unbelievably quick to diagnose and try to treat his complicated psychological problems?).

I do think that this makes the entire film a dream, but the end is (hopefully for the main character) much closer to reality and home than he had been before because the bad dream (the ex wife) is gone.

I also think this makes the film fairly optimistic, much closer to Shutter Island than has previously been suggested, and also gives the "red herring" father-son relationships in the main heist plot greater depth and meaning for both Cobb and the audience.
Thanks, Craig.

I enjoyed your review. I managed to separate the obvious weaknesses (such as the market-driven Bond action scenes) from the more engaging puzzles of Inception. It probably didn't hurt any that many of the actors in the movie are amongst my favorites. I still wonder about the full significance of the train imagery and the aged Saito frame scenes with Cobb.

Thanks, jim. I liked Inception much more than Memento and The Dark Knight.

Thanks, anonymous,

An intriguing theory, although I have a hard time imagining that
Michael Caine's character is that significant. His presence in the dreamy last scenes implies that he's part of the dream instead of responsible for it.

There have been several films with big father-son redemption themes as of late, notably Robin Hood, Iron Man 2, and Crazy Heart.

Otherwise, I dislike the whole-film-is-a-dream theory because then there's nothing to ground the whole story in. It helps to have a base "reality" to create contrast and structure. That theory reminds me of Kael's big critique of Fellini's 8 1/2. She found that critics were debating where in the movie one finds fantasy, dream, or reality. She said that it's all fantasy, and that's her problem with the film.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, I misstated when I wrote that I felt the entire film was a dream. I was simply speaking about the last scene - I think it is still a dream - although much closer to reality for Cobb.

Also I forgot to mention the plane sequence. This film seems somehow autobiographical for me -with all the father-son stuff - plus I remember from somewhere (interview, story, something) that Nolan's mother was a flight attendant. The flight attendant in the film is a middle-aged woman who's presence is totally unexplained yet it is she who is running the ultimate dream machine on the plane for everyone else. (Cobb's mother?, mother figure?)

Ultimately, I think the film fails because it is overworked, and I see Nolan as being too obsessed with making films that "need" to be rewatched. This is complexity and uncertainty for complexity's and uncertainty's sake. I'm not sure making films as video games has much intrinsic lasting artistic merit. He's very clever, but the comparisons to films like "Blade Runner" or "2001" strike me as very off the mark.
The entire-film-is-a-dream theory is going some traction amongst critics, but it still strikes me as the worst closed loop.

I didn't notice the flight attendant so much, but you make a good point about her position of power.

I still like to think the complexity and ambiguity of the film points to a larger interpretation, hence the critical industry the film has spawned. Inception reminds me of John Gielgud's Providence in the way it explores the processes of the mind (or the subconscious or the filmmaking crew) as it creates fiction.
bali culture said…
Amazing .....
Nice article
i like o read it, thanks
Sophiarosado said…
It's really great article here. I like very much of slash film. and i just saw it through theater. i feel really happy to see this.

Anonymous said…
I usually like to lean towards optimistic interpretations of ambiguous scenes, but this time, I'm not sure.

The reason is that all of Nolan's films so far (the Batmans less than the others, but that is only because they give him more of a framework) have been about people deluding themselves and keeping illusions alive in order to keep a purpose to their lives.

I remember it cropping up in "Following" although I don't remember what it was, it's perfectly clear in "Memento", when the main character sabotages his own system so he can keep searching for a killer; in "Insomnia", the Al Pacino character would rather believe that he killed his partner accidentally because it gives him a better incentive to go after the murderer; in "The Prestige", one of the two magicians is willing to kill himself night after night only to keep up the illusion of the perfect magic trick; Batman also knows that he needs the Joker to stay Batman.

With this in mind, I find it very probable that Cobb simply wants to believe he's back in the real world at the end of the film, whether it's true or not.
Thanks, bali culture and Sophiarosado.

Thanks, realvirtuality, for your understanding of the consistencies in Nolan's work. I don't have any problem thinking there's a strong sense of Cobb's wish fulfillment at the end, which leaves the movie simultaneously granting the optimistic viewers a pseudo-happy ending and mocking it. It lampoons the audience's desire for conviction. I also like the way the last shot leaves the viewer wanting more, since it cuts before it gives the information as to whether the top will stop or not. It reminds me of one of Kafka's quotes: "It makes the doubter doubt, the believer, believe."
Unknown said…
Great discussion about a great artcile going on here, thanks for that! Also thanks to Sophia for sharing this movie site, really cool!
I saw it for the second time last night. The first time I was mainly taken in by the "heist film" elements and indifferent to the rest, but on a second viewing, I became increasing aware of how deceptively rich it really is. There is plenty of commentary in there on storytelling as a "shared dream". Lots more to chew on than I initially thought.

My take on the ending: It doesn't matter whether the top stops spinning. Cobb has resolved his guilt and stopped clinging to his memories of Mal. Whether he's dreaming or not is entirely incidental.
Thanks, Richard and Mr. Caustic,

I keep saying to myself that I will go see Inception again, but I'll probably wait to watch it much more closely on Blu-ray.

As for the ending, I kind of agree with you in the sense that the movie succeeds best when the ambiguous ending is kept ambiguous (much of the film's depth lies in its ambiguity), but, otherwise I prefer to the darker conclusion that he's still dreaming, that the time with his kids is wish-fulfillment. Given that interpretation, I doubt that he'll ever be over Mal. He's gotten too obsessive about her memory.
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