Inception: Dreams and (Dis)illusion


Inception is a film that begs itself to be watched twice. Following what appears to be a complex dual narrative of both emotional turmoil and psycho-political manipulation, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster success turns on an exploration of the implications of the very personal act of dreaming being appropriated externally as a powerful means of mind-control. Yet whilst the film indulges in Hollywood-acknowledged action scenes – from a gravity-defying fight sequence in a surreal hotel corridor to a car tipping off a motorway bridge – it also diverges from the traditional narrative style of mainstream movies. With the seemingly complicated premise of dream-stealing intertwined with the intimate personal journey of the main character Cobb (played by DiCaprio), the film’s exposition is unravelled in an on-going fashion and so we are plunged straight into the action. The main storyline centres on a deal that Cobb strikes with Saito, a powerful global businessman who proposes that in order to use his influence to let Cobb return to the USA (Saito can eliminate false extradition charges held against Cobb), Cobb must perform the task of inception – a task that takes him and his colleagues deep within three dream-layers in order to manipulate another man’s mind. What is interesting about the film is not necessarily its deceptively confusing plot but the way it is told – the story itself – and the techniques the film employs by meshing the genres of sci-fi, psychological thriller, film noir and heist in order to raise questions about narrative seduction, dreams and the power of the unconscious.

While many heist films unveil their major technical premise at once, as a character explicates the details of the mission to his/her colleagues, Inception works in a fashion that Kristen Thompson calls ‘continous exposition’. In this sense, the aim of Cobb’s team of dream-thieves, as well as the physical laws that govern the practice of dream architecture and inception (the implanting of an idea into another’s mind so that they imagine it to be of their own creation), are revealed gradually throughout the film and during scenes of both explanation and action. The character Ariadne takes her name from the Greek heroine Ariadne, who falls in love with Athenian hero Theseus and helps guide him with a ball of string though the Cretan Labyrinth in order to assist him in locating and slaying the Minotaur. Similarly, Inception’s Ariadne plays a key role in not only helping Cobb to disentangle the repressed emotions regarding his dead wife which continue to haunt him and disrupt his dream work, but also as a pupil of the dream-workers she learns and responds to the workings of the dream-world, thus illuminating the film audience with the features, possibilities and ontology of dreaming through her character.

This gradual unravelling of exposition plays a fundamental role in the seductive quality of Inception’s narrative. Talking about the task of exposition, Nolan explains:

“Exposition is such a massive demand […] It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.”

It is this engagement with understanding, this active involvement in working out the enigma, the puzzle, which makes the film so gripping. Rather than spoon-feeding the audience a fully-blown detailed account of the principles of mind-control, Nolan reveals slowly the inner workings of the machine of dreaming. Information seeps out of the action as characters exchange advice and teachings, and as things do or do not go to plan we are often left to extract our own conclusions about how the laws of dreaming work. This mode of exposition is thus fundamentally tied to the events of the film itself, rather than an intrinsic system of depth which can be quickly absorbed and applied to the film as a whole; the labyrinthine revealing of secrets and mysterious truths refracts from storylines and action across to the revelation of Cobb’s unconscious traumas, so that the audience find themselves caught in a play of possibility and information that moves as swiftly as the characters as they set out on their complicated mission.

I suggest this fast-moving, yet richly-layered form of narrative is highly seductive in its ability to lure viewers in to the depths of the film in a way that relies on the vivid exchange of surfaces, visuals and meaning. Seduction, as Baudrillard (2001) identifies, is fundamentally an ability ‘to deny things their truth and turn it into a game, the pure play of appearances’. One way in which a narrative can seduce, then, is by denying its audience fixed answers, a technique which enables the endless ‘play’ of possible meanings. This draws us in so that we play an active role in the ‘game’ of interpretation, a technique of seduction which seems very appropriate given the often vague and mysterious nature of dreams themselves.

In Inception, there are a lot of deliberate ambiguities, and things that are revealed to be not quite what they initially seemed to be. For example, the question of what is a dream and what is reality. This is a problem that we learn Cobb suffers with, and it is one that is well documented in literary and film history. Whether from overuse of psychadelic drugs, or some form of mental pathology, there have for decades been characters portrayed as losing their grip on the thin line that separates reality and fantasy, dream-world and actual experience. Examples that spring to mind are A Beautiful Mind and Black Swan, which both offer provoking depictions of schizophrenia. Psychosis is also a difficulty that Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, has fought with. Mal and Cobb spent a great deal of time in ‘Limbo’, a world of endless pure subconscious creation that is formed in an on-going fashion by those that occupy it. It seems by definition to be an abyss of the mind, a place to be trapped in ceaseless possibility – lost in one’s own creative, expansive subconsciousness. You enter Limbo when your physical body is heavily sedated, and either you are killed in a dream or at a complex dream level (in the film, level 3) when you fall asleep. It’s a strange and vicious concept that has a dark allure to it – the suggestion that perhaps when people enter comas their minds are elsewhere, trapped, unable to get back to reality.

When Mal and Cobb finally make it out of Limbo, Mal soon loses the ability to distinguish this real world from the world they fashioned in their dreams. Eventually we learn that this is because Cobb only managed to get himself and Mal out of Limbo by planting through inception in Mal’s mind the idea that the world (at that point, Limbo) was not real – persuading them to commit suicide in order to be kicked out back to reality. Yet the idea that the world was not real grew like a parasite and tormented Mal until she could not accept even reality as reality. She thought she was still dreaming: that her children were just projections of her consciousness, that the physical environment was just a fabrication of memory and imagination. To remedy this perpetual state of insecurity, she decides to kill herself by jumping from their high-floor apartment into the abyss below.

I think this form of suicide poses interesting questions about the nature of consiousness and our self-awareness within the world. To what extent do we really know that this environment that seems so solid and familiar is in fact real and actual? We know what it feels like when we are dreaming: time is sped up, often fragmented (an issue dealt with in Inception, where there is a mathematical formula that encompasses the disjunction between time spent asleep and time in reality, where one can dream for 50 years but be asleep for merely three hours), we wake up when we die or when there is some sort of ‘kick’, which might be something like loud music or physical pain – a jolt that wakes us up. Yet although it seems easy to distinguish dreams and reality, how do we know that there is just one ‘reality’, or that our notion of reality is just an elaborately designed, prolonged dream? It’s a problem that was posed a long time ago by René Descartes, who suggested a form of radical scepticism about the nature of reality. Descartes proposed that all our conscious experience could merely be a dream-state, manipulated by an all-powerful and omniscient ‘Evil Demon’, who could control everything we do and everything around us. This is the famous ‘brain in a vat’ philosophical problem that has been explored in films like The Matrix, and becomes evermore salient as virtual reality and technology advances to provide evermore realistic and vividly detailed artificial environments. What it comes down to is the fact that we really cannot know (or can we?) the metaphysical nature of the world: our knowledge leads merely to a non-passé, or an abyss (like the one Mal plunges into), an endless recursion to the possibility of multiple imagined or experienced realities.

And who are we to judge that the world in the film is reality? What if Mal, in leaping from the metropolis to the dark void below, really did escape to a higher level of consciousness, a real world? The film cuts rapidly in and out of the different dream levels inhabited by the characters in their mission to conduct inception on Fischer, a businessman (to persuade him to break up his father’s monopolying empire – maybe someone should try and do this to a young Murdoch). This technique not only disorientates the audience and imbues the film with a surreal quality but it also highlights how our perception is fleeting, rapid, built up of impressions. Reality, then, is very subjective, and the distinction between psychological reality, the durational experience of time and physical reality with linear clock time. Nolan seems to want to emphasise this ambiguity of experience and reality with the ending, which closes on the image of the only anchor an individual possesses to reality – the totem: a small token whose unique, personalised weight, balance and appearance enables its owner to discover whether they are in their own waking/dreaming reality or another person’s dream – if they are in another’s dream the totem will feel strange. Cobb’s totem is a kind of spinning top, which is set to topple over if he is awake and to continue spinning if dreaming. At the ending, Nolan shows Cobb’s totem both spinning but also provocatively starting to topple. This means we do not know if the film closes with a conventional happy ending, with Cobb finally reunited with his children (mission accomplished) or whether he is simply dreaming about the event.

In the hope of drawing some line between dreams and reality, it is useful to consider the concept of the ‘kick’ featured in Inception. It’s interesting when real-life stimuli enter our dream-world: for example, in the film Cobb is thrown into a bath of water and in his dream water floods in through the windows. The ‘kick’ designed to withdraw the characters from the triple layers of dreams they are in is a piece of music, which resonates throughout each level like an uncanny scent or breath of memory – not just the physical stimuli of sound. I have had many dreams where I am drowning and can’t breathe – the pain physically sears up in my chest, but when I wake up I realise I’m somehow suffocating myself with my pillow! Not only is there some psychoanalytic value in studying what makes us wake up from dreams (hello, Freud), but the concept of the ‘kick’ raises intriguing questions about where mind and body collide, and how much of consciousness is interwoven with all those nerves and neurons to our physical form. Certainly this very phenomenon refutes the now very-dated but religiously popular form of Cartesian ‘dualism’ which proposed the mind and body were distinct forms of matter, so that when the body dies the soul remains and can go to heaven or hell. If mind and body are different materials, then how can they interact so intimately?

On the question of psychoanalysis, the film borrows heavily from Freudian ideas about the interplay between and the role and nature of dreams and the unconscious. The characters in Inception spend a great deal of their time lucidly fabricating dream-worlds and occupying the dream-worlds of others, as well as switching between dreams and reality, that it is no wonder that many of them suffer a mild psychosis whereby the distinction begins to break down. Freud himself deemed psychosis a ‘disturbance in the relation between the ego and the external world’.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posited that our dreams contained symbols transmitted from the underworld of our unconscious, symbols that represented repressed desires and wishes (usually sexual) that are too uncomfortable or psychologically painful (due to the effects of oppressive socialisation) for us to admit consciously. He says: ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. So a dream where you steal your dad’s hat could have awkward Oedipal consequnces, as Freud thought that hats were often representations of genetalia. The possibility that you have sexual feelings for a parent is painful to acknowledge consciously due to society’s incest taboo, so instead this desire reveals itself only in dreams.

The consequences of psychoanalysis seem quite profound in unsettling our conventional idea of reality. If so much of our perception of reality seems to be subconscious, this makes it difficult to assume that there is a clear, objective definition of a singular reality, since everyone is driven by multiple interlocking wishes. The central emotional plot of Inception is a psychoanalytic one, as well as a conventional Hollywood drama of a distraught father who misses his dead wife and would risk the life of himself and his team for a chance to see his children again. Dr. Stephen Diamond makes the interesting point that Cobb’s unresolved guilt and anxiety regarding his involvement in manipulating Mal’s psychological state and (somewhat inadvertedly) causing her suicide is projected symbolically in the form of Mal herself, as Cobb’s ‘negative anima’. Mal haunts many of the dreams Cobb creates and makes it difficult for him to do his job properly, as her shadow-like and disruptive figure keeps reappearing in times of crisis. Ariadne, ever the guiding light, at one point takes up the role of psychoanalyst and tells Cobb that the only way Mal is going to go away is if he lets her go – if he resolves his inner conflicts with his memory of Mal.

The ultimate goal of being reunited with his children flickers through the film in the recurring appearance of the boy and girl playing together on the grass with a beam of sunlight. Subtle differences in their appearance occur between the different shots, which suggests perhaps an alteration in Cobb’s memory of them, or the real process of aging they are experiencing – again, a blurring of reality, memory and dreams. In the end, when Cobb finally returns to his children but the camera finishes by focusing on the totem, we are left with the uncanny possiblity that the children may not be real, instead merely (as Mal feared) ghostly projections of Cobb’s unconscious. However, the warmth and joy we gain from seeing this satisfying ending feels real. Does it matter what really happens? I think Nolan employs the ambiguity here to self-reflexively acknowledge the strange status of film as often a vividly realisitc visual projection of reality, portraying visually and auditorily objective reality and also rendering the subjective inner life of individuals. Film can seem all too real, but it is often fictional, and like a dream it is a temporally-compressed representation of reality. When the credits roll and we are suddenly thrust back into our everyday environment, we realise that we have been intensely caught up in this other-world, its visual universe has been painted upon our eyes for the brief time that we have been watching. It has become part of our reality. We probably won’t forget it; we might even dream about it.

Baudrillard, J. (2010) Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, (Montreal: CTheory Books), Available online: <> [Accessed 25.01.13].

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy.

Diamond, S. (2010)

Freud, S. (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams.

Freud, S. (1924) Neurosis and Psychosis.