Inception poster


Through the Maze

Meaning is where you make it.

Quinn A.C. Nicholson

“The movie ultimately doesn’t resonate with meaning—it’s not really about anything profound, other than the sheer joy of unfettered imagination.” —René Rodriguez, Miami Herald

“It trades in crafty puzzles rather than profound mysteries, and gestures in the direction of mighty philosophical questions that Mr. Nolan is finally too tactful, too timid or perhaps just too busy to engage . . . though there is a lot to see in Inception, there is nothing that counts as genuine vision.” —A. O. Scott, New York Times

After reading various explanations of Inception around the Internet, not to mention critical commentary along the lines of that above, I’ve become largely disillusioned with how people are understanding this movie. Perhaps it isn’t fair to jab at the critics, as they’re more comfortable (and trained to find) an artistic subtext creating drama, rather than an intellectual one, but then most are probably worried that Inception is similar to the Wachowski’s later Matrix sequels—a hasty collusion of Philosophy 101 meets Sunday School. No, more disappointing is that, over and over again, the weberati can be found positing singular ‘correct’ interpretations of the movie’s reality—in other words, the attempt to define some objective ‘this is what really happened’ at the end as the author’s own attempt to impose a coherent, objective and, most of all, limiting understanding on the movie’s ontology.

To say these people are missing the point is both a paradoxical misnomer and an understatement.

(Note: Ontology is, simply put, the study of existence. It may be more accurate to say ‘epistemology’ here, but because of the unique nature of the movie, the two terms are essentially unified here.)

Other people just say the movie ‘is ambiguous,’ believing this to mean an either/or matter of yes-reality/no-dream, revolving around the ‘spinning top’ metaphor at the end of the movie. This is a false dichotomy. The ambiguity of Inception runs far deeper, is far more pluralized, and has been justified beyond the typical Hollywood split identity/dream reality dichotomy. Inception is about more than that; we are not dealing with the kind of limited ambiguity of, say, is K/Pax an alien or a mental patient.

Both of these groups of people are missing the wonderful complexity of this movie—one that descends far further into the human psyche than singular interpretation or either/or dichotomies. In fact, it is the very plurality of this movie (while still maintaining ‘boundaries’ of sorts) which makes it fascinating. I have never seen a movie balance the tension between binary logic and analogous relativity in a manner that Inception does (and yet, for thinkers, this is one of the fundamental questions concerning free will).

For the purposes of comprehension, and my own laziness in re-checking original philosophy and psychology sources, I’ll avoid quoting directly from source materials in philosophy, psychology, and social sciences as much as possible, instead trying to deal with the roots of some of the ideas found in Inception, and how I see them played out in the movie.

Let us begin by assuming that Christopher Nolan is, at best, a genius who is taking us through the history or man’s understanding of reality; at worst, a very clever crow good at finding shiny items of interest from the various human sciences and building a nest out of them. I say this not to praise him, but rather to argue that we should give the auteur the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

Let us also ignore the ending for now until we have done a more complete analysis of the story and the dreams themselves—treated individually, rather than giving the ending priority to control the narrative (a mistake found in the majority of posts you’ll read about Inception, and a ‘conditioning’ brought on by film as a medium that does not necessarily occur in, for example, novels). Nolan’s shiny top toy at the end of the movie is the same kind of binary lure he has used in many other movies (the ‘0’/’1’ from Memento, brothers/dunking chamber of Prestige, good/evil perception of Batman, etc.) but he has clearly evolved as a filmmaker and in Inception, that damn top is almost being used as a lure at the end, rather than a controlling binary metaphor. Nolan is not playing the same game in this movie as he was in his previous movies—his game has gotten more ‘layered’, shall we say.


Let us begin by labeling the different stages of ‘reality’, as presented in the movie, for simplicity’s sake in our discussion/analysis. We will also ignore who is dreaming what for the time being, as this is not a particularly useful question, with the one exception of the conclusion that Cobb is dreaming everything, which will be dealt with later. Aside from that, it’s essentially just a plot device.

L0 = ‘objective’ reality. What we perceive, on an everyday basis, to be real.

L1 = dream state (the rainy city). Basically, a dream.

L2 = dream within a dream (the hotel). Dreaming of a dream. This is usually the limit to how ‘meta’ our ‘regular’ dreams get. In real life, this is the equivalent of ‘second-guessing’—I’ll explain a bit more why later.

L3 = dream within a dream within a dream (the ski fantasy). We are now far enough down into the recursion cycle that it is beyond the point of ‘second-guessing’—that idea becomes irrelevant as you recurse further towards infinity.

L4 = pre-limbo/constructed dreamspace (the house/Cobb’s world). We enter a pre-constructed other-world

L5 = limbo/deconstructed dreamspace/the collective unconscious (the island in the ocean)

Let us also examine the primary motivations for each of the levels of reality.

L0 = Convince Fischer to break up his father’s empire

L1 = ESCAPE—Yusuf spends most of the (movie) time fleeing in the van. Action-wise, characters are mostly simply firing for covering fire.

L2 = REFLECTION—Arthur has to figure out how to set up the kick in zero-G. Action-wise, he is often engaged in a protection role, stopping projections from accessing the sleepers.

L3 = CONFRONTATION—Earnes and company directly assault the snow fortress, attempting to penetrate the vault.

L4 = ACCEPTANCE—Cobb comes to terms with his wife’s death and his own guilt

L5 = RETURN—Cobb wishes to return to reality, bringing Saito with him

Now, to any budding psychologists out there, it should not take long to see a connection between these ‘layers’ and Jungian psychology’s idea of confronting the shadow self. Similar plot lines play out in David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, or Ursula K. LeGuin’s famed novel A Wizard of Earthsea (to name but two examples).

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the ‘shadow-self,’ it is roughly your dark side or negative qualities, often kept suppressed, that can nonetheless ‘leak out’ in various ways due to that repression. I’ll let Wikipedia do a bit of the work for Jung and me:

According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object—if it has one—or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.”

(in case you were wondering where much of the idea of the ‘projections’—and the importance of Cobb’s projection—comes from in this movie).

Now, to review, the steps in Jung’s confrontation of the shadow self are:

1) The appearance of the shadow-self

2) Encounter with the shadow-self

3) Merger with the shadow-self

4) Assimilation of the shadow-self

So, in essence, you meet your dark side (L1), confront your dark side (L2), come to terms with your dark side (L3), and eventually understand how it affects you and what is useful from it for your own development (L4). You then return to society as a new, more complete individual.

I also want to note that much of this Jungian psychology comes from Jung’s work on phenomenology—and to date, almost nothing I’ve read, in terms of movie analysis of Inception, has said anything about phenomenology. Making conclusions about Inception without considering phenomenology would be like reading Descartes without considering God—your final understanding might seem profound but is going to be considerably flawed.

OK, so our little Jungian analysis shows the way that a person’s progression through these dreamstates allows them to come to terms with themselves. We might go a bit further and note that this is done by different characters who are in different stages of personal development at different levels. for example:

L1—Yusuf encounters the shadow of running from your problems (note that in L0, he in fact keeps ‘dreamers’ who must constantly ‘escape’ reality in his basement!)

L2—Arthur’s biggest problem is his lack of creativity/imagination—something Earnes pokes at him about several times. He’s always prepared but can’t improvise. He must face this deficiency repeatedly (how to fight in zero G, how to use the stairway paradox to his advantage, how to create the kick in zero G)

L3—Fischer achieves reconciliation/merger with his shadow by confronting his father, which leads to a new possibility for assimilation.

L4—Cobb assimilates his new understanding of his wife’s death and the effect on his psyche, accepting it and ‘moving on.’

So this somewhat perfunctory Junigan analysis allows us to see the progression at work in these dreams on the human psyche, with the layers of the dreams showing different stages of human mental/psychic development. But this is only a part of Nolan’s vision.

Let’s go on to look at the various dream levels in another way: as exemplifying a historical progression of ontological thought—and let us also now begin to consider the potential ‘endings’ of the movie.

L0 = historically speaking, our ‘oldest’ understanding of reality—a materialistic one.

The world is ‘solid, through and through,’ to quote from The Prestige. There is no God, nothing magic, we are what we are. At this level, we are led to believe that there are no narrative or metaphysical tricks in the movie. Cobb descends through the levels of dreams, confronts his inner demon(s), and emerges with Saito successfully at the end.

At the very end, we see the top falter, about to stop spinning, meaning Cobb is back in reality and everyone lives happily ever after.

L1 = ‘the world is a dream.’

With the development of primitive religion—possibly as a consequence of explaining human dreams—some early religions consider that our ‘existence’ is nothing more than a dream, especially one of a God or other controlling power.

With this understanding, our conclusion at the end would be that Cobb has dreamed the entire narrative from start to finish or that Cobb has been trapped in the dreamworld ever since his days with Mal, and she is actually the god-figure trying to ‘wake’ him from his dream. If so, she fails at the end of the movie, and Cobb remains trapped in his dream (nevertheless, it is a happy dream).

The top at the end falters but will then regain its balance, signifying that Mal or God tried to wake Cobb up, but his subconscious refused to return to reality (the top will spin infinitely, ‘reality’ has been defeated).

L2 = the Cartesian dilemma / brain in a vat / virtual reality.

A turning point in ontological thought is clarified with Rene Descartes, and the famous saying ‘Cogito ergo sum’—I think, therefore I am. This crystallization of thought was brought about from a few different factors:

  • a mechanistic understanding of the world (all things in nature, including human bodies, are machine-like)
  • a belief that mind-body are separate things, somehow connected, but binary in nature
  • a fear that there could be an ‘evil demon’ controlling all of your sensory perceptions. how would you know what is real? you could be in a ‘dream inside a dream’ (the second-guessing aspect mentioned earlier).

Back to the movie. Evil demon? that’s exactly what Cobb is to Fischer, as he lies about Fischer’s shifting reality in order to control Fischer—feeding him the wrong information for his sensory perceptions (why it’s raining, why the world is tilting, what the random numbers mean). Note the rigidity of design in this world—everyone dresses like ‘squares’, things repeat, floors, rooms, and hallways have a repetitive regularity to them (what is more regular than a hotel hallway?).

For this ending, we are largely concerned with the reliability of the totem itself. Has it been corrupted by Cobb taking it from his wife, or by Saito touching it in Limbo? Can we really rely on a physical object and our sensory reactions to that object to be sure of our reality? Descartes argued no—all we can be sure of is what’s in our minds—our ability to reason—since anything sensory—any interaction with the ‘outside’ world, could be one of the evil demon’s tricks.

The top therefore ‘wobbles’ at the end of the movie because its function, as a decider of reality, is being called into question.

L3 = searching for ‘meaning’ in ‘perception’ / existentialism.

With the beginning of the dissolution of God as a controlling/observing force in 19th century thought and philosophy, Westerners lost the confidence that morality and meaning were absolutes in life. What arose in response were movements such as existentialism, which basically says ‘you are what you become’ (under Descartes and prior thought, in contrast, you ‘become what you are’, since your soul was immortal). It could also be argued that sub-products of this loss of faith were quietism, nihilism, or even a return to Epicureanism (pleasure-seeking—which might explain the near goofiness of some of the action sequences here, running as a tribute to a kind of 007 fantasy world parody of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

To the point, this loss of God was a major blow to our comfortable understanding of reality. Instead of set structures, our life is more like an empty canvas, waiting for us to fill it. Visually, this is done in Inception with the wide open, white, empty snowy areas, with the ‘fortress/mind’ at the center of all. We accept that reality has a certain subjectivity to it—our own—but we desire to understand the root of that subjectivity. Hence Fischer must penetrate the fortress vault to ‘understand himself’—what has he become on his journey through life?

In similar fashion, Cobb, at the end of the movie, spins the top but then ignores it, as he realizes that the question of ‘reality’ is almost irrelevant—reality is subjective and inside the mind—he has control over the destiny of his life—that is his ‘reality’. What he chooses to do will be who he is—this leap of faith, referenced in the movie, of ignoring the empirical was a keystone to the philosophy of Kierkegaard, explaining, for example, why we should take actions, like faith, that seem contrary to rationality.

The faltering of the top in this case likely references the mind itself, under this view of reality—the nagging uncertainty, which many existentialists/atheists feel, about whether they’ve got it right—that there actually is no external, controlling force guiding or shaping their lives.

L4 = phenomenology.

Now it starts to get tough. I really don’t want to get into Husserl or Levinas, so let’s instead look at just one of the principal ideas of phenomenology—qualia. Qualia are the perceived qualities of objects—the particular shade of a color or the way that you perceive a smell—in other words, things we experience, but cannot objectively describe or explain (we can only really do so by making comparison to other experiences, which we can never be entirely sure other people are experiencing in the exact same way).

Now, a particular idea of Levinas, brought forward in his book Totality and Infinity (which I have read many times and still admittedly only understand about 20 percent) is that expression itself produces qualia, and that the qualia of a person’s face, for example, are infinite. That means a person’s face is both a total, complete system (you can perceive all of it) but also an infinite, irreducible one (it simply cannot be broken down and explained piece by piece).

Aha! So now we have the importance of Mal’s face and Cobb’s children’s faces in the movie—why he is absolutely terrified to look at his children while he is not in ‘reality.’ Cobb tells Mal in L4 that when he sees her face, he knows it is not really her, but rather his own mental perception of her, because it can be ‘reduced’ in his mind—in other words, he is not experiencing an ‘infinite’ moment by looking at her! Mal tried to bait Cobb into looking at his children, but he knows he will have the same ‘lack of experience’ with them, which, in the context of the story, could potentially break what is left of his heart/psyche (note also, not to get all literary, but there are elements of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice coming into play at this level).

At the end of the movie, Cobb spins the top to determine if he is in fact in reality, but when he sees his children’s faces, he has that revelation of the infinite, and he knows beyond a doubt that he has returned to reality, or at the very least, he has found the infinite within his own mind (and, if so, reality is now completely irrelevant—just like the top). What is important is the phenomenon of seeing his children, and the infinite complexity inherent in them—which he could no longer see in Mal.

L5 = deconstruction/ metanarrative.

The final level down, Limbo. This is Jung’s collective unconscious—the area where archetypes spring from. The very edge of coherent thought. A kind of Solaris—ocean-mind metaphor is definitely at work here, as Saito and Cobb preserve what is left of their ‘self-identity’ in a world that is otherwise extant but completely deconstructed (there is only one construction—the island or beach which exists as the ‘edge’ of consciousness, where Saito houses the remnant of his identity).

This is the area of human thought where all stories spring from, and it is interesting that, at both the beginning and ending of the movie, Cobb and Saito are trying to ‘reconstruct’ events—undergoing a kind of anamnesis (if you don’t know what anamnesis is, it’s the idea that we don’t ‘learn’ things, but instead our eternal mind or soul ‘recollects’ them—the idea going back to Plato at minimum). So Cobb and Saito barely remember who they are, and attempt to recreate a story (sitting, certainly unironically, at the kind of table where writers might sit to hash out a story).

It’s at that point that the movie jumps back into reality. This is a clever, clever metanarrative—Nolan uses a hard cut here, not telling us what happened in Limbo. Why? Because it’s our construction of events that matters—not the filmmaker’s. We have now come to define our final reality—our understanding not of how to interpret the final events of the movie—the culmination of possibilities from Levels 0–4—but rather that we create the ending we desire in our minds, and then justify it, based on our own particular stories and motives! This is deconstructionism in a nutshell: it is the viewer’s interaction with the medium that matters—not the medium itself. We make the meaning of the movie.

As a final gift, Nolan gives us the top and says ‘Here, I am presenting the ambiguity that will allow you to clarify and focus your meaning’—a touchstone, if you will. Or perhaps better put, as the movie does, a totem—for all of us—to determine the reality we believe we have perceived. In effect, as a final focus, and the culmination of the movie’s ideas, the spinning top has the effect of Inception on the viewer—only possible, as was said in the movie, because we ourselves have to identify the ‘meaning/idea’ as having come from within ourselves, originally.

Or, then again, this could all be the happy result of a lot of accidental coincidences and, as A. O Scott said, a result of Mr. Nolan’s mind which is “too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness—the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity—that this subject requires.”

Like Mr. Nolan, I invite you to make your own conclusions. Me, I’m going back to the IMAX to see this thing again. :::

posted by editor ::: November 22, 2010 ::: philms ::: (10) Comments