Aug 4 2010 5:07pm

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Thinking about Inception

Loved it. Brilliant. I felt like I had to ice down my brain after leaving the theater. Inception inspires thought about the right and wrong ways to end stories, and the power of dreams and storytelling, and more.

I detected echoes of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course The Matrix.

But I was never really impressed by the Matrix movies. The premise of characters unaware they live in a simulated universe seemed cliched to me even in 1999 when The Matrix came out. But Inception seemed fresh and unique. (Not everyone loved Inception, however.)

If you don’t want spoilers, put Edith Piaf on your gramophone and ride the kick back to reality. Otherwise, read on for more discussion of Inception.

Of course, Inception’s ending plays with the audience’s expectations. It’s like The Sopranos and Lost, and like those two shows, it inspires strong feelings. Some people get angry at an ending like that, they feel it’s the writer’s obligation to provide answers. Did the top fall? Did Tony Soprano get gunned down? I loved the ending to all three stories (although I had to be persuaded to love the ending of The Sopranos—at first, like millions of viewers, I thought our cable had gone out at the worst possible time.)

My interpretation of the ending of Inception: He’s in real life. It doesn’t really matter whether the top falls, because, as he explained earlier to the projection of Mal, he now knows how to tell the difference between dreams and reality without using a totem. Reality is more perfect and imperfect than dreams.

It’s possible I’m wrong. If the ending of the movie is a dream, the reasonable assumption is that it’s a dream Cobb created for himself in limbo. But there’s another alternative: That the entire movie is a dream—presumably Cobb’s dream. But who made it for him, and why?

Inception is a movie about storytelling. It’s about building imaginary worlds and sharing them with other people. It’s about how these imaginary ideas sometimes become real and powerful—just ask anyone whose life was changed by reading a great novel.

The movie itself was very dreamlike. As Cobb notes, you never remember the start of a dream, you’re just in it. The movie, similarly, starts in media res, with Cobb washing up on the beach. (I had to restrain myself from wisecracking out loud, “Is this a Titanic sequel?”)

Leaving the movie theater was like waking from a powerful dream. For a few minutes, I was unsure which was the dream and which was reality. It’s a good thing my wife was driving.

The experience of Cobb and his team reminded me of Second Life. I know in some ways it’s laughable to compare the crude graphics and buggy software of Second Life with the rich, imaginary worlds created by the dreamers in Inception. But the real interface for Second Life (and the MUDs that preceded SL) is the mind, not the computer, and Second Life is all about building imaginary worlds where you can live alternate lives and share them with other people. In Second Life, like in dreams and in Inception, you can fly. Many of the best builds in Second Life are dreamlike, a mishmash of images and ideas from all over the world and all periods of time. As in a dream, you might visit a nightclub in the clouds, where robots, cat-people, cowboys, Romans and vampires dance.

The central gimmick of Inception reminded me of a James Hogan novel, Realtime Interrupt. His novel, published in 1995, four years before The Matrix, was a story about a man trapped in virtual reality who was unaware the world around him wasn’t real. (I told you—The Matrix seemed pretty unoriginal to me when I saw it.) He learns the backstory about how the VR was built: At first, researchers thought to try to replicate the real world, but found they lacked the computing power to make the world anything other than cartoony. Then they had the insight that when we dream, we think that what we’re experiencing is real. And so they tapped into the dreaming part of the brain—and it worked. They didn’t have to build a world in a computer, they just had to outline it and let the dreaming mind fill in the details.

Or, in the words of Cobb in Inception: “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

The Hogan novel is a puzzle story, about how the hero figures out he’s in a dream-like VR, and how he gets out of it. Anyone who hated the ending of Inception would love the novel, because all the questions in the novel are answered, and all the loose plot threads are tied off neatly.

But a few months ago, I started to think that Hogan was only scratching the surface of his idea. You might tap into the dream center of the brain to create a more vivid internet experience, but dreams are powerful mojo, and the people who tap into dreams might find they’ve unleashed very deep magic indeed. I had these ideas before seeing Inception or even hearing about it. Must be something in the air.

The root of Inception is a very deep belief, dating back to ancient shamans and given a scientific veneer by Carl Jung, that dreams are a window into deep truths, insights about ourselves and our souls, perhaps even a deeper reality. We think that dreams are important, that they matter, basing that on millennia of traditional beliefs and a century of psychological science. But there’s another, newer belief among neuroscientists: That dreams don’t mean anything, that they’re just the random firing of neurons, and we apply narrative and meaning to them when we wake up. According to this scientific theory, dreams don’t matter at all.

Scientists tell us we need sleep, and dreams, that they help our body refresh and clear out toxins, and turn short-term memories into long-term memories. Without sleep, we get sick and die and go mad. Chronic shortage of sleep is comparable to alcoholism in reduced capacity and ill health effects.

And yet we don’t really know anything about sleep and dreams. We don’t know why it’s necessary, or what happens to our body and brains when we sleep. We know more about the far side of the Moon than we know about a condition in which we spend a third of our lives. We have a vast scientific frontier as close as our own bedrooms.

Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.

Church Tucker
1. Church
He’s in real life. It doesn’t really matter whether the top falls, because, as he explained earlier to the projection of Mal, he now knows how to tell the difference between dreams and reality without using a totem.

Can he? Or did he lock his away and forget he was dreaming? (You can see which side I come down on in that debate.)

I wasn't reminded so much of The Matrix, but more of The 13th Floor (which had the bad luck to come out about the same time.) It had a similar wheels-within-wheels thing going on.
Noneo Yourbusiness
2. Longtimefan
My issue with Inception is similar to the one I have with Memento. It is about the storytelling it is not about the story.

There is something to be said for exploring the dynamic of how information is shared and repeated and presented. In some ways all stories that can be told have been told so changing the technique may be the only original thing left to apply.

Still. I did not like the story being told in the end.

The main character is a selfish, introspective jerk who forces everyone to fulfill his needs so he can deal with his problems.

Whether or not he is awake or still dreaming is irrelevant to me because he is not a character I could care about.

In the end it is a visually beautiful movie with a moderate to uninteresting plot.

It is a lot like marzipan, it can be sculpted into the most intricate and gorgeous product but it is still colored almond paste and sugar. It will never be what it looks like.
3. ceelos
I read "But I was never really impressed by the Matrix movies." and I stopped.
5. Staar84
I loved Inception. I have two theories about it: 1) Cobb became stuck in a dream when he went to retrieve Saito, or 2) that the entire thing was a dream. BUT if that (#2) is the case, I think it was the dream that he went into with his wife. Where he believed she killed herself, she was really waking up. Every other time a character escapes limbo, they have to get "kicked" twice. When in limbo with his wife, they only got out using the train. The main reason I don't think Cobb is back in reality isn't because of the top-regardless of whether or not it stopped-is because when he got home his children were not only in the exact same position as when he left, they had not aged at all, despite Cobb being gone for so long.

The idea of having a totem bothered me a little, because even if you were dreaming, but you truly believed that you were awake, would the totem still work? I don't know if it's just me, but things in my dreams hardly ever work the way they're supposed to. Unfortunately, when I realize I'm dreaming, I lose control of everything I could control before.

And I agree with you about The Matrix.
Jer Brown
6. designguybrown
I have no regrets about paying to see Inception and I would like to think that I am not overly swayed by hype -- but, i still didn't find the whole premise really that intelligent or thought-provoking -- interesting and full of deep characters (though I am more interested in noble and complicated characters than deep characters), but that's it. But perhaps, i am just jaded and/or have to realize that the type of movie that would really compel me intelligently would not be financially viable in the real world of today's moviegoers.

That being said, I found the Matrix chock full of stray threads that could lead to fascinating intellectual scifi-flavored investigations. For example, the point that Mr. Smith made when he talked about how there had been previous perfect worlds made, but that humanity would not accept them - that humanity needed suffering, imperfection, and conflict in their 'reality'. Now that's intellectually powerful and screams for interpretation, discussion, and development. But that's just my 2 cents.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
Just like, Staar84@5, I thought the children being in the same place and the same age was probably a clue that Cobb was dreaming at the end. I guess he could have been just picturing what they should look like in his previous dreaming, but being in the same place seems hard to explain away.
8. Ceelos
The kids in the end were actually in different positions with different clothing played by older actors :)

Inception is not a complicated movie at all. Everything they are doing and why they are doing it is explained in detail. The end is the way it is to make you question what is reality. It's also a kick ass way to end the movie.

For Cobb, throughout the movie he spins the top and watches it till it topples, almost obsessively. In the end he turns his back on it and goes to his kids. I think to him it doesn't matter anymore. I think for us it just means "hey, question what reality means to you".

Also maybe since the top ends in sort of a "limbo" state it could mean that you should treat reality like a "limbo" dream state where anything is possible.
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter

That's interesting if the children are older at the end. Maybe I was the one dreaming then, lol.
Christoph H.
10. LOAD
I saw the film and loved it.
Also read a very interesting article about how the film affects the different generations in a different way:
I thought Cobb was back in reality in the end. He didn´t need the totem then, being able to distinguish reality by perfection and imperfection. Also I thought I heard the top fall when the picture went away... Anybody heard the same?
Being able to shape your dreams can be achieved in real life, it is called lucid dreaming (for further information, see ).
Rachel Hyland
11. RachelHyland
Ceelos @ 3

I almost stopped reading at that, but my love of Inception post-game analysis overcame my love of Neo, et al. That said, were you really impressed by all of the Matrix movies? 'Cause, Revolutions... ugh.

shalter @ 9

Don't worry, you're not the only one who thought that. I certainly did the first time round, and really had to concentrate on the kids when I watched it the second time to see the differences. Otherwise, you're right, it would be a pretty big clue that Cobb's still dreaming if they haven't aged or changed clothes; but then, Nolan doesn't make it especially obvious that they are different, either. Just an added layer of awesome to the enigmatic masterpiece that is Inception.
Steven Halter
12. stevenhalter
The latimes article was interesting and it lets me consider myself still part of "youth" culture, so that makes me feel good.
It was also interesting in that it seemed to be a reversal of the normal comments one see's today about video game/computer culture leading to a shorter attention span, etc.
The film definitely struck me as one that needed to be paid attention to as you were watching it. Lot's of details and keeping track of things. I like that sort of thing, so that was part of what I liked about the film.
Rachel Hyland
13. RachelHyland
LOAD @ 10

The top totally fell! Great link, thanks.
14. ceelos

I wouldn't say I was "impressed" by the other two, but I definitely love the trilogy as a whole.

I think the the fact that Nolan chose older actors, but then places them in a similar fashion and in similar clothing IS to make you question "reality" in the movie and in your own world!

Also did you guys know that the Edith Piaf song used as the kick to get them out of the dream is also the theme song for the movie only slowed way down (as you would hear it if YOU were dreaming because of the slower time)!!!

Here's the link:
Leigh Butler
16. leighdb
Well, I loved both Inception and The Matrix, though the latter has no sequels as far as I am concerned.

Both of them did a remarkable job of playing with the concept of reality while at the same time constructing a internally consistent set of rules for their "unrealities" that made the stories satisfying even when they twisted your brain into a knot. This is not as easy as it sounds - and it doesn't sound particularly easy in the first place - and the "internally consistent" part is the absolutely vital element that made them both work.

As for whether it was all a dream or not, I tend to think that either option works equally well, and Nolan ended the movie that way precisely so the individual viewer could make their own decision on the question.

And to give us all something to argue about, of course. He's very generous that way.
Church Tucker
17. Church
"Also I thought I heard the top fall when the picture went away... Anybody heard the same?"

I did not, and our audience was pretty subdued. I've heard others claim otherwise, however.
Steven Halter
18. stevenhalter
I heard the top wobble, but it wasn't clear to me if it was a fall.
19. N. Mamatas
I detected echoes of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny

Indeed, the movie was a retread of forty-year-old SF novels.
Noneo Yourbusiness
20. Longtimefan
I was paying attention and I will concur that after the film cuts there is still the sound of the top and I believe I heard it drop. Whatever the director may have intended it does not convince me that he is awake.

That however is just me.

My nit to pick was how do you connect people to a machine in a dream.

It is a dream. There is no machine.
Peter Ahlstrom
21. PeterAhlstrom
Hey! I've got that James Hogan book on my shelf. I like it quite a bit and certainly recommend it. People in it also have a sort of totem item, but it works rather like the unicorn in the special edition of BLADE RUNNER.

Anyway, I loved THE MATRIX, and REALTIME INTERRUPT (which I read much later), and INCEPTION. I hope more movies get made that push those buttons.
Samantha Brandt
22. Talia
@20 - its a machine if you think its a machine. If you expect it to work, in the dream I imagine it will.
Rachel Hyland
23. RachelHyland
leighdb @ 16

Not even The Animatrix?

Talia @ 22

You're messing with my head! (Oh, wait. That wasn't you, that was Inception. Never mind.)
Leigh Butler
24. leighdb
RachelHyland @23:

Okay, yeah, those were cool. But more like fan fiction than anything else.
Tess Laird
25. thewindrose
I enjoyed both Inception and The Matrix(there is an urban legend out there that there are two sequels to The Matrix, but I don't believe it:)

I didn't find the two movies the same at all(except maybe the slow motion fighting) but that is seen in a lot of movies now.

We are having fun at work playing with the concept of what level dream we might be in - and whose dream we are actually in - good times!

More movies like this please!

Alex Brown
26. AlexBrown
Better late than never, but I still maintain (and I have been engaged in a running argument with my mother for 3 days now) that he's dreaming, that it was ALWAYS a dream, that there never was any moment where he was out of his dream, that when Cobb and Mal "came back" to reality they really just went up a level so when Mal killed herself she was waking up into real reality while Cobb lagged behind. I base this on both the ending and Ariadne. I think it's important to note that her name is Ariadne and that isn't coincidental on Nolan's part.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne led Theseus (who later descended into the Underworld to help Pirithous in his failed attempt to kidnap Persephone) escape from the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Cobb would be educated enough to know of the tale of Ariadne and she could just as easily be a construct of his psyche. The similarities are just too similar between Greek Ariadne and Inception Ariadne to be coincidental.

Besides, as others have mentioned, the kids were the same age. And I still don't buy that Michael Caine would fly all the way to the States just to pick up Cobb from the airport. Unless there was a scene that was cut, but I don't remember anyone calling him to let him know about the plan or telling him when the flight was landing.

I will say that the top DID NOT fall. I think people want to hear it drop because that is the ending they want, but I saw it (and snuck into the last 10 minutes later on) and can say for certain that the top is still turning, though it does slow a little and even wobbles a tiny bit.

Oh, and on a list of movies where reality and imagination breakdown until you can't tell what's what (either on the audience side or on the character side), put this up there with Synecdoche, New York (an excellent film, by the way).

And I totally disagree with those who thought Leonardo DiCaprio was miscast. I thought he was excellent in that role. But I also have a permanent soft spot for him (I was the target demographic for Titanic and Romeo + Juliet) in the same way that I will always hate Angelina Jolie in such a way that I am physically incapable of enjoying anything she even breathes on.
Church Tucker
27. Church
@26. Milo1313

"Besides, as others have mentioned, the kids were the same age. "

They're actually not. The kids in the final scene are two years older. (I didn't catch that until I read the credits.)

That said, there isn't the sound of the top falling. As the first few credits flash on the screen theres' the sound of the top wobbling (which might be part of the soundtrack, it's hard to tell.)

Also, if you see it a second time, pay attention to how many times Cobb is told (in the top level) to 'wake up' or 'come back to reality' or somesuch. And not just by his wife.
28. Eugene R.
I fall into the "It's all a dream" camp. Several aspects of the film seem to reflect that Cobb is inside a dream all through the movie - the repetitiveness of the children's image and actions, the use of the phrase "Leap of faith" to motivate characters to change dreams (and which traces originally to Mal in her 'suicide' fall), the taboo of using someone else's token, Mal's criticism of Cobb being employed and chased by faceless corporations as a real lifestyle.

That comment echoed for me what I felt was the key scene in determining Cobb's wakefulness - the Mombasa sequence, in which Cobb is fleeing adversaries through a maze-like setting filled with crowds who view him with increasing antagonism until he is rescued in a deus-ex-machina fashion, all of which corresponds to the mechanics of shared dreaming as just explained to us in previous scenes.

In any case, the movie is well-made, with an economy of storytelling that helps us maneuver through the welter of dreams presented (if not always making it easy to determine who is the dreamer and why). I was impressed, for example, by the explication of paradoxical terrain with the Escher staircase, not only as a neat piece of CGI but also as an active plot device that is used within the film. Chekov would be proud. (Anton and Pavel, both.)

As for the top falling or wobbling after the screen goes black, well, that's for the audience, who are now just waking up from our own shared dream, no?
Paul Andinach
29. anobium
And I still don't buy that Michael Caine would fly all the way to the States just to pick up Cobb from the airport. Unless there was a scene that was cut, but I don't remember anyone calling him to let him know about the plan or telling him when the flight was landing.

Michael Caine was going to the States anyway, to see his grandkids. It was mentioned at least twice.

Given that, I think it's reasonable to assume without being told explicitly that somebody let him know Cobb that was coming and when.

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