In basis, Inception is a science fiction movie about a man, an "extractor", who can get into your dreams to steal ideas/secrets/information. He's been separated from his family because of this ability, and is now doing it illegally for pay. In Inception, he's given the task to instead implant an idea, a thing considered impossible, and told that in return for completing the mission he will be able to return home.
*Spoilers and a long post ahoy*
What the Characters' Roles Are
First off, the main character, Dominick Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio, is said to reflect Nolan himself, i.e. the producer. In terms of the writing metaphor, Cobb thus represents the author's central psyche. Cobb is the leader of extraction missions and the leader of the inception, in charge of everything that occurs. As stated in the earlier linked article, "Cobb can literally create a whole new world. Not only does he determine how he wants his target to feel, not only does he invent a story to inspire these feeling, but he also supervises the creation of an environment... in which his story will unfold."
Cobb's reflects who the "stereotypical" author would be. He has a tough life and an even worse history, which is almost a requirement for being an artist. He struggles often with what's real and what isn't, which is a theme I'll address later on. He is, in the end, a character alone and suffering. He makes the hardest decisions and deals with the most heartbreak of all the characters in the movie, because he has the guts to do it.
Thus, Arthur is like the "writer persona", as I refer to it, the side of the author that balances and counteracts the more human, emotional side by presenting logic and questioning anything that the author's central self is starting to run too far with. This persona creates the parameters of the story and works to keep it running under said parameters. Often, or at least this is true in my case, this persona is rather sarcastic.
Thus, Ariadne is more than a creator of setting. Ariadne is the final side of the author's triad of psyches, the "sympathetic persona". This side of the author works as a counterbalance to the "writer persona", accepting and acknowledging the emotions and the deeper meanings that come from the central psyche into the story, where the writer persona shuts them down. The sympathetic persona works to help the author overcome these more personal problems while protecting the story from becoming too skewed. The name Ariadne originates from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, where Ariadne was a princess who guided Theseus and the others out of the Labyrinth. The sympathetic persona (and the Inception character) acts on this duty exactly, pulling the author from the twists and turns of his/her story in order to reach the purest truth at the end of the plot.
What the Movie Plot Teaches Us
Then we move back to the beginning of the story, where Arthur and Cobb are working to steal information from Saito's mind architect fails them, and a woman named Mal shows up to betray Cobb. Because of this, Cobb and Arthur fail to acquire the information but Saito has in fact been auditioning them. Saito presents his offer: that if Cobb can create the inception to convince Fischer to break up his dying father's company, he'll give Cobb the chance to go home again.
It has been pointed out by theorists that home represents not just the producer's personal life, but actually his creative fulfillment. Though at the beginning we don't know what it is that's keeping Cobb from home, it's fairly clear it has something to do with his work. This point will be discussed more later.
So Cobb assembles a new team, keeping Arthur by his side and most importantly, recruiting a new architect, Ariadne. Through Ariadne's lessons, we learn about the way the extractions work as well as the mechanics of dream-building. One important fact is that the dreams built by the extractors are filled by people created by the subject's subconscious. This is a reflection on how readers play a large part on the interpretation of a story. Basically, the reader's mind provides many of the details.
Another subject of interest appears after Ariadne builds a bridge in the dream taken directly from her memory. Here, Cobb warns Ariadne not to use full scenes from her life but only pieces. This is a very important issue in writing as well. The author cannot help but include what she/her knows, but this must be done subtly or the story will turn on itself. Soon after this, Ariadne goes too far in changing the build of the dream and the subconsciously created people attack her. This is a further statement on suspension of disbelief. If you take it too far, the reader's mind will fight back against the author and the story will break.
Ariadne also creates for herself a totem, which is an object that tells her whether she's in a dream or not. The totem is an important motif in Inception, particularly Cobb's own spinning top. The idea of a totem further centers the idea of reality vs. fantasy, that the author must work to stay aware of the lines between his real life and the one he is creating. Also of note is that the only three totems we actually see are the ones that belong to the trio of the author's psyche, Cobb, Arthur, and Ariadne: the top, the die, and the chess piece.
One more fact from Ariadne's training is that time in a dream moves quicker. This is true as well for stories, which can span across years of time while in real life, only hours have passed.
As times passes, Ariadne grows more and more curious about what Cobb dreams. She's seen Mal once at this point, and finds the situation extremely worrisome. So finally, she connects herself in and enters Cobb's dreams, which are actually comprised of a series of moments that he regrets. In this, Ariadne learns of Cobb's dark past: how Mal, his wife, went mad and committed suicide, leaving behind evidence that Cobb had killed her and forcing Cobb to leave his children behind. Since then, Cobb's personal life has begun intruding on his dreams, causing havoc and disrupting his missions. Horrified, Ariadne insists that she accompany the team into the inception in order to protect everyone from Cobb's mind.
When Fischer's father dies, Saito arranges for the team to be taken alongside him to the place of his father's funeral. They sedate Fischer and then go into the first layer of the dream. Here, they kidnap Fischer, but during the process, Cobb's subconscious warps and a train appears where it shouldn't. The team is then attacked by Fischer's subconscious, which has been trained to recognize intruders. This, as has been pointed out by others, is a commentary on how audiences today are more aware of the media and harder to push into a suspension of disbelief. Saito, who insisted upon coming along during the inception, is shot and badly wounded. This is a high-threat situation. Normally, if you're killed in a dream you wake up, but because of the sedation they're using, the dreamer will instead become trapped in Limbo, deep unconstructed dream space. The fact that Saito is placed in danger after having forced his way into the inception is said to be commentary on how higher-ups, publishers in this case, shouldn't interfere with the creative process because it's dangerous to everyone.
With this urgent issue at hand, the inception is forced into double-time. Eames, disguised as Fischer's trusted godfather, Robert Browning, pretends that the kidnappers are torturing him because they want the code to Fischer's father's safe, in which there is a new will that would split up the company. Here, the first part of the idea is planted: that Fischer's father doesn't want Fischer to keep the company intact. Fischer indicates at this point that he believes his father was disappointed in him. In order to appease the "kidnappers," however, he gives the team a random set of numbers.
Cobb leads Fischer back to his team and they set up in a hotel room, at which point Browning, no longer played by Eames but created by Fischer's own mind, appears. Through this and through Cobb's manipulation, the story is built that Browning was in fact working with the kidnappers to gain the code, so that he could hide the will. Browning states that he didn't want Fischer to rise to his father's "last taunt", but Cobb interjects that Fischer is lying, laying down the second part of the idea. The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning, and they set it up. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move to three.
Here, the team splits up and move in towards a fortress in a snowy mountain area where, supposedly, Browning is keeping the secret Fischer needs to find. In the midst of this, however, things go wrong again, and the "kick" meant to wake them up to the first level is set off too early. The team makes a decision to try and hit the next kick, and Arthur, on the second level, constructs a new kick of his own using an elevator. This reflects how the author cannot always plan for what happens in a novel, and that often things turn in a direction (s)he had not originally expected. Fischer and the team cut through the fortress, but then Mal appears and kills Fischer, sending him down into Limbo.
As Cobb and Ariadne arrive, with Mal now gone, Saito also dies, and Cobb and Ariadne realize they have to enter Limbo in order to save both Fischer and Saito. As they do so, Cobb tells more of his personal story. Before Mal killed herself, she and Cobb had entered Limbo, spending almost a lifetime there building a fantasy world. They killed themselves finally in order to leave Limbo, but Mal, still believing they were in their dreams, killed herself again to get back to "reality." The evidence she left against Cobb was designed to make him join her, a trick which failed but forced him into illegal operations away from home. I'll analyze this part of the story in greater depth later.
Cobb orders Ariadne to escape Limbo with Fischer when the kick comes, and tells her that he is done being haunted by Mal but will instead seek out Saito and find a way for them to both return to reality. Ariadne kills herself, Mal, and Fischer, and returns with Fischer to the third dream level.
On that level, Fischer faces a wall with a key code. He enters the code he spoke in the first dream level and it opens to reveal his dying father. As Ariadne watches, Fischer speaks with his father, who says that he is disappointed, not because Fischer wasn't like him, but because Fischer was trying to be. This implants the final part of the idea, that Fischer's own father wants him to break up the company and make his own way in the world. The kicks go off at last, and everyone wakes up.
We return then to the first scene, where Cobb confronts a very aged Saito in Limbo, asking him to take a leap of faith and come with him back to reality. Saito agrees, and then he and Cobb awake on the plane a bit later than the others. Then Cobb goes through the airport into America, and ends up at his house. He begin spinning his totem top, but then his children cry out and he turns to go to them, leaving the top spinning on the table.
The ending throws a lot of people off, I think, seeing as it makes it very uncertain as to whether Cobb is in reality or not. The point, as other theorists have remarked, isn't whether it's real or not, it's that Cobb doesn't stay to see. Cobb no longer cares. The catharsis that occurs in the dream is real, even if the dream wasn't, and that's all that matters now.
(I would like at this point to speak on a fan theory for those of us who have a harder time with not knowing and state my belief that he is, indeed, in reality. Many people have pointed out that the top couldn't have been his totem, because it was Mal's first. They note that Cobb's wedding band appears in scenes where he's dreaming, and is gone in reality. In the last scene, the wedding band isn't there. So the ring is his totem, and in the end, he's really back home.)
What Mal Represents
I said before that home, in this story, represents creative. If Cobb's children and home represent creative fulfillment, then what does Mal mean in her constant thwarting of this goal? Well, in another article, the author proposes that Mal represents the Muse. Here, the central conflict is in Cobb's choice between Mal and Fischer, representing the Muse vs. the audience. The producer must choose between his own personal vision directed by the Muse and the effect the story has on the audience. While this isn't a bad theory, and may even be right in terms of film-making, I have a slightly different view on what Mal is.
To me, Mal respresents Cobb's personal life. A huge conflict throughout the movie, not just with Mal but with the other images, is that Cobb's subconscious keeps leaking through into the dream. Cobb is struggling to keep his personal life from affecting the story so much that the story collapses. That can be difficult to do. When you're writing a novel, it's really hard to find the balance of how much of "what you know" can enter the story. The line is thin between a good story that affects people with an honest, inspirational truth, and some kind of desperate novel-writing therapy exercise where the author tries to fix everything in their life by entering a fantasy that ignores reality.
I know, because I've struggled with it, with many different books. It's not wrong to try and overcome your personal problems by writing, but if you're writing a story looking for both creative fulfillment and success, you've got to focus on the meaning of the story, not what's happening in your own life. You have to pick Fischer over Mal, the children over Mal, Saito over Mal. At the beginning of the movie, Cobb has let his personal life take over too much and lost his creative fulfillment. The only way to get it back is to get over Mal and focus instead on completing the inception.
That is the central meaning of Inception, when you're looking at it from the novel-writing theory. It's the truth for which Inception itself became an inception, and it is a very important one to recognize.
Thanks for reading, and come back next time for a stream of consciousness post. See you there!
Images via IMDB.