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 in this world, and told that in return for completing the mission he will be able to return home.
If you want to know more about the film-making theory, you can Google it; as I said it's very commonly accepted and there are plenty of articles out there about it. What I'm going to talk about today is only a slightly altered angle on the topic. Because the arts are so intermingled, I think it is very possible to make a case that Inception is also about writing, novel-writing in particular for the sake of this post. Here's how.
*SPOILERS AHEAD. LAST WARNING. ALSO, THIS POST IS SUPER LONG.*
Analysis of the Characters' Parts via Novel Writing
First off, the main character, Dominick Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio. It's an accepted opinion that he reflects Nolan himself, or 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 an article on Overthinkingit.com, "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 personality and life choices thus reflect what the "standard" author would be. He has a tough life and an even worse history, which is almost a requirement for being an artist of any caliber. 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 the said parameters. Often, or at least this is true in my case, this persona is rather sarcastic.
Thus, Ariadne is more than some 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 those personally affected by 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 Says about the Intricacies of Writing
Then we move into the beginning, where Arthur and Cobb are working to steal information from Saito's mind for a client. Their architect fails them, and a woman named Mal shows up and betrays Cobb. Because of this, Cobb and Arthur fail to acquire the information but Saito, it turns out, has been auditioning them, and they have passed. 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, that he's wanted by someone. This point will be discussed more later.
So Cobb assembles a new team, keeping Arthur by his side, with the most important recruit being Ariadne, the new architect. Through Ariadne's lessons, we learn about the way the extractions work, the mechanics of dream-building, and some about the plans for the inception. In her lessons, we see 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 directs the way the story goes.
Another subject of interest is brought up after Ariadne builds a bridge in the dream directly from her memory. Here, Cobb brings up the central issue of reality vs. fantasy and 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, that 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 designed strictly for her knowledge so that she can tell if she's in a dream or not. The totem is an important motif in Inception, particularly Cobb's spinning top he acquired from Mal. The totem pushes further 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. I find it interesting to note that the only three totems we actually see belong to the trio of the author's psyche, Cobb, Arthur, and Ariadne: the top, the die, and the chess piece.
A final point of note in Ariadne's training is the reflection on how 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 they come nearer to the point of the inception, Ariadne grows more and more curious about what happens in the dreams Cobb creates for himself with the dream machine. She's seen Mal once at this point, and finds the situation extremely worrisome. So finally, one night, Ariadne connects herself in and enters Cobb's dreams, which are actually comprised of a series of moments, memories he regrets. In this, Ariadne learns of Cobb's dark past, how Mal, his wife, went mad and committed suicide, leaving behind specially designed evidence that Cobb had killed her, forcing Cobb to leave his children behind and run. 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 down into the full inception in order to protect everyone from Cobb's mind.
When Fischer's father dies, Saito buys out a plane in order for the team to be taken alongside him to the place of his father's funeral. They sedate Fischer and then go under, 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 suspension of disbelief. Saito, who has insisted he enter the dream despite Cobb's reluctance, is shot and badly wounded, which becomes a high-threat situation, because while in normal dreams, if you're killed you wake up, in this inception, the sedation makes it so instead of waking, the dreamer would fall down and become trapped in Limbo, unconstructed dream space with only the remnants of whatever one of the connected dreamers has left there. The fact that Saito is the one placed in danger after having forced his way into the inception is said to be commentary on how the higher-ups, publishers in this case, shouldn't interfere with the creative process itself because it's dangerous to everyone that way.
With this urgent issue at hand, the inception is forced into double-time. Eames goes down to meet Fischer, disguised as Fischer's trusted godfather, Robert Browning, and pretends that the kidnappers are torturing him because they want a code from Fischer, the code to Fischer's father's safe, in which there is a new will that would split up the company. Here, the first idea is planted, that Fischer's father doesn't want Fischer to keep the company intact. Fischer states here that his father is disappointed in him, that these were his last words and that this is simply a reflection of that. Fischer doesn't know the code, but gives a random set of numbers to the team.
Cobb leads Fischer back to his team and they set up in a hotel room related to the numbers Fischer previously spoke, at which point Browning, no longer played by Eames but instead a direct reflection of Fischer's mind, appears. Through a combination of the Browning Fischer now sees and Cobb's own words, Browning is revealed to be a suspicious character, and the story is built that Browning was working with the kidnappers to gain the code so he can hide the will. The dream Browning states that he didn't want Fischer to rise to his father's "last taunt", but Cobb interjects that Fischer is lying, putting in the second idea Fischer needs to have. The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning himself, and they set it up, making it so Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind and sets up the second-level kick with some explosives.
In the third level, the rest of the team splits into two with Fischer by their side and moves 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 first level kick is set off too early. The team makes a decision to try and hit the next kick, when the car hits the water, and Arthur, on the second level, constructs a new kick using an elevator. This issue with the kicks reflects how the author cannot always plan for what happens with the characters and situations in a novel, and that often things turn in a direction he/she had not originally thought. The part of the team with Fischer cuts through the labryinth of the fortress, but then Mal appears in the fortress and kills him, 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 and complete the mission. As they enter Limbo, Cobb explains to Ariadne more of his personal story. Before Mal killed herself, she and Cobb had entered Limbo, spending almost a lifetime there by the calculations of the slowed time, building a fantasy world. They had 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." Her witness against Cobb was designed to make him come with her, a trick which failed but forced him into illegal operations away from home. A further analysis of this will be provided later.
In revealing this to Ariadne and himself, Cobb reaches his own catharsis. He tells Ariadne to escape Limbo with Fischer when the kick comes, and tells her he is done being haunted by Mal but will instead seek out Saito and find a way for them to both return to reality, a dangerous task due to the slowing of time, but a necessary one for Cobb to reach home. Ariadne kills herself, Mal, and Fischer, returning with Fischer to the third dream level.
On that level, Fischer finds himself facing a wall with a key code. He enters the code he had spoken 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 , thus implanting the final idea, that Fischer's own father wants him to break up the company and make his own way in the world. The kicks then set off, the fortress exploding, the elevator falling, and the van hitting the water, and the team with Fischer wakes up.
We return then to the first scene, which we now see is Cobb confronting a very aged Saito in Limbo, asking him to take a leap of faith and come with him back to reality. Saito agrees, presumably they kill themselves, and then he and Cobb awake on the plane with the rest of the team, looking a bit startled and worn. Then Cobb is going 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 quite ambiguously 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, a lot of fans 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, and that's all that matters to him now.
(However, 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, because many people have pointed out that the top couldn't have been his totem, because it was Mal's. What people have realized is that Cobb's wedding band appears in scenes where he's dreaming, and it's gone in reality. In the last scene, the wedding band isn't there. So, apparently, the ring is his totem, and in the end, he's really back home.)
The Central Conflict: What Mal Represents
I said before that home, in this story, represents less of the personal life and family and more of the creative fulfillment that the author is seeking for. If Cobb's children and home represent creative fulfillment, then what does Mal mean in her constant thwarting of this goal? Well, on The Awl, Maria Bustillos proposes that Mal represents the Muse. Her argument is that the central conflict is in Cobb's choice between Mal and Fischer, representing the Muse vs. the audience. The producer, in this comparison, is being faced with the choice 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 different view on what Mal is, and what the central conflict represents in terms of novel-writing.
To me, Mal is the ultimate representation of Cobb's personal life. A huge conflict throughout the movie, not just with Mal but with trains and children and similar things, is that Cobb's subconscious keeps leaking through into the dream, doing exactly what he told Ariadne not to do. Cobb is struggling to keep his personal life from affecting the story so much that the story collapses, and it's difficult. That's a fact. When you're writing a novel, it's really hard to balance 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. I can't write realistic fiction because as soon as I do, I jump right off the cliff and make everything collapse. I've abandoned other books because the connection was too palpable, and in one of my books, Twist, though there were many brilliant plot points, the entire book ended up coming out desperate, as I said, like some kind of therapy that ignores reality for the ease of fantasy.
It's not wrong to try and overcome your personal problems by writing, but if you're trying to write a story you intend to be good, a story to be published, a story that will give you that creative fulfillment, 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. Cobb is where he is at the beginning of the story because he let his personal life take over too much, because he and Mal lost grip of reality in the dream where they built their own world. He has lost his creative fulfillment, his home and children, over her, and the only way to get it back is to get over her 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. That is 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 Tumblr and IMDB.