Considering Inception

Simpsons OstrichI watched Inception for the second time the other day. It remains, in my mind, a good but not great story. Certainly it is well made and I applaud Nolan’s ability to structure a complex series of layers into a coherent storyline. I enjoy the movie, but it could have been much more interesting. The real strength of the movie is the fact that people have been discussing it endlessly since it came out. Hell, I’d give a limb to write a story that people discuss endlessly. Based on that alone, I’d want to murder Chris Nolan in a jealous rage. Add in The Dark Knight and he and I are eternal enemies, even though he’ll never know it. He’s joined my list of People I’ve Never Met but Despise because of Their Professional Success, right there with Ben Affleck.

Anyways, after my second viewing of Inception I confirmed my initial interpretation of the story, which we’ll get to below. I also noticed a couple of annoying plot holes. Herewith are two plot/mechanics problems and my overall interpretation about the film.


Let’s start small.

One: How can there be gravity in the elevator?

Maybe I missed something in high school physics. In the second dream, set in the hotel, the gravity disappears because the van goes into free-fall. So everyone is floating around and there’s some really amazing kung fu with Arthur and the projections flying around a hallway with no “floor” Great! But he needs to “kick” everyone out of the third-level dream, which they normally do via inner-ear disturbances — the sense of falling. Which you can’t simulate without gravity. Nifty.

So the ever-resourceful Arthur ties everyone up and drags them to the elevator, where he arranges them carefully and then cuts the emergency brakes. The elevator falls, everyone hits the floor and gets kicked. nifty. Except, why does the elevator fall if there’s no gravity? DAMN YOU NOLAN.

Two: How come they don’t get “kicked” when the van rolls off the bridge in the first dream?

This might just be incompletely explained mechanics: In the first dream, they’re all sleeping in the van (dreaming the second dream) when they’re forced off the bridge. The van rolls down the embankment, and each dreaming character experiences a lot of frickin’ inner ear disturbance, yes? I mean, if the lack of gravity in the first dream affects the ability to “kick” in the second dream, then it follows that a sense of falling in the first dream should also affect the dreamer in “reality”.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone didn’t play by the very rules they themselves created. But it’s annoying. DAMN YOU NOLAN!


Cobb is insane.

Simple, eh? And I’m not the first one to posit this, but you can’t always be first. The key scenes to point to are not what you might expect: The first is Cobb’s initial meeting with his father-in-law, played by Michael Caine. Watch it again. Caine is wary of Cobb. He clearly regards Cobb’s tales of corporate espionage and persecution to be old bullshit. He implores Cobb to leave the “fantasy” behind. Ideas echoed later by his daughter, Mal, in the supposed “Limbo” sequence. Then — poof! — He suddenly acquiesces and offers up Ariadne as Cobb’s new apprentice. Does this make sense? Not a bit. Unless there’s a jump-cut in there switching from a more or less lucid experience to Cobb suddenly hallucinating.

Sort of like Caine’s character, who clearly lives and works in Paris, somehow waiting for Cobb at the airport in America at the end of the film. Impossible? No. But odd, don’t you think?

The second scene to watch again is Ariadne and Arthur after her first experience with Cobb’s dead wife, Mal. Watch it again, think about her tone, her choice of words. It sounds sort of like someone discussing a dangerous patient, you ask me.

Consider that Cobb’s “totem”, supposedly the one object you use to anchor yourself to reality because only you know its weight and feel, is not actually his. It was his wife’s. Consider that he himself breaks every rule he offers up about constructing and sharing dreams. Consider that Mal, in limbo, tells him a very sensible explanation for everything — that he is imagining faceless corporations chasing him around the world, endless persecution.

Cobb’s nuts, and I think the whole story is from his POV. As others have noted, you the audience are never given any kind of totem or anchor; at the beginning of the film we’re dropped in to a dream, which cuts to another dream, which cuts to another dream, and then we cut to what we assume is the outer shell — reality. But how do we know it’s reality? We have no damn idea. If it is all from Cobb’s POV, it’s just another layer of Crazy — hence faceless corporate goons chasing them, nameless hotels, detail-less locations, unspecified “energy industries”. The whole movie is a delusion, with occasional rays of reality breaking through.

This interpretation also solves one of the biggest mysteries of the movie, for me: Why are the dreams so goddamn boring? Has Chris Nolan ever had a dream? I mean, I get that while you’re dreaming everything seems normal, but when displaying dreams for your audience’s entertainment, try harder. I sometimes dream about riding an Ostrich to my job as a professional whiskey taster.

Sure, sure: Maybe Nolan decided that having all sorts of crazy dream imagery would make the film silly and confusing, and I do admit that crazy dream imagery would not have worked nearly as well as the gritty, reality-based dreams we traipsed through, in terms of telling a story. And sure, sure: Maybe Nolan is a smarty pants who was making a meta comment about how we, the audience, enter a dream state when we watch films and, as stated, you never notice anything odd about the dream while you’re in it. Clever ideas, both, but I reject them. Because if you consider that the entire film is one long dream of Cobb’s, then instead of several rather dull, plodding dreams, we have one big dream that’s every bit as unsettling and chaotic as a dream ought to be.

Each individual dream is kind of dull: You have static, not very imaginative city settings. Aside from Ariadne’s experimental phase, for which she gets stabbed in the belly, nothing particularly amazing happens. The whole thing might as well be a crazier-than-usual episode of Law and Order, visually speaking. Ah, but put them all together as one dream, and goddamn, bring the crazy. You jump from location to location. There are no establishing shots to let you know where you are. People are always right where you need them to be. You constantly slip from timeline to timeline. Old memories invade at random moments. People echo each other’s words. There is no structure, rhyme, or reason. It’s raining. You’re inside. It’s snowing.

It’s all a dream. A dream Cobb lives in all the time.

Okay, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this. If you think that the real goal of art is to generate discussion and argument, then Inception is a complete success, and deservedly so. I will likely wait a few years and then steal every good idea from this movie and rework it into one of my own stories. Take that, Nolan!


  1. Sarah W

    Makes sense to me. Except for the Ben Affleck part — that’s just dream-state crazy talk.

  2. Bill Peschel

    Except that people aren’t really talking about any issues related to the story, they’re trying to figure out the story.

    That’s a good thing, of course, because it keeps “Inception” in their heads (hey, that’s it, the movie was a scam to plant the idea in your head. The idea is: BUY THE DVD. BUY THE BATMAN MOVIES. CHRIS NOLAN IS GOD.

    Maybe not that last one.

    Coincidentally, my wife and I watched the movie last week for the first time, so it was fun to read your commentary. Let’s see if I can play.

    The elevator scene: Remember that the amount of time increases with each level, so that a minute on the first level (the van heading for the river) translates into ten minutes on the next (the elevator). So, when the van hits, gravity is re-established on the next level, allowing for the stunt to happen.

    How’s that?

    The Cobb-is-crazy scenario can work, but it sounds like it overlays the entire movie without anything really connecting it except suppositions (such as the invisible seam between Michael Caine’s character objecting then recruiting someone to help Cobb).

    The Occam’s Razor version is this: Nolan’s first mind-fuck movie “Memento” (which I saw) was so confusing to a lot of people that he dumbed it down to make “Inception.” The kicker is that PEOPLE ARE STILL CONFUSED BY IT, which shows that most people are idiots. Except for you and me.


    As for dull dreams, I’m afraid a lot of mine are, so I didn’t have a problem with that. Even the ones in which I’m late, being yelled out, in serious trouble, I don’t feel the fear. I can observe horrible things happening and not be affected by them. As always, YMMV.

  3. Lunch

    I didn’t like Inception. I didn’t like the choice of actors, I didn’t like that it was high-action for seemingly no reason than to be flashy and drag in crowds, I don’t like the idea that you can go to sleep *again* in a dream and suddenly time speeds up, and I really don’t like the huge deal people are putting up about the movie. There was some neat scenes, yeah, but it really felt to me like the larger-than-life super-neato action sequences were accidentally putting a veil over the plot and meaning of the movie.

    Then again, I also dislike Christmas cheer, popular things, and am a scrooge about pretty much everything all the time, so what I think is pretty invalid. HUMBUG.

  4. jsomers (Post author)

    Lunch: I agree to a point about the action-esqueness of the movie; you could argue Nolan included guns and fights because it’s what sells. On the other hand, you could argue that Americans are no awash in gunfights on our movie screens many of us probably *do* dream about them. I also think the reputation of this movie is going to go down as time goes on. I think for people who do not regularly consume science fiction the movie was a revelation; for those of us who do it was anything from a pretty good movie to a really unoriginal one with a messy plot, YMMV.

  5. jsomers (Post author)

    Bill: Thanks for your thoughts. Your suggestion about the elevator scene is an excellent one, and I’ll incorporate it into future cocktail party bloviating about the movie!

  6. jsomers (Post author)

    Sarah: BEN AFFLECK WON AN OSCAR WHEN HE WAS LIKE NINE YEARS OLD. Then he films himself doing pullups in “The Town” with crazy washboard abs. He’s my age. I hates him. That is all.

  7. Chris B

    The elevator: Arthur used explosives to “launch” the elevator. Once the sensation of acceleration is over, the occupants are again in freefall. Thus, the kick. However, I still wondered why being in zero-g in the first place wasn’t enough. I’m sure they have to hose-out the Vomit Comet all the time.

    So, I assume the kicks had to synchronized across all of the dream layers. Ariadne falling from the building in limbo, plus the hospital sliding down the slope in layer 3, plus the elevator launched and then back in freefall in 2, plus the van falling off the bridge in 1. Now, if the 747 had hit turbulence at that moment, maybe Cobb would have been “kicked” out of the movie.

    Oddly, they used the kick in contrary ways. At the end, they were boosted up a dream level by falling. In the beginning of the movie, Cobb was brought out of a lower level by being “dunked”. So Arthur should have been pulled back as soon as the van went off the bridge and he was in freefall.

    Nonetheless, it was entertaining. Check your brain at the door, go in and have fun, pick up your hat, coat and brain on the way out. Don’t think about the rules too much or you’ll spend the rest of your life convinced Rose killed Jack. He told her he was a survivor. If she hadn’t jumped back onto the Titanic, he would have had that headboard all to himself after the ship sank. Stupid Rose.

  8. William C.

    I stumbled across this and I have a few thoughts, not necessarily answers.

    I also wondered how he could make the elevator fall without gravity (it was falling and not launched; all he did was blow off the cables and they clearly picked up speed as the elevator fell). Then I thought maybe while the characters themselves have the feeling of no gravity, do the rules of gravity still hold for their structural surroundings? ie an elevator.

    I believe your second point could be explained by the potency of the sleeping medication. They developed a very strong potion so that they would stay asleep for 10 hours, and they even showed that slapping someone would not wake them up. This could be why they didn’t come back to “reality” while the van was tumbling. Also, while the van is tumbling, everyone but Aurthur is asleep on the next level, so the kick wouldn’t bring them up 2 levels (but I do wonder why Arthur was not brought up to dream level 1). If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think any of them actually woke up (to “reality”)when they hit the water, they all swam away and probably had to wait for the potion to wear off (I could be wrong on this one; I haven’t seen the movie in 5 months).

    About the dreams being too dull. Perhaps all of the characters have spent so much time in the dream space that they can obviously control their dreams and know how to manipulate them (so there are no purple elephants riding unicycles; unless they want them). Remember, they are trying to make the dream feel real, so they can steal their thoughts or do inception.

    The one thing that has always bugged me, has been the totem. Not only did Cobb get his totem from someone else, he found it while he was in limbo. So how would he know what it acted like in reality in the first place?

    Oh well. These are just a few of my ramblings, and I for one enjoyed the movie.

  9. Sam

    Addressing your first question; the lift drops because at that moment the van touches the water in the first layer of dream. That means they’re no more in free fall and the gravity is back to normal. Arthur managed to sync perfectly so he blew the elevator cable at the moment the van hit the water.

    As for your second question, they did get the ‘kick’ when the van hit the railing. But remember that they were too heavily sedated to wake up in the first layer of dream when they’re still sleeping in the second layer and even some are sleeping the third layer. Only if they died in the lower layers, then they would be able to feel the ‘kick’ on the first layer and get awake. That’s why it’s so scary because if they somehow screwed up the timing in any layer of the dream, they would be trapped forever.

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