Inception (2010) explained: back to reality


A team of hackers plot a reverse heist – the inception of the title – but the subject of the sting isn’t who we think it is …

What is Inception about?

As an ‘extractor’, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) uses dream-sharing technology to infiltrate a person’s subconscious and steal their most guarded secrets. Then business man Saito (Ken Watanabe), asks him to do the opposite – to plant an idea.Cobb’s team sets up a reverse heist but they each risk being trapped in the dreamworld … or dying there.

Inception (noun): the starting point of an institution, endeavour or activity

The brain worm

“You’re asking me for inception,” Cobb tells Saito. “I hope you do understand the gravity of that request.” What Saito is asking for can change a man – it can come to define him.

Earlier in the film Cobb announces that ideas are most resilient and resourceful kind of parasite:

“Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it – but it stays there.”

In this story inception is the act of planting ideas, with the film recounting one particular attempt to jump-start inspiration.

But the story is also about the consequences of manipulation. Cobbs backstory eventually reveals he’s done this before … and the guilt is destroying him.

Inception is famous for its layers of meaning and ‘dream within a dream within a dream’ concept. It’s not such a leap to imagine that what Cobb thinks he’s doing to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is what’s being done to Cobb himself.

So, what’s the idea, and why?

How the plot unfolds

Assuming the film does actually start in what we think of as reality, this is what we find:

  • As Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains, you can’t just tell someone to think something. Like a body rejecting a transplant organ, the mind intuits the deception and rejects the idea.
  • In order to get Fischer to generate the idea for himself, Cobb’s heist team uses a dream within a dream within a dream, taking Fischer further and further into his subconscious.
  • Cobb’s team use their skills to make the deception flawless. New recruit Ariadne (Elliot Page) is the architect who creates believable and complex dream worlds; while forger Eames (Tom Hardy) wears a number of disguises, including masquerading as Fischer’s Uncle Peter.
  • Eames claims the key to Fischer’s subconscious is his relationship with his father. That sets the scene for the actual ‘heist’, when Fischer breaks into a safe and discovers he can be his own man. Fischer technically plants the idea himself.
  • The team also includes chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who mixes the drugs that keep them all asleep. Yusuf has form in this area, seeing as he runs what looks like a modern day opium den, with chains of dreamers all hooked up to the same dream. “The dream has become their reality”, he remarks.

As a heist movie, each member of the team has a very specific role that defines their actions and scope in the story (see also The Great Escape). Saito is the exception, because he’s the outsider.

The others say they have “no room for tourists” but Saito comes along for the ride anyway. While he plays a significant role in pulling off the heist he has no predefined role.

What the plot is hiding

Here’s what also happens in Inception:

  • You can’t just tell someone what to think, because the mind always figures the deception – you have to make it believable. You have to coach the subject to hack their own subconscious.
  • In order to get Cobb to generate the idea for himself, the team uses a dream within a dream within a dream to take him way down into his own subconscious.
  • The team use their skills to make the deception flawless. When Saito dies and falls into limbo, Cobb has to go after him. So Saito, exactly as he says, is no tourist but a key player.
  • This sets the scene for the real heist: planting an idea in Cobb’s subconscious.

Breaking Mal, fixing Cobb

Early in the film, Cobb hints that he knows inception can be done.

Later we learn that he did it to his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Trying to snap her out of her attachment to the dream world, he breaks into her subconscious and plants the idea that her world isn’t real. This forces her to wake up.

But the interference backfires. Once awake Mal thinks she’s still dreaming. Eventually she kills herself to return to the reality she thinks is still out there.

Cobb’s guilt and regret consume him. He can keep neither his dream world, nor his memories of Mal, clear of reality. Mal – his subconscious – constantly breaks through.

“You think you can just build a prison of memories to lock her in? You think that’s going to contain her?”


It’s interesting that Ariadne calls Cobb’s memories a constructed prison. When Cobb explains dream architecture to her he explains the need to: “build a bank vault or a jail, something secure”.

While the heist is disguised as breaking into Fischer’s subconscious, it’s also a way for Cobb to face his own guilt and finally release Mal.

It’s only by returning to limbo – supposedly to rescue Saito – that Cobb can find his way back to reality. Limbo is Cobb’s bank vault, and the entire plot is a means of getting Cobb back there.

There are tons of similarities with this in Shutter Island, also released in 2010 and starring … Leonardo DiCaprio

Repetition and regret

Inception is built around repetition. Plots mirror each other, and characters say the same lines several times but in different locations.

The main trope is the idea of regret – or, rather, no regrets. Saito and Cobb discuss several times the idea of rejecting the fate of becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”.

The dreamers use the Edith Piaf song Je Ne Regrette Rien (‘I regret nothing’) to wake them up at each level of the dream world. The film’s soundtrack uses the same song massively slowed down (something that’s revealed at the very end of the closing credits).

It’s as if someone is giving Cobb an audio clue throughout the entire film … it’s time to wake up and stop dwelling on regret.

Fischer’s moment of realisation comes when his father dies (or, technically, when Fischer re-imagines his death in the dream world).

Similarly, one level down in limbo Cobb re-imagines a death-bed scene with Mal, finally ready to make peace with what happened:

“I couldn’t make you real. I’m not capable of imagining you in all your complexity and… perfection. As you really were. You’re the best I can do. And you’re not real.”

But if Inception really is an intervention story, it’s not clear who ultimately pulls the strings.

Ariadne, as the newest recruit to the squad, plays the part of the ‘audience’, in that Cobb explains to her (and therefore to us) how the technology works.

Through her scenes/speeches, we learn how dream heists work, the significance of totems, and Mal’s hold over Cobb.

It’s strange for a neophyte to be quite so knowing. Ariadne even becomes something of a psychologist to explain how Cobb’s subconscious is manipulating him.

Ultimately, she also spells out what they’re doing to Cobb:

“Your guilt defines her. Powers her. If we’re going to succeed in this, you’re going to have to forgive yourself, and you’re going to have to confront her. But you don’t have to do it alone.”

And Cobb isn’t alone. He has a whole cast of characters guiding him through the maze. As with her mythological namesake, Ariadne provides the thread that leads Cobb back to reality, just as it did for Theseus.

Not a heist but an intervention

The film, while ambiguous at every turn, suggests Inception is Cobb’s intervention in a number of ways:

  • Like a real-life intervention, several characters try to get Cobb to see sense. Miles tells Cobb to come back to reality. After being attacked by Mal, Arthur and Ariadne also try to reason with Cobb. Cobb rejects their ideas because his mind knows they come from someone else.
  • When Saito and Cobb meet in limbo, Cobb repeats fragments of conversations with Mal. He speaks with confusion, as though he too is remembering something from a long time ago. i.e., that “this world is not real” and they have to “take a leap of faith”.
  • While not carbon copies, the hotel Cobb ‘remembers’ when Mal jumps from the window is similar to the one used in the dream heist. Both have dark colour schemes and distinctive lamp shades on the ceilings. Both are based on (but not exactly like) Cobb’s memory – just as he advises Ariadne in creating stable dream worlds.
  • When Cobb goes to meet Miles in Paris, Cobb appears in the lecture hall without Miles noticing him, again suggesting this is a dream.
  • Cobb tells Ariadne that the dreamer dreams the dream, but the subject fills it with his/her subconscious. Because Cobb is the subject, Mal is able to infiltrate at each level. None of the other characters (other than pseudo-subject Fischer) have this problem.

Other theories about Inception

  • The film is an allegory for film-making. Eames changes his face just as an actor does, Ariadne is the screenwriter creating fantasy worlds, and Yusuf manufactures the special effects. That makes the viewer the subject of the inception, with the film planting several ideas for us to uncover: the nature of reality, for one.
  • Cobb doesn’t wake up at the end of Inception because he never work up previously. When Cobb and Mal initially climb out of limbo, we only see them wake up once (i.e., rather than ride the kicks all the way to the top as the rest of the team have to). Intervention or not, Inception is Cobb’s dream and he’s asleep the whole time.
  • The spinning top isn’t Cobb’s totem – he never claims it is. His totem may actually be his wedding ring, which only appears when he’s dreaming. I’m not convinced by this, because of the way Cobb relies on the spinning top. In one early scene, he even spins the totem with one hand, and holds a gun in the other – ready to shoot himself awake if need be: that’s how much trust he puts in it. That said, Arthur’s claim that you can’t share a totem is troubling (or a red herring).
  • Inception is one big dream. Like any dream, the film starts in the middle, and we’re never entirely sure how we got there. I dispute this, because the film goes on to show exactly how we’ve arrived there. It’s a neat idea, though: the kick song we hear throughout, and which ends the movie, is actually the audience’s cue to wake up and return to reality. This ties in more with the allegory of film-making and how stories work.
  • Director Christopher Nolan’s explanation of the end scene is that it’s less about whether Cobb is asleep and more that reality is what we make it.

Inception (2010), directed by Christopher Nolan

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Picture credit: Jason Fitt