Unravelling The Dream World In Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up, we realise something was actually strange.”

If there’s ever a Hollywood movie that entertains and inspires thought, it’s Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner Inception – a visual spectacle that has stood the test of time and holds up as one of the smartest blockbusters of the past decade. Crashing into cinemas back in 2010, Inception baffled viewers with its intricate narrative that centres around multiple dream worlds. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the main character, Dom Cobb, admitted earlier this year that he still has no idea what happened in the movie.

And that’s no surprise, considering the sheer scale and scope of the film, which invites repeated viewings to fully understand the plot, what it means and how the dream levels are all connected. Since its release, the cliffhanger ending has long been a point of debate among film fans. On my part, however, I’ve found that Nolan’s dream narrative deserves far greater attention. So, to celebrate the film’s tenth anniversary, I’m going back down the rabbit hole to discuss the film’s plot and make sense of Nolan’s frenetic dream world.

False Awakening 

For the most part, Inception largely resembles the structure of a Matrix-style video game, set inside the heads of each protagonist. And the plot concerns the efforts of Dom Cobb and his crack team of infiators, who have been hired to break into Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious, to convince him to dissolve his father’s company, and to make him believe it was his idea. Each of the film’s main characters serves as different pieces of a puzzle, carrying with them a “totem”, that helps distinguish between reality and dreaming. For Cobb, it’s a tiny metal top, and pretty much everyone knows by now that if the top doesn’t topple over after spinning, that means he’s still in a dream.

I’ve seen Inception a few times now and what remains clear is that the film pays homage to the powerful experience of dreaming. Through the convention of a Hollywood heist movie, Nolan creates a rambling, almost disjointed film where everything seems to be happening at once, much like an actual dream, and he’s able to reshape standard movie templates by using a dream-within-a-dream narrative.

source: Warner Bros. Pictures

With Inception, Nolan takes the concept of lucid dreaming – a dream in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming – and structures the film around that framework. The term “lucid dreaming”, however, is never once mentioned, which was more than likely intentional, as it would give Nolan the freedom to create his own dream mythology, centred around the idea of dream-sharing through a drug-induced sleep. But the technology in the film isn’t important. Nolan wants viewers to focus on the characters, the dreams and the experience of watching the events unfold.

Mind Over Matter

One obvious question we may want to ask ourselves regarding the dream levels is why bother with having them in the first place? What’s the point? There are of course wildly different readings, but there are so many factors at play showing that Nolan was trying to replicate the subconscious on-screen, and perhaps even parallel the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed there were multiple levels of the mind that could occasionally bubble up and merge into one another. I’m not presenting this reading as fact, but rather an interpretation – and Nolan’s dreams do seem to correspond with Freud’s theories, especially since each dream can be affected by things happening in the above level.

For example, there’s a key moment in Inception when the van containing the dreaming Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls off a bridge, resulting in a loss of gravity in his dream of a hotel. These action-packed dream sequences exist on separate physical levels, which in turn, represent different levels of the mind, and it’s supported by flawless cinematography. In an interview with Collider, Nolan talked about the cameras used in the film. He said: “We didn’t feel that we were going to be able to shoot in IMAX because this film given that it deals with a potentially surreal area, the nature of dreams and so forth, I wanted it to be as realistic as possible.”

source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Inception is an example of Nolan’s mastery of unconventional story progression, and a showcase for how he pushes the boundaries of what’s expected from a big-budget Hollywood film. While Nolan isn’t the first director to make a film about the intricacies of the mind and dreaming, he’s one of the few to actually build a whole mythology around it. And truth be told, he makes the dream worlds a whole lot easier to understand than say, David Lynch ever would.

In fact, I’ve always found myself intrigued that the film more or less explains the plot, using the audience surrogate Ariadne (Ellen Page) to pop up with questions like, “Whose subconscious are we breaking into again?” Sure, there’s a lot of exposition in Inception, but so many elements of the story suggest that Nolan was trying to create a shared cinematic experience, in the mould of a multi-player video game. We don’t question Nolan’s dream-sharing or complain that Ariadne serves as a plot device to guide the viewer. Instead, we ignore it and allow our minds to get lost in the film.

Dream a Little Bigger

Of course, I can’t claim credit for figuring out the meaning of the dreams in Inception. There have been many different theories over the years, but the idea that Inception is about the movie-making process, and the experience of watching movies, has become the standard interpretation. Johan Lehrer’s reading of Inception is one of the best out there. Never has a piece of film writing opened my eyes about the inner workings of movies as much as Lehrer’s article. However, I’d argue that Lehrer could have gone even further with his ideas.

Inception doesn’t just “collapse the already thin distinction between dreaming and movie-watching”, but rather uses dreams as a way to explore the nature of control and finding peace in our own reality. It’s the story of Dom Cobb’s quest to return “home”, where he can be with his children and ultimately, regain control of his life. The characters in Inception are constantly worrying about whether they’re still dreaming, and the dreams always seem to get out of hand. Cobb and Fischer’s journey parallel each other as they seek closure, coming to terms with their past. Inception is about disappointment, struggle and breaking free from the shackles of personal history, and the dream-sharing is an “idea” that Nolan planted into the heads of millions.

source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Inception is a complex journey through the subconscious, and a rare Hollywood blockbuster for the way it gets viewers brains ticking, yet it can still be enjoyed on a superficial level. Above all, the dreams allow Nolan to interweave multiple plot strands, blending genres and subverting traditional Hollywood arcs. In the process, he creates an enigmatic movie that’s rich and intense, stirring up a range of emotions. Inception has enough twists, action and compelling drama to keep many of us watching it again, and in challenging times, we need entertainment more than ever. Inception remains a brilliant puzzle movie that’s always worth unravelling.

What are your thoughts on Inception?

Watch Inception on Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

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