Dream Day - Inception


Ren Zelen looks at Christopher Nolan's Inception in her examination of film as dreams...

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Lucas Haas, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao


“My real love has always been the sleep that rescued me by allowing me to dream” 
Luigi Pirandello

Inception is a film which deals in ideas and dreams, but fundamentally, beneath all of that, it is also a film about itself. Of all of Christopher Nolan’s movies, it contains the most obvious analogies to filmmaking. It uses the premise of shared dreaming to examine the similarities between the experience of dreaming and of perceiving narrative cinema.

There is a tradition in filmmaking and film criticism of drawing parallels between dreams and the cinematic experience. Martin Scorsese too, in his film Hugo, reminds us through his fictionalized Georges Méliès, that film is a potent medium because of this link to dreams and unconscious states. The genre of science-fiction is most closely connected to the imagination as it is predicated on the exploration of the fantastic and extraordinary – it deals with hopes, possibilities, anxieties, and dreams.

It is perfectly legitimate to ask ourselves whether Nolan, as a filmmaker, is aiming to “incept” his audience with an idea, hoping to help them find catharsis through his narrative, in the same way as the fictional Inception team attempt to manipulate Fischer, their ‘mark’.

Certainly, Inception plays with the relationship between films and dreaming in a number of different ways, highlighting aspects of dreaming. One of the ’rules’ of Inception is that, in a dream, you never know how you arrive somewhere, you’re just ‘there’, and in filmmaking, by necessity, you cut from one place to another—for example, from Paris to Mombasa. Does this mean that Cobb is in a dream because we don’t see how he arrived at a particular place? Not at all, it simply indicates that all films are ‘dreamlike’ in construction and that we accept these conventions.

If we accept that Inception is partly a movie about making movies, we can go on to consider the characters and their metaphorical roles: DiCaprio’s Cobb is the director (and apparently based his character on Nolan himself) the producer is Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, Watanabe’s Saito is a financier and the actor is Tom Hardy’s Eames. Cillian Murphy’s Fischer stands in for us as the audience.

However, the filmmaking counterpart of Ellen Page’s Ariadne is more complex and problematic. As the ‘Architect’ it is understandable that she has been interpreted as the Screenwriter, but as we can see in the storyline, the initiative of planting the ideas in various levels of the dream world is mostly taken by Cobb and Eames - their input influences the outcome of the dream ‘screenplay’. In Inception, as in filmmaking itself, the construction of the dream narrative and where and how it takes place is a collaborative process.

Is Ariadne therefore the Production Designer? This idea may have more merit, but I think that the clue to her primary purpose is in her name. In mythology Ariadne is the woman who helped guide Theseus through the labyrinth to defeat the Minotaur. In Inception, Ellen Page’s Ariadne is told first of all that her task is to build an ingenious, but realistic, dream-world maze. We then find that her secondary purpose is to discover that Cobb is lost in his own complex dream-labyrinth, to go down into it with him, and then help to guide him through it.

Through Ariadne’s constant challenges and questions, we learn that Cobb has gone too deep into his own subconscious while constructing levels of his and his wife Mal’s dream world, and has lost his wife along with his sense of what’s real and what isn’t. He has misdirected ideas and lost control of his subconscious, which now surfaces at random moments to throw him off balance, and his guilt brings forth vengeful facsimiles of femme-fatale Mal to subvert his intentions. 


Interestingly too, the fictional Inception team must use symbols to construct an emotional narrative to enable ideas to take root in Fischer’s psyche. This is the way a filmmaker uses symbols to give an idea to an audience. The use of the paper pinwheel in Fischer’s emotional journey is a well-used cinematic device - a visual symbol introduced early in the story that can then take on new meaning later in the narrative (as ‘Rosebud’ was most famously utilized by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane).

Inception boasts five levels of dream-reality, at least four of which are moving at different speeds through time. Nolan helps us keep track and distinguish between them by using different colour palettes and by giving the different levels distinct meteorological conditions – we can also then comprehend when one dream level is impinging on another.

In past interviews Nolan indicated that he felt it was very important that the dream worlds reflect the same rules as those presented as reality – like the fact that Cobb is being chased by anonymous corporations, as well as the maze-like quality of some of the actual, real-world environments. He also expressed an interest in the similarities between the way in which we experience a three–dimensional space that an architect has created, and the way in which an audience experiences a cinematic narrative that constructs a three-dimensional reality from a two-dimensional medium — assembled shot by shot.

Three times in Inception the camera takes a long pass over a city. Tokyo looks fractal, Paris appears rectilinear, and Mombasa is presented in a very maze-like manner. The maze-like nature of Mombasa is important, as it demonstrates the potential for the real world to have the same rule-set as dreams. In the real world presented by Inception, some dream-like events occur – tense chases by nameless assailants, unexpected rescues, sleight-of-hand tricks, the need to escape through impossibly tight spaces.

We discover at the end of the film, that these events are crucial to our understanding of the denouement, when Cobb finally confronts Mal and she presents the idea that Cobb no longer believes in one reality -- everything that Mal then says to Cobb resonates, because of real-life similarities to dream experiences (even though we must remember, this is in fact Cobb’s own subconscious in the form of his reconstruction of Mal, trying to make sense of his perceptions of the real and the unreal).



One of the most direct comparisons made between dreams and film is the notion of immersion and suspension of disbelief. In Inception, when the subconscious of the dreamer begins to doubt the ‘reality’ of the dream and immersion is threatened, Nolan uses the device of passers-by or bystanders looking directly into the camera and breaking the fourth wall. The breaking of the fourth wall is a classic meta-cinematic device synonymous with bringing the audience’s attention to the artifice of film. Nolan however, preserves the audience’s suspension of disbelief by using these gazes as part of his dream mythos and disguising them as ‘point-of-view’ shots.

We are also repeatedly presented with the idea of ‘a leap of faith’. The idea is, that by the end of the film people will start to realize that the dream environment is very much like that of real life. We don’t know what might happen next, we don’t know what comes after we die, so the idea of the leap of faith is the leap into the unknowability of where we might ultimately find ourselves. But it is also an indication of how we are instrumental in making sense of randomness and coincidence by constructing our own narratives and our own idea of ‘reality’.

Audiences tend to like closure, but the end of Inception turns to black before we can ascertain whether Cobb’s totem, the spinning top – his indicator of reality – falls or continues to spin indefinitely. Is he now living in the real world, or is he trapped inside a dream?

In arguing over this, viewers seem to have overlooked the significance of the way the ‘spinning top’ ending is actually staged - the most important emotional indicator is that Cobb is portrayed as NOT observing his spinning top. He doesn’t care. Either way, he has found a reality where he has got what he needed.

Just as a final tease though, Nolan was asked whether he had an actual answer to that final conundrum: “Oh, I’ve got an answer! … I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view.”

Make of that what you will – you will need to take a leap of faith…

“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy” Sigmund Freud

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2017 All rights reserved.

Follow Ren on Twitter at @RenZelen

Images - IMDb