Inception open with a shot of the ocean, a traditional symbol of the subconscious and death in English literature. Christopher Nolan has used this symbol similarly elsewhere, such as in Batman where the dark waters of the subconscious lurk in the caverns below the city, but there is no need to leap to other films to assert the intentionality of this reading, for Nolan gives it to us directly midway through his film, cutting to a shot of the ocean at the exact moment the word “subconscious” is heard on the soundtrack.
This hidden layer of meaning is the reason water imagery grows more intense and destructive the further Inception takes us into the world of the mind. As the dream levels mount, we pass through a light rain, thunderstorm, and snow-drenched avalanche before plunging into the ocean that exists “on the shore of our subconscious.” Water also appears at those key moments in the narrative where Cobb’s subconscious intrudes onto his waking mind, both in the Mombasa sequence where he suffers a vision of Mal while washing his face, or the two drinks which send him and Fischer to sleep on the plane. And Nolan has also alluded directly to this symbol in one of his rare attempts to explain the film. In an interview with Wired magazine, he claimed:
There’s a relationship between the sand castle the kids are building on the beach in the beginning of the film and the buildings literally being eaten away by the subconscious and falling into the sea.
The relationship alluded to here is of course one of equivalence, and — sure enough — what happens to the sandcastles will ultimately happens to the world of limbo itself: destruction by water/death. The allusion is thus a clear reference to the story of the wise and foolish builders from Matthew 7:24, the Christian parable that cautions against a faithless existence building on sand, and counsels its readers to instead live a life of faith:
And every one that hearest these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which build his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Once recognised, this allusion unlocks the true meaning of the film, as it becomes clear that the dreams worlds in Inception are primarily metaphors for our own human lives, existing in a “shared dreamspace” into which we fall through birth and exit through death, and being places in which we have the power to be architects of our own lives. This message is both positive – in its celebration of the power of human creativity – but also negative in the sense that the world of creation is ultimately also one of death, a point most strikingly emphasized in the tombstone-like backdrop of the city as Cobb and Mal approach death (the train) in the hope but not certainty they may awaken in a higher world.
The opening scene in Inception thus communicates to its audience on a symbolic level the exact same idea that Cobb presents to Saito on the narrative level, the suggestion that the world itself is not real in some fundamental sense. We will see in a moment how this same message resurfaces again and again in other philosophical and literary allusions hidden in the film, but before we do that it’s perhaps worth nothing how Nolan emphasizes it through stylistic and genre choices as well. Consider his depiction of Mal as a negative temptress in the noir tradition, for instance. While most critics recognize the significance of Mal’s ominous name, none seem to have picked up on the actual reason for her dramatic malevolence: as the character who prefers to live in limbo and build castles on the beach, Mal is the personification of the foolish builder from the biblical parable, and thus a symbol of faithlessness and death.
So forget the overly-complicated explanations of Inception that litter the Internet, trying to dissect the plot and map out who-is-dreaming-what-and-when-and-where. What we have in this film is a story that operates on the level of symbolism and allegory. And this is why the opening heist plays out as it does, introducing Cobb as a thief who is obsessed with wealth and consumed by the importance of “buying his way home.” As Cobb’s mission progresses, we see him make moral error after moral error: placing his faith quite wrongly in the corporal reality of Mal’s existence (a mistake which triggers a biblical fall and blasphemy) and then embracing violence when betrayed. Cobb’s coarse treatment of Saito in the scene which follows – throwing the man to the rug and threatening him with a pistol – also backfires, serving only to undo the entire nature of his multilayered deception. And then as our heist closes we witness Cobb’s selfishness as he abandons his colleagues to be hunted down for a mission which failed because of his own moral failings.
Soon we begin to see a transformation in Cobb however, a change that starts with his refusal to take vengeance on Nash, a rejection of Old Testament eye-for-an-eye violence which opens the possibility for the greater “leap of faith” that will cap the second heist. By the end of that mission we will see Cobb’s transformation complete, as he changes into a gift-giver rather than thief (incepting rather than extracting) who is not motivated by greed and has – the script stresses – no financial stake in the heist. All four of his major character flaws from the first heist (greed, violence, faithlessness, selfishness) are now deliberately reversed as the film moves towards its climax. Rejecting Mal where he trusted her before, Cobb renounces violence before risking his life to rescue an imperiled team-member, an act of self-sacrifice that transforms him into the prophetic figure of his final meeting with Saito, here the figurative Christ who has descended into the mortal world bringing the message of salvation.
In this reading it is hardly accidental that Cobb’s victory over Mal triggers Fischer’s reconciliation with his father, for by the end of the second heist Inception is operating almost entirely in the realm of metaphor, and veering towards an ending the significance of which is purely symbolic. For what is Mal’s temptation of Cobb but a temptation of faith? “You don’t believe in anything anymore,” she says before he rejects her with an expression of faith in his children “up above.” And what is the dive into the river but a baptismal inundation symbolizing the death of the body and rebirth of the soul? This is the “clean dive” through death alluded to in Cobb’s first conversation with Mal on the parapets of Saito’s castle. Passing downward through the waters of death, Cobb awakens in the metaphorical heavens restored to youth as in the Christian tradition. The rush of images which follow continue this Christian theme, presenting Cobb’s judgment and forgiveness of sins (at immigration), his reunion with his father, and his restoration to the heavenly garden where his children James and Philippa (both aptly named after Christian apostles) fulfill the significance of their names by building a “house on the cliff” in the film’s final line of dialogue, thus bringing us full-circle to the opening parable of the wise and foolish builders, except now in the reversed and positive form as the faithful children construct their house on the “rock of God.” The cinematic journey which began on the “goddamned beach” of the mortal world reaches its end with a return to the Eden-like garden from which Cobb was earlier expelled.
The prevalence of Christian imagery at the climax of Inception makes it an open question whether Nolan intends us to read Cobb’s journey as a literal passage to heaven, or whether his “leap of faith” is suggestive of a more abstract kind of psychological death and rebirth. But regardless of how seriously we take Inception’s religious subtext, there is no question that the film is playing with these ideas, for a closer look shows that these Christian themes are paralleled and reinforced by other philosophical and mythological allusions.
Consider the script’s emphasis on its multiple characters who fall into dream worlds and forget truths that they once knew. Although the intellectual reference is somewhat obscure, the philosophical idea Nolan is referencing here is anamnesis, the Platonic argument for the immortality of the soul. Developed in the dialogues Meno and Phaedo, anamnesis holds that the soul is all-knowing and immortal, but loses all knowledge when it incarnates into the human world and suffers the shock of birth. Demonstrated in Socrates’ example of a slave boy who learns geometry through nothing more than questioning, the idea underpinning anamnesis is that all learning is simply the act of remembering truths once known but somehow forgotten. And this is where the theory connects to Inception, for as the faithless temptress in the Christian tradition, Mal is also the Socratic negative, and her counterpart is Saito, whose recollection of Cobb as a man “from a half-remembered dream” stirs him not-coincidentally to recall the “radical notion” behind anamnesis itself: the supposition that the soul is immortal. This merging of Christian and Platonic thought is seamless and clearly deliberate, and Nolan even prods us to make the connection by naming Saito’s company (Proclus Global) after a neoplatonic philosopher whose theory of the soul turned anamnesis into a more religious philosophy.
Themes of architecture and creation (“building things that would not be possible in the real world”) also reinforce our confidence in the intentionality of these overarching Christian and Platonic themes. As the figurative Father to the wayward Cobb, Miles is a clear symbolic representation of the Christian God in this reading, a master creator who makes his son in his image and teaches him everything he knows. Seen in this light, it is striking how the exchange between the two in Paris plays out as a discourse on free will and sin (in front of a blackboard covered by sketches of the Sistine Chapel). Although berated by his father for his ethical failings (“I never taught you to steal”) and urged to “come back to reality” (the Christian garden on the cliff or Platonic world of ideal forms), when Cobb (“beloved of God”) asks his father for help, it is provided (Matthew 7.7) in the guise of a woman whose totem (a bishop) suggests her role as a spiritual emissary and whose mythological name suggests that her purpose is to guide him from the labyrinth of the mortal world, an act she symbolically fulfills shortly thereafter when shattering a set of mirrors which trap Cobb in the boundless maze of his own subconscious (itself a deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane).
Inception’s doubled themes of father-son alienation and reconciliation (with Fischer as with Cobb) offer yet more evidence that Nolan is mythologizing Christian and Platonic themes. In the scenes of Robert Fischer and his hospitalized father, for instance, what do we have but the “Fisher King” of the Christian Grail Legend? A spiritually wounded prince with a bedridden father, Fischer depends for his healing on the successful completion of the main knight’s task, with Cobb replacing Perceval in this reworking of the Arthurian romance. The central themes in the original story (the limits of rationality when applied to questions of faith) are then layered over Inception’s narrative, with Cobb’s major character weakness – his thematic lack of faith – now linked to his tendency to over-rationalize.
Given the film’s mythological grounding in the Fisher King story, it should hardly surprise us that it is the creative Eames who recognises the possibility of inception while the rationalist Arthur rejects it, arguing logically but incorrectly that it is always possible to reason one’s way to the “genesis” of an idea. As the Fisher King subtheme insists, over-rationality is blinding, the same thematic point of which is also made in the architect Nash’s (presumably associated with mathematical rationality through the Nash equilibrium) failure to “know” how to make a necessary prop, Arthur’s failure to “know” Fischer’s subconscious was militarized, as well as in Cobb’s hesitation to shoot Mal on the snow fortress level, a failure the script promptly classifies as one of over-ratiocination. Like Perceval, Cobb will not achieve spiritual transcendence until he tempers his rational desire to be sure about the nature of the world and acts instead with an emotional naturalism that is grounded in his love for his children.
And just as in the Grail legend, where Perceval’s embrace of childlike wonder leads to the rejuvenation of the Fisher King and his kingdom, so does Cobb’s spiritual journey result quite naturally in Fischer’s deliverance, with this mythological allusion now mirroring Nolan’s other Christian and Platonic themes and telling us that Fischer’s reconciliation with his father is indeed meant to be understood allegorically as man’s reconciliation with divine grace. And indeed, while there are those who read Fischer’s catharsis cynically, arguing that he has been deceived by the incepting team, their reading is fragmentary and mistaken. For not only does the heist team consider itself as doing a favor for Fischer (the script itself claims their actions are virtuous), but the undercurrents of anamnesis in the symbol of the safe (what gets locked away is always the truth) remind us that all acts of memory are genuine, and that what Fischer recalls at the climax should be viewed as a genuine truth once known but somehow forgotten: the reality that his father did in fact love him, a truth now manifest in the image of the pinwheel and photograph.
While the most likely meanings of Ariadne (the guide from the Theseus myth) and Fischer (the wounded prince from the Grail Legend) thus work perfectly in this interpretation, we also have supporting evidence for it in the names of lesser characters. Uncle Peter, who holds Fischer’s company in trust from his father, may echo the disciple Peter who acted as steward for the early church. Joseph, who holds the keys to the world of the dream, also mirrors his biblical counterpart, not only in his role as provider of the necessary sedative to unlock the lower dream levels (a figurative key of sorts) but even literally in one scene where he jangles a set of keys to his basement, a place which symbolizes the cave of the inner-self/mortal world (a hell which can become the world to those trapped in it) and a journey into which leads Cobb to encounter his own inner demons, personified in the guise of Mal who appears in the mirror/window of his soul as the Minotaur lurking in the labyrinth within.
There is a tremendous amount of this sort of detail in Inception: practically every scene is operating on multiple levels at once. But rather than dissecting the film scene-by-scene, let us simply move on to the final major subtheme of note: Inception’s extension of the maze into a metaphor for life itself. An extension of the Theseus myth as well as of the medieval Christian concept of life as a moral test (from which only the virtuous escape through death), the idea that life itself is a maze is communicated in Inception primarily through the script’s insistence that all dreams must be built in paradoxical and maze-like forms and are places where characters can “get lost”. This tripartite symbolism (life is both a dream and a maze) is the reason that labyrinth imagery – as unlike water imagery – transcends the dream worlds and appears in the rooftop visuals of Paris and Mombasa as well as in the dream worlds themselves.
And this abstract imagery is where Inception really takes flight. For when Ariadne proves her worthiness by drawing a circular maze (a thematic recognition of the paradoxical nature of life itself), her circle should draw to our minds not only the circular image of the Penrose staircase or the circular nature of purgatory (limbo) as manifest in the rings of Dante’s Inferno, but even the circular nature of consciousness itself, expressed in Plato’s vision of the soul as a circle: the loop Cobb draws to explain how consciousness simultaneously perceives and creates the world of its own existence. Operating at its most abstract in these scenes, Inception throws itself into the abstract suggestion that is our human sense of consciousness itself that constitutes the prime paradox of existence.
While this interpretation of Inception may seem somewhat ambitious to those unaccustomed to film analysis, it is refreshing to note how this reading leads us independently to the exact same claims about Inception as those made by Christopher Nolan in his rare attempts to explain the film. In the same interview with Wired magazine quoted above, for instance, Nolan acknowledged that the ending of Inception is ambiguous on the narrative level, but stated that his film is nonetheless characterized by an unambiguous and “sincere interpretation” which operates on a meta-level. While he demurred from explaining what exactly his interpretation is, for Nolan, it is only us – the audience – who have the proper perspective to understand the significance of what we have seen.
And all of this brings us to the closing shot of the spinning top. For while the totem is ultimately a fairly minor symbol in Inception, what it represents is the same sort of faithlessness associated with Mal (its creator). Introduced to us as a tool used by those who lack conviction in the true nature of reality, the totem is only of use to characters who “don’t believe in one reality anymore” or who lack faith about what is fundamentally real. And this subtext makes the spinning top irrelevant by the final scene. Having already taken his “leap of faith” into a metaphorical heaven, Cobb’s rejection of the totem at the close of the film marks his only sensible action: a reaffirmation of his rejection of Mal (limbo/the mortal world) in favour of his children (the garden/heaven).
Seen in this light, there is no question Inception is an absolute masterpiece: a brilliant mixture of religious, philosophical and mythological ruminations bent into a cinematic whole, a dazzlingly creative heist film that hides a profound message beneath its maze-like exterior. Yet once the religious, philosophical and mythological subtexts of Inception are recognized, it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that Inception is also more ambitious that even many of its fans recognise, and that the film constitutes the only meta-heist film that has ever been produced: a crime film where the victim of the crime is the audience itself.
The reviewers who have come closest to noticing this are the ones who have chosen to read Inception as a commentary on the nature of filmmaking. Critics like Devin Faraci point out quite properly that not only is the medium of film itself a sort of shared dream for the audience, but that there are many curious ways Inception compares itself to its own dream sequences. On a technical level, a minor example of this comes in the way Inception ends with the very swan song it uses to mark the close of the dream, or the way the film’s runtime of 2:28 hours curiously echoes the 2:28 minute length of the song. A more obvious connection comes when Ariadne analyses the nature of shared dreaming in Paris. Her comments about the primacy of emotion and tone there are clearly the self-referential thoughts of the screenwriter analysing the art of filmmaking. Much of the dialogue that follows serves a similar double purpose, such as Cobb’s reminder that too many arbitrary manipulations of audience expectations can provoke hostility from minds made aware of the way the director may be manipulating and inserting ideas into their own consciousness.
Despite the superficial attraction of this theory, we should be skeptical of claims Nolan intended Inception as a metaphor for filmmaking – the filmmaker has explicitly denied this. And yet there is a reason the film compares itself so frequently to a dream, and this is the requirement of the heist genre. For just as heist films are required to hide their crimes in plain sight, with the twist of the genre lying in the requirement that audiences be shown the way they have been fooled, so is Inception required to explain the exact way it will commit its own dramatic crime against the audience. Reviewers like David Bordwell who praise Nolan for his stylistic embrace of expository dialogue miss this point: when the gang reviews the requirements for inception in the garage of the first dream level, the script is less interested in explaining the plot to us than engaging in sleight-of-hand, informing us in disguised form of exactly how Nolan will implant his ideas in our subconscious. And we can see that the film follows these rules quite precisely, even down to centering its emotional resolution in a simple act of positive catharsis (father and son reconciliation). Likewise, is it accidental that the title of the film appears for the first time at the exact end of the film, where its appearance serves less to name the film than announce the success of the film’s own act of inception against its viewers.
The idea that it is us – the audience – who is the ultimate target of Nolan’s heist is a point made in the film’s original theatrical trailer, which insisted that “your mind… is the scene of the crime.” It is also implicit in the self-referential way the film transforms itself into a shared dream for the audience. From its opening shot of the Syncopy logo as a labyrinth Inception transforms itself into an intellectual maze comparable to the labyrinths in the film. And Nolan’s circular narrative structure (an echo of Ariande’s circular maze) is filled with such creative joy that it is clear he agrees with Eames that true inspiration cannot happen rationally. Thus just as Eames relies on emotional symbolism in the form of the pinwheel to speak to Fischer’s subconscious mind, so does Nolan rely on coded allusions and creative symbolism to bury his message in the minds of its audience. The ultimate image is of the auteur himself as a forger – a shapeshifter who communicates in disguised forms and whose exuberant creativity becomes his most compelling virtue.
[Note: this is a slightly edited version of an earlier draft that had many more footnotes. If you like footnotes and are interested in more detailed proof for many of the claims in this piece, please feel welcome to check it out]