Inception is a 2010 science fiction action film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who also produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with an ensemble cast including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.
Nolan had been working on a story about “dream stealers” for nine to ten years, originally conceiving of it as a horror film before making it a kind of heist film. He was influenced by such movies as The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and even his own Memento, to an extent. He postponed making Inception until he’d got enough experience making large-scale films like the first two of his Dark Knight trilogy.
Inception was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2010; it is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, and it won four Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.
II: Unconscious vs. Subconscious
What is, for me, especially intriguing about Inception is the intersection of several themes: the unconscious (here infelicitously called the “subconscious“–more on that soon), manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, and perhaps most importantly, what shared, lucid dreaming can be seen to represent–the viewing of a movie in a theatre with other people.
Let’s now look at each of these themes one by one.
“Subconscious” is a popular term in psychology to refer to what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious. While I’m sure Nolan never intended to adhere to Freudian thinking to any significant extent (beyond, perhaps, the estranged, bitter feelings that Robert Fischer [Murphy] has for his dying father, Maurice [played by Pete Postlethwaite]), a bitterness that could be at least partly Oedipal), I must favor the term unconscious over subconscious, and here’s why.
Subconscious, as Freud explained, is an unclear way of expressing what that part of the mind is, what is ‘outside’ of conscious thinking. Is it topographical, i.e., existing underneath consciousness, as is almost literally indicated in the movie? Is it qualitative, indicating another, subterranean consciousness, again, as Inception seems to imply?
The unconscious, on the other hand, is not concerned with some kind of mental ‘place.’ Rather, it’s properly concerned with what we do not know. Unconscious impulses, for example, don’t ‘hide underneath’: the repressed, on the contrary, returns to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form. It isn’t ‘underground’; it hides in plain sight.
Significantly, Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team of thought-thieves are fully aware of what’s going on in the “subconscious” world of their shared, lucid dreams. There’s something unmistakably topographic and subterranean in these dreams-within-dreams. So however psychoanalysts may cringe at the use of the word “subconscious,” we must go along with Nolan’s word choices and imagery, going down an elevator with Ariadne (Page) to lower and lower levels of this subterranean land to see what this “subconscious” actually symbolizes.
III: Fantasy vs. Reality
Here we come to one of the intersections of theme. The dreams-within-dreams of the “subconscious” represent further and further removes from reality, deeper and deeper forays into fantasy. That the dreams generally look as if they could be events occurring in reality (Ariadne’s alterations of the Parisian cityscape, among other exceptions, notwithstanding) shows how blurred is the distinction between fantasy and reality in the film.
Small wonder the dream-thieves have to carry around totems (e.g., the spinning top, or Arthur’s die) to test if they’re dreaming or in the real world. Small wonder that Mal (Cotillard) kept killing herself to wake up, only to do so again for the last time in the real world, her still being obsessively deluded (thanks to Dom’s planting of an inception in her mind) that she was always in dreams-within-dreams. Incidentally, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is indicative of psychosis, which is what I suspect Inception is really all about.
IV: Capitalism and Manipulation
The implanting of false beliefs into the minds of the marks of the dream-thieves–be this implanting inception (putting the beginning of an idea into one’s mind) or extraction (stealing a company’s secrets as the goal of corporate espionage) through conning the mark into trusting the dream-thieves into opening up completely and thus making oneself vulnerable to them–is manipulation in the service of one set of capitalists trying to defeat their competition. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) Here we see the intersection of the themes of manipulation and capitalism, in the realm of the unconscious, in deeper and deeper layers of fantasy that get confused with reality.
Indeed, the company that Dom Cobb works for, Cobol Engineering (not only on which his surname is a pun [i.e., Cobb is a microcosm of the company], but also on which cobalt–extracted from the earth, like company secrets, by poor Congolese children for use in our cellphones–seems a pun), is a kind of mafia organization in the field of corporate espionage, in which failure can endanger an employee’s life. As I’ve argued many times in other blog posts, the mafia (criminal businesses) is a fitting metaphor for capitalists: note the expensive suits we see on Dom, the dominant, leading member of the dream-thieves.
Those of us on the political left are acutely aware of how capitalism results in alienation, which in turn leads to such problems as strained family relationships (i.e., Fischer and his dying father, as well as Cobb’s inability to return to the US and be with his kids) and emotional trauma (the hurt Fischer feels from the contempt Maurice has always had for him; Cobb’s guilt over how his inception for Mal drove her to suicide).
V: Dream Theatre?
A number of commentators on Inception have interpreted its use of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people in a darkened movie theatre watching a film together. Getting caught up in the movie’s story is hypnotic, dreamlike. We can see more thematic intersection here in how not only the marketing of movies is a part of capitalism, but also how films are used to manipulate their viewers emotionally. The CIA is often consulted by moviemakers, who are required to portray the organization–known for ruthlessly helping in the overthrow of many governments opposed to US imperialist interests–as benign. Accordingly, films like Top Gun: Maverick and the Marvel superhero movies are blatant American military propaganda.
Now, this notion of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people watching a movie together can be extended, I believe, to the idea of people watching TV together–TV shows and commercials–listening to the radio, being hooked on the internet, etc. In other words, the fantasy world of dreams can be a metaphor for the hypnotizing effect of the media.
Note the dream-like quality of many of our recent TV commercials. Instead of focusing on the products, as the commercials of the past did, these ads focus on images of a happy, carefree life. The commercials are fantasies, removals from reality, just like the shared dreams in Inception. An escape from the world…all in the service of capitalism, while pretending that the profit motive of capitalism isn’t at all present. The urge to buy what’s being sold sneaks into the unconscious by association with the fantasy presented, the inception of the desire for the product, our imaginary appetites…all while extracting our cash.
We might want to remember how Edward Bernays–whose double uncle was Freud, incidentally–used psychoanalytic concepts to help advertisers and political power structures to colonize the unconscious and manipulate people into buying this or that product, and to manufacture consent. (Bernays, by the way, was involved in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état for the sake of the United Fruit Company.)
VI: Putting All the Themes Together
So these are all the ways that the unconscious, manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the hazy line between fantasy and reality, and dreams as a metaphor for film (and the media in general) intersect in Inception. Though inception means beginning, or the establishment of an institution or activity, I see in the word a pun on deception, or the planting of a deceptive idea into someone’s unconscious.
So the film can be seen to be about how the capitalist/imperialist-run media manipulates the mind, and how our attempts to escape the horrors of the capitalist world, in order to enter a haven of fantasy, can backfire and lead to psychosis.
VII: Inception of Inception
The film begins with Cobb washed up on a shore, then taken by Japanese guards to see an extremely aged Mr. Saito (Watanabe), the businessman who wants Cobb’s team of dream-thieves to plant the inception of an idea into young Fischer’s head, to break up his dying father’s corporation so that of Saito–Fischer’s competition–can reign supreme. We eventually learn that this washing-up on the Japanese shore isn’t the beginning, but the near-end, of the story.
After this, we go back to the beginning of the story, when Cobb’s team is attempting an extraction of company secrets from the unconscious of dreaming, younger Saito while on a train going in the direction of Kyoto. We see the same big house as in the previous, deep-fantasy scene of aged Saito.
We soon learn, after the dangerous meddling of Mal (actually, Cobb’s projection of her, or as I see her, his internal object of her), that this scene in Saito’s house is really a dream within a dream, this ‘outer’ dream, as it were, being that of Nash (played by Lukas Haas), Cobb’s dream architect before the team employs Ariadne.
A couple of interesting points should be made about Nash and his dream, which make me question his motives. His dream includes a huge mob of insurrectionary rioters out in the streets, all about to force their way into the building where Cobb, Saito, and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are having the dream within the dream, in Saito’s house. Note that, according to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Later, Nash betrays the rest of Cobb’s team. Is Nash a man with unconscious leftist sympathies (i.e., with revolutionaries in his wish-fulfillment-dream) making a failed attempt at undermining capitalist Cobol, and is his botching of the carpet a Freudian slip, reflecting his conflicted commitment to the team?
VIII: What Cobb Will Do to Get Back Home
Cobb wants so badly to be reunited with his son and daughter back in the US that he’s willing to take Saito’s offer to clear his name there of Mal’s death, in exchange for planting an inception in Robert Fischer’s mind, an undertaking Cobb knows is extremely dangerous and difficult to do. After all, he did it to Mal, and what happened? Still, he can’t bear to be separated from his kids.
To assemble his new team, he first goes to Paris, where his father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles (Caine), who taught him about navigating the unconscious mind, recommends he hire Ariadne. Her name, an obvious reference to the woman in Greek myth who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth so he could get out after killing the Minotaur, is fitting. She proves her skills as a potential dream-architect by quickly improvising mazes complex enough to convince Cobb she’s up for the job. Just as the mythical Ariadne helped Theseus get out of the infernal Labyrinth, so does Inception‘s Ariadne help Cobb find the strength to confront his trauma over Mal’s suicide, to let go of his attachment to his internal object of her, and thus to be able to navigate his way back up to the top, to escape the hell of endless dreams-within-dreams.
Next, Cobb has to go to Mombassa, Kenya–a city crawling with Cobol agents looking to catch and kill him for his failed mission in Japan–to find Eames (Hardy), a forger able to impersonate people in dreams. The agents chasing Cobb through the streets of Mombassa is the one instance of an ‘action movie’ scene in Inception that happens in the real, non-dreaming world…or is this the real, non-dreaming world? (More on that later.)
Eames recommends Yusuf (Rao), a chemist who will provide a sedative to keep the team under as they navigate the different layers of the “subconscious,” dream-with-dream worlds, while also allowing the team to hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”), their synchronized cue, or “kick,” to wake them at the right time.
Though we’re not meant to think of Yusuf as some kind of drug dealer, that scene of him with all those people taking his sedative in the dark basement of his place of work…it sure makes one think of, say, an opium den. These users of the sedative dream for four hours each day because, as one of them tells Cobb, “The dream has become their reality.”
Even if Yusuf is not to be understood to be an actual drug dealer, what he’s doing in this basement is surely symbolic of what a drug dealer would do, at the very least. Such an understanding is crucial when we consider the theme of the unsure distinction between fantasy and reality as presented in Inception. After all, as I noted above, psychosis is characterized by an inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and drugs (with their hallucinogenic effects) can induce psychosis, including sedatives.
Furthermore, in the alienating, cutthroat world of capitalism, emotional trauma often leads to substance abuse as an attempt to escape that pain. An escape into fantasy relieves, however temporarily, one of the pain of facing reality, and drugs obviously help with that feeling of escape. Drugs can cause mental illness, just as the stress of living under capitalism has been observed to cause mental illness. In these connections, it’s easy to see why Dom and Mal went so deep into the dream world, into so many layers under layers of dreams-within-dreams; in searching for the Garden of Eden, they ended up in the ninth circle of Hell.
Mal’s suicide, as I’ve said, is a pain that Dom finds unbearable, especially since his planting of the inception in her mind–that her world was unreal–means he’s guilty of causing her death. He cannot let her go, so he keeps her internal object as a kind of ghost haunting his mind. She’s there, but the trauma of her suicide is also there; so he tries to protect himself from that pain, however unsuccessfully, through the defence mechanisms of projection and splitting.
Dom thus experiences what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position—paranoid because of the persecutory anxiety he feels whenever her projection interferes, often violently, with his team’s attempts at extraction; and schizoid because of the splitting of Mal into absolute good and bad versions of herself.
Dom, in his unconscious attempts to preserve the good Mal, can’t help but be forced to confront the bad Mal–hence her apt name as a pun on the French word for bad. Only when he goes the farthest down all the layers of his “subconscious,” down all those dreams-within-dreams, to return to the paradise/hell that he constructed with her, back before she died, only then do we see the good Mal, when he tells her he has to let her go.
His trauma is one example of how capitalist alienation harms relationships, including family ones. Another example is that of Robert and Maurice Fischer. The dying father, founder and owner of a great, powerful corporation, is annoyed that he has to pass on the control of the family business to a son he regards as inadequate for such a great responsibility. Some of this father/son hostility could be Oedipal, as I mentioned above; on the father’s end, it could be a Laius complex, or a fear of the son supplanting the father.
XI: Sympathy for the Dominant
One thing that is, or at least should be, striking about this story is how we, the audience, are all lulled into sympathizing with these characters. We’re dealing here with dishonest, lying, manipulating, gaslighting people who are all out for themselves, all working within a capitalist context. Manipulating young Fischer into ending his father’s business is meant to allow their competition, Saito’s company, to thrive. It is the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalist ideology–“there is no alternative“–that tricks the audience into sympathizing with a bunch of con men.
Dom is seen on several occasions, just after waking up, to be spinning a top to make sure he isn’t still dreaming. As we understand, if it stops spinning, he’s relieved to know he’s in the real world…or is he? One’s totem–like Arthur’s die–is supposed to be known only by its owner: its look, feel, weight, etc. Dom, however, has come into the habit of using a top originally owned by Mal. So even if it stops spinning, is his reassurance of no longer dreaming valid?
XII: In Dreamland
Back to the story. The team is assembled and ready. On a flight to the US, Fischer is put to sleep to share a dream with Dom, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, and Yusuf. This first shared dream, Yusuf’s, is set on the streets of a city in teeming rain.
Fischer, trying to take a cab, is kidnapped. Arthur, whose job was to research Fischer thoroughly, has failed to learn that the team’s mark has unconscious security to fight off extractors like them. Dom is furious with Arthur for his oversights.
This unconscious security, in the form of men shooting at Cobb et al and therefore putting them all in danger–if shot and killed in the dream–of being trapped in Limbo (an inescapable labyrinth of the unconscious, like being in a coma) because of Yusuf’s powerful sedative, is a personification of Fischer’s ego defence mechanisms, these ones being unconscious.
As the Ego Psychologists understood unconscious ego defence, here’s an explanation: “the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt…, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)
XIII: Wake Up Dead?
One fascinating idea in this film is the paradoxical notion that if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. It’s the reverse of what Hamlet said: “To die, to sleep–/No more” (III, i, 60). Now, with Yusuf’s sedative, dying in the dream makes matters much more complicated: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (III, I, 64-68)
Another complicating factor in Fischer’s troubled family life is his “Uncle Peter” Browning (Berenger), his godfather and fellow executive of his father’s company. Browning acts as a kind of surrogate father for Fischer, being there for him in ways that his father never wanted to be. Cobb’s team will manipulate this relationship through Eames’s impersonation of Browning, to introduce the idea of Maurice having an alternate will to dissolve the company.
Inception, as Eames has previously pointed out, is “a very subtle art.” Fischer’s first introduction to the idea of the alternate will is to be a negative one, a plausible further instance of his father’s contempt for him; further down in the dreams, the dissolving of the company is meant to be a positive exhortation of him to do his own thing, giving him a catharsis.
Anyway, everyone on the team except Yusuf–who is driving around on the first dream level, since it’s his dream–is sedated into going down to the second dream level, Arthur’s dream, which is set in a hotel. Here, Dom convinces Robert that his ‘security’ is really working against him, as part of the ruse to go deeper into his “subconscious.” Here we have Dom gaslighting Robert into distrusting his own unconscious ego defence mechanisms.
To get to the layer of Fischer’s “subconscious” where he will receive the inception of the idea to end his father’s business to start something of his own, the team must be sedated further, into a dream set around an alpine fortress. Several problems occur: Mal interferes again and shoots Robert before he can receive the inception; also, Yusuf sets up the Edith Piaf kick too early.
Arthur and Eames therefore must improvise a new set of kicks to be synchronized with them hitting the water in Yusuf’s truck in the first dream, with Arthur rigging a hotel elevator with all the floating dreamers tied up, and with the alpine fortress being set up with explosives. Saito having been shot as well as Robert means both of them are in Limbo, forcing Dom and Ariadne to go further down another level to rescue them…in Dom’s constructed dream-world with Mal.
Here is where Dom must confront his trauma with Mal. He must let go of his attachment to his internal object of the good Mal, and he must do it quickly, for getting Robert and Saito back is of paramount importance. Indeed, Ariadne importunes Dom to hurry…but can one be cured of one’s trauma in such a short time? (Indeed, Ariadne shoots Mal to speed things up.)
It seems that he has managed to do so, for he leaves Mal, and they get Robert and Saito back–the rescue of the latter through, essentially, a repeat of that opening scene with Dom washing ashore on the beach and being taken to Saito’s big house by his Japanese guards. Neither Dom nor Saito wants to die a lonely old man, filled with regret, hence the choice of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the kick to wake everyone up with.
XV: Maladaptive Dreaming
No rationally thinking person wants to waste away in a fantasy world, only years later to snap out of it and be full of regret for such a wasted life. Yet the alienating world of capitalism makes such a retreat into fantasy so tempting. Small wonder so many of us out there escape reality through drugs, online video games, porn, movies, TV, consumerism, internet addiction, etc.
Robert returns to the alpine fortress dream and receives the inception. Everyone, including Dom, manages to get back up using all the synchronized kicks in time. I’d say it’s all a little too good to be true.
Dom wakes up on the airplane with all the others, who smile at him, glad to see him back. Saito makes the necessary phone call to clear Dom of the charge of murdering Mal, so he can go through customs without a hitch. Recall above how I mentioned that, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfillments. Dom’s wishes are all being fulfilled, aren’t they?
The action and excitement of the dreams, fighting off Robert’s unconscious security, is an instance of how these shared, lucid dreams parallel the entertainment of watching a movie in a theatre. We’re back in the ‘real world’ now, in the airport; but Dom had an ‘action movie’ moment in Mombassa, too. Has his ‘waking’ world been real, or has it been dream, too?
XVI: Conclusion–Nothing But a Dreamer
Here’s an interesting thought: we’ve been assuming that Mal killed herself, mistakenly thinking she was trying to wake herself from a dream, but…what if she was right? Could Dom have lost count of all the dream layers, thinking his time with her on the building ledges was real, when it was actually another dream? She’d been assessed by three different psychiatrists to be sane, so is he the one with a psychotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality?
When he claims that she didn’t want to go back to the real world, is he projecting onto her his wish to stay in the world of dreams? Is this what calling Mal his “projection” really means?
At the end, when he spins the top and walks away to see his kids, he doesn’t care if it stops spinning or not. Or maybe he’s afraid to see it keep spinning. In any case, the top was Mal’s totem originally, so if its slight wobble at the very end indicates that it will stop spinning, this hardly assures us that he’s in the real world now.
Some think the real plan, masterminded by Miles (who, recall, recommended Ariadne to be the architect), was to pull Cobb out of the dream world. If so, I don’t think it worked. Cobb prefers fantasy to reality, like so many of us with our drugs, movies, TV, etc. I think Mal is still waiting for him in the waking world; but like those TV commercials that show people enjoying quality time with family, or like all those action movies we enjoy in the theatre, Cobb would rather escape from, than have to continue living in, the stresses of the capitalist world.
His Hell is his Eden…even without Mal.