Cultural Analyst and Critic-at-Large Jeff Koch helps us untangle the mesmerizing summer hit Inception

MOSCOW, RUSSIA. JULY 20, 2010. A scene from Christopher Nolan's Inception movie. (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Karo premiere film company) Photo via Newscom

My review of Inception is quite succinct: go see it.  It’s a great movie, and one that seems to be a cultural watershed, a feat which is increasingly more difficult in the age of the internet, when everything is specialized and splintered.  For once, we’re all in on the moment.  It is increasingly rarer for a piece of entertainment to capture the national attention the way Inception has, and for that alone, you should go see it.  Seriously, go now.

Seen it?

Good.  Rather than reviewing the movie, I thought I’d offer 10 follow-up thoughts, ideas, questions, ruminations that can maybe spark your brain and help you see the movie in a new light and perhaps start some interesting conversation amongst you and your friends and family. 

Everything I’m about to write assumes that you’ve seen the movie.  If you haven’t, enter at your own risk of being spoiled.

What kind of movie is this, exactly?

It’s fairly easy to get swept up in the labyrinthine plot and stunning visuals.  But what type of movie is this?  At its core, this movie is fundamentally a heist movie.  Think Oceans 11.  There is a team of criminals seeking to break into a seemingly impenetrable place and perform a seemingly impossible task.  Only in this case, the place is somebody’s deep subconscious, and the task is planting an idea.  I think what makes the movie so enjoyable is that amidst these complicated plot points and dream layers, at its heart this is an action movie much like hundreds we’ve seen, and the story never drags or gets stuck in its overly intellectualized themes and ideas.

But are there other interpretations? 

Let me offer two others: one, of a character study of a man dealing with a major regret from his past, and trying to escape his guilt over it.  Only he has built a world from his memories that he can live in and deny the past.  Which reality will win out in the end?

Finally, the movie can be seen as an allegory about art and the creation process.  Whether it be movies, music, paintings, books, the artist creates a very detailed world; but once he invites the ‘subject’ in, that person fills this world with his subconscious, his ideas, his memories.  Thus, the creator of the art/world, loses control of his work, and the final interpretation of the world is in the subjective eyes of the beholder, ie, all of us watching the movie, listening to the song, looking at the painting, reading the book, etc.  Remember this when we get to the end.

What is reality, anyway?

Like any good movie that deals so heavily with dreams, an underlying question will always be ‘what is reality?’  At the beginning of the movie, we are offered two worlds that we eventually find out are not real.  In fact, the “real” world is the last world we’re introduced to, and enough doubts are cast upon that world that we’re never sure if it is even reality. 

The movie explicitly asks the question in the “dream den”, where groups of people come everyday to share dreams.  If reality is truly all perceived in the brain, then couldn’t a vivid dream world be just as real as the waking world?  And is it possible that we are all in a dream right now?  And is there truly any way to know?

Let’s not ignore the criticisms.

When a movie achieves a certain level of commercial and critical success, there is almost always an obligatory backlash.  There are plenty of criticisms of the movie, if you care to look for them.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but I think they’re all valid and worth considering. 

Is the movie too emotionless?  It’s awesome and detailed and unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but is there an emotional, human heart at the center of the movie?

Is there really any character development?  Outside of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, most of the people in the movie are fairly hollow, flat representations barely flushed out with ideas and motivations.  They each play the role they’re assigned, but we’re given no real personality to grasp on to.  They serve more at the mercy of the plot, rather than the other way around.

The world sets up all of these rules, and then immediately breaks them all.  But in order to understand the consequences of breaking the rules, we need to see the world play by the established rules first.  We never really see the world as it has been, so the gravity of what happens to them in the dream that occupies most of the movie can easily be lost on us. 

The movie is way too exposition heavy.

The movie is too structured and grounded in reality to be a movie about dreams.  Aren’t dreams supposed to be surreal and outside of the rules of normal reality?

Okay, let’s talk about the structure of the dreams.

This last criticism to me misses the entire point of the movie.  These aren’t real, sleeping dreams.  These are shared dreams, intentionally constructed to be a certain way and have a certain feel.  Within the world that the movie has created, this is how dreams are, and this is how we should expect the dreams to be.  This isn’t a movie about how you and I dream, this is a movie about how this group of people creates dreams and brings people in.

One of my favorite lines in the movie is when DiCaprio’s character tells the new architect that dreams seem very real while we’re in them, it’s only when we wake up that they seem odd or unreal.  We should consider that the rule of the movie, as well.

In fact, I usually dislike dream sequences within movies.  They are too easy; they are shortcuts to emotions and plot points.  To me, dreams are usually a waste of time.  But in this movie, the dreams are structured and have real consequences to reality.

Do people really have dreams within dreams?

Again, this is something that always bothers me in dreams.  Do people really have dreams within dreams.  I’m not asking in the context of this movie, because, based on the rules of the movie, it’s entirely plausible and accepted.  But do you ever wake up from a dream, think you’re awake, and then realized minutes later that you’re still dreaming?  This happens all the time in the movies, and I don’t think it’s real at all. 

So if it has happened to you, please let me know!

How’d they do that?

Most of the movie was done without CGI.  That includes the fight scene in the hotel where the world is spinning, the explosion on the French street as our characters are drinking coffee, and the sleeping characters in the hotel being wrapped up and floated down a hallway in zero gravity.

In terms of pure visuals, we haven’t seen a movie this groundbreaking since the first Matrix movie.  If nothing else, just watching this movie is pure joy.

See it again!

Despite the complex and layered nature of the world, and having to keep track of 5 different worlds at once, I don’t think this movie is all that difficult to follow from a plot standpoint.  Each world is distinct enough to keep track of, and each world is set up so that we’re always aware who is there and how they got there.

However, since the secrets of the characters and the world are revealed very slowly and in small chunks, this movie does reward you for a second viewing.  If you know all of the rules and secrets at the outset, many of the things that happen and many of the things that are said will make a lot more sense to you, and you’ll be able to figure out the inner workings of the movie much easier. 

Now the $64,000 question: is it all a dream?

That’s really the question of the movie: is this all Dom Cobb’s dream?  There is plenty to suggest that it is: The world really does seem to revolve around him. Every other character is pretty undeveloped, and they all seem to serve a specific purpose for him.  The “real” world is depicted as a labyrinth when he is being chased through the streets of Africa.  He has giant corporations vying for his services, who will kill him if he fails.  One very powerful man only has to make a phone call and his biggest problem is solved.

And then there’s the issue with his wife, Mal.  The entire movie is set up so that we’re supposed to believe that he planted the idea in her head that their world was fake, and that led to her suicide.  But what if she was right, and they never fully awoke from their subconscious dream?  What if he’s trapped inside of his dream, only he doesn’t know it’s a dream, just like we’re led to believe Mal believed about their dream?

Of course, the biggest hint is the spinning top at the end of the movie.

Seriously though, what happens at the end?  Does the top fall down or not?!?!

What did you see at the end?  To me, the top was spinning perfectly, then it started to wobble just slightly, and you could hear an interruption in the perfect whirring noise of the top, like it was about to fall down.  Then the screen goes blank, while it’s still wobbly, but spinning quite quickly and strongly. 

Director Christopher Nolan obviously wanted to leave it ambiguous, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what happens.  Remember our art allegory: he has created this vivid, detailed world, and now it’s up to us to fill in the cracks of the world with our subconscious, and interpret the work of art through our world and our experiences.  How we interpret the ending says more about us, the viewer, than anything about the world.

In my viewing, in my world, the top falls down.  What happens in yours?

Does it even matter?

Does it matter what happens at the end?  In the movie, Cobb spins the top, then sees his kid and walks away.  The image of the top on the table is for us, the viewer, not the character in the movie.  He has decided that he doesn’t care, that this is his reality, regardless of what “reality” it is.  And isn’t that one of the points of the movie?  If he eats, breathes, and lives in this reality, who are we to say that it isn’t real? 

On a larger level, does it matter to us?  Isn’t the point that we’re left in the dark at the end, with one more question to answer?  Isn’t the debate more fun than knowing the truth?  Again, back to the art allegory, the artists create the worlds, but once we enter, we take ownership of the world and the characters, and they both get to live on in our imaginations and our conversations and arguments about the world. 

If we never know what happens to the top, then the movie will live on forever in our arguments about what happened, and in our minds as we create our own endings and determine the reality of the world. 

Maybe, in the end, that’s what the movie is trying to show us: that every day we are creating and re-creating our world and our reality, and, in many ways, we have complete control over it.


About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of

One response »

  1. […] Inception just right. It finds the right balance of heart and brain, spectacle and character. See here for my original, in depth […]

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