Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

“You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?”


It wasn’t my favourite film of 2010 – but it was pretty damn high: Number 3. Ironically, one point I made when recording my initial observations of the film was my lack of interest in the soundtrack – going so far as to say that I couldn’t hear a clear ‘theme’ throughout. I take this back. This was foolish – since then, I have bought the soundtrack and I love it. It is great and Hans Zimmer impresses once again. Its worth noting that the incredible soundtrack to Tron:Legacy by Daft Punk states in the liner notes “with thanks to Hans Zimmer, John Powell…” and I think their are some very Zimmer-esque elements to the Tron:Legacy soundtrack, whilst John Powell is The Bourne Identity composer and, I think there are hints of that too. One thing Jo pointed out when we discussed Inception on the recent podcast was the ambiguity of the character – knowing who is good and bad. I think this is a great point to raise and this is where I will begin, by fusing it with some religious symbolism …

Religious Ambiguity

When I first watched the film there were certain spiritual alarm-bells ringing. The idea that Mal (Coitillard) is “convinced of a world outside of the world” and the Catholic-twinges, as what roots Cobb (DiCaprio) in the real world is his guilt – guilt over a mistake he had made. A mistake anyone could have made – could this be original sin?

But this is where Jo’s stance regarding the characters good-or-bad-traits are further complicated. On a second viewing, I realised that, in the simplest terms, Mal is the enemy. Robert Fischer (Murphy) is a much a nameless-business-owner as Saito (Watanabe) – both trying to get more money than the other. Saito only hires Cobb and Co because Cobol Engineering fails and extracting information from him. In the world of Inception everyone is stealing from each other – and all these big-businesses are faceless corporations with no clear good-or-bad traits – much like businesses today. Do I really understand the severe implications of huge worldwide companies such as Google – something, which I blindly trust. On the other hand, everyone hates McDonalds but since the backlash (I think was a combination of Subway and Morgan Spurlocks Super Size Me) they have tried to rebrand themselves – with clear guidelines as to what to eat and how much to eat – a variety of options and, what appears to be a very open policy as to how they make their Big Macs. But, people still associate McDonalds with negative sentiments. Faceless corporations with unclear morals and motives.

Back to my point, Mal is the enemy. Though the ‘bad guy’, it is worth noting that at no point (except in some dubious flashbacks) do we see the real Mal. Arthur (Jo Go) tells us she was lovely and, with Michael Caine as her Dad, she must have been. Fact is, we only see her convincing Cobb of his guilt. She stabs Ariadne (Paige), she shoots Arthur and she kills herself. Cobb’s guilt, represented by Mal, is the enemy he must defeat.

Now, this is where the religious allegory flips itself once again. With all the dreams-within-dreams, Inception knows what the world is – using small totems to guide us. Whereas the only person who thinks there is anything outside of the totem-controlled world is Mal – the fundamental idea that outside of this world is a higher power, a more important world – a spiritual realm. I am choosing my words carefully because I think there is conscious link to the religious fundamentalists that destroy others through their expectations of ‘what the world is’ and ‘should be’.

A Religious Film with Atheism as its Belief

The most important feeling I felt upon a second viewing, is that with all the talk of ‘belief’ and ‘whats real’ and ‘whats not’ this film seems to push a very Atheistic perspective. We can define the ‘dreams’ in Inception as a belief system as the film explains that dreams are ‘pure creativity’ – its not reality and is therefore not true. With this in mind, you could not interpret the the film as “dreams being the heaven or hell or higher-power”. Inception even goes further by stating that there is a big difference between ‘what you know’ and ‘what you believe’. Agnosticism would dictate otherwise because a belief is real under the umbrealla term ‘faith’. It wouldn’t be ‘faith’ if it was fact so they say.

Nevertheless, with this separation between dreams and the real world, the challenge for Cobb throughout is to fight the desire to be with his wife – the desire to die. I would imagine that, for many, the thought about dying and seeing your loved ones is the gold at the end of the rainbow – a certain peace and acceptance that death is not the end. It is clear that the struggle is whether Cobb will believe or not – and throughout the film, this is a struggle, but his acceptance is that Mal is dead and his guilt is unfounded. His ‘inception’ on her was a mistake, but he did what he could and her madness corrupted her perspective. Theoretically, the guilt should be on her – forcing Cobb into death… thats the worse crime.

His closure and release is that though Mal is dead, his children are not – and his short stay to find Saito will eventually pay-off. It doesn’t matter how long it will take – hundreds of years – or what he will go through (how did he find himself on the beach?), because he will now live his life for his children rather than for a corrupted belief in a higher power that will right-all-his-wrongs through forgiveness.

Final Notes

But then we have the closing few seconds. That bloody totem. It spins and we wonder is it all a dream. Without going into the accuracies and inaccuracies of this sentiment, the use of religious allegory means that the final shot either assumes everything  is a dream or not which means maybe, just maybe, Mal was right … there is a higher power and a world outside of the world Cobb and Co live within. By not showing us whether it falls means that it is not about the Totem and nor is it about Cobb really – its about you and I. The totem raises the question as to whether the world is real or not – and that is the most important aspect to the story. For an entire film we have been told how belief in a higher-power is a corrupted mental-state – ultimately making you the enemy. But, if everyone is unaware … then maybe not. And so we walk away from the film with our belief intact.

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  1. @Filmics – hmmm … i didn't think i really explained the story, more breaking down my interpretation…

    @CMrok93 – I've only watched it twice, but yeah, I'll bet it will get better with each watch

    @Tom – Yeah, I think maybe on a first watch, it is difficult to keep track of everything, but second time around you are much more aware of it.

    I am suprised… no controversy with the religious-attachments I have made.

  2. Curious attachments. One could go in many, many directions from the marks you've made in the sand of Inception. I'm not suggesting I completely go along with your suggestions about 'original sin' and the inherent religiosity of Nolan's world outside the world, but it is considerably more interesting than the actual film experience which is so laden with exposition as to render dialogue and intimacy and revelation as moot. Try it, remove the lines of exposition and see how much the characters are actually saying, not telling one another which is the way of telling us what's happening, what's already happened and/or what's about to happen and why. Look at the very examples you've selected from the film for illustration purposes, pure plot mechanics. That being said, of course Mar is the enemy, and if we follow your hypothesis of the religiousness of the film, she's also the snake of the Hebrew bible representing divination or fortune telling. She's there to show us Cobb's past life that's stuck on auto play, a digital artifact, a ghost in the shell that hasn't caught up to itself because it's like a radio signal leaving the planet into hyperspace. Or maybe Inception is just Nolan's take on Groundhogs Day, the same day as the same dream over and over and over and over again only this time Phil the weatherman doesn't overcome his hubris (self love) because he's actually been dead the whole time and no one, returning to your religious theme, comes back from the dead but Jesus – or did he?

  3. Interesting how you note GROUNDHOG DAY as, I have recently read, GROUNDHOG DAY is often held up on the shoulders of those who have a Christian belief. The idea that Phil is going through the same day everyday until he realises the purpose of his life – and only then, does the monotony start and his real life begins. GROUNDHOG DAY is a very faith-based film in that regard. Obviosuly, INCEPTION, is the complete opposite but it doesn't end on a pessimistic note. Indeed the 'release' and freedom Cobb gets is from the understanding that there is nothing outside of his world and guilt (a very catholic trait) is what holds him back from living his life fully.

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