Understanding Inception

Disclaimer: The following is an exercise in cerebral masturbation. Proceed at your own risk.

Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, shame on you. It’s a work of art. Go see it, and read no further. Come back after you’ve watched the film.

If you’ve seen the film, you already have an idea of what you think it’s all about. And, although it’s clever that many reviewers are comparing themes addressed in Inception to that of the process of filmmaking, I believe there’s more to it than that. Here’s what I think: Inception addresses themes of understanding oneself, and recognizing the artistic process of creating and perceiving. As an artist, scientist, teacher, and philosopher Inception blew my mind.

“But, it had never occurred to me that everything I’m saying about creating a thing and trying to perceive it at the same time…relates to the filmmaking process.” –Christopher Nolan 1

There are so many theories circulating regarding the meaning of the film Inception. Upon my first viewing, my theory was solid in my mind during the warehouse scene in which Eames demonstrates to Arthur that he “musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

The entire film is a dream. Dom Cobb has been dreaming, and everyone in the film is a projection of his subconscious. Dom and Mal explored dream sharing, dreams within dreams, and she realized that even though they thought they woke up from several dream layers, she and Dom were still asleep. Until she jumped off the building. (She’s awake somewhere and waiting for him to wake up.)

The one thing that solidified this idea for me was the line that Mal (a projection of Dom’s subconscious at the time) uttered in the infamous hotel room: “No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by fictitious corporations…” Even his own subconscious is trying to tell him he’s still dreaming.

Each character is an aspect of his own subconsciousness, of his identity. Ariadne is his most recent fragment, and throughout the film, her goal has been to expose Dom to the rest of the team, to himself, really. Think about it, Dom is the one who used “inception” on Mal to save her from the dream world. He’s clever enough to know deep down inside that he’s still dreaming. (But, I think Dom is okay with that in the end. He let Mal go, and he “returns” home and finally allows himself to be “reunited” with his children.)

But, really, this is just a theory. It’s my interpretation. Just as you look at a work of art and see and feel one thing, and I look at the same work of art and see and feel something else, Inception is a different experience for everyone. Even for Christopher Nolan.

Nolan is the artist, and as such, I’m inclined to think that in many ways, he is Dom Cobb. And, in many ways, we all are. Inception is our story. This is why Inception is so beautiful and brilliant. It’s a well-layered, emotionally resonant and relevant story, that’s universally relatable. (And, intellectually stimulating.) “If you’re going to do a massive movie, though, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as for the audience.” –Christopher Nolan 2 This is the stuff artists dream of achieving.

“They say we only use a fraction of the true potential of our brains… but they’re talking about when we’re awake. While we dream, the mind performs wonders.” ~Cobb

“In a dream your mind continuously does that… It creates and perceives a world simultaneously. So well that you don’t feel your brain doing the creating.” ~Cobb

As an artist, I’ve been striving toward this both consciously and unconsciously. Creating and perceiving simultaneously. The opening up of the flood gates of the creative mind, allowing pure creation to exist free from restraints, is the closest thing to Nirvana. These restraints are usually fears; of judgment (external and internal), of invalidation, imperfection, second-guessing, failure, success… You get the picture.

As a scientist, I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain. I’ve always considered it akin to a computer. The mind has infinite power, capable of simultaneously maintaining human homeostasis, governing thought, processing information, creating and communicating ideas, etc. The human brain is exponentially capable of so much.

As a teacher, I subscribe to the theory that metacognition is the epitome of learning. Being aware of learning as it happens is a high, if not the highest, level of understanding.

As an epistemologist, I continue to study Russell, Ryle, Gettier, Piaget, Vygotsky, Skinner, Kohlberg, and even Einstein. I do thoroughly enjoy analyzing knowledge and how it relates to truth, belief, and the concept of the human understanding of reality.

As it relates to epistemology, the entire film is an exercise in introspection. Dom Cobb is on a constant loop of self-observation, reasoning, and examining his own thoughts of what he believes to be truth. Believe it or not, the sciences of knowledge and human development pervade Nolan’s script. Cobb is, in fact, obsessed with understanding human thought and behavior. Eames, seems to be a connoisseur regarding human understanding and the development of ideas. His insight subtly drives the mission toward inception of the idea intended for Fischer to adopt. (But, according to my theory that Eames is simply a projection of Cobb, it’s still Cobb who is the connoisseur.)

So, viewing Inception was a brainy orgasm of sorts for me. All these concepts are explored and expounded upon in a visually stunning and emotionally riveting film-watching experience.

After seeing the film a second time, something in my mind clicked, and a door unlocked on my vault of ideas. The door that had been locked (due to several of the aforementioned fears) was opened, and a small crash of waves of creativity washed ashore in my mind regarding my latest script. I realized something: The act of creating is something that I have no control over, and to attempt to control it is the equivalent of locking it away.

I believe the artist’s best way to create is to do so as if in a dream, to live in that moment of creating and perceiving as if in a dream, to allow the ideas to form naturally from the subconscious. I want to be standing in the center of that circle that Cobb drew for Ariadne when he explained how the mind performs when we dream.

That’s what Inception is about. Inception is a work of art reflective of Nolan’s desire to create and perceive simultaneously. “That’s the whole thing you’re trying to do: You’re literally presenting this thing in which you’ve put words into people’s mouths, and you’re trying to watch it as if you’re fresh to it.” –Christopher Nolan 3

Artists are dreamers. We have to remember that. We are the dreamers.


1. Warner Bros. Entertainment. Inception The Shooting Script. p. 19. California: Insight Editions, 2010. Print.

2. Warner Bros. Entertainment. Inception The Shooting Script. p. 11. California: Insight Editions, 2010. Print.

3. Warner Bros. Entertainment. Inception The Shooting Script. p. 19. California: Insight Editions, 2010. Print.


2 Replies to “Understanding Inception”

  1. Okay, Nia, this is a really interesting and intellectually stimulating review/dissection of the INCEPTION. I, too, was awash with creativity just 10 minutes in. Nolan sets his film in the ultimate creative space — the human mind — and expects the rules of physical reality to apply to enable us to understand the puzzle that he presented to us.

    It occurred to me during that hotel scene where Mal was interrogating Cobb that perhaps he too was dreaming, and it was solidified by the final image of the top spinning forever — an indication that it was Mal’s, not Cobb’s all along.

    I haven’t seen the film a second time (and perhaps I should, as there’s probably some tertiary elements that I missed. I’m usually very astute at picking up what’s transpiring on a visual and aural level, for example, I was asked why was there was a downpour in LA inside Cillian Murphy’s head, as I don’t know if my companioned picked up on the throwaway line that the Indian chemist needed to take a piss before going under. I’m contemplating seeing it again in IMAX… that presentation format always heightens the experience to a most surreal level.

    Interpreting dreams in the context of art is such multi-disciplinary task that you almost feel like you’ve never applied enough filters to the topic at hand. The thinkers and authors that you mentioned do give a solid approach to addressing the topic… I do wonder why little of Jung’s concepts about dreams were injected into the film…. or at least obviously apparent (one of the reasons why a second viewing is warrant, right?).

    Nolan has reached a fever pitch as a film-maker, perhaps an unprecedented run of exceptionally strong films, and with a fairly unique vision in which we get to experience his world’s. Excited to see Batman 3, but would be more interested in seeing what he comes up with himself next.

    1. I agree with you totally. And, I did watch it the second time on IMAX. Different experience indeed. Nolan has outdone himself. This script was ten years in the making, and well worth it. I’m not sure what Batman 3 will be like, but as you alluded to it may not be on the same playing field as Inception because it’s not totally his story. At the same time, I believe that what he injects into it from himself will enrich Batman 3 all the more. I can’t wait to see. You should buy the shooting script of Inception. It’s worth it simply for the opening interview of Nolan by his brother Jonathan.

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