Thanks to Master Cat Anne Lower for this masterful breakdown:
Year of Release: 2010
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Genre: Golden Fleece
Subgenres: Institutionalized, Rite of Passage.
Nominated for over 15 awards for best original screenplay, and soaring away with the coveted WGA award for writing, Inception took the world like a storm. Part heist film, part mind-bender, and part love story, Nolan’s ethereal tale is brimming with visual articulations of the Jungian dream archetypes. Waves and trains crash as the harbingers of death, glimpses of the underworld fly onscreen, an Odysseus and his crew struggle to survive as worlds and realities collide, all to Hans Zimmer’s hauntingly fluid score. Inception appears on over 273 critics “top ten” lists; the film is a visual, emotional, and lyrical masterpiece.
Opening Image: Dawn. Crashing surf. The waves toss a bearded man onto wet sand. A child’s shout makes him lift his head to see a little blond boy and girl crouching, their backs towards him as they watch a sand castle. The man tries to call out, but the children run off, faces unseen. The barrel of a rifle rolls the bearded man onto his back. A security guard looks down at him, then calls up the beach to a colleague leaning against a jeep. Behind them is a cliff, and on top of that, a Japanese castle.
An old man waits inside. The bearded man is dragged to him. The bearded man eats. “Are you here to kill me?” the old man says. He holds up a spinner. “I know what this is. I’ve seen one, many, many years ago. It belonged to a man I met in a half -remembered dream. A man possessed of some radical notions…”
Theme Stated: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” The theme of Inception is that of dreams. Reality versus fantasy, and when these worlds collide.
Set-Up: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) lands on a strange shore, and becomes a visitor in a Japanese castle — a dining room filled with amber paintings and glass lanterns. With Cobb are two items — a gun and a spinning top, which attracts his host — an ancient Japanese man. He seems to know this top… he saw it in a dream. He spins the top. As it spins…
Cobb, the bearded man from the opening, speaks to Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a young Japanese businessman. With them is Cobb’s associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a well-put and articulate man. Cobb challenges Saito with the question: “What is the most resilient parasite?” …and answers his own question with: “An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it — but it stays there.”
Saito questions the premise; Arthur interrupts. “In the dream state, conscious defenses are lowered and your thoughts become vulnerable to theft. It’s called extraction.”
Cobb and Arthur are dream extractors. They enter into the dream mind, in order to obtain information from the target. “If this is your dream, and you have a safe full of secrets, I need to know what’s in that safe.” As they continue their pitch, Saito becomes amused. He excuses himself and leaves. A low rumbling begins.
The glass lanterns begin to shake. Arthur asks, “What’s going on up there?” Cobb looks at his watch – it is upside down. This world is a dream.
INT. FILTHY BATHROOM — DAY
Cobb, asleep, sits on a chair propped above a bath. The legs are level with the rim of the tub.
A man, Nash (Lukas Haas) watches over Saito and Cobb. Outside, an explosion.
Nash moves to the window — there are riots in the streets. Nash goes to another room; in it, is Arthur, in a chair.
Saito’s castle. Cobb and Arthur discuss their business strategy on a rooftop. Arthur feels that Saito knows that this reality is a dream. In the distance is a beautiful woman. Arthur asks Cobb why she is there. Cobb sends Arthur to his room and joins her. The woman is Mal (Marion Cotillard). She is a dangerous presence; she seems determined to destroy Cobb’s plan.
In a room, Cobb places her on a chair and wraps a rope around its legs.
Tell me, do the children miss me?
He strokes her ankle.
I can’t imagine.
He throws the end of the rope out of the window and repels to the ground. As he does, the chair flies towards the window. It is empty.
Cobb stealths through Saito’s mansion, killing his guards. He reaches a safe and opens it. An envelope is within. As he pulls it out, Saito appears, with Mal. They hold Arthur hostage. Cobb lowers his gun; after an exchange in which Cobb confesses the presence of the dream, Mal replies, “That depends on what you’re threatening. Killing him would just wake him up… but pain? Pain is in the mind… Please.”
She shoots Arthur in the leg; he drops, screaming in pain. Mal continues, “And, judging by the decor, we’re in your mind, aren’t we, Arthur? “She aims towards the other leg; Cobb snatches his gun and shoots Arthur in the head. Arthur’s eyes open — in the seedy hotel room.
In the castle, Cobb runs through the corridors as they dissolve. He’s pocketed the true envelope – on it, the word CONFIDENTIAL. The castle continues to disintegrate, destroying all those in it.
In the hotel room, Arthur and Nash struggle to wake Cobb from his dream. Arthur cries, “Give him the kick… drop him.” Cobb is tilted in slow motion into the tub… as he falls, water jettisons around him in massive waves in Saito’s castle. Cobb wakes in the hotel room… as does Saito. He attacks the team, but they best him. As the riots surround them, Cobb engages in a tete-a-tete with Saito. Cobb challenges the quality of his extraction; Saito believes the job to be amateur at best.
A high speed train.
The team — and Saito — are in a berth. The seedy motel is also a dream. Outside of the motel, the riots grow closer. On the train, a boy places headphones on Nash; the strains of “Non je regrette rein” begin to play.
At the hotel, the crowds grow closer. Cobb demands Saito’s industrial secrets; he is quiet. Cobb throws Saito to the floor — and he begins to laugh. He explains that he knows the room well; it belongs to his mistress. However, the rug that he has been thrown on is polyester.
“Non je regrette rein” wafts through the sound of the screaming mob.
Saito realizes that he is still dreaming. Cobb and company have delivered a dual layered dream world — although this one is flawed by Nash’s lack of attention to fine detail.
The mob bursts through the door and Nash is dragged away as… on the train, the team wakes up. They leave Saito, who wakes a few moments later. His dream has ended — for now.
Paris. Night. Cobb tests the spinner, gun in had… “to be or not to be.” The spinner tumbles. He lowers his weapon. The phone rings — his children. They ask when he is coming home. They ask if Mommy is with him. A vision of Mal appears.
Catalyst: Saito dispatches Nash, the ineffective architect of Cobb’s team, and makes an offer: Inception. The planting of an idea in a competitor’s mind; an idea so deeply placed that s/he will never know of its presence. It will provoke a change in life — and perhaps the world.
Saito’s competitor is the son of the heir to the Fischer energy empire: Robert. Fischer’s father, Maurice, is a corrupt man, bloated with hatred and greed. This disenfranchised son will be left to fulfill his disdainful parent’s wishes… whether he wants to or not.
Debate: Saito swiftly ups the offer by providing an additional enticement — the opportunity for Cobb to return to America, and see his children once again.
Cobb cannot turn this offer down; Arthur agrees to join him. Now, Cobb must find an architect.
Break into Two: Cobb travels to Paris. His father-in-law, Professor Miles (Michael Caine) runs the architectural program, and trained Cobb for his job. Cobb confides that he might have found is way home; after resistance, Caine offers his finest student, “Better than you,” he tells Cobb.
B Story: Enter Ariadne (Ellen Page), a new type of weaver of webs.
Fun and Games: Cobb has Ariadne execute a series of mazes on paper. He demands they be better and better — more complex. Finally, she quickly creates a circular series of passages and walls. It is insolvable. Cobb has found his new architect.
Fun and Games Training for Ariadne begins. Without her knowing, Cobb leads her into a dream…
So… how did we here?
She’s confused. A rumble begins.
The restaurant around them explodes. Bursts of bricks, of wood, of flowers surround them. Cobb moves to shield his student.
If it’s just a dream, why do you…
In the workshop, Ariadne jolts awake. Cobb and Arthur explain that the dream state was originally developed by the military as a strategy to target soldier’s weaknesses. To enter and leave a first level of dream state involves administration of a simple compound — a drug. They ask her to dream for another five minutes; Ariadne is stunned — she was with Cobb for at least an hour. Cobb tells her that for every hour of dream time, five minutes of real time pass. He asks her to begin to build a world. She agrees.
Ariadne and Cobb step out into the dream world; she has done a remarkable job. She is the architect, but this world is owned by Cobb. She controls the structural data, but his subconscious peoples it, with projections. He shows her how to manipulate the world; how to fold structure and dimension. In a mind-boggling visual sequence, the world is folded into a cube.
Ariadne is smitten with her power. A bridge is familiar to Cobb; he questions Ariadne and she tells him that she has visited it before. He protests — the dream must not come from reality; it must come from imagination. Ariadne strides ahead; she manipulates bridges and streets — they arise from nowhere. Cobb cautions her: the world is peopled with projections, and, as the world becomes more false, the projections will sense the illusion and attack.
They pass projections; Ariadne is knocked about. Eventually, she is surrounded…. and Mal appears. As Ariadne stands helplessly, Mal approaches her, pulls out a knife and stabs her in the abdomen.
Ariadne wakes in the lab. “That’s some subconscious you’ve got. She’s a real charmer!” she seethes at Cobb as he leaves.
Cobb has asked for Arthur to give Ariadne a totem — a tangible object that only she can use, which will help her determine the dream world from the real. Ariadne is shaken with her encounter with Cobb’s unconscious; she leaves. Arthur and Cobb know that she will return… she has been bitten by the dream world.
“Reality’s not going to be enough for her now,” Cobb says. He then tells Arthur that he needs to visit Eames (Tom Hardy) — the ultimate forger. Arthur protests, he does not like Eames. Eames is in Mumbasa. Cobb travels to meet him.
Mumbasa. A bar, and a man — Eames — surly and rugged. He gambles. Cobb approaches and Eames cashes out.
Cobb broaches the subject of Inception; Eames offers his view. “It’s not impossible,” he says. “It’s just bloody difficult.” Eames offers the advice that Inception must be an idea at its most simple design — easy to plant. He asks about the plan; Cobb reveals the Fischer struggle. Eames zeroes in: “The relationship with the father.’ Then, he asks, “Do you have a chemist?”
Cobb is chased through the streets of Mumbasa — no dream, this is real. Saito appears and offers Cobb a ride. Escape — and Eames and Saito join the team.
In Paris, Ariadne approaches Arthur; Cobb is right. She is bitten; she, too will help to create Inception.
Arthur teaches her the rules of the dream world; he shows her the escape within her architecture. He uses the Penrose Steps as an example; he suggests that she build an Escher-like world. A paradox. A “closed loop” — but complicated enough that the dreamers can hide from the projections. Many jobs involve two levels of dreams; to get from the second level to the first involves a kick — falling from a height, often into water. Ariadne asks Arthur about Mal. She assumes her to be Cobb’s ex-wife. Arthur tells her that Mal was Cobb’s wife until she died. “What was she like?” asks Ariadne. “She was lovely,” he replies.
Granted that the dream state is achieved through drugs, this team will need a purveyor – chemist. Eames introduces the team to Yusef (Dileep Rao), who will guide — and join — the team through this process.
Yusef is a chemist for an underground population of dream-seekers — a post-modern version of an opium den. Cobb asks a guardian what the people come for. “The dream has become their reality.”
Yusef is challenged, for what Cobb and Co. are proposing is not a two-step dream world, but a three-story architecture. The danger? Die in the third world, and the participant could live in limbo, trapped and aging forever, in the mazes of the mind.
Cobb tries the drug; once again, he is lost in the maze of Mal. Her head, on a train rail. Steel nails tremble. Yusef wakes him. The chemist joins the group.
Saito offers a profile of Robert Fischer; Cobb probes deeper. He is concerned about the effects of Inception, not only upon Robert, but Saito… and the world. “This idea will define him… it may come to change everything about him.” Saito informs Cobb that if Maurice stands upon the brink of world domination in terms of energy; if there is no competitor, there is no hope. Cobb takes the challenge; he agrees that he and his team will go deeper into the subconscious of self and of others than thought possible. Eames proposes access to Browning (Tom Berenger), who is the elder Fischer’s right hand man — and young Fischer’s beloved godfather.
Training ensues; the caper begins. Eames visits the house under pretense and observes the Fischer divide. The father is destroying his son; he breaks a picture of the two. Browning urges Robert to discuss power of attorney; Robert cannot. The team must reach the safe: the inner recesses of his mind. Eames hatches a plan — through the dream world, he will pose as Browning. Ariadne creates her totem — a chess piece. Cobb shows Ariadne Mal’s totem. in the dream world it will spin and spin and spin…
Ariadne designs a world; she discovers that Cobb no longer can. Mal’s presence in his subconscious is too prevalent. He reveals that he cannot return to America because authorities believe that he killed Mal.
More fun and games as the team works to discover what makes Robert tick. How to manipulate his unspoken feelings about his father. How to promote a rebellion against his father’s wishes. The discovery of compound that will lead the dreamer to three levels of sleep — almost 10 years in the dreamer’s state. A kick must bring the dreamer back — a physical catapult that makes the dreamer fall – from the third and the second levels, in order for the dreamer to rejoin reality.
Robert’s father dies. He plans to continue his father’s business as usual. Maurice is being buried in Los Angeles… and Robert’s personal jet is grounded by Saito, who has just purchased an airline in order to accommodate the Inception plan.
Ariadne finds Cobb using the compound. She hooks up, and descends via a series of elevators into Cobb’s inner sanctum. She finds Cobb with Mal in their home; a modern day Orpheus has followed his Persephone. Mal discovers Ariadne; Cobb urges her to leave. Ariadne is trapped with Cobb in a series of “floors” — different memories of his life. Again, the backs of his children. He cannot see their faces. They travel to a hotel room — destroyed. Furniture overthrown, glasses on the floor. Mal appears. She tries to kill Ariadne, but Cobb helps her to escape.
The caper begins. The group boards the first-class section, along with Robert. Yusef will administer the compounds that will take them back one level, then a second, then a third — all within a limited time period (Ticking Clock). The first level will enable the team to kidnap Robert, the second will engage trust in the team, and plant the seed of Inception, and the third — if necessary — will take place in Robert’s inner mind — his safe will be located. The compound is administered; the first level of dream begins. The team is in a van. It pulls into a warehouse.
Midpoint: The team separate. Ariadne and Cobb drive to the hotel in preparation of level 2; Eames, Saito, and Arthur in a taxi kidnap Robert in a taxi… but the dream is compromised. Robert has been trained by an extraction specialist; an analyst hired to avoid any level of Inception. His subconscious has been militarized.
Bad Guys Close In: A train smashes into a car driven by Cobb and Ariadne. Saito is shot; his wounds are grave. Robert is hooded. In a warehouse, the team is told that Saito will not wake if he dies; death in this dream level will result in his being trapped in limbo — as will they all. Robert is dragged into another room; Eames steps in as a false Browning; Robert is turned against him.
After trying to probe Robert’s subconscious, Cobb decides it is time for the team to go one dream further. The safe must be found; the combination must be broken. The faux Browning does not work. Robert is damaged by his father’s rejection. Saito is dying and faces eternity in limbo, awakening always as an old man. Inception must travel further.
Ariadne confronts Cobb. She fears that Mal may surface and destroy them all.
Cobb confesses that he and Mal once went to such a deep level — they created their own world. After 50 years in dream time, he began to realize that her reality was changing permanently; that they needed to live in the real world, with family and friends. He brought them both back by having them lie in front of a train…
…but Mal never accepted the true reality. She thought it false — home, children, love. She saw life as a series of projections and, in their favorite Los Angeles hotel room, opened the windows, and traversed the ledge. “I’m asking you to take a leap of faith,” she says just before she plummets to her death in front of her shattered husband. Cobb is charged with her murder, and must flee the states. “Your guilt defines her. It is what empowers her,” Ariadne tells Cobb. “You’re going to have to confront her.” (A and B story intertwine; the student is becoming the master; the world of reality threatens Cobbs worlds of dreams)
The team whisks Robert and Eames-as-Browning to a van; Robert is drugged. Machine laden projections surround. Yusuf takes the wheel; the van drives away. The compound is administered.
Level 2. A bodacious blonde flirts with Robert in a hotel bar. Cobb approaches and dismisses her. He convinces Robert that she was a con-artist — Robert’s billfold has been stolen. The blonde enters an elevator with Saito and transforms into Eames. As they study a picture of Robert and Maurice, a rumble begins…
The van — pursued. Gunfire rings out in level 1.
In the hotel bar, another rumble. Cobb convinces Robert that he is an extraction protector. In the elevator, Saito coughs. His injury is catching up to this level. Ariadne and Arthur observe Cobb from the hotel lobby; as projections stiffen, Arthur distracts them by stealing a kiss from Ariadne. A whiff of life amongst death. Cobb convinces Robert that he is protecting him from an extractor.
Projections appear; the subconscious is out of control. Cobb’s children appear in the lobby and men chase Cobb and Robert into a bathroom. Robert threatens to kill himself to leave the dream, but Cobb convinces him that the result would be limbo. Arthur plans for the kick — the van in a perfect free fall from a bridge. Too early, the dreamers will not be ready. Too late — they will drown. Yusuf is driving, the plan is in action…
…as Cobb proves to Robert that the real Browning is a traitor. He convinces Robert to allow a compound to be administered in order for Cobb to enter his subconscious, and to allow Fischer to enter the inner recesses of his mind — the safe that contains his most inner secrets. The journey into level 3 begins as the van is chased throughout the streets of Paris. In the hotel (level 2), Arthur is attacked by projections. During a stunning visual sequence, Arthur and his attackers fight as their world is literally turned upside down as the van tumbles down a grade, knocking its occupants about.
Yusuf gains control of the van. The team sans Arthur enters its final level of dream… a frozen tundra. A concrete fortress is all that stands between them and Inception.
During a series of intercuts, the film travels between the three levels of dream: Yusuf and the team in the van; Arthur in the second level, chauffeuring the travelers to the third, and the third level, the frozen wasteland. Arthur scrambles to meet kick. The van approaches the bridge. Saito struggles to stay alive. Seconds become minutes become hours become seconds.
Ariadne directs the team to an air duct access; however, third level projections fire upon them and in real time, Robert’s security threatens the existence of all. Yusuf drives off of the bridge; the free fall begins. First kick. In the hotel, Arthur struggles to prepare for the second kick by pulling his team — airbound — into an elevator shaft.
All Is Lost: Reality invades the third level as an avalanche; the team has not achieved their mission; the first kick is missed. There is a second chance — when the van hits the water. Arthur finds the team in stasis in the hotel… he continues to fight with second level projections. Their lives depend upon second kick. In level 3, Cobb and Ariadne cover Robert as he enters the compound; Mal strides into view and aims a gun at Robert as Cobb and Ariadne watch in horror as Mal shoots Robert; then, Cobb shoots Mal.
Dark Night of the Soul: Saito is dying. He will be lost in limbo — along with Robert. Mal’s projection will retreat to a deeper level.
Break into Three: The van grows closer to the water. Arthur loads the team in an elevator and begins to sever its cables (The Team is being Regathered). While this happens, Ariadne convinces Cobb to travel one level deeper (a mini-gathering of A&B). As architect, she believes that she can follow Robert one level deeper… and that Mal will be with him. Cobb and Ariadne wash onshore of a haphazard world; dilapidated skyscrapers tumble into the sea. It was once the world that Mal and Cobb created.
Finale: Ariadne and Cobb search for Mal (Execution of the Plan).; they travel to the fantasy house that she and Cobb built during their dream time. Cobb reveals that he was prompted by Mal’s reluctance to leave the dream to plant an idea in the deep recesses — the safe — of her mind that the dream was not real. Within her, he created an Inception — an Inception that ultimately led to her death. This Inception was expressed by the spinner, spinning endlessly, an indication that the dream is never ending. If it wobbles, they are in the real world. After their “death” on the train tracks that took them back to reality, Mal remained convinced that she was in a dream — and was responsible for the creation of this idea. “That idea would grow in her mind like a cancer after she woke,” he tells Ariadne. The totem no longer mattered.
As Ariadne watches, Mal and Cobb play out their final conversations against the backdrop of the firefight in the third dream level. Saito sacrifices himself; he, too is relegated to limbo. In the hotel, Arthur plants detonators on the final holding cables and joins the team — intact — in the elevator. He holds a timer in his hands.
Eames breaks through the fortress defenses and finds Robert’s body. He pulls a defibrillator unit from a wall and shocks Robert. As he does, lightning appears in the sky above the Cobb’s apartment. Ariadne cries out that they need to get Robert. “You can’t have him,” says Mal (High Tower Surprise). Cobb bargains with Mal; if he remains, she might let Fischer go. Mal agrees and sends Ariadne to the porch. Robert is there, alive and bound as the van travels closer. Ariadne grasps Robert; she begs Cobb to leave. He won’t — but not because Mal is there. He explains to Mal that she is dead, that she exists only in his subconscious. He will not leave because he knows that Saito is there, a prisoner of limbo. He tells Mal that she is no more than a shade of his wife, the best that he could do… but she is simply a projection. They will not be young together; they will not grow old together. He will no longer accept her as real (Dig, Deep Down).
Mal snatches a knife and slashes Cobb, but before Mal can kill him, Ariadne kills her. She tosses Robert off of the roof. He wakes in the third level of the dream with Eames, and enters the inner sanctum of his unconsciousness — the projection of his dying father. In a safe, Robert finds his father’s will, and yet, he also finds a pinwheel that Robert gave his father when he was a child. Son realizes his father’s love; he does not need his father’s empire. The seeds of change have been planted. Inception has begun, as Arthur detonates the charges and the elevator plunges down… as Eames destroys the frozen fortress.
The van hits into water. Second Kick. Cobb’s world disintegrates around him; he tells Ariadne to drop from the building — she must travel to the other levels in order to receive the kick. “Don’t lose yourself,” she cries. “Find Saito and bring him back,” she says as she plunges from the building (Execution of the New Plan)… and into the full throes of the kick. The team, sans Saito and Cobb, are taken to the first level of the dream. They are in the river. For them, consciousness is as simple as the timed drug wearing off.
But Cobb is trapped with a dying Mal. He kisses her… and lets her go. She — or his projection of her — dies in her arms as the surviving team surfaces from the sinking van. Cobb is trapped inside… but he is is still a level of dream.
DAWN – CRASHING SURF
A bearded man is washed ashore.
Inside the Japanese castle, Cobb and the elderly man speak as Cobb spins Mal’s token… it spins, and spins and spins…
“I came back for you,” Cobb says. “I came to remind you of what you once knew. That this world is not real…. Come back and we’ll be young men together.”
Cobb opens his eyes. He and his team — intact — are landing at LAX. Saito stares at him and dials a number. Cobb is permitted through customs. He returns home; his children play in the yard. They turn, and finally, Cobb sees their faces.
Final Image: As Cobb steps outside to join them, he drops Mal’s token on a table. It spins… and spins… and spins… does it wobble…???
FADE TO BLACK
Next week: Guest Blog from Erik Bork