Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a very unusual sort of criminal. Along with the pragmatic Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is paid to break into dreams and 'extract' corporate secrets. But Cobb is growing tired. Haunted by the ever more malevolent presence of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who intrudes on his subconscious travels, he wants nothing more than to return home and see his children's faces again.
When businessman Saito (Kan Watanebe) offers him a deal that could be his ticket out of exile, Cobb is ready to take it despite Arthur's warnings. Saito wants them to do the impossible: instead of stealing an idea from the mark's mind, he wants them to plant one. Recruiting talented young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), Cobb sets about planning the most complex heist of his life.
Taking over $60 million on its opening weekend, Inception has provided crucial proof to film studios that audiences are willing to be challenged. In a summer of sequels and films based on TV shows or computer games, Warner Brothers took a risk investing in a big-budget, high-concept project with no familiar characters – or even 3D technology – as an easy audience hook. But the gamble appears to have paid off. The intriguing promise of the secretive trailer and posters has done its work to sell the original over the familiar. 'The most resilient parasite', to quote Cobb, 'is an idea.'
There is some truth in the criticisms levelled at the film by those in disagreement with the largely awed consensus. The amount of hype generated by the viral marketing campaign before Inception's release resulted in inevitable disappointment for some. The cast are all so engaging that the lack of character development, especially for Cobb's team, is frustrating. But if the mark of a good film is simply the degree to which it immerses you in its world, excluding all distractions, Inception is truly something special. The first half-hour is the slowest section, introducing the audience to the complex premise and drawing up the boundaries of the world within which the action will take place. But once Cobb's team is assembled and the heist begins, the film grips and never lets go. Complex but rarely confusing, action-packed but with a deep emotional core, Inception genuinely feels like a dream that's hard to wake from.
Like other films set within the mind or simulated realities – The Matrix, for example, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Inception demands to be dissected. Half the pleasure of watching it is in keeping up, following the trail of clues to navigate each turn of the plot. The final shot, without being a 'twist' in the conventional sense, opens up a whole new range of interpretive possibilities. The mysteries the film deals in are not high-flown philosophical theories, but questions that, perhaps without even realising it, we formulate our own answers to every day simply in the process of living our lives – questions of what is real, what we should believe in, and whether we can know for sure.
In one eerie scene, Yusuf leads Cobb into a cellar where a roomful of slumbering men lie wired up to a dream-machine. 'They come here every day to sleep?' asks Cobb, to which he is shrewdly told, 'No. They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality.' This seems to be an apt description of Cobb's own life, which is lived in a kind of twilight zone between sleeping and waking. Filled with grief and regret, he would rather descend into dreams of the past than face a present where his wife is dead and his children have been taken from him. With little worth waking up for, he seems to be in danger of losing himself.
As they duck in and out of multiple dream levels, Cobb's team must carry 'totems' as touchstones to reality. Arthur's is a loaded die which, in the waking world, will only throw a six. Cobb's, which he inherited from Mal after her suicide, is a top which spins indefinitely if he is dreaming. With this small, innocuous item as its most compelling visual lure, the film evokes a haunting sense of the fragility with which we all hold onto reality. In Mal's creeping doubts, and her final terrible certainty, we see the consequences of a fatally flawed assessment. Her paranoia, and her urging Cobb to 'take a leap of faith' in jumping with her from the hotel balcony, may be a reflection on 'faith' as it is so often perceived: a needless waste of a life in the service of groundless fantasy. Far from this, the Bible's model of faith is based on consideration of – and trusting commitment to – evidence, over the changeable tug of experience and emotion.
Our culture prides itself on having shaken off the superstitions of the past – on being grounded, cynical, immune to old dreams about an afterlife or a spiritual realm. But perhaps the truth is that films like Inception and The Matrix strike such a deep cultural chord because none of us, even in the Western world where a naturalistic worldview reigns supreme, can quite shake off the hunch that there is more to reality than what we see before us. We connect with protagonists who share this suspicion, and root for them as they defy the odds to find what is truly real.
In a sense, Cobb's turning his back on the final tantalising spin of the top seems to suggest that he has grown tired of his determination to wake to the real world, and elected instead to chase the reality that best suits him. On the other hand, he has risked everything in his struggle to pursue the real, prepared even to perform inception on Mal and then lie down in front of a train in the hope of waking up. Throughout the film he is torn between the alluring possibilities which dreams offer him – of salving his regrets, of recapturing all he has lost – and the reluctant knowledge that in the end, the constructs can offer no real healing or hope. Facing down the projection of Mal in Limbo, he comments on how – convincing as she might be – she fails to fully embody "all the perfections and imperfections" of his beloved wife.
In many ways we all exist within a Limbo of our own making. We construct our own private dream-worlds simply in the act of choosing which news stories to read, sheltering from the reality of death and pain, and of our own smallness. We build the boundaries of our personal universe in deciding morality, meaning and truth for ourselves. But these are fragile fantasies. Intoxicating though such 'freedom' might seem at first, experience turns it sour because somewhere deep inside such a way of living rings false. And, like a still-spinning top catching the corner of the eye – or like the prick of a guilty conscience – hints of a greater reality intrude.
"It wasn't so bad at first," Cobb says of his time in Limbo. "Feeling like gods. But in the end, none of it was real. It became impossible for me to live like that." The Bible says that we, like Mal locking her totem away in a safe, have wilfully exiled ourselves from the truth about reality. Our rejection of God's reality for self-centred worlds of our own making has resulted in our alienation from him and from his design for our lives. Without him, we are dreaming unawares, spending our days building sandcastles on an imagined shore. "We lost sight of what was real," and as a result we no longer truly know who we are or what we are living for.
But there is a way home. God has not abandoned us to our own empty dreams, but instead has chosen to pursue us in order that we might come back to reality. For those willing to pay attention, the world is filled with 'totems', signposts to the truth. The beauty and complexity of the universe speak of a creator; our own consciences speak of an ultimate moral standard and our failure to live up to it; and most clearly of all, the life and death of Jesus Christ tell of a God who longs for us to turn back to him. It may be uncomfortable, and it may require us to put our trust in unseen truths at times when the dream around us feels bafflingly real. But a richer, deeper, wider world is waiting for us if we are willing to take a leap of faith, and wake up.
Film title: Inception
Keywords: Dreams, reality, inspiration, death, grief, regret, guilt, redemption
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cinema Release Date: 16 July 2010 (USA and UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate violence
 Jeremy Kay, 'Christopher Nolan's Inception Delivers Dream Result for Warner Brothers', The Guardian, accessed 29/07/10.
 Scott Harris, 'Inception Ending Theories', Moviefone, accessed 29/07/10.
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© 2010 Damaris Trust