These essays, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, often rise out of a question that nags me, still pulling on my sleeve a few days after seeing a movie. In the case of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Oscar-nominated movie about the nature of dreams and reality, there is an obvious gauntlet thrown down by the writer/director at the beginning of the film: what is a dream and what is reality? The second question was much more mundane: why did Nolan cast Ellen Page as Aiadne, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur? They seem to be such odd choices for these kinds of roles. Turns out, I’m convinced the answers are connected.
Ignoring for the moment the opening meeting between Cobb and Saito in Limbo (a scene to which the entire movie then drives towards), Inception begins with the failed extraction of Saito’s company secrets. Since this extraction employs a dream-within-the-dream gambit, we can assume that we are being told right from the start to question anything we are shown. Is this a dream or is this reality? Isn’t it possible that the entire movie’s “reality” is just another level, another dream-within-a-dream?
There are certainly plenty of surface elements in the film that suggest that what passes for reality is not reality. Like dreams, things work out in ways that don’t quite ring true. What might be major plot complications in other situations seem to be resolved too easily here. Characters bend rather easily to Cobb’s wishes. Time and place seem to be flexible.
For example, Cobb’s father, Miles, seems unfazed to see Cobb in Paris and seems strangely willing to hand over his prize student to Cobb. Since Cobb has already spoken with his children’s grandmother (who is in America) on the phone, I was surprised to find Miles lives in Paris. Or does he? At the end of the film, there’s Miles in Los Angeles, picking up Cobb from the airport.
Miles’ student, Aiadne (who is American, even though we’re in Paris) seems strangely willing to commit illegal acts, even before she gets a taste of being an architect. There’s no struggle to convince her to be the group’s architect, even after she leaves. Cobb says she’ll be back, and sure enough she is. Of course, when she leaves it isn’t because she objects to the immorality or illegality of their plans, but because of Cobb’s personal problems: his inability to control Mal. This strikes me as oddly Cobb-centric.
I also get the feeling sometimes that transitions are missing, just like Cobb tells Aiadne in their first shared dream: in dreams you usually don’t remember how you got somewhere. And the places Cobb goes are strangely labyrinth-like, particularly the chase scene in Mombasa, which includes many dream-like aspects: an endless supply of interchangeable suits chasing Cobb, not being able to make yourself understood when it is imperative to do so, having trouble squeezing through a tight space, and being saved at the last moment by an unlooked-for friend. How unlikely is it that Saito shows up where and when he does?
Time and again, in the world Cobb believes to be real, as well as in the sequence of dreams he purposely enters to get at Robert Fischer, there is a falseness to the conflicts he experiences. For example, his side shoots at hordes of faceless goons with deadly accuracy, but the goons can’t seem to shoot straight (except for the one dramatically necessary hit on the Saito in the first Fischer dream).
Speaking of Saito…why do we so quickly forget that Saito kills Nash, Cobb’s partner in the first sequence of dreams? More importantly, why do Cobb, Arthur, and Saito forget? No one seems to have a problem with Nash’s death. Cobb isn’t the least bit fearful of Saito in the rest of the movie, Saito never again expresses that kind of violent ruthlessness, and nothing more is said about it. Frankly, if we view this exchange objectively, we can’t help but feel Cobb is a monster for forgetting about Nash. But just as we have not grown attached to Nash (he dies too soon in the movie), Cobb’s dream-state allows him to “forget” this as well. Meanwhile, Saito clearly has no fears of Cobb attempting to avenge this murder; notice how once he becomes a member of the team we see no evidence of his wealth and power being used to enhance his personal safety. In short, no bodyguards for a man who can buy an airline (how comic-book is that!) while he goes through a dangerous mission with two men who were partners to a guy he had “offed.”
Even the set-up for the main plot of the movie is not worthy of bad airport fiction. Namely, the idea that a wealthy Japanese man can fix Cobb’s problems with the law in America with one phone call. Additionally, everything associated with Robert Fischer is just plain silly, from Saito’s reason for having this idea planted in Fischer’s head to Fischer’s clichéd relationships with his distant father, Peter Browning, and the company he will inherit. This part of the story is so obviously a side-show to the real story (Cobb’s story), that its resolution, the moment when Robert tells Peter he will sell off the company, is something we can’t wait to get out of the way so we can find out what the hell happened to Cobb and Saito.
And what did happened to them? When, 50 years later, Cobb meets up with Saito (at both the beginning and end of the movie), why is Cobb still young? Speaking of time-continuum issues, why don’t Cobb’s children age? And why is Saito echoing the line Mal says to Cobb right before she jumped from the hotel room (“I’m asking you to take a leap of faith”)?
There is an answer to all of this: the entire movie is Cobb’s dream, a dream he is stuck in because his wife was right and he was wrong.
When Cobb is in Limbo with Aiadne and Fischer, the Mal in Cobb’s mind keeps insisting that Limbo is real. She is wrong, but she is also not Mal. She is Cobb’s projection of Mal, and she is saying what Cobb thinks Mal believed. The real Mal never says Limbo is real. (I’m considering Cobb’s memories of Mal, as expressed in the dreams he shows Aiadne, to be the real Mal.)
The real Mal, as best as can figure from Cobb’s memories, never claims they are going “back” when she jumps from the hotel, just that they are going home. It’s Cobb who says that Limbo became her reality.
The idea that possesses her is that her world isn’t real. Not necessarily that Limbo, the world they just woke up from, is real, but that they needed to wake up from this dream. Just as the movie begins with a dream-within-a-dream and drives towards a scheme to have a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream (and which then goes one dream further), Mal realizes when they awake from 50 years in Limbo that they are still within a dream. What could be more “rational” for a story that keeps pointing out nested dreaming to us? She doesn’t jump to her death return to Limbo; she jumps to return to reality, to wake up from a second dream. It is Cobb who is trapped in a dream world by his refusal to admit his uncertainty about what he thinks is reality. It might not be, and as an expert extractor, he should know to always ask that question.
Ah, but Cobb knows what is reality because of the spinning top. The totem idea is what tricks us. We believe in the totem just like Cobb does. So we assume that what Cobb’s totem says is real, is real. Only at the end, when the top keeps spinning as Cobb goes to embrace his children, are we woken to the idea that we may be mistaken.
Recall that you don’t let others touch your totem. As Arthur tells Aiadne, “That way when you look at your totem you know beyond a doubt you’re not in someone else’s dream.” But Cobb’s totem wasn’t his originally, it was Mal’s – does that invalidate its power? And does a totem protect you from your own dream? If this is Cobb’s dream, then the totem behaves the way he wants it to subconsciously. It spins or falls depending on whether he thinks he is in a dream or not.
Cobb first inception (“Your world is not real”) was planted in Mal. It seems that he plants this idea (“Your world is not real”) by finding her totem, the top, and fixing it so it does not stop spinning. But if the totem works, why does he need to fix it? Because the Limbo dream was her dream, and the totem doesn’t help you detect your own dream, only that you are in someone else’s.
So Mal becomes convinced her world is not real. But how about the idea that your world is real? As Cobb’s Mal says to Cobb in Limbo, “So certain of your world…of what’s real...no creeping doubts?... Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces, where the projections persecute the dreamer? You keeping telling yourself what you know, but what do you feel?”
Cobb replies, “Guilt..(because) the idea to question your reality came from me.” Is the pursuit of Cobb internationally by Cobalt (how do they know he’s in Mombasa?) for failing to secure some information plausible? Or is Cobalt a stand in for his guilt? Might the same be true for the the projections in Fischer’s mind that attack Cobb and his team? Meanwhile, in the “real” world, he’s wanted in America for his wife’s murder. (Again, the plot seems farfetched.) His guilt consumes him and infects his dreams; he is always on the run.
In Mombasa he is shown the dreamers below the chemist’s store and told their dream has become their reality. Yusuf says, “Who are you to say otherwise?” What does Cobb dream of in this environment? Mal on the train tracks saying, “You know how to find me. You know what you have to do.” Why is this dream so different from all others? It unsettles Cobb; he can’t even manage to spin the top properly. The message is clear: Cobb needs to do what Mal did. He needs to admit that his reality is only a dream; he needs to kill himself to wake up and find her.
Cobb: If this is my dream, why can’t I control this?
Mal: Because you don’t know you’re dreaming!
So Cobb and Mal ended up in Limbo in nested dreams. Hers was the second dream, the one that lasted 50 years in Limbo. His was the dream they woke to when the train hit them. She senses its unreality and eventually kills herself to get back to the real world. He is still trapped in that dream, unable to see it for what it is.
Mal tells him what to do: “You know how to find me. You know what you have to do.” We hear this line from Mal again when Aiadne eavesdrops on Cobb’s dream from the elevator. It is a secret buried deeper than any other in his psyche. And these dreams Cobb has of his wife and family? They aren’t really dreams. They are his memories. Memory is also the central concern in Memento, another Christopher Nolan movie.
Cobb plants this idea (“Your world is not real”) by finding Mal’s totem, the top, and fixing it so it does not stop spinning. This is the intersection of Inception and Memento. In both movies, the main character has a method, a system, which they rely on completely despite clear evidence that they are aware of that it is flawed. In Memento, Leonard's system of keeping track of what has happened in the past (what is real and what is not – sound familiar?) not only fails him, but he points out to us that everyone has memory slips (“Cars change color”). (See my essay on Memento for more on this.)
In Inception, Cobb knows ideas can be planted in the mind, and that totems can be “reprogrammed,” yet he relies again and again on his top to tell him what is real and what is a dream. What if you are in your own dream – does the totem work? Presumably not, because the dreamer can simply will their own top to stop spinning and fall over. Why does the top keep spinning at the end of the movie? Because Cobb has walked away and stopped affecting it.
Interestingly, the heart of problem for both of them – where all that guilt comes from – is a (presumed) dead wife who they cannot let go of and cannot stop remembering, even if their memories are so deeply flawed and warped that they actually remember the opposite of what actually happened.
This addresses the first of my initial questions. I am of the opinion that the entire movie is Cobb’s dream. But what does this have to do with my second question about casting?
Cobb’s team is an odd lot. They are not diverse in the way these kind of Mission Impossible teams usually are. There is no old veteran; instead they all seem to be about the same age, all seem about Cobb’s age or younger. Although Yusuf is Middle-Eastern, they seem oddly mono-chromatic (ok, I’ll just say it: white) by current movie standards. Even their builds are similar – there is no big, muscular guy, or tall beautiful ingénue, or overweight comedic relief. Why?
The team looks they way it does because they are all aspects of Cobb, variations of him, inhabiting only his dream world. Aiadne is his feminine, creative side; hence, she needs to be smaller than Cobb to emphasize her nature – almost ethereal. Arthur is Cobb’s practical, literally button-down, aspect (does he always wear a three-piece suit?), so he, too, needs to be slighter of build than Cobb. Eames is more imaginative and more comfortable with uncertainty than Arthur, but mostly he’s more physical, so he is the biggest, most muscular of the group (but not much bigger than Cobb). The “exotic” Yusuf is the dream-maker, a cliché if there ever was one.
Casting Ellen Page as Aiadne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, and the other team-members, may have struck me unusual choices based on their appearances, but I think this is one more arrow pointing us to the dream nature of the movie’s “reality.”
Lastly, I will note that all four of Cobb’s teammates, Aiadne, Arthur, Eames, and Yusuf, have names that begin with vowels, two of them with double vowels and one with three. Perhaps this too alludes to their non-reality – names that don’t begin with hard, “real” consonants (like Cobb), but instead with soft, not-quite-there vowels.