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The Ultimate “Is Inception a Dream?” Theory

And it has nothing to do with a spinning top

Credit: Warner Bros.

With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opening this weekend, the internet has been reflecting on his filmography. This gives me a great opportunity to present my answer to Inception’s widely debated question: “What’s a dream and what’s real?” After you read this theory, you won’t need any others.

What follows involves major spoilers. If you haven’t seen Inception, and don’t want to know what happens until you do, go watch and come back in a few hours. As for the rest of you…

It’s all Cobb’s dream. The entire movie, start to finish. Besides maybe some flashbacks, there’s nothing we see that isn’t happening inside Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s head. And since the flashbacks are his memories, in some sense the whole movie’s in his head.

I can prove this, all without referencing Cobb’s spinning top totem, by borrowing an idea from philosophy called heuristics. (Okay, fine, I can “prove” it using persuasive logic — I don’t have a quote from the filmmakers revealing the true meaning. That would make for a much shorter article).

A heuristic is a method of solving a problem, basically a rule-of-thumb. In philosophy, it refers to assumptions readers make about the author’s intended meaning, which colors the overall interpretation.

If you notice a contradiction, is it a mistake? Or is it intentional, a deliberate signal to astute readers that reveals the author’s true meaning?

There’s no way to know for sure. At some point readers have to choose. And with philosophy — or art — whatever heuristic you chose shapes how you understand the rest of the work.

The classic example is Plato’s Republic: how seriously are we supposed to take Socrates’ recommendations? Some say we should take them literally, in which case Plato advocates collective child-rearing, with biological parents and children prevented from knowing each other to facilitate a true meritocracy. Others say the Republic is a satire, and Plato gave his characters ridiculous arguments to illustrate the folly of trying to create the perfect city. Still others argue the Republic is really a secret manual for would-be philosopher kings, separating those who get it from those who don’t, and showing the former a path to power.

Another good example from political theory is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Under one interpretation, it’s a serious political manifesto, and Machiavelli genuinely believes it’s better for rulers to be feared than loved. Under another, it’s an act of revenge, a carefully disguised sabotage designed to trick the Medicis — who jailed and tortured Machiavelli when they ruled Florence — into acting like tyrants and provoking rebellion.

Scholars will never stop debating these interpretations, because there’s no clear answer in the text, and the authors aren’t around to answer questions. But the heuristics are mutually exclusive, and whichever you choose shapes what the arguments mean.

What’s Your Inception Heuristic?

The basic question for interpreting Inception is this: do you give writer/director Christopher Nolan the benefit of the doubt? I say yes. His movies all seem well thought out, and I choose to believe that the guy who made Memento and The Prestige thought carefully when making Inception. That means any major contradictions are signals rather than errors.

And there’s a whopping contradiction running throughout the movie. It’s so big, many viewers don’t even notice it.

I’m talking about Mal (Cobb’s wife, played by Marion Cotillard):

Characters lay out the rules of who exists in dreams multiple times. There’s the dreamer, who creates the dream space; the subject, or target, who populates the dream with subconscious projections; and the other sleepers, who join in. For example, in the James Bondish snowy mountain fortress, Eames (Tom Hardy) is the dreamer, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is the subject, and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Paige) are the other sleepers. Everyone else in the dream, such as the henchmen protecting the fortress, are created by Fischer’s subconscious.

So what’s Mal doing there?

Mal appears in various dreams throughout the movie, including the mountain fortress, despite not being real. Cobb says she’s a projection of his subconscious, but then how does she appear when Cobb is not the dreamer or the subject? Why don’t some of the other sleepers project a character into other people’s dreams? Are we to believe Cobb’s the only one with baggage?

Maybe this is a monumental screw up, and dreams are really populated by the dreamer, the subject, the other sleepers, projections of the subject’s subconscious, and also one projection of one sleeper’s subconscious (but only that one sleeper, not anyone else, because his subconscious is super-intense). If not, then Mal’s appearances reveal Cobb is the subject throughout the movie. Though the characters go into dreams-within-dreams, the top dream is Cobb’s. He’s the subject, populating his dreams with various characters out of his subconscious, most prominently Mal.

Inception presents the rules of dreams as straightforward exposition. They’re never contradicted or even doubted by anyone in the movie. If it turned out the dreaming experts’ understanding of dreams was wrong all along, Nolan probably would have included that in the script. It would have made for a good twist.

Interpreting the Rest of the Movie

Accepting my heuristic means it’s all a dream. Some viewers probably find that unsatisfying, as if it renders the whole movie meaningless. But I think it makes it even cooler.

The plot is even more messed up than it appears. As the flashbacks show, Cobb and Mal spent years going deeper and deeper into dreams-within-dreams together, eventually reaching Limbo, a dream reality they can construct at will. When they leave Limbo, they wake from successive dreams, reaching a level Cobb believes is reality but Mal insists is still a dream. She becomes so convinced they’re still in a dream that she kills herself, which will wake her up. This crushes Cobb, who believes Mal committed suicide.

Even worse, he thinks it’s his fault. When they were in Limbo together, Mal never wanted to leave. Deciding they had to return to reality, Cobb incepts her, planting the idea in her subconscious that her “reality” isn’t real. After he does this, she agrees to leave Limbo. But when back in reality — or what Cobb thinks is reality — she has a nagging sense that it’s still a dream, which Cobb blames on the inception.

But if the whole movie is Cobb’s dream, then Mal was right. She’s not actually dead, she just woke up. He’s still dreaming.

Rather than invalidating the whole plot, this adds an extra layer of pathos. It also creates fascinating parallels between dreams and memories, both of which exit in our heads. In some sense, memories are real and dreams aren’t. But memory can be unreliable, and dreams use real experiences as inputs. And both dreams and memories, whether real or not, shape who we really are.

Other Signals That it’s All a Dream

1 — Ariadne’s Name

The name of Ellen Paige’s character Ariadne stands out, and not just in that cool-but-fake-sounding Hollywood way, as if a screenwriter dreamed it up. It’s too particular to be accidental.

Ariadne is a character from Greek mythology who helped Theseus escape the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. She fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread, which guides him through the maze. In Inception, Ariadne guides Cobb through the giant dead-wife-dream-labyrinth he’s constructed. Nolan’s choice for the character’s name isn’t exactly subtle.

In case it wasn’t clear enough, there’s this little piece of dialogue:

Ariadne: You might have the rest of the team convinced to carry on with this job, but they don’t know the truth.

Cobb: Truth? What truth?

Ariadne: The truth that at any minute, you might bring a freight train through the wall. The truth that Mal is bursting through your subconscious. And the truth that as we go deeper into Fischer, we’re also going deeper into you.

Based on the rules of dreaming Nolan lays out, Ariadne is describing Fischer’s dream as existing within Cobb’s. Only the subject could bring a freight train through a wall, or make a manifestation of his subconscious appear.

This is partially foreshadowing, because Fischer later brings a freight train onto a city street and makes manifestations of his subconscious appear when he’s the subject. But it’s also a clue, because we are, in fact, going deeper into Cobb.

2 — Limbo

Stories that take place inside dreams often explain it as entering a separate realm; an alternative reality where everyone’s dreams exist together. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the main character is Lord of the “Dreaming” (and also the personification of it). In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, there’s the “World of Dreams,” a reflection of the real world populated by everyone who’s dreaming (plus some characters who can enter it at will).

But that’s not how Inception works. Cobb and his team don’t enter a world of dreams, they enter a specific person’s dream. As such, Limbo is the deepest level of dreaming, described in the movie as “unconstructed dream space” and “pure subconscious.” When Cobb and Mal dream together, they can shape their Limbo however they like.

Cobb, Ariadne and Fischer delve into Fischer’s mind and, later in the movie, all end up in Limbo. But it’s not an unconstructed dream space. Things Cobb and Mal built are still there.

If Inception were like Sandman or the Wheel of Time, this would make sense as a shared dream space. But under Inception’s rules, seeing Cobb’s creations means we’re in Cobb’s Limbo.

3 — The Top

Cobb spins it at the end, but the audience never sees it fall. The spin decays, which indicates it will fall, but there’s no reason the laws of physics apply to dreams, and it could wobble forever.

I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t bring up the top. It’s more a misdirection than a reveal. Nolan ends the movie with the spin decaying, cutting to black before it falls, which leaves the audience thinking about that part, instead of the clues he left throughout the movie.

But I mention it because seeing the top fall would contradict my theory, and it doesn’t.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter. As Nolan confirmed, the relevant thing is that Cobb doesn’t bother waiting to see if the top falls over. After hashing it out with Mal and seeing his children again he’s happy, so he doesn’t care.

In that sense, Ariadne did her job and successfully helped him escape the maze he’d been trapped in for years. It wasn’t the dreams. It was his paralyzing guilt.

BONUS: if you’re curious, here’s my ranking of Nolan’s films:

  1. Memento
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. The Prestige
  4. Batman Begins
  5. Inception
  6. The Dark Knight Rises
  7. Insomnia
  8. Interstellar

I’ve never seen Following, so I can’t rank it.

Insomnia I remember as well done and unsettling, but it didn’t stick with me and I’ve never wanted to watch it again, unlike all the others.

The biggest drop-offs are between 3 & 4 and between 5 & 6. Think of 1–3 as great, 4–5 as good, and 6 as a movie I liked because I like Batman, especially Nolan’s Batman, but it has some problems.

Interstellar was often gorgeous, and had some cool moments — Time dilation! Unique robot designs! Matt Damon! — but I found the last half hour so egregiously stupid that it undermined the rest of the film, dropping it to last.




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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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