The 2010 Christopher Nolan film Inception is a science-fiction heist film in which Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) must lead a specialized team of extractors into the dream world of a business heir (Cillian Murphy), in order to insert (or “incept”) an idea into his brain for their employer, a rival businessman (Ken Watanabe). Over the course of the film, the line between dreams and reality is explored, often through various communication techniques and concepts between the characters and within their own minds. In this paper, the use of subjective self-awareness, failure events, and turning points in Inception will be explored.
In the world of Inception, subjective self-awareness takes on a whole new meaning. In a normal context, the term refers to being able to separate yourself from the environment you find yourself in. For Cobb and his team, as well as anyone who inhabits these structured dreamworlds, managing a level of subjective self-awareness is key. Otherwise, one can get lost in a dream to the level where they do not realize it is a dream anymore, and end up in limbo. In limbo (dream space without a set structure), the world is inhabited by random, seductive thoughts from one’s past, and there is little to no way out; your mind goes mad as it spends a nearly infinite time there.
In order to avoid that, one must be completely aware of who and where they are. If one has a low sense of subjective self-awareness, they can often be caught between worlds, wondering whether or not their environment is real or a dream. This is why Cobb and co. carry totems around; these are totally unique items that they create themselves, which no one can replicate. When they use this totem, they can tell whether or not it is behaving the way it should in reality; if not, it is a dream. One of the most important images in this film is Cobb’s totem, the top that used to belong to his dead wife, Mal. His subjective self-awareness tells him that, if he spins the top, it should keep spinning in a dream, but fall over in reality.
When two people have an understanding which is violated, this causes a failure event. Inception is full of these failure events, particularly revolving around the character of Cobb. Many times throughout the course of the film, and the various jobs he performs with his team, he has failure events with them where he will leave out a vital piece of information that raises the stakes. Often, he will do this to keep them from worry about something he feels will not happen. For example, he does not tell the team that Yusuf’s sedative makes it possible to be sent into infinite Limbo when killed in this dream (normally, a person wakes up).
This failure to communicate comes from his assumption that the job would be a cakewalk; the situation only presents a danger when it is revealed that Fischer’s projections (fake people that occupy a dream) have been trained to fight back against unwelcome presences – namely, the team. Like many failure events, this causes a rift in the team, where Cobb accuses Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of not performing enough research to learn about the trained projections, which is another failure event. The understandings being violated in these instances are that Fischer was not trained against extraction, and that they would have an easy out from the dream (i.e. killing themselves) if they ran into trouble. With these failure events, the team is stuck in a situation wherein they have to fight their way through and complete the mission, or else be stuck in limbo.
For a movie about deception, failure events occur regularly throughout the film. Ariadne (Ellen Page) slowly learns about Cobbs’ growing problem with the projection of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and how he has not told anyone that she could sabotage the mission, like she has several others in the past. In this budding relationship of therapist/patient between Ariadne and Cobb, Cobb continually holds out on various aspects of Mal’s relationship to her. First, he reveals the presence of the Mal projection; then, he reveals that he cannot control her. After that, he talks about how she killed herself, gradually revealing that they had both gone to Limbo and lived a whole life there, but Cobb incepted the idea of the unreality of Limbo in her mind, in order to get her to kill herself and wake up with him.
However, the idea stuck once they came back to reality, leading her to kill herself. His guilt over Mal’s suicide leads to the projection that he fears could undermine the whole operation, and he does not communicate this to anyone until after the job starts, and even then only to Ariadne. The entire film is about failure events; Cobb deceives Mal, deceives the team, even deceives his children about whether or not he is coming home (he has been living in Paris since being accused of murdering Mal; the Fischer job is his means of seeing his children again).
A turning point is an event which inexorably changes a relationship between two people. There are many significant turning points over the course of Inception, between many of the main characters. The stories of Cobb and Fischer are somewhat parallel; they have strained relationships and unresolved issues with someone close to them (in Cobb’s case, it is Mal; for Fischer, it is his father (Pete Postlethwaite)). The turning point for both characters come at the same time; at the climax of the film, Cobb finally comes to terms with Mal’s role in his life.
For years after she killed herself, Cobb has not been able to let go of her memory; however, that memory is tainted with guilt at his indirect responsibility for her death. As a result, she continually eats away at him and attempts to engulf him. The only way he can defeat her is by reconciling what he did, and deciding to move on with his life for the sake of the children he is desperate to see again. This releases him from Mal’s influence, and he can shift that affection and attention to his children.
Fischer’s turning point is artificially constructed, so some would say that it is a hollow revelation; however, the positive benefits that come of it are no less potent. The goal of the inception is to plant the idea to split up his father’s empire; the way they do so is by introducing the idea that Fischer’s father wanted him to be his own man and embrace his destiny. Before that point, Fischer and his father were not close at all; the work likely put them at a distance, so they didn’t know each other very well. However, in the climactic scene, the team constructs a hospital room in the deepest layer of the dream, where he finds his father on his deathbed.
Inside the safe next to the bed, Fischer finds a pinwheel (a reminder of his childhood dreams and happier times with his father), and a will that grants Fischer the right to split up the empire. This turning point with his father helps him to believe that his father loved him after all, and only wanted him to make his own way in life. Afterwards, Fischer confesses to his Uncle Browning (Tom Berenger) that he is going to forge ahead, and not stand in his father’s shadow.
Perhaps the most subtle, but most powerful, turning point in Inception comes at the film’s ambiguous end. Having seemingly gotten back to America scot-free after a successful inception, Cobb finally sees his children again, just as he had left them. He spins Mal’s top on the table (which he always does, to make sure he is not dreaming), but runs off to hug his children before seeing whether or not it falls. In fact, the audience does not even know, because the film cuts to black before it has a chance to fall, leaving his status as dreaming or awake still ambiguous. However, the turning point is that Cobb no longer cares whether or not he is dreaming, only that he is with his children again.
Before, he was always desperate to know whether or not he was in reality, and his quest for the real is what got Mal killed. After this turning point, he decides to embrace whatever reality has him reunited with his children.
In conclusion, the film Inception carries a lot of heady ideas, carried forward by communication between the characters, and within the characters themselves. Turning points are used to show character growth and catharsis. Subjective self-awareness is personified in the perpetual search for what is real and what is a dream, and failure events stem from failures of communication that land the team in much bigger stakes than they had signed up for. All in all, the ideas of the film, combined with the communication concepts found within, make it a very exciting and thought-provoking experience.