Home » Uncategorized » Incepting the cinema of Christopher Nolan

Incepting the cinema of Christopher Nolan

It’s that time again. A new Christopher Nolan movie is upon us. He’s among my absolute favorite directors working today so I thought I’d take a look at him as artist, his influences, and his own filmography. Particularly I aim to look at what I consider the most important film in his filmography from a personal, technical and artistic standpoint. He’s one of 4 or 5 directors that I obsess over.

So what I’ve decided is that this post will include the most important aspects of Nolan as an auteur as well an analysis of Inception.

Nolan’s movies, especially Memento, The Prestige, and Inception are almost review proof because they’re so dense. When they end you aren’t even sure what you just experienced because of Nolan’s narrative layering. It’s essential to go back and watch them again to get past the genre aspects that are sometimes overly prominent. I truly think he is the most visionary director alive in terms of narrative structure, editing, ambition and world building. He puts unimaginable ideas, concepts and images on the screen and literalizes them. Beyond the surface narrative they take 2 or even 3 viewings to get a handle on all the subtext and what the film is actually about. Hitchcock said don’t tell the audience, show them. Well, Christopher Nolan doesn’t tell or show the audience (the exposition clan is wrong), he says “experience” and this is precisely how he builds his films.

I’ve broken this up into sections so check out whatever you like, but I’d recommend reading it all.

Of course there are SPOILERS for Inception and other famous films that I’m sure you’ve seen. It gets pretty confusing, but just stay with me.


In analyzing Inception first we’ll look at Nolan as an individual, his inspirations, and then connect himself to his art. I guess I’ll also mention why I enjoy his films so much. I’d describe Christopher Nolan as an introverted existentialist. He’s chosen to express himself through film-making. Writer/directors that deeply connect themselves with their art have that extra edge and personality to their films for me that you can get lost in. On a personal level I connect immensely with all of his protagonists and the stories he tells. His hugely personal films (Memento, The Prestige, Inception) are absolutely revolutionary and impressive in what they’re doing with narrative structure, perception, solipsism and how they explore their ideas. If you’re wondering, yes, I think those are his best 3 with The Dark Knight lingering around there as well.

Memento is the most precise and clean exploration of memories, lies, and subversion of reality. The Prestige is the key to Nolan’s films, his most personal, why he makes them, and the one that makes all of them richer. The Dark Knight is a synthesis of myths melded with comic book legend into a modern exploration of post 9/11 America. However, I consider Inception to be his opus so far, or at least the one that puts all of those other film’s best elements together.

Inception is the film that is the key to Nolan himself as a filmmaker and person. For rhythm, composition, structure, and story it’s top tier cinema and a modern masterpiece. I’ll get into why I consider Inception his greatest accomplishment, but for now just consider how great a feat it is that audiences flocked to theaters to see a big, bold, and visionary blockbuster. Not since The Lord of the Rings had we seen this. And not since Spielberg’s 70’s/80’s films +JP/The Matrix have such grand and artful original stories been put on screen.

Nolan takes abstract, mind-blowing ideas of Borgesian descent and grounds them in familiar genres or narratives. Usually they’re paradoxical and at their very core they’re about the battle of logic and emotionality. This clash is the very essence of a Nolan film. His films are always about a single idea, which he explores from every angle he can with every film-making tool available. The idea is layered deep into the film until it’s nearly impossible to trace. Sound familiar? I actually think he’s extremely similar to David Lynch (my all time fave), but Nolan takes the more logical material route rather than cinematically abstract. Take a look at his short film Doodlebug. It’s quite abstract, and he explores this same idea as well similar ones in the film noir, superhero, and Sci-Fi thriller genres.


The most important films to look at when understanding his film making are Blade Runner, Chinatown, Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Blade Runner deals with memories, and perceptions of those memories, while simultaneously questioning if they’re even our own. That movie lays out it’s rules and shows us an entire world. Never do we feel like we’re close to the end of it. Rick Deckard spends the entire film possibly living a lie and going on an odyssey that slowly peals back the layers of himself until a moment of understanding that still leaves us feeling like we’ve missed something. This is the exact journey of Nolan’s characters, and really, his films are sorta remakes of Blade Runner. Star Wars? Well, it’s the poster child for pop art and world building.

Chinatown shows us a classic noir character that heads into a web of conspiracies. By the end the hero is at the center and the corruption has corroded the formal and narrative elements of the film. The lies Jake Gittes told himself as well as the lies corroding the city lead to a post-Vietnam world that’s overwhelmingly crooked and beyond saving. Both of those films use location/world building and architecture hugely to affect the protagonist and the themes of the film. The city/world is a character. They also both explore how through lies we can see an even bigger truth, an always present and ruling aspect of his movies.

Vertigo from a character and sub textual standpoint is the biggest influence on Inception because it had Hitchcock confronting his own art. Architecture and the formal elements are massively important to Inception. The characters in Inception are creators and architects which is similar to that of a filmmaker, but I’ll get into that later. The overpowering motif of Vertigo is people falling to symbolize Scotty’s descent into that spiral void. Inception does this as well with loads of characters falling down corridors or off buildings to visually show the descent of Cobb falling deeper and deeper into his own mind.

2001 is THE subjective experience and Nolan is hugely interested in creating subjective experiences in his films. Part of the wonder is not understanding what 2001 means. That itself is the beauty of it. The question is infinitely more wondrous than the answer and that’s what Nolan is almost always aiming for even if he sometimes gets in the way of this goal with his materialistic worldview.

Inception on one level is Nolan’s own movie dream full of his inspirations, all of which I just mentioned. The film opens similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark with the protagonist stealing an artifact and then escaping. Both Indy and Cobb then return to a college and pick up their side kick. Those would be Ariadne for Cobb and Marion for Indy. THEN both Indy and Cobb travel to a west african country to pick up another side kick (Sallah and Eames). Of course they then head off on their adventures to faraway lands and both villains are french…

If we’re keeping score, Spielberg wins this type of set up for his brevity and pacing. Having Kasdan’s script also helps though. Nolan’s set up runs 10 minutes too long, but that’s a separate discussion.

The first dream layer has a blue color palate and aesthetic that’s straight out of Heat. The second dream level has the revolving corridors exactly like in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Heat‘s third act. The third dream is clearly reminiscent of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Cobb is a Bond like character. Mal even makes note of how silly Cobb’s life is by roughly comparing it to a Bond movie! The room that Fischer finds his father in is reminiscent of Dave Bowman in the alien hotel at the end of 2001. The ending of Inception recalls the ending of Blade Runner. It doesn’t matter whether Deckard is a replicant or not. The question and his final contentment is where the actual depth and beauty of it lies. So what do all of these movie connections and references mean? Nolan dreams about movies and they constantly seep into his films and Inception is a film about itself, just like the film’s motif of mirrors and objects reflecting back into each other.

  • Those are all aesthetic, dramaturgical and visual elements. Inception also offers us the most distilled version of Nolan’s visceral and poetic qualities, which are vastly overlooked in modern critical discussion.

David Lean, Nicolas Roeg and Terrence Malick are the single biggest influences on him in terms of style. Lean created giant films that were devastatingly intimate and turned small moments into gigantic, universal ones. Malick has a quiet, but bold and spiritually haunting presence throughout his films and this can be found in Nolan’s lost female loves, use of lighting, and specifically his use of quick editing for memories. Roeg didn’t give a fuck about filmmaking “rules” and he pioneered editing techniques, none of which were more masterful than in Don’t Look Now, a film that parallels to Inception quite beautifully.

Thematically Nolan’s work explores existential, moral and epistemological (The unknowable) ideas as well as subjective experiences, perceptions, distorted memories, regret, guilt, time, and identity. Solipsism is the major aspect of his films. His heroes are all noirish, broken characters that face existential/moral obstacles and find themselves in a labyrinth of dense plotting usually that they themselves helped create. They constantly try to rationalize their world and struggle with understanding the unknowable. They push themselves through the mechanics and gears of their worlds to search for truth, a truth that may not even exist. It’s quite similar to a director being stuck in his own mind during a film*hint *hint

He’s never actually explored family. Only the lonely protagonist trying to return to his family and that’s precisely what his films so far have been about. He uses the thriller genre because it’s the only genre in which the moving of the plot is directly linked to the characters growth.


Dreams and Memories:

Before we plunge into the film we should be clear on how the mind works with memories. Memory is a vital role in the human experience, because it is what we (think we) are. What you think is yourself, or your identity is actually just loads of information put together linearly (through time) by the brain: experiences, pain, pleasure, conditioning, likes/dislikes, learning etc. Time in our minds is an illusion or relative. The voice in our heads is always using memory and perception in order to make sense of our reality. This is one of the central ideas at play in Inception.

Memories play an important part in our dreams and who better to talk about that than Nolan himself, who discusses this on the Blu-ray Special Features disc in the “Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious” documentary.

  • “It’s clear to me that the dream is an experience of the mind but it’s not possible to dismiss an experience of the mind as unreal. When you dream or when you imagine things, there’s reality to that. If you’re dreaming about your relationship with a person – the emotions of the experience are real – they’re as real as the emotions experienced in the real world. There’s no more proof for these things in the real world than there are in the state of the mind – that is where emotion takes place.”
  • “That’s one of the benefits of dreaming, it allows us to experience positive things as well as negative things.”
  • “If you can conceive of something, you can perceive it, or experience it within the mind, then at some level it exists.”
  • “To me, the creation of a world, on a subconscious level – that you’re able to experience as reality – that speaks volumes of the potential of the human mind.”
  • “For me, one of the key components of dreaming is that you don’t feel yourself enter into the dream in any conscious way – you find yourself in the middle of an environment – and then as the experience ends, you become aware of where you are above the dream.”

Inception in Dreaming and Filmmaking:

We follow Cobb through a labyrinth as he faces an existential crisis in his mind. All of this is hidden in a heist plot! It’s the perfect structure for Nolan to paint this picture of the mind. The structure of Nolan’s more personal non-Batman works (Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception) are puzzle structures. They are spirals that descend us deeper and deeper into the story which eventually opens up a Pandora’s box of questions. Nolan crafts his worlds like a great architect who builds cathedrals. Every element of his films are specifically chosen to fulfill a single goal. In Inception the central idea at play is “if dreams and films can illicit emotions and connections, are they real?”


So to cut to the chase, Cobb is Nolan and everyone in the film is part of Cobb/Nolan’s mind. It’s common for auteurs to use the protagonist as an avatar for themselves. Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini and Tarantino are great examples of this. Leonardo Dicaprio even looks like the movie star version of Nolan! Nolan is well known for always wearing a suit while directing. What does Cobb wear during nearly all of the film??? A suit! Dicaprio has also said that he based Cobb off of Nolan himself. Every single one of Nolan’s films is about some form of himself. The Prestige is a film about magicians (filmmakers) that double as every side of Nolan as an artist. The consummate professionalist dedicated to craft and the showman who disguises his trick with spectacle. His story is one about men struggling with professionalism, obsession and his own emotionality which compromises his work. Like a Malick film there’s a battle between two ideologies. His characters tread through psychological and philosophical prisons. Their goal is to transcend the world’s cold and miserable reality into something beyond it. The constant search for objective truth through a subjective reality among riddles and deception is the quest for a Nolan protagonist.

Inception, the film that epitomizes Nolan’s filmmaking process and himself as an artist inside the studio system, uses layers of dreams like Nolan’s filmmaking. He layers them to the point of pure deception when the explanation or “answer” is often quite simple. He demands to go deeper and deeper into the audience’s mind. If you were to view Inception from above it would like a maze. In greek mythology Ariadne helps Theseus (Cobb here) out of a maze. Ariadne draws Cobb an unsolvable maze at one point, and Cobb doesn’t even realize it (HINT HINT!). Ahh and in the Mombasa scene we are given an aerial shot, which looks like a maze! Shortly after that shot Cobb tries to fit through walls that almost look like they’re closing in on him. Saito comes out of nowhere to save him. This could only happen in two places: movies or dreams! This is the point of having the dreams feel so real. Because in a film or a dream it DOES feel real to us. We aren’t aware of the abstract. But Nolan’s point here is that cinema, even his rational cinema, is surreal by its very nature.

On one level Nolan is showing us the similarities between dreams and movies, which is a very freudian idea, and I would argue all of Nolan’s films are very much like personal dreams in which the surface plot is rather unimportant. Note how the team uses the song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I regret Nothing) to signal the team to wake up. That BRAAAHMMM BRAAAAHHMMM soundtrack  composer Hans Zimmer used? That’s Non, Je Ne, Regrette Rien slowed down. It becomes slower as they go deeper into the dreams. As the movie goes on the song becomes less recognizable and we forget it’s original sound. What’s really cool is that it plays over the ending credits signaling to the audience to wake up!!!!! (I’ll get into this meta stuff later) Also of note is that the song is by Edith Piaf, who was played by Marion Cotillard (Mal) in La Vie en Rose, in what may be the best female performance of the century.

While Ariadne builds the bridge in the dream, she tells Cobb that it’s one she uses all the time in real life. Cobb becomes distressed and tells her only to create new memories. You can’t build things from memory because it’s the easiest way to lose your distinction between reality and fantasy.

Let’s take a look at what this means from Nolan’s perspective. Take Cobb saying you can only use original ideas instead of copying them from memories or real, but now he’s saying it to a screenwriter. In writing and constructing films, emotional and personal interference can ruin the work and the writer loses grip of what the story is. Herein lies a primary aspect of Nolan’s film and his protagonists:

The constant struggle between professionalism and their emotionalism. Quite literally this is Nolan’s problem as a filmmaker as well. Here’s a guy who just made the most successful blockbuster of all time in The Dark Knight, and now he has the keys to the castle and can literally shape the modern blockbuster. Inception becomes, on one level, a story about Nolan himself trying to reconcile with this.

Of Nolan’s films, Todd McGowan (Nolan/Lynch expert and one of the best film theorists around) says “They show us how truth must emerge out of the lie if it is not to lead us entirely astray.” McGowan further argues that Nolan is the “first filmmaker to devote himself entirely to the illusion of the medium.” Nolan’s films are connected at the deepest of levels in limbo. He’s one of very few directors that have devoted themselves so deeply to their art. And like Borden in The Prestige, he won’t reveal his secrets, but we can find them in his films.

Performing Inception:

The way the film works is that it’s performing Inception on Robert Fischer, as Cobb is being performed Inception upon (by whom depends on your theory, could be his father, Mal or himself) and the audience as well. For Fischer they forced him to yell out the first numbers that popped into his head, and in making them appear through all the dream levels, they reverberate throughout the dreams, so when he reaches the vault and then the safe, he knew what the numbers were in what he thinks is Brownings dream. He fooled himself and in doing so was led to catharsis. Inception then becomes a process of falling victim to a lie that leads us to a deeper truth. A truth that is only possible through being fooled.

As a story Inception is about a man who obsesses over being in complete control of himself and his job. Cobb wants to bury his regret, but he ends up obsessing over it and ultimately it compromises his art. For Nolan, emotionality compromises his characters objectives. Count ’em. Cobb’s journey is one of learning to confront his problems rather than obsessing over its abolishment. He has to overcome obstacles and challenges in this odyssey, all to plant one simple idea. One little idea that will create one simple decision, a decision that is the one and only key to all of the characters getting home. This is a journey towards fooling (for the mark’s own good) this man into walking away from the truth into deception and it’s all for understanding the deeper truths.

The truth comes out of lies and deception in all of Nolan’s films. Cobb’s catharsis is paralleled with Fischer’s. The entire film is a representation of the mind working out its problems. When Cobb is talking to other characters he is actually talking to himself which is precisely how dreams work as well as movies. A screenplay is a writer using different characters in a story to express or explore an idea. It is Inception.

Nolan blends meta-filmmaking, a heist story, Jungian archetypes, and a personal statement of his own art together IN A BLOCKBUSTER. IN A BLOCKBUSTER.

Characters as Filmmakers and Jungian Archetypes:

Now let’s take a look at the characters in the film and what they represent.

I”ve done a bit research over time on Carl Jung (psych class baby!), and I’ve always wanted to apply the ideas to Inception. I knew the characters represented parts of Cobb’s mind, but I couldn’t quite put them into distinct ideas. I was doing research, but then I came across a post on Cinemablend by Rich Knight that’s exactly what I was researching. It’s more in depth than I could’ve written for you, so credit to him. I’ve paraphrased it in this post and added my own insight. You can find the original piece here http://www.cinemablend.com/new/What-If-Inception-Were-Analyzed-By-Dream-Experts-19638.html.

I’ve also pointed out the character’s job as a filmmaker among Cobb/Nolan’s team.

The entire film is Dom Cobb’s/Chris Nolan’s dream and all of the main characters in it are different parts of himself that had to concoct an elaborate heist/film so he could reach catharsis within himself. Nolan is marrying the mind with movies seamlessly. The parts of the team are all pretty much one dimensional characters (though acted brilliantly), and this has been a critisicism of them. but there’s a reason they are like that. They’re all their just to help Cobb confront himself because they ARE himself. To dismiss this is to misunderstand the film. Nolan gives them just enough personality to differentiate them. They even fit into archetypal heist roles. Ocean’s 11 baby! This subtext and meta element of filmaking is why the criticisms of exposition don’t have any merit for me. While being visually engrossing they’re also an exchange between the mind AND the process of filmmaking.

Simultaneously the filmconstantly explores Nolan’s filmmaking with the human mind. When the mission was completed, he was able to confront his demons and he was granted the ability to finally see his children’s faces because his guilt had finally been resolved among all of his mind’s archetypes. One could imagine Nolan coming home and then doing the exact same thing.

Enter the labyrinth and odyssey of Inception and the characters. Let’s take a look at them.


  • Mal/The Shade as The Shadow Archetype

One of Jung’s most prominent archetypes is the shadow, which is the darker side of oneself projected into an entity. This archetype can be represented as many different figures, from people to animals that might have haunted you. The shadow archetype represents the worst parts of ourselves and the evil that lurks within us. Mal is the evil that lurks within Dom. (Mal in Latin means evil).

As we know, Mal is already dead by the first time we see her in Saito’s dream. She killed herself after she thought that limbo was still reality and that the world she lived in was all a lie. She only thinks this because Dom Cobb performed Inception on her and he feels that he is the cause of her death, so his dark side is manifested in Mal, who might as well just be a literal shadow because she follows him everywhere. She affects the rest of Cobb’s archetypes as well. Perhaps, she is his own projection that is guarding his mind from being incepted.

Filmmaking Parallel: She represents Nolan’s primary female character and his own fears. His typical female character is killed off and haunts the protagonist with guilt and regret, which of curse happens here to Cobb. Literally! As I said, this is Nolan’s ultimate film so we get the ultimate female antagonist/femme fatale. Mal is one of film noir’s best ever. She is Cobb/Nolan’s innermost fears sneaking into his art. A darkness that is just a projection of his mind. His biggest fear is losing control of his art and himself, but he also finds it necessary to put himself into these giant films. There’s also the similarities between her and Nolan’s own wife AND producer Emma Thomas. He clearly feels guilt for going off to make these films.


  • Arthur/The Point Man as The Hero Archetype

Arthur is a badass. He takes on an onslaught of bad guys in a constantly shifting hallway so his friends can enter into a deeper dream state. He runs the risk of being “killed” and sent to limbo in a heavily sedated state.

Arthur is everything Dom wishes he could be but can’t because he has so many ghosts following him around. Arthur gets to kiss the girl, save the day (Notice that he’s one of the first ones to wake up in the submerged car and pull the others to safety), and doesn’t fail in his mission to lead the bad guys away from his friends. While Dom, on the other hand, fails in every way, even allowing his shadow/Mal to “kill” Fischer Jr. from behind, which compromises the entire mission. Arthur is who Cobb wishes he was.

Filmmaking Parallel: Producer. He orchestrates the operation and works closely with Cobb to help perform Inception (make a movie!).


  • Saito/The Tourist as the Father Archetype

The father archetype is a very strong figure in the human psyche, as it’s one that gets what it wants and has a great deal of control in the person he inhabits. That’s what Saito is. He can overturn the law so that Dom can return to America. Saito gets whatever he wants. Is it any wonder why he gets shot so early in the mission? Cobb/Nolan doesn’t want a studio head (controlling figure) messing with his mission/art. Dom can’t deal with an authoritative figure like that right now in himself, as he has his own problems to deal with. If anything, he needs a strongly based mother archetype, one who will take care of him and not demand too much out of him. Unfortunately, there isn’t one to be found in this movie.

Filmmaking Parallel: Executive Producer/Studio Head. Saito puts up the money for the mission after testing Cobb with a smaller mission. Much like a studio head giving a director a smaller project before letting them make a big personal piece of art, like Inception.


  • Eames/The Forger as The Trickster Archetype

The Trickster Archetype is deceptive and shady, and Eames is the shadiest of them all. Working as a forger in reality and as a shape shifter in the dream world (even switching genders at one point to lead the target off-guard), Eames is the side of Dom that can still laugh at itself and crack a smile, but also the great deceiver that can’t tell reality from a dream. The Trickster is very prominent in the film in that Dom lies to not only his team but also himself, believing that he has everything under control when he knows deep down that he’s a complete and utter mess.

It’s in Eames’ dream in the snow fortress that Dom is truly confronted with his shadow (Mal), and it’s at that point that he knows that he can’t lie to himself anymore. The Trickster proves it to him by putting his shadow front and center there for him. And with his shadow “killing” Fischer, she is also killing the child within him. Eames also goes into beast mode killing all the guards.

Oh and Hardy sorta steals this entire film with his Han Soloing presence.

Filmmaking Parallel: Actor. Note how he pretends to be Browning, and the sexy blonde. He even sits in front of a mirror to prepare exactly like a stage actor would. He also gets to be the star of the action sequences that are straight out of a Bond movie. Of course the actor would get all the praise and cool things to do!

  • Robert Fischer Jr./The Mark as The Child Archetype

Robert Fischer Jr. just wants acceptance from his father, and like the child archetype, he is the side of Dom who desires to be innocent again. Note that when Fischer’s safe opens, he pulls out the pin wheel that he had in the picture with his dad. This side of Dom is very tricky to discuss as Dom actually deceives the child within himself by lying to Fischer at the bar and claiming that the images he sees are really trying to kill him when their purpose is to actually save him from dream thieves, Dom being one of them. Note the parallels between Fisher’s catharsis with Cobb’s and Mal’s. Fischer is a mirror of Cobb.

Filmmaking Parallel: Fischer is the audience. Also a surrogate for us (real audience) to find an attachment with.

  • Ariadne/The Architect as The Anima Archetype

The Anima is the feminine side within a male and she represents who a male truly is rather than who he presents himself as in reality, and that’s what Ariadne represents for Dom. Out of all the other characters in the movie, she’s the closest to being who he really is—note, all of the details he tells her are basically the same details he’s telling us, too, with the audience being a part of who he is, as well, being that we’re living inside his head while we watch the movie—and she’s also an architect, which Dom once was too before his shadow became overbearing.

Think about it, it’s Ariadne who goes with him into limbo when everyone else has to stay behind. She’s the one who tries to pull him away from his darker side and get him to move on so he can be himself again. Also worth noting that in greek mythology it is Ariadne who leads Theseus (Cobb) out of a labyrinth. She’s the one character that Cobb trades his inner secrets with and his dialogue with her is vulnerable and soft.

Filmmaking Parallel: The screenwriter. She creates the dreams, plot and works with Cobb closely on them. Not really relevant but I think Page is the one slightly miscast character. The character still works though.


  • Miles/The Mentor as The Wise Old Man Archetype

Miles, Dom’s father-in-law (This father figure is key), is the wise old man within himself. He knows what’s best and what he needs to do. But it’s like how you can’t give yourself advice. You know what’s best, but just can’t do it. So Miles uses Ariadne as the archetype who can help him. This is where the real Inception is going on.

Filmmaking Parallel: I suppose he’s a supporter/family member to the main filmmaker (Cobb). A fatherly guide to a man that’s having trouble with himself leaving his family to make films.

  • Yusef/The Chemist as The Self

The self represents both the conscious and the unconscious worlds within oneself, and that’s what Yusef is in this mission for Dom. He is both the link to reality and the also harbinger into the dream world. He knows the in’s and outs of the chemicals and how dreams/sedation works. By allowing his other archetypes to sink deep within him, he is allowing them to all come to grips with each other.

Filmmaking Parallel: Special effects. He makes the unimaginable possible. He brings the amazing special effects to real reality for the audience. After the incredible car flip he turns to them with a big smile on his face but no one is there to give him the credit. Where does the credit for us the audience go? To ARTHUR, the hero archetype, who just beat up a guy in a revolving hallway. This is how it is in movies. We apply credit to the hero rather than the special effects guy because we’re stuck in the reality of the film. OF COURSE after the movie we know the action star isn’t the one who actually did it, but the point is that in the reality of the film we’re dreaming and apply the credit to the hero archetype. Incredibly clever.


We can take it further with Freudian ideas. Let’s look at the characters as the Ego, Super Ego, and Id in the elevator scene where the three first meet. This is a key scene in the film. Keep in mind they are all parts of Cobb’s mind and this location is an extremely personal place for Cobb and Mal. I’ll write out the subtext of each of their lines.

Mal (the Id): “what are you doing here” (Id is the desires, wants and needs of the individual)

Ariadne (the Super-ego): “I’m” (Super Ego knows right and wrong. Makes judgments that are moral)

Mal (Id): “I know who you are, what are you doing here?” (Recognizes her as the Super-ego and her judgment of this location)

Ariadne (Super-ego): “I’m just trying to understand.” (Super-Ego is trying to weigh the area and the desires of the Id)

Mal (Id): “How can you understand? Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole?” (How could you understand these raw emotions? They’re mine not yours)

Mal (Id): “Let me ask you a riddle, you’re waiting for a train… “(Remember the Id is the desires and raw needs of the individual. The Super Ego represses this which explains the hostility Mal is showing. The Id explains how the super-ego doesn’t understand this place.)

Cobb (the Ego): “Because you’d be together” (The middle man. Tries to fulfill the Id’s needs in acceptable ways. The Ego is what has to deal with reality.

Mal (Id): “how could you bring her here?” (How could you bring the super-ego here? She represses my needs.)

Cobb and Ariadne run away back to the elevator

Mal (Id): “You promised! You said we’d be together! You said we’d grow old together (Why are you leaving me? I’m the deepest part of you, and I always will be.)

Ariadne (Super-ego): “Do you think you can just build a prison of memories for her? Do you really think that will contain her?” (the Id is the most powerful, and can’t be contained forever. You have to confront her.)

Heady stuff, and almost the entire movie is like this! All the other characters are projections of Cobb’s own mind. Mal is of course a projection of his Id, the raw part of the human mind that is our emotion and desires. Mal fights Cobb’s repression of her. Ariadne is his super-ego, the part of the mind responsible for repressing the inner desires (Mal the Id). Our super-ego is what makes ourselves socially acceptable. Ariadne’s characteristics are curiosity, creativity, and morality, which are exactly what the Super-Ego is. This is why Mal and Ariadne are in constant conflict. The Id and the Super-ego are always in conflict, because the Id refuses to acknowledge anything but the person’s own biological and primal needs, and the super-ego acknowledges only the outside world and represses our inner needs.

This is why Mal (Id) wants to stay in Limbo! It’s the illusion that all of Cobb’s inner needs will be met. Ariadne (Super-Ego) wants Cobb to wake up and face the outside world. Then her duty (Super-Ego) will be fulfilled. I already told you the characters as Jungian archetypes, but from a Freudian perspective it’s clear Nolan wrote those three characters as the Id, Ego, and Super Ego. The audience is also subjected to a freudian collective subconscious when viewing the film. Remember what I said about Non, Je Ne, Regrette Rien!? Leaving the theater after such an intimate experience is like the team waking up from the dream on the plane. The sudden end of the film is like that of a incredible dream you wake up from and then realize it wasn’t real.

I haven’t analyzed the other characters as freudian ideas yet. Let me know if you find anything!

 The Ending/Resolution:

Hopefully you’re aware now that this film is not a heist film about dreams within dreams. That’s a macguffin, really. The Prestige states of a trick, “we’ll have to dress it up” and this is precisely what Nolan does to this story about a man whose struggling with guilt and the battle between professionalism and his emotional self. Really, that’s what filmmaking is. Dressing up of ideas and tricks through storytelling.

So in the end what happens to Cobb? Cobb plunges himself into the deepest part of his mind in limbo. The most achingly sad scene, and one that really hits me, is Cobb holding Mal as he pleas for her to stop haunting him so he can be free of his guilt. The regret has plagued him for too long. What is this scene really though? It’s a man in the deepest part of his mind confronting himself with a regret that he cannot confront in the real world. I would think the same of Nolan (and most artists), in that he confronts his own fears in his art and his mind rather than in his real life. He’s talking to himself in the deepest and most intimate part of his mind, which is the film. Here he allows himself to confront his guilt and deepest regrets. It’s this that connects the filmmaker to dreams. Both art and dreams allow the person to exercise their demons, passions, and emotions. For Nolan, the process of filmmaking is a catharsis akin to a dream.

All the parts of Cobb’s (and once again Nolan as the writer/director) mind (the characters) have worked through their problems and of course they’re actually all the same person. This is precisely why the other characters aren’t given the depth that Cobb is given. They’re all the same mind. Characters, plot, story, theme all come from the writer after all. How’s that for a character study? The entire movie is a dream and to suggest that none of it matters because it’s a dream is complete nonsense. The film argues that our dreams themselves are a reality. Our unconscious desires come from real world experiences and our minds struggle to explore them in a way that our real life self’s shun because of guilt or whatever. Nolan cleverly melds this into a film about this dreaming experience, but as a Freudian collective cinematic experience. The experience of a dream, film, and the real world are all valid experiences and realities.


The top does not matter in the end of the film. Like the films never-ending maze of interpretations it spins endlessly. You’re being tricked. Whether it falls or not is not the “answer” to the movie. In fact, the top is not even Cobb’s, it’s Mal’s. As The Prestige states “You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.” Or perhaps an even more apt quote from that film is “Give them enough reason to doubt it.” Nolan is interested in how we react to the nature of reality. He’s carefully created a world that allows for multiple interpretations, and none of them are “correct.” What’s clever is not that it’s a twist or cliffhanger. What’s clever is that it makes you think it was a cliffhanger or twist! This is the base of belief, faith, and living. Nolan has captured an intangible feeling of existentialism. INCEPTION.

Side note: Turn up your volume and listen to what his children say to him at the end!!!!!! His son mentions a house on a cliff, which is exactly what Saito had just told him in Limbo. Another echo of thoughts into another dream layer? Also pay attention to numbers throughout. They same ones can be found in every dream, but rearranged. There’s other reverberations of images through the other dream levels as well.

The audience watched the entire filmmaking team perform Inception on them! They carefully navigated your mind and you weren’t even aware. Watch it with this in mind and you’ll notice fascinating meta elements that I’ve touched on here. Cobb performs Inception on Fischer. Cobb also performs it on himself. Nolan himself is performing Inception on himself (I’ll get to that at the end) As all this is happening YOU are being performed Inception on. That’s 4 layers of Inception happening at once. Likely a coincidence but that’s 4 layers just like the 4 dreams.

Nolan has constructed it in such a way that it’s literally showing you what’s being done to you with out you being aware of it. The Prestige does this as well, but it’s even more masterful here. Again, this is massively important. “You want to be fooled.” This is exactly how Inception and films work and on a larger scale it’s how we all get through life. The commercial and internet driven world is filled with ideas and we’re subjected to it constantly. How could you ever know if an idea was your idea? Inception is a grand and all encompassing visualization of the mind in the modern world and the experience of cinema. The point is that we must choose our own reality and in doing so we can achieve catharsis.

Also consider how the filmmaking team has to go “deeper” into Fischer’s mind to plant the idea. They’re also making the plot denser and harder to follow for the audience. Once they get to the fourth level it’s almost uncontrollable. When writing and filming this Nolan himself would’ve been doing the same thing and worried about losing the audience and the logic of the film. The narrative of the film (and dream) would begin to start crumbling for him and the other filmmakers. Ahhhhhh and the dreams actually do begin to collapse in the movie! It’s meta filmmaking at its finest. Like those mirrors bouncing back and forth into infinity, the ambiguity of the film is reflected into the audience. Your own interpretation is what gives the film, and life, meaning. To watch Inception is to stare at Cobb’s spinning top waiting for an answer to all this madness.


In the final moments of limbo Nolan/Cobb have finally moved on and purged Mal from themselves. Cobb awakens from the plane and cleverly this final sequence is the most dreamlike of the entire movie. There’s a hypnotic quality to the sequence. The lighting is overexposed and the shooting speed is overdone so that there’s a mild slow motion effect. Cobb doesn’t even care about whether the top falls or not. For Cobb to finally make it back to his children he has to ignore reality. The reality he longs for is impossible to reach because there is no reality outside our perception of it and seeing his kids faces is enough for him. He’s found a reality that he can live and be happy in. Who are we to say otherwise?

So on another level what’s happened here is that Nolan has let go of these dark ideas that keep penetrating his art and himself which keep him from his family. Going off to create films and leaving his children takes a toll on him. Each time he makes a film he experiences this process. Nolan is aware that he’s a commercial director and that he has to make big action type films so that he can explore these grand ideas. Inception shows us that Nolan is weary of creating these giant movies with so much money on the line. He struggles with the thought of becoming a commercial action director. For Nolan, a film has to be personal and about his process or he has failed.

As for his personal catharsis here? Mal is a stand in for all of his female characters and his own dark ideas that constantly come into his art. The dark parts of his mind are not real and they’re coming into his art over and over in his movies. The ending tells us that Nolan has moved on from this phase of his career. The Inception on himself has worked as we see Cobb let go of his inner needs and face reality. Cobb is shown finally coming back to his children and he simply doesn’t care whether it’s a dream or not. Since Nolan simply doesn’t care anymore he can create movies that are more honest, earnest and will likely involve new topics like HIS CHILDREN, a la Interstellar!

The Future:

So with Interstellar think about these ideas after! Is there a father figure (Obi Wan!!!)? Is there a father in law character? Does it focus on his kids this time? How are the female characters? Is the hero plagued by a female character? If so, who and why? What does it say about his own art? How does the narrative structure work? How does he use time to affect his characters? Blah blah blah you get the picture.

I stumbled upon an article a while ago that furthers my theory of Nolan performing Inception on himself, but it also goes into how it will affect him. Credit here goes to Shawna Mlawski here. She articulates exactly what the film likely means to Nolan himself. I added some of my own thoughts. You can find the original article here http://www.overthinkingit.com/2010/09/1 … inception/

She points out what Nolan and Cobb have learned:

Cobb’s (Nolan’s) First Lesson: The dark parts of my mind will continue to infect my art unless I plunge deep into my subconscious and face them directly.

Cobb’s (Nolan’s) Second Lesson: The female character I keep seeing over and over in my work is not real. She is a false image of myself, of my fears and my regrets. I must let go of them.

Cobb’s (Nolan’s) Third Lesson: The reason I feel disconnected from the real world and my family is that I analyze them too much (Note how his characters are often alienated from family). If I stop caring whether or not my world, family, and emotions are real, they will seem realer, and I will be happy.

These are the ideas that Nolan learns though his avatar (Cobb). If his inception of himself was successful, we can expect that his next original and personal film will

1. Either be much more emotional and honest (because Nolan has decided that he still needs to face the dark elements of his subconscious) or much more logical and playful (because Nolan has finally managed to purge the dark craziness from his work);

2. Lack a symbolic Mal character, instead featuring one or more three-dimensional female characters who are not killed off to keep the plot moving. (Though I think his films will still hugely deal with time, and perception, but now with different subject matter. My guess is family!)

3. Feature more universal themes and characters in general, and will possibly focus more on Nolan’s children and his relationship with them.

If there’s an element missing from his work that I’d like to see him tackle it’s overtly genuine emotion and multi-layered human characters. Maybe use an ensemble instead of a single lead protagonist. I don’t consider this a flaw in his work, but an observation of how he constructs his movies and what he could bring to the surface to make them even more resonant. I find them deeply emotional, but not in a tearjerking way. Nolan makes idea films, but if he were to somehow make a giant idea film and populate it with multiple fully rounded characters, a narratively tight script, and create genuine tear jerking human emotion….while also delivering multiple timelines with equally engaging stories full of rounded great characters, time, perception etc. *DEEP BREATH* Well then we’d be seeing potentially one of the most astounding pieces of cinema ever made.

You can tell he’s aiming to be David Lean, and I have no doubt that one of these times he’ll make a mount rushmore level masterpiece. He tells the same story over and over and his process remains the same because he’s an obsessive auteur. Inception is a sort of synthesis of Memento story, The Prestige’s clever tricks, and The Dark Knight expressionistic action, and that’s why I think it’s his finest film so far. But he’s not quite perfecto! Eventually Nolan will put everything together and create his grand magnum opus. The trick they’re gonna remember him for!

So, hopefully I’ve given you some insight on Inception as well as Nolan as a filmmaker. Many view Nolan’s films on just a narrative level. Inception then becomes a cool movie about dreams with a cliffhanger ending. That’s… fine, but you’re missing the massive depth of the movie and I think we owe it to the filmmaker to dig through the art and find everything inside of it. Inception is an incredibly dense and personal film. These kind of blockbusters rarely ever happen, if ever, and for my money they’re the best kind of movie. They’re the reason I go to them because when done right you get to experience something truly special, Inception.…

Inception is an all time favorite of mine along with some of Nolan’s other work. Here I didn’t even come close to touching on everything I wanted too. If you have any observations please comment below! I can tell you that I’m wildly excited to see how Interstellar furthers Nolan and his filmmaking.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *