Inception Movie Meaning : Nolan’s Inferno

inception movie meaning nolan's inferno

Two days ago, Christopher Nolan released his newest nine-hundred to his already astonishing batting average.  This is a man who started with Memento, allegedly took that movie on tour to raise funds for Batman Begins, cleansed his comic-palate with Prestige, swung hard again with The Dark Knight, and now brings us Inception.  It doesn’t take long to notice a heavy-hitter while witnessing that kind of consistency in making great movies, and so when an original idea digs into our minds – shared dreaming – I trust him with pruning and nurturing that idea to completion.  This is the new Memento/Prestige. And the Inception movie meaning illuminates a ton of his other films.

If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it at a theatre with dang good speakers.  Few movies these days persuade me to spend the $14.50 – $18.00 it takes to get my wife and I out to the show.  This one did.  What follows is a low-shelf literary analysis of the entire flick, so I’m assuming if you continue to read, you have watched the movie in its entirety, and are okay with reading intimate details about the plot.  I’m not responsible for spoiling the ending, so consider yourself warned!

In this post, I’ll work through the dramatic shift in Molly’s character from an angelic sweetheart to a demonic accuser.  We’ll work through the questions of the basement elevator levels, of grief, and of Cobb’s web of lies.  Yes, cobweb – those things that inhabit empty minds.  Also, why all the escorts?  Why the kick?  And why on earth don’t we get to see that little spinning top, Cobb’s totem, fall at the very last shot?

Inception Movie Meaning:

Plot Review

We start with a crash-course in shared-dreaming, a training technology developed by the military so that soldiers can “punch, stab, and choke each other” without the side-effect of death.  An underground group of very talented people called, “extracters” have learned, and perfected, the art of getting inside someone’s dream, engineering the dream into a sort of labyrinth so that the subconscience cannot fight off intruders, and extracting the information there by suggesting the idea of a safe where all the information is kept.  Once there’s a safe, then they just break in.

Shortly thereafter, we learn about a concept called “inception” which is quite simple: the opposite of extraction.  With inception, we plant an idea into the mind we intrude.  This may seem ridiculous, but consider this scenario:

We’re in college – you, me, and my highschool sweetheart named Nancy.  I get inside your dreams, go down deep enough, and plant the idea that you can’t take care of her like you want.  That idea germinates, grown, explodes out, and when you wake up, you break up with her so that I can have her once again.  That’s a nice version.  In the movie, they’re dealing with the heir of a C.E.O – the emperor of a giant energy firm.  Another C.E.O., a Chinese man, holds auditions for extracters, trying to find any who can manage inception.  None can, because they all think it impossible.

Not our hero.  He’s in a lot of trouble, and cannot get home.  The Japanese* leader Saito offers him complete amnesty if he can plant the idea – that the boy, upon the death of his father, will choose to dissolve the entire company and not run it.  Like I said, dangerous.

Okay, now that we’re refreshed on the plot points, as if we could forget, let’s get into the inner framework of the movie.  While Cobb is training Ariadne, the young girl finds out pieces of his dark secrets.  Having already seen Nolan’s Dark Knight of the Soul, we know his fascination with dark ideas buried beneath the surface.  Cobb’s dead wife keeps showing up near the end of dreams, when they start to implode, killing off intruders and sabotaging any mission inside.

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Inception Movie Meaning:
Inferno

Curious as to the nature of these “major issues”, Ariadne finds Cobb sleeping one night, and goes into his dreams.  She takes an elevator down into his dream, an old elevator with ten number buttons for the levels and a big letter “B” for basement.  Sound familiar?  Here’s my idea: by purging lies out of the depths where Cobb’s issues linger, we bring forth his redemption. Put this in your subconcience for a while:
7  8
5  6
3  4
1  2
B

That’s the keypad on the elevator in Cobb’s dream.  When Ariadne gets to the first level, Moll, Cobb’s wife, nearly kills her.  Cobb rescues Ariadne from that subconscious projection, and takes her to the level where there’s a beach, and to several other places.  Ariadne notices that these places are not dreams, but memories, something Cobb warned never to use in dream world.  This is a man who breaks his own rules a lot.  (For those who know what’s coming, my six-hundred sixty-sixth word was two sentences back).

Down in the basement of Cobb’s mind we find his worst memory – his last anniversary with Moll alive.  Down in the basement where Cobb’s Lucifer (morning star & deceiver) dwells, we discover that his grief and guilt is holding him captive.  If you don’t agree with me about Moll = Lucifer, consider these two points:  Moll (or Mal) means “evil” in latin – Dante’s home tongue, and Molly was a complete angel to Cobb before she jumped off her seat in the sky, falling down to earth.  After that, every time Moll comes onto the screen, we feel terror or evil or something equivalent.

As to the Alighierian levels of hell, there are ten if you include conscienceness, nine if you don’t.  The first level is “limbo” which in the purgatorio stage of the movie is the lowest.  You could say “the top level of hell is the bottom level of purgatory”.  Limbo is the deepest they can go in the shared dream with Fisher.  However, we’re in Cobb’s inferno right now, we’ll get there.  In the movie, we are working less with the external quest (sabotage of Fisher’s company) and more with Cobb’s redemption (dealing with guilt and loss – one of the greatest needs in America).  We have in the elevator scene representations of the Seventh Level – Violence – where Moll keeps running her finger over a knife, of the Fourth Level – Advarice and Prodigality – where Cobb wasted his chance to see his kids, and of the Ninth Level – Betrayal – where Lucifer herself sits on her white throne, surrounded by shards of glass.  Perhaps this isn’t the icy circle Dante intended, but it’s pretty close considering the circumstances.

So in Cobb’s Inferno, we find out three things:  1.  Molly is Satan  2.  Cobb needs redemption from guilt and loss  3.  Cobb needs an escort.  The first two are easy enough to grasp, but the third is key.  One of Dante’s primary motifs is the thought that we cannot do it alone.  We need someone to walk us through it, even if we don’t want help.  I know just the girl.

Ariadne (which has the same assonance as Dante), is his escort.  Her name means “most holy” and her character in greek mythology fell in love with Theseus, and helped him escape the Labyrinth and the Minotaur.  Sound familiar?  “I want you to make me a maze two minutes that takes one minute to solve.”  Or how about, “the dreams were designed as a Labyrinth” ?  Yes, Ariadne is aptly named bridging both the Greco-Roman myth and Dante’s need for an escort.  If you’re Cobb/Dante needing help through hell and then purgatory to get to heaven, who better than Ariadne – the same who helped Theseus escape the Labyrinth?  More importantly, it shows just how lost Cobb is.  If you need Ariadne to help you, you’re in over your head.

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Inception Movie meaning:
Concerning Kicks

Over and over and over this movie emphasises the importance of falling.  We start out with Cobb falling flat on his face on the beach, Molly jumps off the cliff, people are falling out of their chairs, down elevators, into rivers, over bridges, entire fortresses are falling, people fall into bathtubs – have I made my point?  Here’s what’s important: we have a choice of when to fall. Molly chooses to believe that the real world isn’t real, and so she falls from such great heights.  As her name indicates, that’s a bad move.

The other option, however, is to choose to come back to the real world by letting your inner ear reorient you by the pull of gravity.  For anyone, like me, who fell out of a bunk bed during their childhood, this feeling is unmistakable.  You cannot help but wake up when you fall ten feet down.  Curiously enough, they chose to wed this imagery to that of baptism.  There’s a tub at the start of the movie to introduce the concept, and more importantly a communal baptism with the van plunging off of the bridge.  Why all of this falling?

We can either wake up by choosing the kick, or we can lose ourselves in a web of lies.  Choosing the kick is the way to come back to reality, to wake up, to snap to our senses, better yet, to be illuminated. I find the name of the movie proper here:  inception.  It’s a beautiful word meaning “start” or “origin”, and I hope to high heaven it means that there’s more of these coming, but probably not.  More importantly, the sound of the word combines two words used often in the movie: infection, and conception.  Infection is the viral word for what happens when the idea is spreading.  Conception is both the start of life/birth, and forms a thought, an idea as Cobb always says.  So in the context of the movie, an inception is like birthing an infectious thought, which is exactly how it’s defined.  I LOVE this word, but I love it even more for the baptism scenes.  The literary point of them falling so much, especially into water, is for the birthing of infectious thought.  What is that thought?

Reality, of course.

Molly is dead.  Kids are home.  Cobb wants to be a father again.  To be baptised with a kick, is to wake up and deal with what actually happened.  As Ariadne says, “you’ve got to forgive yourself and move on, Cobb.”  He can’t without purging himself.

Inception Movie Meaning:
Purgatorio

So once we get out of hell, Ariadne tells Cobb how bad he needs help.  Having seen the look on Molly’s face, and her propensity toward violence, we all agree.  We then head to the skies.  Curious, isn’t it, that the next set of levels take place really in the air on a ten-hour flight to the states?  Purgatory – the waiting place in the heavens.  For Dante, the concept of Purgatory is less about the Catholic idea of a place between heaven and hell, and more about the purging of a man.  This is convenient because the primary motif in this section is not the levels (though they are important), but the kicks.

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What happens in level one is a purging of the sociological ills.  It’s raining, there’s the security in the dude’s head, and they have to deal with potential death – or ending up in limbo (the last stage of purgatory/first stage of hell in this movie).  So everything that happens in the van affects them all, ESPECIALLY the gravity.  This is the external part of the redemption.  Yusuf (from Joseph, the Biblical dreamer), being the one who invented the sedative, escorts the caravan through this level.

Level two is the logic side – who better to take care of the logical side of things than Arthur?  Anyone notice the way that guy fights like a king on the front line?  How about his zero-gravity roundtable?  Arthur is the most level-headed of the men in this movie, and he escorts the team in the level most concerned with being honest.  They get to the next level how?  By persuading Fischer to break into his own mind with them.

Level three is where we deal with legacy, both the sins of our fathers and the future generations.  This is the declared destination at the start of the movie, but it is not the true destination.  Escorts here are Saito and Eames.  Eames could be a reference to “James” as a son of thunder – Eames blows a lot up, but who knows?  Point is, this level needs two escorts.

Limbo, however, has only Ariande – who has been there all along.  Each level has its skilled escort (Joseph the driver, Arthur the reasonable, and James the demolitions expert), but Ariande is not there for the community.  She’s there for Cobb – our hero.  In limbo, he deals with his grief, guilt, shame, fear, and eventually gets out having been illuminated by the communal (Cobb and his whole household) baptism in the van.  Having purged to the deepest, darkest parts of his soul, he is now ready for paradise.  How do we know this?  He washes up on shore.

Inception Movie Meaning:
Paradiso

The start of the movie made Saito seem like the devil and Cobb like Faust.  Au contraire!  Saito’s more of a saint Peter figure welcoming Cobb into paradise.  They both wake up in the clouds and we find ourselves, mission complete, and the words “welcome home” at the american equivalent of the pearly gates.  Having dealt with his grief with Ariande’s help, having navigated the labyrinth of his guilty hell, and having participated with the community in redeeming society, time, and legacy, Cobb is now ready to see the faces of his children and live with, you guessed it, his Father.

At the close, we zoom in on the top, Cobb’s totem – his anchor to reality – spinning, wobbling, and spinning still.  We never see it fall.  Although this could be just a “is he really in the real world”, and is fun to think about, more likely this represents the third set of canticles Dante gave us so many centuries ago.  Cobb, who no longer lives with the “web” suffix, had told us that in dream world it would spin forever.  Now his wildest dreams have come true.  He sees his kids, lives with his dad, isn’t haunted by the “Evil One” any more.  He is in paradise, heaven has crashed into earth and made all things new, and like all good paradises, it spins on forever.  The top is the new earth, spinning into eternity ever since the world went right.


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14 Comments

  1. Awesome post man! This movie was so incredibly refreshing in this age of persistant remakes and sequels.

    A particularly stirring moment for me was towards the end. They were about to gain access to the safe, but Molly shoots him. At that moment, I was feeling every ounce of despair that Cobb was expressing. That was it! All for nothing! Our ‘hero’ has given up and so have we. At that moment, Ariande suggests what no one (including us) even ‘dreamed’ was possible–to go even DEEPER!!!

    At this very scene, where we were about to come up for air–Nolan violently slams us back to the depths where we are again at his mercy for redemption.

    1. Well, let’s say I follow you there.

      Molly shoots Fisher, and them Ariande (the most holy escort) pushes Cobb to “go deeper.” Since this is the purgatory stage, Cobb must dig out the deepest parts of him, the stuff that he hid from everyone else. Ariande, as a Christ figure, walks him to the deepest part, to the worst of him, and digs it out. Right before she “kicks” fisher, she shoots Mol. Cobb cries out, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

      Her response, having saved a man who couldn’t save himself? “Improvising.”

  2. Really cool post. I didn’t even think of it that way. It really does make a lot of sense, especially the Cobb’s inferno and the baptism imagery. Good stuff there.

    Initially, I thought that the top spinning at the end was sort of a statement by Nolan regarding the experience of film in the first place. It has been said before that watching a movie in theater is kind of like ‘communal dreaming.’ Literally, everyone comes to one places, ‘hooks up’ and watches the same events unfold. I believe in this instance Nolan acts sort of as the Architect: he provides the dream, and we fill it with our subconscious. Regarding this idea, inception seems to be the highest acumen that a filmmaker could ever achieve, to inspire an idea in someone’s head that completely pervades their entire life. Perhaps the top still spins because it is up to the audience to decide whether what they experienced was real or just a dream.

    1. I like that, and many think that way right now, but at the same time, isn’t that an eternality?

      After all, if he seriously (in the movie) provides such a pervasive idea, it does the exact same thing. If, for instance, we accept the Cobb = Nolan ideaology, then why couldn’t the movie also be about Nolan’s redemption? About the redemption of an entire industry that fears originality (or lack there of)? About the redemption of those filmmakers who used to think, as little kids, that they could make a world full of dreams?

      I’m not completely disagreeing with the talks of Cobb = Nolan, of dream = movie, or even of the little details people are mulling over. Rather, I’m providing a framework by which to understand those conversations. Whatever/whoever the movie is about at the core, the themes are hell, purging through baptism, redemption, resurrection, and paradise.

      Whatever that happens to apply to, I’m all for, making “inception” an synonym to “illumination” or “enlightenment” or even, dare I say, “albedo.” To plant an idea so deep within someone that, when they wake, it changes them… that, my friend, will redeem both characters in a story and audiences regardless of in a dream, or in reality.

      thoughts?

  3. I love how you broke down the wordplay and symbolisms. I find way too much Christian interpretations in your post, but that’s just me.

    I especially like your Mal as Lucifer comarison. It kind of makes sense.

    Saito’s not Chinese, he’s Japanese.

    It’s Avarice, not Advarice.

    Notice that Ariadne wears red all the time. Ariadne in the myth, helps the hero through the maze by giving him a ball of red thread.

    Eames is not just a demolitions expert, he’s also the actor.

    The kids’ Genius Grampa you were referring to was not Cobb’s father. He’s Mal’s father but Cobb’s (and Ariadne’s) mentor.

    1. Thanks for posting, wl32. I also appreciate the quick-edits, so thanks so much for those! My apologies for the mistakes in the details. As this was posted immediately after I saw the movie (and having only seen it once) I expected some of those. I hope to see it again when it comes out on DVD, and post a second response. Some of my thoughts have changed.

      NICE catch on Ariadne. That’s beautiful.

      As for the Christian symbolism, keep in mind we’re talking Dante here – one of the most influential Christian writers of all time. This guy invented Italian through the Terza Rima. To refer to Dante is to nod at Christendom whether you want to or not. If you take an alternative interp and argue that Nolan refers to Virgil, you have to look at Vrigil through the lens of Virgil-readers and authors. The four most prominent and prolific?

      1. The Apostle Paul (book of Acts)
      2. Dante
      3. Shakespeare
      4. J.K. Rowling (via Dante)

      Notice a commonality? They’re all Christians. I assure you, I will be fair to a movie – if the redemption is violent and fatalistic in its redemption – I will note it. Seven Pounds, for instance, built itself around an Islamic view of atonement.

      Inception, however, bolsters its reality around Dante and Christian symbolism. This doesn’t surprise me seeing Nolan’s past work – The Dark Knight of the Soul, the Genesis of Batman (Batman Begins did a head-not to Jewish titling by not displaying the title until the very end), Memento (the magic of memory via the Renaissance and Romantics), and the Prestige (how sacrifice can save a man and make him noble – or “prestigious”).

      Thoughts?

    1. great question!

      I think my arab friends would scoff at the idea of inception. They believe in hard-line interpretations of dreams and would look for stricter symbolism. Multiple layers? forget it. Unified theme? Now we’re talking

      Some of my hispanic friends would latch onto the talisman portions of it, making fun at the good qualities of the characters, and looking for the communal side of it. The van would be HUGE for them, as would the plane.

      My Canadian brothers seem to view it similar to me as do the brits I know.

      My African brothers like the concepts, but would be a bit superstitious of opening up to that kind of influence. Inception, by definition for them, is a spiritual act and therefore manipulative and wrong. Such things should not be done by good, respectable people. The second person gets the snakebite, so servant-leadership looks like taking the bullet the second time around.

      Those are my gut-shots.

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