Thursday, October 21, 2010

INCEPTION: Can Dreams Become Reality? Should They?

How INCEPTION WORKS, and why it reveals that filmmaking is an act of inception. Indeed, Christopher Nolan tells us a tale of Dom Cobb that is clearly autobiographical.

This is a MORAL PREMISE ANALYSIS of the mega-hit INCEPTION.  ($160MM Budget / $289MM domestic box office.)

Writer-Producer-Director - Christopher Nolan
Length:140 min excluding credits (length used for analysis)

The analysis is based on two viewings of the film by two pairs of eyes, a lot of note taking with a stopwatch, and finally the published INSIGHT EDITION from Warner Bros of the Shooting Script (available through Amazon). The DVD was not yet available. Where my notes were incomplete I referred to the published script.

"In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption, which involves executing his toughest and most risky job to date."


COBB (Leonardo DiCaprio) - Protagonist
ARTHUR (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – of Third Rock) - Reflection
ARIADNE (Ellen Page) (air-ee-ADD-knee) – Daughter Mentor
EAMES (Tom Hardy) - Shapeshifter
SAITO (Ken Watanabe) – Co-Protagonist
YOSUF ( Deleep Rao)
FISCHER (Cillian Murphy) - McGuffin
BROWNING (Tom Berenger)
MAL (Marion Cotillard) - Antagonist
MAURICE FISHER (Peter Postlethwaite)
MILES (Michael Caine) – Father Mentor
NASH (Lukas Haas)
PHILLIPA (Claire Geare)
JAMES (Magnus Nolan)


(From Warner Bros. Pictures) Dom Cobb is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible-inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.


The analysis of the TP in INCEPTION reveals (again) of how the most creative filmmakers follow structural rules rigorously. But, where the story demands otherwise, they are not hesitant to break a rule, to make the story work. That is true of INCEPTION. Notice that one of the TP does not happen at the "normal" spot, bur all the others are nearly dead on. An expert and visionary filmmaker like Christopher Nolan can pull that off. Don't try this at home.

Here are the ideal percentages of the TP for a three act story. The minutes to the right are based on 140-minute length movie (which is the length of INCEPTION if you don't count the credits).

12.5% = 17.5 min.
25% = 35 min
50% = 70 min
75% = 105 (1 hr 45 min)
82.5% = 118 (1 hr 58 min)
Black = 2 hr 20 min

Here's a breakdown of the movie and a graphic that correlates the TP visually.

Life Before: 00 m – 17 m
Cobb is an expert at extraction. But Mal, Cobb's repressed memory of his lovely wife, obstructs his effort to extract key information from Saito, which Cobb has been hired to give to Saito's competitor.

Inciting Incident: 18 m -- 12.8% (ideally 12.5%)
Saito forces then dangles a carrot in front of Cobb to get him to try INCEPTION on another of Saito's competitors – Robert Fisher, Jr., son of energy magnet, Maurice Fisher— to break up the company after his father dies (naturally).

Act 1 Climax/Acceptance of the Journey/Crossing the Threshold: 20 m -- 14.2% (ideally 25%)

Notice that the obvious acceptance of the journey comes only seconds after the offer. I think this is a great example of letting the story dictate where the turning points are, and not forcing the TP into a place that may fit a model but becomes awkward for the story at hand.

24 m - Ariadne, one of Miles' students, is recruited to be the architect of the dream mazes, or labyrinths. In Greek Mythology, Ariadne is The Mistress of the Labyrinth. As Miles was Cobb's mentor in the past, Ariadne is Cobb's mentor for this journey.

35 m – 25% (normal Act 1 break)
Nothing significant happens near this point, except Ariadne, repulsed by being murdered by Mal during a training dream and rightly blaming the violent act on Cobb (Mal is a projection of Cobb's subcon), quits, and walks out. But this does not change the direction of the story. As Cobb predicts, Ariadne returns a few minutes later, drunk with the power of working as a dream architect provides. Her mentor role in the story, however, is not only to design and create the mazes for the visual journey, but to unravel and deconstruct the labyrinth in Cobb's brain over Mal. She's the true mentor who confuses the enemy and leads the hero to safety. She is the goddess of the movie.

49 m – 35% Foreshadowing the MOG
When Cobb is training Ariadne is the art of dream architecture she discovers the presence of Mal is Cobb's subcon (sub-conscious). She warns Cobb that the others need to know about Mal's presence and the danger to the mission that she invites. He refuses her recommendation. He still wants to hang on to his memory of her, and retreat, from time to time to his dreams, pretending that her world is real – if only for a time.

MOG: 75m – 54% -- beginning of scene (ideally 50%)
When Ariadne discovers Cobb after hours dreaming privately, she joins him, and finds him with Mal. Again she challenges him to tell the others or get Mal out of his mind, before the mission begins. Before this point Cobb is easily distracted by his kid's presence in his subcon, but after this he show greater restraint in ignoring them.

Act 2 Climax / Near Death: 105m – 75% (ideally 75%)
This occurs when Cobb and his team, because of Cobb's decisions, miss the opportunity to time their return "kick" with Yusuf driving the van off the bridge. This seems to have trapped our team in dreamland forever and send them permanently to limbo for eternity. The second kick, when the van hits the water, saves them.

Final Incident: 114m -- 81.4% (ideally 82.5%)
Like the Inciting Incident this is TP (which are best initiated by the antagonist), and sure to that form Mal shoots Fisher and takes his protected body to Limbo, forcing Cobb to come and get him. This sets up the

Act 3 Climax: 125m to 137m / 89% - 98%% (Ideally 90-95%)
After Mal has dragged a dying Fisher, Jr. to Limbo, Ariadne and Cobb follow Mal, to retrieve Fisher, Jr. Cobb embraces the fact that his memory of Mal is not real. He sends Ariadne and Fisher back up the dream levels with a "kick" (they purposely fall off the balcony), and he stays behind, true to his word, says goodbye to Mal: "I miss you ore than I can bear...but we had our time together. And now I have to let go..." -- then Cobb goes off to find Saito, where they shoot themselves, and return to reality.

Touch of Irony. Notice how the protagonist directly faces the antagonist in a final battle, but it's with a soft word, not a gun. And how the confrontation with Saito, a co-protagonist, is solved with a gun. All very logically consistent with the story and the premises.

Dénouement: 137 m to 140 m – 98% - 100% (ideally 98-100%)
Cobb returns successfully to the 747 and Fisher and Saito wake up, Saito makes a phone call (his version of inception with the U.S. Government), Cobb gets through customs, Miles meets Cobb and takes him "home" to meet his children.

This shows how a successful film does not ignore the important TP of a traditional beat structure, but allows them to move around under the demands of the story, and does not force them into locations that might not work as well.


Let me give credit here to Matt Sinopoli and his INCEPTION graphic at as a reference I used in writing the following description of the four dream levels. The graphic to the right is his.

The descent into dreamland occurs at 62m (44%) into the movie, as the team and their target, Fisher, Jr. fly across the Pacific in the First Class cabin of a 747—the longest commercial passenger flight available. Fisher is drugged, the PASIV machine is hooked into the team's arms, and we're off on a wild ride for 75 minutes.

Level 1 – The dreamer is Yusuf, the chemist. In this level Fisher Jr is kidnapped, and the team forces him to give them random numbers that will be used later to plant the idea that his father wants him to break up the company. But they have to go deeper to do that, so while Yusuf drives a van escaping Fisher's security (projections from his mind), he sends the rest of the team to Level 2.

Level 2 – The dreamer is Arthur Cobb's point man, who along with the rest of the team, are sent to a hotel by Yusuf who is driving the van in Level 1. As the van moves and at time tumbles, the world of the hotel likewise tilts or rolls, making for some interesting scenes. It is here that Fisher, Jr. is tricked into believing that his "uncle" Browning is a traitor to his father's empire, and so Fisher joins the team in going a stage deeper to discover what Browning and his father are thinking subconsciously. So, Arthur stays behind and sends the rest of the team to...

Level 3 – The dreamer is Eames, the forger. Here Ariadne, the novice architect has designed a hospital in a mountainous, snowy environment, mostly so the audience can tell the levels apart as the cutting of the movie moves between the levels. Here Fisher, Jr. must be taken inside the hospital, which is like a fort protecting the inner secrets of his father and "uncle" Browning, so the idea to break up his father's company takes hold.

Level 4 (LIMBO) – There's no dreamer here. Mal, Cobb's memory of his deceased wife has shot Fisher in Level 3, and taken him hostage. As in the prologue, Mal is the antagonist that stands in Cobb's way of accomplishing his physical goals, whether extraction from Saito, or inception of Fisher, Jr. Her goal is to trap Cobb or force him to stay with her in Limbo, which she believes is reality. Of course Mal's desires are actually Cobb's deepest desires; what we see of Mal is a personification of Cobb's deepest wish.

As in all movies a character's deepest wish becomes his greatest fear. Mal threatens Cobb's ultimate goal of returning to his children in real life, which is predicated upon the successful incept of Fisher's mind, and getting Saito back to reality in one piece.


Here is a possible moral premise statement (MPS) for INCEPTION. There may be others, and you are invited to submit them with an explanation. The three propositional statements reflect the condition at (1st statement) the beginning of the movie for all the main characters, (2nd statement) the redemptive ending for the protagonist, and (3rd statement) the tragic ending for the antagonist, which was Mal's consequence in real life, not the dream.

Embracing dreams as reality leads to death of a vision;
Using dreams as inspiration leads to a vision fulfilled;
Embracing reality as a dream leads to a rejection of life.

Nested MPS

Sometimes movies have clear second MPS that are nested within the context of the main MPS. Here is a nested MPS I see in INCEPTION:

Coddling undeserved guilt leads to destructive distractions; but
Embracing acceptance and forgiveness leads to constructive focus.
And a constructive focus leads (allows) inspiration to transform our visions into reality.

Let me comment on how these work in the film.

White there are 14 characters named above as part of one of the teams, the aspirations or dreams of only four seem to matter—Cob, Saito, Mal and Fisher. The main MPS applies to ALL of these characters. The nested MPS may additionally apply to one or more, in this case the protag, Cobb.

Cobb's dream is to return to his children, but he holds onto the memory of life with Mal. Holding on to Mal as if she is real, nearly destroys him and his team. Only when he uses her memory as an inspiration, and casts off the undeserved guilt of her death, is he able to transform his dream into reality and come home to his children.

Saito's dream is to inspire his competitor to trade and deal fairly on the world stage. Individually he does not embrace dreams as real, nor does he live under guilt for what he does. But he does ask Cobb to use Inception to instill in the young Fisher an idea that will lead to a safer or fairer world. The story isn't about Saito, but it could have been. The fictional Saito is lucky that Cobb changed his motivation (of rejecting dreams as reality, e.g. Mal) before it was too late.


Mal's dream (as a projection of Cobb's mind) is to keep Cobb in Limbo with her. This is of course the personification of Cobb's deepest desire — to bring Mall back to life. Mal's embrace of reality killed her real body, and now her infectious idea is trying to kill Cobb and the others. Why is Cobb's subcon trying to kill Cobb? It's the purpose of lies — to destroy life as we know it to be in exchange for what appears to be better, utopian, but surely certain death.


And Fischer's dream...well, that's what the movie is all about ... to give Fisher a dream, or an aspiration for the future. Indeed before our protagonists plot to incept (or inspire) Fisher with an idea we're not sure if Fisher has any aspiration or not. As is evident in the Level 2 dream state, Fisher's mind has been trained to identify what is real and what is a dream, and chase off the fake (his subcon security force).


What Cobb's team plant in Fisher's mind (as an inspiration, I contend) is the true side of the MPS. It could be argued, if we are to believe what Saito tells us, that Maurice Fisher is striving for a kind of utopian business model—control everything and destroy fair competition. But that model, like the utopian dream state that Mal embraced, will destroy the Fisher conglomerate, eventually. Cobb's team inspires Fisher's Jr. to be his own man, and not strive after the utopian state that his father pursued. The betterment of society is achieved.

That Mal (in part with Cobb) pursued a utopian state is fairly obvious by the action, but  there is, in the script, that points to the problem of utopian thought. It's a description of Cobb and Ariadne walking a through limbo looking at the elaborate but decaying buildings. The action description is this: "Ariadne marvels at the extraordinary collection of buildings—every architectural style imaginable in waves of FAILED UTOPIAS.


The film has been billed as the "perfect crime." But I think it's more about inspiration and the role we all play in other people's ideas. That is, how we can become a muse for others.

I submit that if the audience, in their subconscious state, believes that Cobb was committing a crime, that belief would turn the audience against the film. Regardless of what Christopher Nolan intended, the "IDEAS" that Nolan plants in the story and in the audience's mind, grow, and leave us with a satisfying, true tale of redemption (as the film is also billed).

Here is why I think the audience accepts the moral premise of this film. Indeed Nolan, as all filmmakers do, perform Inception on our minds. Rather than being invasive against our will, true movies are our cultural muse, our inspiration to solving problems. Movies light candles in our darkness.
  • Saito (18m) offers “secrets” to Cobb to give to competitor, in exchange for inception of Fisher. Saito also offers Cobb safe passage home to his children. 
  • Arthur, Saito and Cobb (19m) discuss "manual inception" and "true inspiration." Arthur says, “True inspiration is impossible to fake.” This statement links inspiration with inception.Saito (explaining how he will fix Cobb's immigration record) says: "Just like inception." The right word spoken to the right person can change that person's position on a subject. Such an event is not magic but just logical, as new evidence is brought into play. Now, Saito, unlike Cobb, is not involved in extraction or inception. What Saito suggests is that inception is like inspiration. And what is inspiration (which you cannot fake): is revealing the truth so that problems, created perhaps by a lack of a fresh perspective, go away.
  • Cobb (50m): “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.” That is the purpose of good story telling and filmmaking. It is what Nolan intends to do. It is what Nolan's alter ego, Cobb, intends to do with Fisher. It is a noble pursuit — inception and storytelling. 
  • Cobb (29m) explains to Ariadne that he and his team create architecture (which is intended to inspire); and that it is the target’s subconscious that supplies the ideas.
  • Saito (41m) explains how Fisher Morrow is headed for world domination of energy, capable of blackmailing governments. Saito is after fair competition, not domination, not price fixing, not a secret.
  • Ariadne (81m) tells Cobb he is not responsible for the implanting the idea that destroyed Mal.
  • Cobb (82m) explains that he wants to expose the truth, rebuilding Fisher’s relationship with father & reveal truth about Uncle Browning. We never know if this is a sinister plot or a true plot. Could it be true? The idea would have come from fisher's subcon, and after the fade to black Fisher would take care of the disloyal Browning.
  • Audience Concludes: Cobb’s not responsible for what Fisher does with his life or business, and what Cobb is doing is inspiring Fisher, not controlling him.

This has my best explanation of why INCEPTION, a film that was very hard to follow, and received a unusual amount of street criticism, won over it's audience. While the physical storyline and hook of the movie is initial intriguing and gets people into the theater, it is ultimate the following points that give meaning to the story and allow audiences to leave the theater with satisfaction....and thus strong positive word of mouth promotion.  (Nolan at the right.)
  1. The story followed the fundamental structure of all good stories, creating for the audience a dramatic and emotional rhythm that was suspenseful and intriguing.
  2. (Not discussed above): The movie embraces conventions from a variety of genres, thus making it accessible to many different audiences (sci-fi, suspense, thriller, love,  drama, and high risky adventure.)
  3. The moral premise is true and consistently followed in the arcs of all the main characters.
  4. The ultimate "crime" of the physical premise is couched in terms and motivations that are mythical, noble, and morally acceptable to general audiences.
  5. The film requires the audience to think and figure things out, thus engaging them intellectually. Audiences love to work and work out riddles...provided the solution is present.
Please share your thoughts in the com box below.


Rev3:15 said...

You seem certain that Cobb returns to the real world, but my dd and I wonder if the spinning top was a hint that Cobb was really still stuck in limbo. How do you resolve this?


Stan Williams said...

There are several clear indications that Cobb is back in the real world, not the least of which is the interview with Christopher Nolan in the front of his script book. But if you only have the movie you know he's in the real world if:

a. You plot out the linear levels through which he travels, beginning with the 747 flight, and ending with the 747 flight and meeting his dad at the airport.

b. Miles, his dad, is NEVER is any dream sequence. He is only in the real world.

c. When Cobb gets back home, his journey is complete because, for the first time, we see his children's faces -- an indication that they are real. All the other shots of the kids they are only projections, and because he hasn't seen his kids in a long time, he doesn't know what they look like, and thus we (he) can't see their faces.

d. Every other time he spins the top he stares at it to see if it will topple, which is his only sure sign of where he is. But he's so confident that he's in reality at the end, that he walks away from the top, no longer relying on it. He has given up dreaming, and the top is no longer necessary.

e. He says goodbye to Mal, and tells her (and this is a big psychological journey for him) "you're not real."

hodges said...

Great Analysis Stan! Look forward to watching the film again with this info!

William said...

This moral premise is as complicated as the rest of the film!

Figures.. I tried to figure it out on my own.. just saw it recently.. I was stuck... this blog sorts all of this out.. Great stuff! :)

I would love to see a MP for Batman Begins... I think its a well crafted story, and in my opinion a superior MP to The Dark Night...

I think I have it nailed down, but I would like to see the professionals opinion. :)

mikele said...

Great analysis! Thank you for your work :-)

There is one thing i dont understand... Why if the thing he wants more is to be with his children, he doesnt take the children to another country?

Stan Williams said...

Mikele: There are many options that any particular story does not investigate, whether real or fiction. To do so dilutes the focus of the story being told, and takes us down physical rabbit holes that may not have anything to do with what the story is really about. INCEPTION is really about whether or not we should embrace dreams as reality or whether dreams become inspiration for the hard work required to see our vision into reality. The movie's physical goal (for Cobb to be with his children) is the McGuffin that draws us into the contemplation about the deeper moral issues. You could probably do a story about what it would take to get his kids safely out of the U.S. to be with them. But that might be another story entirely.

There is a subtle political-social commentary going on in INCEPTION. Whether it is intended or not I do not know. But there are a lot of people in the United States (and indeed in other cultures as well) that have a vision of what utopia would be like, but they are either spitting into the wind of reality, or are not up to the effort to make their vision a reality. INCEPTION can be interpreted such that we see these two truths:

A. Just believing something is true, does not mean it should be or could be true. There are a lot of political and moral opinions that are not based in natural law, which gives a lot of people fits on both sides of the issue. Thinking things, or even saying things, does not make them true. (c.f. Hitler and Marx)

B. There are some visions (dreams) that are inspiration for making the world a better place, if we are only willing to risk our time, money, and lives to achieve it.