Christopher Nolan (Somewhat) Explains INCEPTION

     November 24, 2010

Inception is a fun movie to talk about thanks to its ambiguity.  If writer-director Christopher Nolan were to come along and tell you exactly what happened, he would only be destroying the ambiguity he built into the film.  In the latest issue of Wired (issue 18.12), Nolan provides a little clarification on some of the debated points about his film, but doesn’t spoil the whole thing.  Wired lays out the article as a chart with different arguments about the text (“The Entire Movie Is a Dream”, “Just the Ending is a Dream”) and the sub-text (“The Movie is a Meditation on Architecture”, “It’s About Movie-Making”).  Hit the jump for Nolan’s responses to some of the theories.  Obviously, spoilers ahead.

Thanks to Wired for this awesome article.  The whole issue is great and you should definitely pick it up.


What’s happening in the movie: After the first extraction fails, Cobb spins his top to check if he is in a dream.  It falls over.

“The Ending Is Not a Dream” Argument: This establishes context for the audience—the movie is not all a dream.

Nolan’s Comment:  “This gives Cobb a base-line reality.  But he’s an untrustworthy narrator.”


What’s happening in the movie: Saito says he’ll clear Cobb’s name if he takes the job.  He asks Cobb to take “a leap of faith.”

“The Entire Movie Is a Dream” Argument: The phrase “leap of faith” occurs over and over.  It’s an artifact of Cobb’s subconscious.

Nolan’s Comment: “I don’t think I’m going to tell you about this.”


What’s happening in the movie: Cobb starts assembling his team and trains Ariadne in dreamweaving.

“Actually, It’s About Movie-Making” Argument: All the roles correspond.  Cobb: director.  Ariadne: writer.  Eames: art director.  Saito: producer.  Fischer: audience.

Nolan’s Comment: “I didn’t intend to make a film about film-making, but I gravitated toward the creative process that I know.”


What’s happening in the movie: Cobb goes to Mombasa to get Eames the forger and Yusuf the chemist.

“Or Maybe It’s a Meditation on Architecture” Argument: A beautiful pan across the rooftops of Mombasa.

Nolan’s Comment: “I wanted to show the potential for the real world to have analogies to the dream world.  The mazelike city of Mombasa does that.”

“Actually, It’s About Movie-Making” Argument: Smash cuts, mysterious chases, implausible coincidences—the grammar of film is the grammar of dreams.

Nolan’s Comment: “I wouldn’t say that I tried to use the grammar of the film to tell the audience what is dream and what is reality.”


What’s happening in the movie: Cobb confronts Mal in limbo, and Fischer is incepted in the hospital.

“The Entire Movie Is a Dream” Argument: Mal challenges Cobb’s reality.  Faceless corporations?  Chased around the globe?  Really?

Nolan’s Comment: “For the ambiguity at the end to work, you need to see that Cobb’s world and the dream world are very similar.  And you need to doubt Cobb.”


What’s happening in the movie: Cobb washes up on the beach (full circle with beginning).

“Just the Ending Is a Dream” Argument: Saito honors his agreement.  They build limbo to be their reality together.

Nolan’s Comment: “Uh…that’s not how I would have read the movie.”


What’s happening in the movie: Arriving home, Cobb finally sees his children’s faces.

“The Entire Movie Is a Dream” Argument: The kids haven’t aged!  And they’re in the same clothes!  This is clearly all a dream.

Nolan’s Comment: “The kids are not wearing the same clothes at the end!  And they do age!  We were working with two sets of kids.”

“Or Maybe It’s a Meditation on Architecture” Argument: It’s the golden-lit craftsman dream home…with a house made of blocks on the dining table.

Nolan’s Comment: “The film is about architects.  It’s about builders.”


What’s happening in the movie: Cobb spins the top—it’s still spinning when the movie cuts to black.

“The Entire Movie Is a Dream” Argument: The top doesn’t matter—Cobb can finally see his children’s faces.

Nolan’s Comment: “The important thing is that Cobb’s not looking at the top.  He doesn’t care.”

“Or Maybe It’s a Meditation on Architecture” Argument: The top itself is constructed—topologically, it’s a pseudosphere, every point curving away.

Nolan’s Comment: “The prop guys just made a top that would spin for a long time.”

“Actually, It’s About Movie-Making” Argument: The audience has to “take a leap of faith.”  Nolan uses ambiguity as a storytelling tool.  There isn’t just one answer.

Nolan’s Comment: “Oh no, I’ve got an answer…”

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