Inception: My Labyrinthine Analysis
August 21, 2010 18 Comments
Inception is one of the best films Hollywood has put out in years, and stands out as a diamond in a large stack of garbage. If the liberals in Hollywood were really worried about the environment, they wouldn’t cloud the artistic environment with so much pollution. But Inception is something else. A film that mystified many, it also became the subject of intense online debates and speculation as to its ultimate meaning. I believe I have cracked it, and I think I cracked its code upon first viewing. I subsequently viewed it two more times, and collected even more clues confirming my basic thesis. Let’s analyze.
One cannot properly understand Inception without familiarity with the basic concepts of Carl Jung, some Freud, and a sprinkling of esoterica. The esoteric elements coalesce nicely, due to Jung’s emphasis on mythology and archetypes. I am not here advocating Carl Jung, to be clear. Jung was very much opposed to the basic worldview I espouse, but we must still interact with and decode these phenomena, inasmuch as they are a part of the world we operate in.
What is happening in Inception is just this: the entire sequence is about Cobb himself returning from the abyss of chaos to his true identity, wherein he reaches a kind of personal paradise. Cobb is, in fact, the only character, and the other characters are all “projections of the subconscious,” as he explains to Ariadne in her first test dream sequence. The original clue to this interpretation is in the beginning when Cobb, Saito and his associates are in the room (Saito’s apartment) where the revolution of some kind is taking place outside. Saito recognizes the carpet is not his, and calls Cobb out for keeping him within yet another layer of dream-existence. Cobb tells us later that the projections never attack the dreamer, but the others supposedly perceived as intruders. However, if this was the case, then the revolutionaries should have attacked Cobb and Saito; but they don’t – they attack Nash (played by Lucas Haas), who is supposed to be the dreamer in this layer. And if you note, they never attack Cobb – ever.
The other crucial element is that the story is not a linear story, just like a dream is often non-linear. The film concerns essentially the “architecture of the mind,” as director Christopher Nolan described it. Jung’s theories involve the idea that the individual is a disparate instantiation of the collective unconscious, and thus fragmented from the collective. The collective conscious manifests itself in images and archetypes in our deepest selves – the lowest of the subconscious. It is here that we hide out most intimate failures, sins and fears. We guard this sensitive part of our selves, and have defense mechanisms by which we hide and guard these deeper, more elemental ethereal truths about who we really are. For Jung, being the gnostic he was, the goal is to overcome all purported fragmentation, work through the so-called self-realization/individuation process, and thus escape dualities. The masculine “side” must reconcile with the feminine. One notices here familiar themes found throughout the history of alchemy, and Jung was known for his penchant in such arcane studies.
This, then, is the context in which Inception can be understood, and in no other. Cobb represents, in a way, every man, and thus we begin with Cobb stranded “on the shore of his subconscious.” He is fragmented and separate from who he is – alone and has forgotten his true life and identity. Familiar themes as found in gnosticism here emerge, such as the myth of alienation from Sophia as found in tractates such as the Hypostasis of the Archons. And this is undoubtedly the font from which Jung drew.
Cobb must, through the process of self-reconciliation and integration become who he truly is. Whether there was an actual person with some similar history as presented in certain scenes of the film is up for debate, but I tend to think so. We see, for example, when Cobb is in the dream realm with Mal, the buildings are all uniform and part of a clearly imaginal city. However, there is a brief scene towards the end where Mal is with Cobb in old age, and the background city is an actual city with variant architecture. In fact, the architecture of the buildings is also key to decoding the narrative: all of the architecture throughout the film is the architecture seen in the city of his subconscious that he built with Mal. Each locale in the film has a particular architecture; they are all found in the subconscious city. And this is because man is seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm.
Numerous clues that support this reading are also given throughout. To begin with, the basic plot is fantastical and impossible – entering another person’s dream through a cheesy-looking briefcase apparatus. Granted, the film can be itself asking us to suspend belief, yet at the end, when Cobb confronts Mal, his shade in Jungian lingo (or dark side), she tells him he has been living a fantastical lie – traversing the globe being chased by international corporations – it’s impossible. Cobb works for “Kobol,” which is perhaps a reference to the actual software development company or perhaps to Battelstar Galactica’s ”lords of kobol,” who are the gods of Olympus, which would fit perfectly into the Jungian ethos, not to mention Ariadne, who is the anima archetype – one half of the anthropomorphic unconscious. It could also have reference to Cabal, or Kabbala, the Jewish mystical theory of reality that has at times fallen into pantheism. This will be the downside of the ultimate message of the film – that, like the Matrix, reality is a manifestation of our consciousness – solipsism. But solipsism is an impossible, self-refuting philosophy that is nothing more than a rehash of the ancient pagan Hindu concept of Maya.
Ariadne is also, as has been noted, the character of Greek mythology associated with labyrinths and helping Minos defeat the minotaur. The entire film, you see, is the labyrinth of Cobb’s unconscious mind, seeking integration and realization. Note as well that the inception, or idea they “plant” is that “it’s all a dream.” An inter-contextual inception that they plan for “Fisher” (Cillian Murphy) is the idea that he will break up his father’s empire. In Jungian and Freudian analysis, this is crucial, for the male child must battle to establish himself as an identity apart from the father, who is seen for a time in early development as a rival. Here, however, we are dealing with the symbolic, and so Fisher is a further manifestation of Cobb’s psyche. Fisher is the child archetype and the fracturing the empire is symbolic for the individual consciousness’ separation and alienation. It is Cobb who has been “fragmented.” His psyche is the “empire,” because the entire city – the entire universe - is his own dream or consciousness. He is the architect. Again, there really is no clear point in the film in which we know we are in the realm of waking life. This is why Ariadne pulls together two mirrors and it agitates Cobb when he looks in both directions and sees a fragmented image of himself, infinitely, in both directions. In fact, it is Cobb throughout the film, who is constantly being given clues (as is the viewer), that he is in a dream state and has constructed elaborate layer upon layer of labyrinthine stories and myths to hide his dark side – represented by Mal.
Another interesting clue is the totem itself. The totem Cobb has is supposed to be Mal’s. Yet Cobb tells Ariadne that you can’t use someone else’s totem. This is another clue that the totem itself is, for Cobb, just another piece of the myth he has constructed to cloak himself in. This is also why the sub-theme of the secret items hidden in safes is also really just about Cobb. As we probe deeper and deeper as the movie progresses, the real secret is the safe in which Cobb hid Mal’s totem. And when Cobb explains this at last to Ariadne, he says that the ultimate secret is that’s “it’s all a dream.” The Inception, then, is the idea in that had overtaken Cobb himself. Another clue along these lines is when Ariadne sneaks into Cobb’s anniversary room, she steps on a broken wine glass. When Cobb later speaks with Mal in the anniversary hotel room, he steps on the same glass and even says the same phrase Ariadne had earlier to Mal. This is one of many clues that Ariadne is Cobb. Another clue in this scene is that Mal isn’t even on the same building ledge. She is on the ledge of a “mirrored” hotel room across the street. All throughout clues are given, such as is that when they first appear to enter Fisher’s mind, the train from Cobb’s dream appears. Unless they were in Cobb’s dream, which they weren’t, this should not have happened. This was the whole reason Ariadne was brought along – because Cobb could no longer build “cities.”
Other clues include the fact that when Cobb talks to his daughter on the phone from the hotel room after his first encounter with Saito, the daughter on the phone is noticeably older than the daughter in his memory and in the final scene. In fact, this is the biggest clue – when Cobb returns “home,” his children haven’t aged at all, and are, in fact, standing in very same pose as in his dream. Keeping in mind that the totem doesn’t really tell you anything anyway, it is thus unnecessary to base the solution to the film on whether or not the top continues to spin in the final sequence.
Inception is an amazingly deep work, and represents a step in the right direction for Hollywood. I can’t praise it enough, but I do have to note that it seems to leave us with a kind of ultimate relativism – as if all reality is really just a phantasm of our own mind. “Reality” is just a dream. One might argue that this isn’t necessarily what the final message is, but it seems to point in that direction, and this is not a healthy direction to point us in. Reality is just that – reality. I can imagine myself as the emperor of the world, or that 2 + 2 = 5, but all the Hindu maya I imbibe won’t change those facts.