Inception: My Labyrinthine Analysis – Jay Dyer

Water is often associated with the Aether or the dream realm

By: Jay Dyer
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.

 

Ariadne, as Cobb’s subconscious manifestation of sophia

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.

 

The labyrinth of Cobb’s unconscious mind

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.

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23 Comments on Inception: My Labyrinthine Analysis – Jay Dyer

  1. Mal is French. Since names sometimes have meanings in Inception, I wonder what her name means in French?

    • “Mal” is French for “bad,” so that’s easy enough. And as long as we’re discussing Jungian archetypes, how about Eames as the trickster or shape-shifter? He does this quite literally in his role as the Forger.

      I just found your website, and you have a lot of interesting ideas. Great analysis, by the way.

      • That’s the right reading of Mal, but the problem with the Jungian interpretation is that it gives us loose associations for characters without explaining why they matter.

        > wherein he reaches a kind of personal paradise.

        This is a much better reading. Dreams represent the mortal world (“you can spend a lifetime down there”, “you have to die to wake up”) and are mazes in which characters get “lost” and forget things they once knew (anamnesis). Ariadne’s role is to guide Cobb out of this maze. His journey is a “leap of faith”.

        Mal’s final temptation is clearly a test of faith (“you don’t believe in anything anymore, so choose to be here….”) just as Cobb’s claim that his real children are “up above” is a rejection of her argument. Nolan shows us Cobb’s affirmation of faith and then a Christian act of self-sacrifice as he risks his life to rescue Saito. This explains Cobb’s prophet-like appearance in the final scene, and leads directly to Cobb’s symbolic death, his judgment and forgiveness of sins at immigration, and his return to the heavenly garden and reunion with the family. The totem is throughout the film a symbol of faithlessness. Its significance at the climax is that Cobb ignores it: he has faith.

        There are plenty of details which reinforce this interpretation, but the key is really the allusions to Matthew 7.24 which bookend the film. This allusion tells us why limbo is bad: the false children and wife who build castles out of sand are exhibiting faithlessness and courting self-destruction. For evidence this reference is deliberate, simply look at the way the parable explicitly foreshadows not only the destruction of limbo, but its method of destruction (two times by water). And of course we have the final line of the film, where the real children inform their father they are “building a house on the cliff”. And we can take them at their word: James and Philip were biblical apostles, an appropriate name for someone symbolizing faith.

      • Christopher Nolan includes Jungian archetypes in his films quite publicly.

    • Aaron Rattue // March 21, 2016 at 9:56 am // Reply

      It means ill or bad

  2. It’s also malice in latin, if I recall. So that fits.

  3. I like it. The biggest clue to this kind of interpretation for me was Michael Caine’s character pretty much begging Cobb to “come back to reality.” You mention several other strong clues as well, such as the ledge scene. There’s also the creepy man’s question in the room full of sleeping people: “The dream is their reality…Who are you to say otherwise?”

    Just one question though: there is at least one point in which characters do attack Cobb: when he goes to meet Eames to convince him to join the team. Eames spots the guy watching Cobb from across the bar and proceeds to distract him while Cobb runs and is subsequently chased and shot at for quite a while. How do we explain this?

    Also, it is possible that alternate interpretations might sufficiently explain the anomalous, dream-suggesting scenes. For example (just a hypothetical suggestion, mind you), in the fairly early scene of Cobb in the bathroom, he spins his top but then someone enters behind him and it falls to the floor before he (we) ever sees if it topples. It is at least possible that everything that followed was dream, while at least some part prior was waking life. I’m not saying I believe it, just that there is room for competing interpretations. But then this is, I think, a mark of good writing.

  4. I’m betting that, on the cutting room floor somewhere, there is a clip of a slow pan-out from a sleeping Decap, but the director decided: “No, I’d rather leave it all the more subtle by ending the movie with a spinning totem…”

    As for the scene where Decap is running from his tails, that is a classic dream sequence. They never hit him (that I recall) and at one point, he is even trapped in a freakishly small space.

    • @Shotgun: Agreed…the scene does have dreamlike qualities, but it is specifically Cobb that is being attacked. This leaves seemingly three possibilities: either Cobb is awake and it’s real, he is in someone else’s dream (which contradicts Jay’s interpretation), or the bit about characters never attacking the dreamer is false.

  5. This is really a great review which shows a real appreciation for the architecture of the work and the symbolic details of Jungian psychoanalysis.

    Mal is a manifestation of Cobb’s personal unconscious, which arises from a collective unconscious which contain symbologies and dark forces, representative of the motives of all humans, and a kind of repository of their evolutionary experience. As such, demon-like, she represents that side of Cobb which he wishes to suppress and conceal from his party, from society. His unwillingness to release her, and her frequent re-appearances show, that he is increasingly unable to command his disintegrating psyche.

    I also noticed that the film begins as it ends, and the point at which he finds himself in the “real world”, his totem actually works when he rises out of the dream state.

    Indeed, Mal makes an interesting point about him being chased through the world by the police forces of world corporations, that he suffers from delusions of paranoia.

    She brings up images of Vishnu, and possibly a succubus. It’s interesting that the name Malenka has some negative connotations in Slavic languages as well.

  6. buttaflyytulsa // September 24, 2010 at 3:25 pm // Reply

    Very well put. Thank you for explaining why Juno was in the movie because she wrecked every one of my nerves everytime she opened her mouth. I was wondering why her character was even necessary because they could have given her job to anyone on the team.

    BRAVE 🙂

  7. buttaflyytulsa // September 24, 2010 at 3:25 pm // Reply

    Oops, I mean BRAVO! 😉

  8. Nice comment, i would add that decaprio has serious work with mother complex. i dont know, if have noticed it, but in both his 2010 movies- Shutter Island and Inception he has problems with imaginary woman, which is actually a phantasy. He couldnt let go “phantasy woman” in Shutter Island so he was Shizophrenic.. trauma had also big part in there. Same happens in end of Inception, but this time he lets her go and returns to real world, apart from him phantasy world….. Nice movie, but not so impressive to me because i know a little about Jung and psychoanalysis. And people tend to rate it so high, because they do not couscously understand it, same as LOTR triology which represents arhetypal jurney from early childhood trauma on.

  9. Inception is actually inspired by Christopher nolans older brother Mathew Nolan who is a con artist and wanted for attempted murder just like Cobb in inception. He tried to escape prison in Chicago.

    Read more on the unknown strange story here: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-07-07/news/ct-met-escape-sentencing-20100707_1_costa-rica-fake-british-passport-extradited

    • Christopher is certainly a deep adept (in the worst way) and at the core of the dark center. I don’t know about the rest of the family, but it doesn’t sound good…

  10. Fantastic insight you have there, but I’d like to ask something. It has been circulating around the Internet that at the ending of the movie, Cobb is indeed back to reality. In the movie, Cobb says you can’t use someone else’s totem, yet he uses Mal’s totem. But since it’s not his totem, it won’t work. Cobb’s real totem is actually his wedding ring. In the movie, Cobb is only seen wearing his wedding ring only in dreams, he isn’t seen wearing them in reality. The wedding ring could be Cobb’s totem because it could symbolize that Cobb still has the guilt of killing his wife in his subconscious. And at the ending Cobb is not seen with wedding ring, which could imply that Cobb is now indeed back to reality. I take no credit for this observation, it’s just something I read up on the Internet and it seemed quite accurate. I’d like to know your opinion on it.

  11. Good analysis, also some very good analysis in the comments. This music reminds me of Kubrics movies as well as Tools music. It’s fractal. There are so many layers of analysis that you could do. All stacked on top of each other so perfectly that it only adds to the piece as a whole.

  12. Reblogged this on Cosmic Messenger and commented:
    I am a neophyte when it. Comes to movies, but I I recognoze most everything in Inception and Interstellar. Keep up the great work, Jay.
    Lightworkers are hard to come by in media. Namaste!

  13. Stallone, with his highly unusual current face, is so busy making googly eyes at Statham and nursing a man-crush that he forgets that the goal of this movie is MORE KILLING.

  14. ‘Cobb’ stands for head, from old English ‘copp’ – cob, head, top
    ‘Mal’ stands for malaise, malady, malfunction, from French ‘mal’ – illness, bad, evil
    the spinning top stands for balance – achieved in the vestibular system, the labyrinth of the inner ear
    Ariadne is the provider of the thread for the hero descending into the heart of the labyrinth to slay the monster. In psychology, Ariadne is the psychotherapist, the labyrinth is the psyche. Miles taught Cobb to “navigate people’s minds”, that is, psychoanalysis.

    Cobb married with Mal = head “married” with illness

    Since the beginning, we see Cobb nearly drowned on the shore of his subconscious, we entered the head. The whole movie is about the head/mind regaining balance, represented by the spinning top stable at the end of the movie. We saw Cobb trying to spin it once before, in Mombasa, but it fell immediately.

    Inception is at least an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo – a man suffering from loss of balance, dives into the ocean (of his subconscious) to save a woman, who commits suicide by jumping off a building, but she’s not real.

  15. melponeme_k // April 18, 2017 at 1:47 am // Reply

    I’m not a big fan of the film. As a former IMDB user, there were some wild theories about this film. One was that Cobb never existed, that it was always about Mal.

    The “It’s all a Dream” is both a simplistic explanation and a deeper one. It ties back into Alchemy (my area of interest) and the marriage between the two halves of the brain. The three primes of Alchemy are embodied as follows: Body – Mal, Spirit – Cobb, Mind – Ariadne. Obviously, Right side Brain (Spirit) is Cobb, Left Side (Feminine) is Ariadne. Fixing Mercury/Mind means taking the reins of concentration, controlling creativity, capturing the feminine and marrying her to the masculine. A person who allows their mind to flutter hither and thither is living a dream according to Alchemy. They are distracted and thereby open to attack from anyone with a “philosophy”. That is the main warning of the film “Videodrome”.

  16. Melponeme_k // April 18, 2017 at 2:19 pm // Reply

    Just another note about the brain halves in Alchemy.

    This is another example of inversion of the sexes, a social engineering ploy by the elites. In older stories male characters usually represented the mind, the Mercury element. It very much mirrors reality in that men have a far better grasp on concentration studies then women. A good example of the older example is LOTR, the Mercury element was embodied by Gollum, Sulphur/Spirit was Frodo and Body was Sam. Hitchcock slightly inverted the alchemical hero story by turning his Sulphur character into a woman (Melanie) but Mercury was still male (Mitch).

    In today’s stories we now have the females replacing the male/mind/Mercury role and men in the more feminine Sulphur role. At the base psychological level, this disturbs people. Because we all instinctively know male and female talents are quite different. It also inculcates angst that we are not as “evolved” as we should be, that we are lesser than or we should be ashamed that we don’t fit these archetypes. The Harry Potter series is a case example of the inversion and how it hurts children who need to be taught reality and how it works which the story did not do.

    I give a pass to this film. Because its argument is that Cobb was the mind/Mercury in his marriage to Mal (he designed the labyrinths). But he took on the more feminine aspect after her death due to his guilt. However I still have a problem with Ariadne. She just isn’t that believable as the male aspect. Now if the film united Ariadne and Arthur or even Ariadne and Eames, I think it would been more balanced.

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