Welcome to 7 Layers of Inception, wherein we have been discussing this movie since its release. Also, if you are confused on how the totems work, you can find a great discussion about them over here.
Let me just say that when I first walked out of the theater – I was pretty clueless. I was still coming down from the euphoria that I’m sure washes over most any normal viewer:
“Awww, he got back to his kids. How fantastic is that?”
“Oh, But what was that one bit – and why did that happen – and how the heck did he… “
And eventually as I continued to ponder the movie more and more the walls came tumbling down. I mean, really, this is a Nolan movie after all. What was I expecting? So this is just one man’s opinion of what actually might have happened right in front of our eyes. The layer below the layer, if you will. And to walk you through it the most succinct way possible let’s go down to the bottom dream layer and work our way back up to the “top”. From the deepest dream all the way back up to the very “realest” reality experienced.
DREAM LAYER 7: I can hear you now. “SEVEN? What the HECK?!” Trust me. It’ll make sense soon enough. But yes, I believe there are seven (not counting the splinter levels that run parallel to the main dream layers we see, mind you. Like the two initial dream layers we see with Saito, etc.) stacked levels of Inception goodness piled one upon the other. I could actually argue for a couple more without much effort, but I’ll stick with the ones I know I can easily prove with facts laid out from the movie.
So, remember with me for a second. Saito gets shot in layer 1 of the Inception gig. Right? He’s hurt pretty badly. The lower he goes in the dreams the less impact it has on him… but none the less, he’s not in good shape. Then comes the final stand in the Inception gig’s level 3 – the Alps fortress. He tosses the hand grenade down the ventilator shaft and dies. From there we are told that those who die that deeply sedated go into a limbo world potentially never to return and their minds turn to mush. Cobb knows that he either needs to get Saito back from Limbo or he will spend the rest of his life in jail for killing his wife.
The reason I believe this dream layer is a completely different layer than layer 6 – “Cobb & Mal’s Limbo layer” because it is the same dream layer that we see earlier (both sequentially and chronologically) in the movie that is within Saito’s dream. And even though the movie states that Limbo is a shared void populated by the last inhabitant (Cobb) I still think that we’ve crossed over into Saito’s own dream-limbo world somehow. Visually it is very clear that this is the same location we visited earlier.
DREAM LAYER 6: Level Six is a fascinating world. We catch glimpses of it on and off throughout the duration of the movie. But its only at the end we learn the true reality surrounding what happened in this place. Ariadne and Cobb dive down one more layer in the hopes of finding Saito before slipping off to never-never land. They encounter Mal – and she implores Cobb to wake up. To come back to the world of reality. Cobb dismisses her as a projection of himself. A shade of a memory that he is unable to do justice to.
And remember the very sad truth we learn here? Cobb knows inception is possible because he’s done it before. Right? He’s done it to Mal. And that idea festered there in her brain until she finally agrees to take the train to anywhere – as long as they were together. So, after getting the kick, they arrive at the “real” world – but Mal for some odd reason is still plagued with the idea that it isn’t the real world BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY ISN’T. Cobb watches his wife go insane only because his implanted idea is working – they have not woken up and she knows a truth that even he isn’t aware of. She can’t take it anymore and she seemingly jumps to her death – but in fact this is just her kick – her escape to the very real world awaiting them above.
DREAM LAYER 5: This level is pretty straight forward. Well, as straight forward as anything in a Christopher Nolan storyline anyway. The final goal here was to implant the idea in Robert Fischer Jr.’s mind – that his father actually did love him. That he was only disappointed in the fact that he worked so doggedly to follow in his own footsteps. The team successfully accomplishes the goal – with the final scene there in the vault with Fischer’s father dying and recreating everything Jr. understands about himself.
The only thing I would like to add here is the fact that Fischer Jr.’s catharsis in the vault is about as real as it gets. It’s no less real if he were dreaming – no less real if Cobb is dreaming. Jr. comes to an awareness and to a reality that leaves him absolutely changed. That is the overriding theme in this movie – catharsis and change. To be moved to a new understanding and to a new perspective that was misunderstood before. I believe this is Nolan’s one true goal for everyone in this movie – and Cobb is the only individual that hasn’t come to this much needed catharsis – this grand awakening.
DREAM LAYER 4: Definitely one of the coolest Dream Layers in all of Inception. This is the one we see so much of in all the trailers. The fight scene in the hall way of the hotel as the van is falling off the bridge sends everything into a gravitation-less state. Zero Gravity high-jinks ensue including a bucket load of dynamite and an elevator shaft. This layer complicated matters in that this is where they told Robert Fischer Jr. outright that they were in his dream and only they could protect him.
DREAM LAYER 3: “WHO PUT THAT THERE!” Cobb yells wondering why the heck there was a train barreling down through the center of downtown LA. Thus begins the beginning of the most ambitious plot yet, to deposit an idea into the victim’s mind and get out without alerting him to their presence.
DREAM LAYER 2: The movie – or Christopher Nolan rather – leads us to believe throughout the course of this movie that this layer is the true awake state reality. We are given clues that it is in fact that by seeing Cobb’s totem stop spinning as well as other corroborating details as we return time and again. But think about it a little more carefully and you’ll realize that things in this layer are off.
But don’t dreams seem logical and commonsensical while dreaming them but they don’t add up afterwards? What about the chase scene where Cobb barely squeezes through the collapsing alleyway? Or the fact that Cobb’s children are still wearing the same clothes as the last time he saw them? Remember Cobb’s father’s impassioned plea? “Wake up Cobb! Come back to reality.” And what about the vagueness of this dream-technology that allows people to share dream-states? The only explanation we are given is that it was created by the military to create a place for training. Other than that its completely fanciful idea. But when we wake up it just doesn’t seem right. And what about his being an “extractor” at all. Don’t forget that in dreams we experience exciting and truly exceptional things – like Cobb’s being the best extractor in the world who is so good he could not only steal ideas, but he could also implant them as well.
Nolan places absolutely everything in his movies for very specific reasons. If you have any doubt of this then please go and watch Nolan’s movie The Prestige. And if you have already seen this masterful work of art and haven’t had your AHA! moment, then feel free to have your mind altered here. Or if The Prestige doesn’t grab you – then feel free to get messed with by Nolan’s Memento. Then come back and read my review here. But without further delay – let’s move on to the man behind the curtain – Layer #1!
REALITY: And layer 2, was exactly that – a dream layer throughout. Reality is without a doubt the saddest and most troubling layer of them all. In layer 2 – the top continues to spin… and he chooses to walk off into the sunset with his children and accept that as his reality instead truly pushing to understand what his wife had so clearly spelled out for him. And while Cobb continues to reside in layer two oblivious of reality one layer away, Mal is by Cobb’s bedside pleading with him to wake up. Mal continues to hope that Cobb will wake up from the dream that has swept him away into literal disillusionment. Mal wants nothing more than to have her love return and only if Cobb would take the final leap of faith…
Regardless of how you view the Inception or whatever your theory might be… it is a fantastic movie. The only slight ding I would give it is that the entire movie is a falsehood. The quest to deposit an idea in the Mark’s brain – dream. The attempt to save Saito from the Limbo world – dream. His reunion with his father, mother and children – dream. Normally when heist movies pull this one on us (the painting was stolen before the movie began) I cry foul and pan the movie. But this time, it seems right. Sad, but right. Really? International dream thief? I mean, really?
And all the while, the only constant in this ever-shifting world is Mal. Everything she did was justified, if a bit extreme. She wasn’t the silent saboteur of Cobb’s dreams. She was the true friend and consistent love of his life. She wanted nothing more than to be by his side again and have him come out from inside this dream of hers they were having together. So at the end of the day – this isn’t a summer blockbuster movie… this is a love story. Its a story of madness and loss. All deep and dark refrains that the Academy should reward – though their memory is fairly short and their vision fair too myopic. Would love to hear your thoughts or arguments to the contrary! If this left you wanting more do check out my Top 10 List as well as my Totems Discussion.
And after thousands and thousands of words of discussion below (that have profoundly shaped my opinions above) there is still room for your thoughts and insights. Yeah, I know my theory is far-fetched, but the romantic in me won’t have it any other way. What is your opinion – does the top continue or fall? Is Saito in a lower layer of Limbo or the same one as Cobb’s? How did Cobb traverse the layers back up to the top? Was he awake in layer one and only failed to awaken from Limbo at the end? So many possibilities here and each one with nuances and different spins as seen below. Bring your opinion to the table and leave a comment below.
Edited by, CY