A Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream: An Inception Explanation

Sunday, October 16 by John Coon

If you ask two different people for an "Inception" explanation, you are guaranteed to get two different answers. Getting a handle on what the movie "Inception" means is about as easy as solving a Rubik's cube. Figuring out when they are dreaming and when they are awake can give the average movie fan a headache. Understanding what really happened in the ending of the movie requires mental exercises as intense as any yoga or pilates class. This guide to offering a sound "Inception" explanation will not just turn you into an instant expert on dreams and dream theory, it will open a door to a whole world of spinning tops and crumbling buildings along vast stretches of beaches.

To understand "Inception" you need:

  • A copy of the movie on DVD or streamed to your computer or TV
  • A remote control for pausing and rewinding to watch key parts again and again
  • Enough free time to actually figure this movie out.

Rules of the dream world. Understanding "Inception" begins with knowing what the rules exist in the dream world. The first rule is all dreams contain deeper levels within the dream. The deeper you descend into a dream, the farther away your mind journeys from reality. Going deeper makes it increasingly difficult to awake from your dream. Time slows down and distinguishing between dream and reality becomes a chore. Reaching the limbo state can make you forget what the real world is actually like and you become trapped there, accepting that place as your reality.

Roles of the characters. Each person that goes into the dream world with Leonardo DiCaprio's character, David Cobb, serves a purpose in understanding how the storyline unfolds. Cobb is the extractor, who functions like the classic con man who assembles a team to pull off a big heist. He creates a set of circumstances to manipulate the mark into revealing their secrets. The mark is the person who the extractor and his team are trying to con. The architect builds the dream world the extractor uses to manipulate the mark. They build levels using real world details to fool the mark into thinking it is reality. The dreamer is the one who houses a level of dream within their mind and the mark is brought into their subconscious mind. The forger is used to imitate real world people the mark knows, down to their mannerisms and handwriting, to fuel the con. Mal, Cobb's wife, and her shadow acts as a vessel expressing doubts as to which place is actually real — the dream world or the real world?

The ending. When the camera cuts away from the top spinning before the end credits, it fuels speculation. Did Cobb and Saito escape limbo? Or is Cobb still in a dream state? There are evidences to support both views, but the ending being a dream state feels like the stronger possibility. The appearance of Cobb's children has not changed from his memories of them, making it seem plausible that they are simply projections of his inner desires. Everything wraps up so perfectly, like it had been scripted that way in a dreamer's mind. 

Since the audience never sees the top fall over, they are left to their own conclusions. The key interpretation to take away is that the film goes from Cobb being obsessed with reality to not really caring what is real, as long as he is happy. The whole point is that our reality is whatever we choose to be our reality.