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Inception Explained - Metaphysics, Reality, & The Deepest Levels A Mind Can GoI’ve always liked the movie Inception. When I first saw it however, like many others, I didn’t really understand it. But a few years later, I watched it again, had a new understanding and wrote this blog post: “What Is Inception About? It’s Probably Not What You Thought.” While the post never went viral or anything, it has continued to garner hits and show up in internet searches and I’d like to think that it’s one of the significant interpretations out there worth actual consideration

However, time passes and changes and so does our reflections and interpretations. Inception has regularly stayed on my mind over the past nearly 3 years since my original post. And I now have some new, even deeper, realizations. Sure, maybe I’m digging in too deep, past where the film’s creator meant an audience member to travel. Or perhaps I’ve allowed myself to see what others don’t.

Either way, in the midst of it all, Inception has managed to find its’ way to My #1 Favorite Film Of All Time spot. So there’s that. I now feel that in some ways, this movie is so on-the-nose that most people probably miss it. But it’s all there. If only you let yourself see it.

(And if for some crazy reason this post ever makes it all the way to Christopher Nolan himself – thank you very much for this movie. And thank you very much that a mind like yours exists. I deeply appreciate the intertwined struggles of both logic and emotion in all your films.)

Ok, ok, ok, enough of my love letter to the film and director, 😁 Let’s just go straight to the deepest, most meta analysis of Inception my mind can possibly reach (at least so far):

But first, in my original blog post, I concluded with the stance that there is only one true reality, whether or not we want to accept it. I still believe this – or a least what I originally meant by it – but I’ve come to understand a wider mindset about what we perceive as reality. 

When I claimed that there was only one true reality, I used the word reality to mean a steadfast constant, a sort of philosophical Absolute Truth. Even if we cannot experience or perceive true reality, I believe that true reality still exists. I believe in an underlying foundation that governs our rules for reasoning, math, and science. In this sense, I believe that there are things that we can affect and things we cannot. If a person dies, they are dead, regardless whether or not we want to accept that reality as truth. This is what I meant in my original post.

Ok. Since I already warned you that we’re getting all deep and metaphysical here in this post….here goes:


1) Our Perception of Reality

The other day, someone left a comment on my original Inception blog post. They claimed that I didn’t understand what the movie was about (but of course that *they* did 😂) and hinted that I needed to figure out what Nolan was trying to tell me

I might be wrong, but I suspect that what the person who commented was attempting to allude to was this: that our perception of our reality may not be “real”. That we are all living in our own “dream state” – seeing the world not as it is, but as we choose to see it. 

Though this is a pretty heavy idea that the average person probably hasn’t spent much time thinking about – this is not a new concept either. Two examples:

Ancient Example: Plato’s Allegory of The Cave
If you’re unfamiliar with this story – the gist is that there’s some prisoners chained in a cave who only know a very basic reality with no notion of the outside world; all they can see are shadows on the wall in front of them. One day one of them escapes the cave, experiences the world outside for the first time, and then later attempts to return to the other prisoners and tell them about the outside world, but they are incapable of comprehending any reality other than the one they’ve always known. 

Modern Example: several Black Mirror episodes: “White Christmas”, “San Junipero”, “Men Against Fire”, and “Hang The DJ”.
if you’re unfamiliar with Black Mirror, omg, you have to watch it. Maybe my favorite t.v. show of all time. But a basic gist of these episodes is that our understanding of our current reality is not actual reality, but instead a simulated or controlled reality. In all of these episodes, the character within the alternate reality becomes aware of the existence of a truer reality, yet not all characters choose to, or are able to, escape out of their perceived realities. 

Inception brings into question our perception of what we consider to be reality. What parts are real? What parts are a dream/not reality? How can we know the difference? Are totems, i.e. devices we use to measure truth by, reliable? 

See Related Post:  My Grandest Adventure...and A Dabbling Into the Metaphysics of Time

Is reality subjective? Is truth? 

Yes, these questions are meant to make your mind spin. (hey…the top in Inception spins too….coincidence??)

Personally, I still stand by my belief in some sort of Absolute Objective Reality – but I’ve become more open to the idea of multiple perceptions of reality and that perhaps how we view our current reality is not the only iteration of our reality. But that’s going off on some major metaphysical, theoretical, astrophysical, existential tangents here, so we’ll table the rest of this discussion for another day. 😁

In the meantime though, Inception asks us some big questions. Can we choose what we believe, even in our deepest core? Can we convince ourselves of a “truth” that we previously knew to be untrue? Can a person actually be ‘inceptioned’? 

And perhaps most importantly…can we ‘inception’ ourselves? (See #4)


2) Insight Into the Artist’s Mind

As I mentioned above, I very highly respect the writer/director of this film. I’ve never met him, and I generally don’t like to presume what’s going on in another person’s mind that I don’t know and who wishes to remain private. But I have a sense that there’s a deeply personal element to this film that speaks quite a bit to the nature of his creative process. 

I should point out that Nolan’s wife is very much still alive. When I say that I sense a personal element, I do not mean literally. 

I mean this three ways:

The storyteller
I talked about this some in my original post, but Inception is basically an analogy of the art of filmmaking. A writer/director, like a dream’s architect, creates a world. An audience, like a dreamer, is placed into the world and fills in the gaps with their own subconscious. At the end of the film, just as at the end of a dream, the audience walks away with a memory of the film, yes. But most importantly, they walk away – or wake up – with a feeling of what took place in it. We typically remember our FEELING about an event. Not the actual details. Feelings affect our memories. Memories affect our beliefs. In the movie, Cobb is able to pull off the ‘inception’ of Fisher, affecting his beliefs by affecting his memories by affecting his feeling attached to an event (the moment portrayed in the picture of the dad with a young Fisher and the pinwheel). 

How does a filmmaker elicit such deep emotional reactions from an audience? By setting up a world that allows the audience to feel what they already want to feel

The intensely creative
Again, I do not know Christopher Nolan personally, but I would venture to say that he is an intensely creative individual. And, for better or worse, I believe there is a reason why the persona of “tortured artist” exists. Because at a certain level of creative genius, one must wrestle with increasingly complex ideas, skirting the line between what is real and what is imaginary, exploring vast wildernesses of mental explorations, constantly reaching out as far as possible without loosing grip on their tow line back to reality. 

The character of Cobb going down many layers into his subconscious is illustrative of how a filmmaker such as Nolan must also venture down into the far recesses of his mind into order to tap into his creative potential. Cobb’s concept of totems is the same as a mental compass that keeps a creative individual’s mind from going completely off course.

Acceptance of Reality
Similar to #1 above, a deeply creative artist, after having spent a great deal of time in his or her own head creating entire worlds, ideas, and characters that feel very real to them – they must choose to reject their created world as a non-reality and recognize another world (the real world) as real instead. Snapping back to reality is not always as easy as it may seem. Sometimes we’d rather keep dreaming.


3) The Importance of Mazes, aka Distractions

Inception Explained - Metaphysics, Reality, & The Deepest Levels A Mind Can Go
Maybe I should’ve named her Ariadne? (Awesome worksheet from Story of the World, Vol. 1 homeschool history curriculum.)

When Cobb first meets Ariadne, he asks her to create a maze. When I first watched the film I assumed this was some kind of cognitive ability test. But upon further reflection I realize that it’s more than that – the theme of a maze is central to the entire idea of ‘inception’. 

In my original post I talked about the character of Ariadne and the Greek mythology of Theseus figuring out a maze, killing an evil minotur at the center of it, and escaping back out with her help. Her character’s name is not a coincidence here. 

See Related Post:  Into the Woods. Pt. 3: Grand Philosophical Conclusions

Cobb’s Maze
Cobb realizes that the only way to escape the memories of his dead ex-wife that he no longer wants is to create enough distraction and confusion in his own mind so that he can no longer find those memories. In the Greek story, it would’ve been too simple for Theseus to simply walk up to the evil minotaur, kill it, and walk away; the minotaur was much too formidable a foe. By enclosing itself in the middle of an unsolvable maze, even if an attacker were able to reach and kill the minotaur, the attacker would become trapped in the maze forever, and even in death the minotaur would’ve still won. 

In Inception, Mal is the minotaur, and Ariadne is well, Ariadne who gives Cobb a figurative, but steadfast, thread with which to find his way back out of the maze after destroying the minotaur.

Our Mazes
To bring this concept out of the film and into the metaphysical – as humans, we wrap ourselves up in subconscious mental mazes all the time. We comprehend our perspective of reality through complex lenses of understanding. We look to society, to celebrities, to political and historical figures, to religions, to ideologies, etc. to help us understand the world in front of us. We willingly submit ourselves to these complicated mazes of belief in order to help us perceive our reality. We want to believe in our religion’s understanding of God, or that our chosen political candidate is mostly infallible, or that our dead wife lost her own grip on reality and that *we’re* the ones in the *real* world. So we form complex puzzles in our mind in order to distract ourselves away from a possible truth we don’t want to believe

It’s no wonder that the film Inception feels much like one huge visual puzzle – the layers, the twists, the story elements that pop up again and again in seemingly unconnected scenes. The movie is a maze. All the details of how the dream layers work, the visual wonder of folding a street scene onto itself, the plot of planting a thought in a rich heir’s mind? They’re all set up to distract you from a truth that you might not want to believe: 


4) There’s only ONE act of inception in Inception.

The first, and only, act of “inception” that takes place in this film is not Fisher believing his father was dissapointed in him, or Mal believing that her world was not the real world – but Cobb’s own “self-inception” convincing himself that Mal was wrong and that this world without her is, in fact, the “real” world. 

Did Mal commit suicide? Or did she “fake die” in a dream so she could return to the actual reality with her kids like she believed? Could Mal have been right all along? Could her understanding of reality be the real one, and Cobb’s the fake?

As I stated in my original post – yes, this entire movie, all the complicating details of it – is Cobb’s mental processing. His own mental maze, complete with a self-created Ariadne character to help him help himself get to the depth of his mind, destroy an idea he doesn’t want to be true, and get back out again with a new belief that his present reality is actual reality. He chooses to accept that his kids are real. He chooses to move forward in life and accept a truth that he can never know for sure is true.

And of course, this brings us right back to the biggest, most burning question of all: 

Does the top keep spinning? 

You know what? You’re gonna hate me for this, but it really, really, really doesn’t matter whether or not it falls. That is the entire point – that Cobb is no longer plaguing his mind trying to decide which reality is the true reality – he has chosen his reality and is committing to it 100%. His reality is his life with his children. Without his wife, who he’s convinced himself lost HER grip on reality and committed suicide.

That’s all that matters to him now. 

There are some things that we can question and question and question and question and never really know.  

Some of those things we never have to know for sure either way.

And some of those things we convince ourselves are true in order to go on…even though they might not actually be. 

 

 

As with my original Inception post – I welcome challenges to my interpretation. Feel free to leave me a comment and let me know whether or not you agree with my theories. 

 

 

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