This isn’t a review of Inception but a careful outline of the plot. Many complain that the film is confusing to follow (on first viewing anyway) and even that it violates its own rules of the dream world. While I don’t think it’s a fraction as confusing or inconsistent as some critics make it out to be, there are a few points where I could use more closure. Please leave comments if you think any part of this analysis is askew, or if other parts of the plot demand clarity.
I’ll review the film later, but for now simply note that while it’s very good, I don’t agree with Doug Chaplin that it’s Nolan’s best, certainly not as good as The Dark Knight, and perhaps not even Memento though admittedly close. My one problem with Inception is the remarkable lack of character development over two and a half hours. The actors do a fine job with what they’re given, but aside from Leo Di Caprio’s Cobb, we don’t get to know them well. (In stark contrast, The Dark Knight‘s two and a half hour length gave us an intimate look at almost every character.) But that’s an admittedly small complaint, given that the film’s strengths lie elsewhere. And Doug is right about the tempus fugit effect of watching it: it certainly doesn’t feel like a long film at all — almost as if we’re dreaming it ourselves.
THE PLOT OF INCEPTION
The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive (Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cilian Murphy) so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a very deep level, a third-level dream — a dream within a dream within a dream — where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up or falling into limbo escalate dramatically.
The level one traffic dream is dreamed by Yusuf (Dileep Rao) on the airplane (level zero). Saito is shot on this level and starts dying. The team captures Fischer, and Eames (shapechanged as Fischer’s right hand man, Browning) tells him they’ve been torturing him (Browning) to get the combination to his father’s safe, and that his father left an alternate will in the safe allowing him to dissolve the empire if he so chooses. The first seed is planted: that Fischer may not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fischer’s defensive projections zero in on the Inception team, who flee in a van. They are relentlessly chased and shot at in busy traffic. Yusuf stays behind on this level to keep driving the van as the rest of the team go to sleep and enter the level two dream. He will signal down to level two when he’s ready to initiate a kick by driving the van off a bridge.
The level two hotel dream is dreamed by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the van on level one. Saito continues dying on this level from the previous gun wound. Cobb (posing as “Mr. Charles”) convinces Fischer that the Inception team are Fischer’s own defensive projections to help fend of dream invaders, and that Fischer’s actual defensive projections are the enemy invaders; they encounter Fischer’s projection of Browning, whom Fischer accuses of working with the kidnappers and wanting the alternate will for himself. The Browning projection says he can’t just let Fischer destroy the empire by rising to his father’s last taunt — to build something for himself. Fischer’s subconscious is feeding these ideas given by Eames on the first level, so in effect Fischer is by now giving himself the ideas. The second seed is planted: that Fischer can create something for himself. The Inception team succeeds in recruiting Fischer on this level, convincing him that Browning isn’t telling the whole truth, and pretend to use Browning’s subconscious to enter level three and determine his motives (but of course they’re still using Fischer’s subconscious). Arthur stays behind on level two to watch over the rest of the team as they go to sleep in the hotel room and enter the level three dream. He will signal down to level three when he hears Yusuf’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by detonating the charges he planted in the ceiling of the room below, bringing the dreamers through the floor.
The level three snow-fort dream is dreamed by Eames (Tom Hardy) in the hotel room on level two, who then stays behind on level three when Cobb and Ariadne unexpectedly have to enter limbo in order to retrieve Fischer when he is killed by Mal. They hook up to the dreamware and navigate their way to limbo as Cobb had learned how to do long ago with Mal. Eames will signal down to limbo when he hears Arthur’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by planting explosives on the building to make it drop. They are only guessing that limbo might function as a “level four dream” this way in being responsive to kicks. Saito finally dies on this level after Cobb and Ariadne go to limbo.
The limbo level is dreamed by no one, since it is a place of shared consciousness. (On levels one to three, each dreamer’s dream is filled by Fischer’s subconscious.) It contains nothing other than decaying remains of whatever was built by those who had been there before, such as Cobb and Mal. Cobb and Ariadne find Mal, who gives up Fischer only after extracting a promise from Cobb to remain with her in limbo. Ariadne learns from Cobb that one can escape limbo by dying in it (he tells how he and Mal freed themselves from limbo after fifty years by throwing themselves in front of a train), and so she pushes Fischer off a building and then throws herself off likewise, not bothering to wait for the kick from Eames on level three (and they were never quite sure they could be kicked out of limbo as in “regular” level dreams anyway). Cobb remains behind, telling Ariadne that Saito must have died by now and he needs to find him (lest Saito succumb to the lure of limbo and decide to stay there forever, believing it to be reality; Cobb of course needs him to clear him of charges so that he can go home). Ariadne warns him not to lose himself as he did before with Mal.
Back on level three Eames resuscitates Fischer with the defibrillator (after Ariadne frees him from limbo by killing him) who then enters the hospital room and meets his dying father. The third and most critical seed is planted, thus completing the mission: that Fischer Sr. never wanted his son to be like him. Note that Saito cannot be resuscitated the same way since he has been dying on all three levels of the dream, unlike the case of Fischer, whose bodies remain intact on levels one and two; and even if Saito could be resuscitated this way, he is still lost below in limbo. He becomes trapped there, believing it to be reality (like Mal did). Cobb also loses himself in limbo, until he eventually finds a very aged Saito and kills/liberates him.
So when the mission is completed on level three (Fischer meeting his dying father), the kick from level two (the elevator falling down the shaft) snaps Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level three dream and they wake up on level two. Then the kick from level one (the van hitting the water) snaps Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level two dream and they wake up on level one. Finally, after a few days of milling about on level one, Arthur, Eames (still shapechanged as Browning on this level), Ariadne, and Fischer get “kicked” up to reality when the sedation wears off on the plane. Cobb and Saito wake up too, but they had to wait many years since they were stranded down in limbo.
Note: The first kick on level one — the van falling off the bridge — was missed, as the mission was still unfulfilled and no kicks from levels three or two had taken place yet. The team would be given a second chance when the van hit the water, but because the level one dreamers were now in freefall, the level two dreamers became suspended likewise, thereby requiring Arthur to come up with a new and creative kick for zero-g environment (the elevator falling down the shaft). (The van’s freefall didn’t effect the gravity of the level three dream, only the level immediately below.)
Note: It appears that kicks can be resisted. (1) When the the first kick on level one is missed (the van falling off the bridge), it at least should have woken up Arthur, since he was awake (and not dreaming like the others) on level two. (2) Similarly, the kick on level three (the fort crumbling and falling) should have woken up Cobb from limbo (assuming that one can get kicked out of limbo like this, which the team is unsure of), but didn’t. Obviously Arthur needed more time on level two to initiate a kick there, and Cobb needed to find Saito in limbo. The implication is that (trained dream invaders?) can resist kicks.
Regarding time: We are told that ten hours of real time (on the airplane) translates into seven days in a level one dream, six months in a level two dream, and ten years in a level three dream (and God only knows how much in limbo). So when the van has a mere (three?) seconds to hit the water, that should translate into one minute on level two and twenty minutes on level three. We are indeed told that the team on level three has twenty minutes to complete their mission after they miss the first kick, but we’re told that Arthur has three minutes (not one) to initiate a kick on level two — and it sure seems like it takes longer than three minutes (let alone one) for him to bind everyone up and rig the elevator.
Finally, the ending is left wonderfully ambiguous, since it’s not clear if the totem tops or not. Did Cobb stay down in limbo or go home? Given Chris Nolan’s penchant for the tragic, I prefer to think the former. Notice that when he finally meets his kids, they appear exactly as he remembers them, in the same clothes, not having aged a day. I believe that Cobb decided to remain in a dream with his wife and kids, rather than in reality with his kids alone.
UPDATE (7/21/10) Here’s my actual review.
UPDATE (7/23/10): I stand by everything said in this post except the last paragraph. Eagle-eyed Vic Holtreman points out that at the end Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB). So Cobb’s homecoming is probably real after all.