OPENING SCENE ANALYSIS: WASHED ASHORE/DREAM ON A TRAIN
The Warner Bros logo opens in stark black and white. Followed by Legendary Pictures and Syncopy while Hans Zimmer’s booming score plays over.
Close up of Leonardo DiCaprio, looking beaten and dishevelled, waking up on the sand as the water crashes around him.
Quick cuts of two children playing, faces unseen, in the sand in slow motion as DiCaprio struggles to get up.
The combination of editing and camerawork make the children look like they could be DiCaprio’s characters dream or a mirage.
Japanese soldiers pull him up and the camera pans up to a large Japanese castle atop the sand. The soldiers drag him inside to meet an old japanese man (Ken Watanabe). The camera zooms in from behind Watanabe to develop the mystery of the narrative.
The soldiers also place DiCaprio’s gun and a mysterious totem on the table.
The soldiers drag DiCaprio’s character inside the room to meet Watanabe. DiCaprio quickly eats while the old man tells him he knows what the totem is and that he’s seen it many years ago. He says he remembers it was used by a radical man in some half remembered dream. As he describes this man Nolan cuts to a close up of DiCaprio slowly looking up as if he knows the man too (or he is the man).
Nolan then mixes non-diegetic voice-over of DiCaprio speaking more confidently about parasites over his perplexed expression and then quickly cuts to diegetic sound while a younger, well-groomed Ken Watanabe eats. We then see Leonardo DiCaprio also looking younger and well groomed chatting about the idea of stealing people’s thoughts through their dreams. The cut back in time is only visible by Watanabe and DiCaprio appearing younger. The mise-en-scene of the room is exactly the same. Nolan doesn’t make it easy in these opening scenes for the viewer to comprehend what and where this plot is going. Only through his artful visual style and mysterious conversations between characters do we want to know what will happen next.
The following scene includes DiCaprio speaking about the idea of stealing people’s ideas and memories through their dreams. We are still in Watanabe’s office as Nolan quickly cuts to other characters who appear to be selling this idea with DiCaprio to Watanabe’s character. We also meet Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, who appears to be worried about DiCaprio’s demeanour. We learn Watanabe’s characters name is Saito. Both DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt are wearing suits with bow ties and slicked back hair, which illustrates their professionalism and high stature.
As DiCaprio explains dream extraction he remarks that he is the best at what he does and that he can steal any idea or memory from anyone no matter how deep it is. DiCaprio refers to secrets as being in a “safe” in the mind. He needs to know all of their deep secrets in order to extract the information he needs from someone’s dream. As DiCaprio finishes, Saito thanks them for their time and walks out of the room. Gordon-Levitt’s character gives a darting look to DiCaprio as if something is wrong. He says “He knows” as the chandeliers and everything in the room starts shaking. DiCaprio looks at his watch and Nolan uses an extreme close up and slow motion as the hand ticks over.
Jump cut to an explosion in a busy street. Looks like it could be India or a Middle-Eastern country by the people running around the street in a panic.
Then another quick cut to DiCaprio sleeping in a nearby hotel room. Another man (Lucas Haas) races in to see him. He finds Saito asleep with tubes in his arm on a dirty bed. It is revealed that the previous scene must have been a dream and possibly a sales pitch on the idea of entering each others dreams. Haas character is panicked as he looks out the window of the street exploding with car bombs. We find Gordon-Levitt asleep too with tubes attached. We cut back to the Japan castle dream with DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt discussing how Saito knows he’s in a dream. They come across an exotic beautiful woman watching them played by Marion Cotillard. “What’s she doing here” says Gordon-Levitt showing they encountered her before in people’s dreams. “I’ll take care of it” says DiCaprio confidently. The score turns to a more romantic beat also as he approaches her showing a shift away from the chaos around them.
“If I jump will I survive…” says the woman.
“A clean dive perhaps…Mal what are you doing here?” says DiCaprio revealing the characters name and their familiarity with each other. With DiCaprio’s tailored suit and Cotillard’s exotic beauty we get shades of a James Bond 007 adventure, especially with the opening scenes ultimately revolving around a heist and a betrayal from his beauty. Later we see DiCaprio climbing the building with a rope and wandering around with a gun with a silencer, which is very reminiscent of Bond. Nolan also frames later scenes involving the heists as a 007 or Mission: Impossible caper adventure.
DiCaprio asks her what she’s doing there and she responds that she misses him. He replies he misses her too, showing a possible romantic past between the two. The scene jumps to them in a hotel room. These quick cuts give us the feeling of being in a dream. Not quite sure where we are and how we got there. DiCaprio knows Mal, possibly romantically, but appears annoyed she’s there almost as if she could ruin the deal for them. She also comments “How are the children?” could the children from the opening scenes be theirs?
As DiCaprio goes on his 007 adventure he is soon caught by Saito and Mal as Gordon-Levitt is dragged in by henchmen. Mal puts a gun to his head. DiCaprio gives up his gun and gives him the envelope he retrieved. Saito tells him that we’re asleep and demands to know the name of his employer. DiCaprio comments that shooting him in a dream has no point. However she quickly details the rules of this dream that getting shot in the leg will still hurt. She does so and DiCaprio quickly shoots him in the head thereby waking him up. The castle collapses around them. DiCaprio escapes and opens the envelope revealing confidential material. As the castle collapses the others try and wake him up in the hotel. They push DiCaprio into a bathtub (the kick). As he falls slow motion into the tub, the castle fills with water. The dream is collapsing around him.
A wet awake DiCaprio interviews Saito now in reversed roles from earlier. Saito reveals they were in an audition for dream stealing. He says they’ve failed only to quickly be revealed that they are actually in another dream. They are sitting in a train with tubes attached to them. They are awoken with a new kick, a song ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ by Edith Piaf. Saito is impressed and it is revealed they are in Haas dream. Gordon-Levitt asks DiCaprio “What was that?” referring to Mal. He responds “He has it under control.” As they rush off with their intel. Saito wakes up and they have left. He has a smirk on his face showing he’s impressed.
The first 15 minutes are a fast paced introduction to a plot that only gets deeper and more confounding as the film goes on. DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt’s names aren’t revealed and we are whisked away into the action trying to keep up with the plot and character beats. What have we learnt? DiCaprio is a confident and skilled dream catcher with a mysterious and possibly dangerous past with a beautiful woman named Mal. We know this relationship will create further problems down the road. Gordon-Levitt is a trusted aid who isn’t happy with his boss DiCaprio’s relationship with Mal. He does however trust him due to his loyalty. Ken Watanbe’s Saito is a rich and powerful figure who has hired this team to extract secrets from his mind as a possible job interview for a later mission. A mission, which may lead him to becoming an old man “filled with regret”. Their paths will cross again in this alternate future where he has aged and DiCaprio appears the same age although beaten and defeated as he meets him once again.
Coming off the successful The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan was beginning to demonstrate a certain auteuristic flow to his movies. Begin with an explosive introduction scene, which puts the viewer directly in the middle of the action without providing exposition or character descriptions just like the inventive bank heist opening of The Dark Knight and the opening plane sequence from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Inception falls in the middle of those two films and follows that structure with a fast paced opening filled with surprises and excitement. The audience has a brief introduction to Dom Cobb played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Mal (Marion Cotillard), Saito (Ken Watanabe) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). We are introduced to the ideas of travelling into each others dreams and extracting information. We also briefly see the relationship between Saito and Dom, Dom and Mal, Dom and Arthur. An excellent opening sequence that sets the stage for an exciting and innovative narrative. After the opening the pace slows down (only slightly) to introduce the characters further and delve into the films overall plot.
Saito: Don’t you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone!
As the plot progresses from the introduction scenes we discover more about Dom and his family. Dom spins his totem on a table and watches it fall as he speaks to his children who are in an undisclosed location. They are staying with their grandparents and Dom speaks to them with sadness and regret in his face and voice.
Dom and Arthur meet up with Saito who has Nash (Lucas Haas) as a hostage. He wants them to work for him. We discover what “Inception” is. Instead of stealing a secret from someone’s dream, inception involves planting an idea in someone’s subconscious and making it seem like they thought of the idea all along. Saito wants them to perform inception on Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) the son of a dying energy conglomerate named Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite), who is also Saito’s business competitor. Saito wants Cobb and his team to make Robert dissolve the company once he inherits it. Although Arthur is sceptical of the idea of inception, Dom is confident it can be done. He agrees to the deal when Saito offers him the chance of immunity from the government and to see his children again. From the earlier scene of Cobb talking to his estranged children we can slowly unravel the mystery of Cobb and Mal’s relationship and how it must have ended in tragedy, with Cobb on the run and Mal infiltrating their dreams. Cobb reveals to Arthur that he has done inception before and it worked.
A PARIS ARCHITECT
In Paris, Dom meets Miles (Michael Caine) his father who is a college professor. Miles taught Dom how to build and infiltrate dreams. Dom tells him about this last job that will ensure his ticket back to America and his children. He asks him for his best and brightest Architect. Miles introduces him to Ariadne (Ellen Page). We discover more about the ideas of travelling into dreams and how it involves an architect designing dreams for them to visit.
BUILDING WITHIN A DREAM
Cobb: You create the world of the dream, you bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious.
Ariadne: How could I ever acquire enough detail to make them think that its reality?
Cobb: Well dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we realize how things are actually strange. Let me ask you a question, you, you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.
Ariadne: I guess, yeah.
Cobb: So how did we end up here?
Ariadne: Well we just came from the a…
Cobb: Think about it Ariadne, how did you get here? Where are you right now?
Ariadne: We’re dreaming?
Cobb: You’re actually in the middle of the workshop right now, sleeping. This is your first lesson in shared dreaming. Stay calm.
Sitting outside a café, Dom explains the idea of building dreams and how the mind works in a dream. As Ariadne begins to discover she is in a dream the world around her starts exploding.
As they wake up we hear ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in the background indicating the kick from before. Cobb explains how time works differently in the dream. Five minutes in the real world can feel like hours in the dream world. He also explains how they need architects to build these dream worlds for them to travel. As they travel back into Ariadne’s dream she discovers that Cobb’s subconscious can manifest into people around them who will try and hurt her if he feels that he’s in a dream. As she is attacked by people around her, Mal approaches and stabs her. As she wakes up in horror, Arthur explains how she needs a totem to indicate that she has woken up.
Arthur: So, a totem. It’s a small object, potentially heavy, something you can have on you all the time…
Ariadne: What, like a coin?
Arthur: No, it has to be more unique than that, like – this is a loaded die.
[Ariadne reaches out to take the die]
Arthur: Nah, I can’t let you touch it, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know the balance and weight of this particular loaded die. That way when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt you’re not in someone else’s dream.
Cobb instructs Arthur to teach Ariadne how to build mazes. He also says he needs Eames (Tom Hardy) a thief to join their team. As Cobb meets Eames in Mombasa, they discuss how they need to perform inception on Robert. Eames tells him about a chemist who can help them go deep into a dream and perform inception. The chemists name is Yusef played by Dileep Rao.
As Arthur continues to train Ariadne about the layout of dreams, he reveals that Mal is dead and what they see in the dreams is just a projection from Dom. Yusef shows Dom, Eames and Saito a new formula he’s been working on that will allow them to dream deep enough to allow inception to work on Robert.
Eames: They come here every day to sleep?
Elderly Bald Man: [towards Cobb] No. They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise, son?
As Cobb goes under, Nolan uses quick cuts of a railway shaking and cuts of Mal telling him he knows where to find her. The mystery of her death becomes deeper.
We discover Eames role in the team. He can replicate people in dreams. Yusef goes on to explain the three levels of the dream and how they need Robert to go under for 10 hours. Saito says he will be on a flight from Sydney to LA which is a 10 hour flight.
Ariadne goes to see Cobb. He is dreaming. She goes under and sees him talking to Mal romantically in what appears to be their old house. He goes in an elevator to the beach from the opening scene and views Mal playing in the sand with their children. There’s another level in the basement, Ariadne sneaks into the elevator and goes there. It’s a hotel room where Mal is waiting.
Mal: What are you doing here?
Ariadne: My name is…
Mal: I know who you are. What are you doing here?
Ariadne: I’m just trying to understand…
Mal: How could you understand? Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole?
Mal: I’ll tell you a riddle. You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you; but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you?
Cobb: Because you’ll be together.
Mal goes on to attack Ariadne as they both rush back to the elevator. Ariadne is worried about the team after this encounter. She asks to go on the mission too.
The team boards the plane and Cobb slips a sleeping pill into Roberts water. They travel into the first dream, which takes place in a rainy city street. They kidnap Robert in a cab as the subconscious begins attacking them in the form of gunmen shooting at them and a large train which runs through the street. A car chase and gun fight ensure as they try and escape. During the gun fight Saito gets shot. They retreat to an abandoned warehouse. Cobb reveals that if they die in this dream they won’t wake up they’ll be trapped in limbo due to the extreme sedation of the drug they took to sleep. Despite Eames protests, Cobb convinces the team to continue with the job.
Eames disguises himself as Peter Browning (Tom Berenger), Robert’s godfather. They pretend to attack him so they can get to Robert’s sympathy.
Meanwhile Ariadne questions Cobb about limbo. Cobb tells her how he was with Mal in limbo for about fifty years. They built cities together. She locked her totem away (which is also Dom’s spin top totem). He says when they woke up she wasn’t the same. Old souls woken up in young bodies. She was convinced they were still dreaming in reality. She believed they had to kill themselves to wake up. Cobb tried to convince her that she was in reality but she wouldn’t let it go. She came up with a plan and went to a hotel room on their anniversary. The same hotel from Cobb’s basement dream. She stood out on the ledge and jumped incriminating Cobb in the process.
Mal: [Sitting on the ledge, to Cobb] I’m asking you to take a leap of faith.
Cobb: No I can’t. You know I can’t do that. Take a second, think about our children. Think about James. Think about Phillipa now.
Mal: If I go without you they’ll take them away anyways.
Cobb: What does that mean?
Mal: I filed a letter with our attourney explaining how I’m fearful for my safety. How you’ve threatened to kill me.
Cobb: Why did you do that?
Mal: I love you, Dom.
Cobb: Why did you… why-why would you do that?
Mal: I freed you from the guilt of choosing to leave them. We’re going home to our real children.
Cobb: No, no, no, no. Mal you listen to me, alright? Mal look at me, please.
Mal: [Closing her eyes] You’re waiting for a train…
Cobb: Mal, goddammit! Don’t do this!
Mal: A train that will take you far away…
Cobb: James and Phillipa are waiting!
Mal: You know where you hope this train will take you…
Cobb: They’re waiting for us!
Mal: But you can’t know for sure…
Cobb: Mal, look at me!
Mal: Yet it doesn’t matter…
Cobb: Mal, goddammit!
Mal: Because you’ll be together.
Cobb: Sweetheart! Look at me!
Mal: [Jumps off of the ledge]
Cobb: Mal, no! Jesus Christ!
Ariadne tries to convince him that it wasn’t his fault. She believes he needs to tell the others about what’s happening. They then move on to continue the mission. They move on to the next level.
Cobb says to do Mr. Charles a gambit that includes telling the mark that they are in a dream causing their subconscious to start fighting them. In a café, Eames disguises himself as a young blonde lady, who flirts with Robert. Cobb comes up and reveals that she stole his wallet. He then tells him he’s part of his security team (subconscious security) and that they are in a dream. As Cobb explains the situation to Robert. Saito and Eames begin running through a hotel hallway. The level one dream begins affecting the level two dream. The café begins shaking around them as everyone in the café looks at him. He begins to understand he’s in a dream. Cobb can see his children playing in the hotel lobby. Arthur and Ariadne also move into the hotel hallway looking for something. They capture Peter and make Robert believe that he is in on it somehow. He asks him that the kidnappers were working for him. Peter tells him he didn’t want him to throw away the business because of his father’s final taunt. Peter tells him he can build a better company than he ever thought. Cobb tells Robert that he’s lying and that they need to go into his subconscious to complete inception. The rest of the team stays behind in order to complete the kick.
Cobb goes into Robert’s subconscious with Ariadne which is represented by a snowy mountain. Meanwhile Arthur works to make a kick by exploding the elevators in the hotel. What follows is a fast paced scene that jump cuts between each level with each team member on the run. Yusef driving them. Arthur running down a low gravity hallway and Cobb fighting henchmen in the snow.
As Robert enters the building Mal comes in and shoots Robert. Cobb quickly shoots Mal with a sniper rifle. Robert is sent into limbo and it appears the mission is over. Ariadne says there is still a way. They can go find him in another level. Eames has to do a kick for the three of them to return.
They wake up washed ashore a beach. Giant buildings crumble around them. Cobb tells Ariadne that this is the world they built.
He explains how they built it from the memories of their real home. Cobb tells Ariadne a secret about inception. He explains how inception is like a parasite that infects the mind (a callback to Cobb’s opening speech). Mal taunts him and tells him that his reality is in fact a dream. Running away from the government, getting into capers to save his family. Nolan teases the audience at this point to consider Cobb has been dreaming all along. However she is tricking him into staying in limbo with her.
Mal: No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces, the way the projections persecute the dreamer? Admit it: you don’t believe in one reality anymore. So choose. Choose to be here. Choose me.
Cobb explains how she is a projection of his guilt. Guilt over performing inception onto her. Making her believe that the reality they woke up to was a dream and thus causing her to kill herself because she believed she would wake up. Cobb blames himself for her death and can’t forgive himself thus her projection taking over every dream.
Mal: You’re infecting my mind!
Cobb: I was trying to save you.
Mal: You betrayed me, but you can still make amends. You can still keep your promise. We can still be together, right here. In the world we built together.
Cobb asks her for Fischer in exchange for him. She reveals where Fischer is, Ariadne says they can leave but Cobb says Saito is still here and he has to find him. Ariadne shoots Mal and kicks Fischer off the building which wakes him up. Fischer goes on to open the safe in the previous level and finds his dying father inside. His father is saying “disappointed”. Fischer says he knows he’s disappointed, but his father says he was disappointed he tried. He points to his drawer which contains another safe with his will inside and a spinning fan toy which represents his youth. Fischer cries into his fathers arms, the inception worked. Eames blows up the building to wake them up to the next level. The kick wakes up Ariadne and she leaves Cobb to find Saito.
Nolan jump cuts to each dream to show everyone wake. Cobb stays behind with Mal.
Mal: We’d be together forever. You promised me.
Cobb: I know. But we can’t. And I’m sorry.
Mal: You remember when you asked me to marry you? You said you dreamt that we’d grow old together.
Cobb: But we did. We did. You don’t remember?… I miss you more than I can bear, but… we had our time together. And I have to let go… I have to let you go.
Cobb kisses her goodbye as he makes peace with himself. Robert and Browning make it out of the water. The rest of the team wake up while Cobb remains asleep. Robert tells his uncle that he’s going to leave the business behind and become his own man. Nolan reveals he’s speaking to Eames disguised as Peter.
Nolan then goes back to the beginning and shows Cobb washed ashore and taken to an aged Saito. Cobb tells him he’s there to remind him…
Saito: Have you come to kill me? I’ve been waiting for someone…
Cobb: Someone from a half remembered dream.
Saito: Cobb? Impossible. We were young men together. I’m an old man.
Cobb: Filled with regret…
Saito: Waiting to die alone…
Cobb: I’ve come back for you… to remind you of something. Something you once knew…
[the top spins without end]
Cobb: That this world is not real.
Saito: To convince me to honor our arrangement.
Cobb: To take a leap of faith, yes. Come back… so we can be young men together again. Come back with me…
[Saito reaches for the gun]
Cobb: Come back…
Nolan cuts to Cobb waking up in the plane. Mission accomplished. The inception worked and Saito will live to his agreement.
Nolan uses close ups of Cobb to show his shock in his achievement. As Cobb goes through airport security his passport is accepted and he passes his team as they collect their luggage. He meets Miles and goes home to meet his children. He puts his totem on the table and spins it to see if he’s still dreaming but ignores it and goes to greet his children. Nolan finally reveals their faces as he slowly pans back to the table to show the totem still spinning…
Fade to black.
Song: Edith Piaf – Non, je ne regrette rien