If you haven’t already, read Part 1 here to see our interpretation of the film’s ending.
Part 2 – Taking a Leap of Faith
Being able to visit dreams is no doubt a concept that is difficult to grasp, especially once you try to consider all of the philosophical possibilities attached to such an idea. That this concept forces us to adapt the foundations of our methods of critical thinking, and indeed logic itself, because we are no longer dealing with the “real” but unbridled cognitive enterprise, we must resort to a manner of thinking that requires pure conjectural reasoning and rationality. By this I am suggesting that it would behoove our intentions to successfully explore this movie by thinking more abstractly about it (theoretically, conceptually, etc.), in addition to relying on concrete cues provided by the film’s text* (details observable in some form or fashion that lead to confirmed or implied conclusions). By doing this it may be possible to discover the film’s main goal and purpose.
In other movies where we – as viewers – are encouraged to be hesitant in believing that what we are being shown is “real” (Shutter Island and American Psycho spring to mind) there are a variety of clues to pick up on that are supposed to confirm or discredit our suspicions. Such films (or for that matter narratives) often create this type of condition by using what is referred to as an unreliable narrator. At first, perhaps because he or she is the main character and is the only one addressing us directly (either through actual narration or expository speech), we trust this narrator and provide them with the benefit of the doubt. After all, who better to tell someone’s story than that very person, right? However, what we come to realize at some point is that this narrator, who we have learned to see through the eyes of, does not possess the level of credibility that we require in order for us to take them at their word, no matter how vehemently they attest to their perceptual authority. The key to realizing that a film’s narrator/main character is unreliable is noticing and keeping mind of a crucial flaw that that character possesses. Chris Nolan’s
earlier film Memento uses this same type of storytelling ploy. In that film the narrator’s memory was highly questionable, the sanity of American Psycho‘s narrator gets called into question based almost on the title alone, and the main character in Shutter Island is violently defensive and has vividly tragic dreams (not to also mention that at one point he has a dream within a dream). The crucial flaw in the main character in Inception, Cobb, is that he often doubts whether he is in reality or a dream. A very telling scene is when near the onset of the film he is seen alone in his apartment holding a gun and testing his spinning totem. He is supposedly very aware that he awoke from his last Extraction job and is sitting at home by himself, yet he feels the need to test his perceptions by spinning his totem. If the character we rely on the most often doubts his own ability to tell whether he is awake or dreaming, how can we be expected to fully trust that what he – or we – witness is ever “real”?
Phenomenologist Maurice Merlaeu-Ponty contests that our bodily senses are the medium through which we interact with the world – or what we’ll call “existence.” But he admits freely that our senses are not always reliable, whether because we are dreaming, under the influence of drugs, or what have you. So, if we were looking to test whether we are awake or dreaming we could not rely on simple empirical cues at all (for the moment we’ll include totems as well). So what does that leave us with? How are we supposed to be able to tell if we are awake or dreaming if we can’t trust what we see, smell, hear, taste, and feel? The answer might be that we have to rely on things that transcend states of mind, like logic and rationality. For example, 2 + 2 = 4 whether you are awake or dreaming. Now, obviously an example as simple as this is not going to help differentiate a dreamworld from reality in the sense that you can always do simple addition, but if you were to come across an instance when 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4 you would immediately begin to doubt the laws governing your surroundings, which could lead you to questioning your state of mind. René Descartes called this type of thinking rationalism, believing that through reason alone we are capable of discovering some indisputable truths. Some of these truths can be discovered through intellectual tools such as arithmetic (as we just saw) and geometry because they deal with nothing but the simplest and most general of facts that do not rely on the presence (or illusion) of tangible things to prove their existence. The film uses geometry to provide illustrations of this line of thought when it shows that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) can create architectural paradoxes when constructing dreamworlds. So if you were either one of them, say, and you came across such a paradox, you would realize that you were in a dream.
So what can we conclude about Inception based on these ideas? Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we can say that since Cobb is an unreliable character we can also feel free to doubt what he sees – particularly what only he sees. By extension, this also means we would have a hard time trusting his spinning totem. What he trusts, we must distrust. Does this mean that we are forced to believe that Cobb is in fact never in reality, and that the entire movie is one giant dream? Not necessarily. Because his perceptions are unreliable we must be willing to believe what he himself doubts. We covered earlier that Cobb seems to always have at least a tiny bit of doubt that he knows whether he is awake or dreaming, which means because he trusts his totem we in turn must distrust it. But because he feels the need to test it, we can’t assume it is wrong all of the time (that is, until we see Saito and his men touch it). Herein lies the problem in figuring out exactly when he is awake (if ever) and when he is dreaming.
The logic behind Cobb’s spinning totem is ingenious, as it seems to test exactly what Descartes suggests is one of the few reliably assessable things in any given dream. If the totem continues to spin uninterrupted it is breaking natural laws of physics (which involve friction, gravity, etc., all of which involve complex math) and therefore is an indication that he is in a dreamworld. Conversely, if the totem ultimately loses balance and topples over it is an indication that the relevant laws of physics (just mentioned) are present and being enforced, thus proving that Cobb is awake and in reality. The reasoning behind Cobb’s totem appears very sound, however one must consider this: unlike basic arithmetic and geometry the physics concerned with the spinning totem are considerably more complex, involving weight, balance, velocity, friction, and (debatably) time. Furthermore, although the witnessing of illogical math and/or geometry would most likely require the presence of such evidence, that evidence does not necessarily require a direct interaction with Cobb himself. The totem and the physics it does or does not represent requires its presence (if only because the totem is in Cobb’s possession at all times) in order for it to be witnessed too, but because Cobb – whose perceptions, and thus all interactions with what he perceives, are unreliable – directly interacts with it we are forced to doubt, at least slightly, that what conclusion it shows is true. Ironically, like when we can’t trust the totem when someone other than Cobb touches it, we can’t even trust it when he does either. To this extent it would seem that the totem is in fact useless, however if by some chance the totem were to somehow begin spinning by itself it would indicate strongly that anyone who was witness to it was dreaming. The odds of the totem behaving in this way, though, would probably be as low as they would be for any inanimate object suddenly moving under its own power in any of his dreams. Perhaps in Cobb’s case his totem really is insignificant in determining his mental state.
But is it completely useless? Thinking outside the universe of the movie, Cobb’s totem could be seen to be a symbolization of the magic that the medium of film is able to achieve. That magic, so to speak, is the occasional result of the medium’s ability to convince audience members such as ourselves that what we see on screen is real. We are of course not convinced to the degree that we are willing to accept a film like Inception to be an accurate representation of reality, but we are arguably convinced to the same degree as if we witnessed such things as we saw in that movie within the confines of a dream. When in a more or less passive state of mind, such as we are when engrossed in a movie, we are far more willing to negotiate with what we see because while we expect that it abides by logic we are open to varying forms of logic. In other words, the world that a movie asks us to believe is real can be taken as such to the extent that its consumption is similar to how we believe unrealistic things when we dream, provided that said movie abides by the very logic it claims exists.
How does this relate back to the totem? Looking back we can see that Cobb’s totem and its purpose in the movie is very similar to the purpose of the story of Inception being told through the medium of film. It has its own logic, which the characters try to convince us is sound and worth relying on in order to not take other aspects about the movie for granted (such as Cobb knowing his mental state). On that same note we also discovered that the logic the totem represents falls in on itself when we consider how unreliable its owner is, and so while it makes sense to trust it we can’t take it for granted either, even though it asks us to. The same can be said for the entire movie as a whole. And so when you reach the end when the screen goes black and we don’t know if the totem continues to spin or falls over we are forced to address our own level of trust in the totem and what it represents. Like with so many movies before Inception and the many that will follow it we are asked to take a leap of faith and accept what it is telling us is believable. That we don’t know the fate of the totem is Chris Nolan asking us directly – are you willing to take a leap of faith?
Here is an article we found that discusses the neuroscience of Inception, sharing a basic conclusion with us that the film’s purposes are tied to one of the great abilities of film – the ability to entrance us. It is a read that we strongly recommend.