In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Inception, we look at important motifs that help us understand the film.
Important motifs in Inception
There are a handful of examples of someone’s subconscious interfering with the dream-share. The first is in the opening sequence. Nash, the initial architect, can’t maintain the dream as his subconscious has rebelled in the form of an unruly mob attacking everyone in the room. A bit later, the same thing happens when Ariadne toys around too much in Cobb’s dream. The NPC people start giving her mean looks, then bump into, and begin to turn aggressive. Then Mal shows up. Mal, of course, interfered in the opening sequence and continues causing problems for most of the film. Then there’s the train during the first level of the Fischer heist.
These subconscious intrusions are all symbolic of real emotions. They’re just given concrete form. For example, Mal isn’t really Mal. She represents Dom’s emotions around the death of his wife. His longing for her, the guilt, the anger, the desire to punish himself. In real life, Mal was lovely. But in the dreams, she hurts Cobb because part of Cobb believes he deserves it. The angry mobs are just the subconscious mind realizing someone else’s consciousness is present and attacking the intruder the way white blood cells do a virus. And the train? The train is part of Cobb’s psychic unease.
When Cobb and Mal spent decades in Limbo, they eventually woke up by laying their heads down on train tracks. A train then ran them over. It was a big moment because they had been in Limbo for so long and so content with one another. The train was the end of that chapter and the beginning of the next. Except when they returned to reality, Mal couldn’t cope and believed she was still dreaming. That Limbo had been real. Unfortunately, she tries to go back. The train symbolizes the choice Cobb made to leave Limbo with Mal. He’s still haunted by it all. And the train is part of that.
Inception involves a lot of locomotion.
- The film’s first sequence is the Saito extraction that occurs on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
- There’s the helicopter ride where Saito requests Cobb to incept Robert Fischer.
- Cobb and Arthur leave the helicopter and board a private jet and have another conversation.
- Ariadne and Cobb go on a long walk as Ariadne learns the rules of the dream world.
- When agents of Cobol Engineering chase Cobb in Mombasa and try to kill him, Saito saves Cobb by pulling up in a car and driving him away.
- The climactic dream-share, a sequence that takes up more than half the film, begins aboard a 747 flying from Sydney to Los Angeles.
- The first level of the Fischer heist heavily involves cars and car chases through a city.
- Cobb’s car is hit by a runaway train that barrels through the city streets.
- The third level has snowmobiles, people skiing, and snow trucks.
- For level two, you could count the use of the elevator as a vehicle for the kick to wake up, but that seems a bit of a stretch.
- But, Mal and Dom woke up from Limbo by putting their heads on a train track and having a train run them over.
- The heist ends with everyone waking up on the 747 and sharing a moment of accomplishment.
The main thematic aspect here is the train in the city. As discussed in the “Subconscious intrusions” section, the train is a figment of Cobb’s memory, symbolic of how haunted he is by what happened with Mal. What’s interesting is that Nolan could have had Cobb and Mal wake up from Limbo in an infinite number of ways. Jump off one of the thousands of skyscrapers they built. Drown. Fire. Fall on swords. Dream poison. Diet Coke and Mentos. They just have to die. Yet he went with “putting their heads on train tracks and waiting for the train to run them over.”
Given that such an important moment revolves around a train, it’s interesting to note how prevalent modes of transportation are throughout Inception. Part of that is simply solving logistical issues of having characters all be in one location for a long period of time without being interrupted. Planes and trains are great for that. But there’s maybe something to be said about the way in which the mind races. Inception is, more than anything, a psychological film that’s very interested in the human psyche. The brain is a busy place. Maybe having the characters speed around so often and in such diverse ways is a means of capturing the momentum of the mind. At the very least, it gives Inception a “running downhill” vibe as no one is settled in one place for too long.
The faces of Cobb’s children
Several times, Cobb has subconscious intrusions around his kids. They appear but have their back to him. And just before they turn and look at him, he wakes up or is distracted by something else. He never sees their faces. Since the authorities blame him for Mal’s death, Cobb hasn’t been able to go home to his kids. So the inability to see their faces in dreams represents his inability to see them in real life. It becomes a point of pain and sadness. The repetition begs for resolution. Which ultimately sets up the final scene where Cobb gets to go home. His kids look up the way they had in the dreams, except there’s no cut or distraction. Their faces are clear. The tension resolves. Both Cobb and the audience feel relief.
What are your thoughts?
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