Inception – What you Know vs. What you Believe

Christopher Nolan’s mental heist thriller is the summer’s blockbuster that has the blogosphere and twitterverse locked in discourse over its elaborate plot. Movie goers, bloggers, tweeps, and critics are all dishing out their theories about the story’s structure and their interpretation of the plot’s conclusion. What is there to say about this film, as an artist and a skeptic, and its journey through the mental labyrinth?


Some reviews of Inception, which focus on several flaws in its logic, seem to have missed the point—as the main character, Cobb, explains about dreams; they feel real when you’re in them, it’s only when you wake up that you notice the strangeness. This is how I felt about the film—I was completely drawn into the story. Only after the lights came up, did I begin to notice any flaws. This isn’t simply a clever loophole. This film is about filmmaking: Cobb is the director, Ariadne is the screenwriter, Arthur is the producer, Eames is the actor, Saito is the studio, and Yusef is the technician. Their job is to bring Fischer, the audience, into the dream world and have him believe it’s real (Cobb warns Ariadne that messing too much with the architecture of the dream will lead to attacks from the subconscious, similar to breaking an audience’s suspension of disbelief). Their goal in all of this is to plant an idea and to do it in a way so that Fischer believes he was the one who created it.

Inception is exactly what this film does to its audience; it plants the seed of an idea, repetitively, on each level of the plot, hoping that it will grow in our subconscious. When we leave the movie—our shared dream—we’re left with an idea we think is our own: that the ending isn’t real (or any other of the many interpretations that have blossomed).

Cobb uses Mal’s spinning top to plant the idea that her world isn’t real, and the same thing is done to us, the audience. The top is what finally makes us doubt the reality of the movie. Consider this; we only end up assuming that the top is Cobb’s totem—what we’re told is that it was Mal’s. Certainly, he could’ve used it as his totem, but if you watch carefully, you will notice that Cobb wears a wedding band in the dream world—it is missing when he is awake. This small detail seems to be evidence that there is, indeed, a distinction between dreams and reality.

We are told that an idea is like a virus, “the small seed of an idea can grow to define or destroy you.” Perhaps the ending can be interpreted as showing that the truth doesn’t really matter, since Cobb spins the top and walks away…too happy to see his children’s faces to pay attention to the top. But have we been infected with the idea of the spinning top, so that we doubt Cobb’s reality as Mal doubted hers? Cobb has no evidence to doubt his reality.

If we choose to let the spinning top make us believe the ending is a dream, don’t we start to sound like incepted Mal? We’re forced into wild speculation about everything—his children, the chase through Mombasa, the Chemist’s basement—and the plot soon becomes as unstable as the fictional dreams it contains.

One line stood out for me in particular—Mal tells Cobb, “You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?” This resonated with me because what Cobb chooses is what he knows—that he needs to face his guilt and return to his children—rather than give in to what he feels; wishing they were together and believing he can change the moments he regrets.

Ideas are powerful. The truth matters. Skepticism is about learning how to distinguish what we know from what we feel and want to believe. Inception’s ending is the ultimate skeptic’s test; accepting mystery. Is it real or not? In the absence of evidence, it’s ok to say “I don’t know”.

5 Responses to “Inception – What you Know vs. What you Believe”

  1. Yuriy says:

    “This film is about film-making…” – very very interesting interpretation. This is the best analysis of Inception I’ve read so far.

  2. Alex says:

    I just found it pretentious. Nolan strings together a bunch of impossible scenarios, presents them as fact, and then weaves a web of scenes which appear to heavily depend on the laws of his made-up world while realistically having no relation to either his world or ours. It’s a confusing movie exactly because he chose to reject realism – or even any sort of internal consistency – in favor of just screwing with the audience. The only part of his efforts which is even remotely artistic is his ability to string along the viewers and make them believe that they’ve witnessed something profound.


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  • Sara E. Mayhew

    International award-winning mangaka and 2009 TED Fellowship member, Sara E. Mayhew is a Canadian writer and illustrator striving to produce manga that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. Canada's prestigious graphic arts magazine, Applied Arts, featured her in their Young Blood article on "new talent commanding our attention". She has spoken on the TED Fellows stage at the TED 2009 conference in Long Beach, CA, and more recently at TEDActive 2010 in Palm Springs, CA. Currently, Sara is working on producing a new series, Legend of the Ztarr, that aims to introduce manga readers to skeptical and humanist values through storytelling. Her blog, There Are Four Lights, combines art and skepticism, with occasional pepperings of general geekdom and random cuteness.