Since the Christopher Nolan film Inception came out, there’s been a lot written about it and a good bit of that writing seems to be confused over the film’s dream thiefing aspects, despite the endless explanations in the film itself. While it’s true that the film does have some significant plotholes and ommissions, a lot of the big complaints seem to be because people couldn’t follow how the dream sharing works. (Not that I blame them.)
SPOILERS in the material below:
Confusion #1) Why was Mal, Cobb’s wife, a psychobitch, and if so, why would he have married her?
The real Mal was not a psychobitch. The real Mal, the late wife of Cobb, was a lovely woman who loved Cobb and gave him two adorable children. When she and Cobb experimented with shared dreaming, going very deep into their sub-conscious minds, this caused her to become mentally ill, unable to distinguish reality from engineered dreaming. Cobb had to insert a thought in her mind through the dream world to get her to kill herself in the dream world, which would wake her back into the real world. But on waking, Mal continued to have that thought that she needed to kill herself to awake from the dream, and so killed herself in the real world. Cobb then unwisely built a memory palace in his mind using shared dreaming, in order to hold on to his memories of Mal. But his guilt and depression over her death cause that memory of Mal to warp into an unpredictable manifestation from his deepest sub-conscious of that guilt and her mental illness that then wreaks havoc on his ability to concentrate, to control things in the dream world. She is violent, destructive and sabatoges Cobb because those are the feelings he has about himself and what he deserves. That’s why Cobb also can’t see his children’s faces in the dream world.
Confusion #2) Why isn’t the dream world (a series of layers,) fragmentory and ever changing like real dreams and why can’t they just do whatever they want or need in the dream world?
Shared dreaming is not the same as real dreaming. It is a chemically induced state that allows different people’s sub-consciousnesses to interact within a designed, chosen framework from one person’s sub-conscious. When Cobb experimented with his wife and when he is showing Araidne how it works, there isn’t a specific goal, and so a large amount of change can occur. However, there are problems — too much experimentation can cause a person to become unable to distinguish between reality and dreaming, as happened with Mal, and the main sub-conscious of the shared dream may react defensively to too much change that shows the world isn’t real, especially if that person doesn’t know he or she is in a shared dream world, in the form of projections — imaginary people formed by the mind.
To steal an idea from an unknowing person’s mind, (dream thieves,) the dreamworld has to be designed beforehand, in the mind of an Architect, and then changed as little as possible, allowing the target to people the dreamworld and naturally come to think of the information that is sought. It’s important that the dreamworld be as little fragmentary as possible and you don’t make big changes, especially in corporate espionage where the target may have been trained to recognize being in a shared dream and defend themselves from dream thieves through projections and other means. For this reason, the thieves often go two layers into the sub-conscious of the target, in hopes of more successfully lulling the target into revealing information. Cobb, a fugitive concerning his wife’s death, worked as a dream thief Architect with his old pal Arthur, but because he increasingly cannot control his sub-conscious (leading to problems and a destructive Mal surfacing,) he has had to hire Architects to design the dreams for him, but even so, his problems are messing up his work, specifically with a mission concerning a CEO named Saito.
When Saito then forces Cobb and Arthur to attempt an inception — implanting an idea in a person’s head, instead of stealing information, Cobb knows it can be done because he did it with Mal, but for it to work, everything must be very controlled and reinforcing. Cobb recruits and hires Ariadne to be the Architect. Ariadne designs three different levels of dream world and then gives the designs to members of the team, each one will be the main focus (director) for one layer, though the layers will effect each other. Cobb is told as little about these three layers as possible to keep his sub-conscious from acting against them. Araidne fears that this won’t be sufficient, though, so she insists on going along as part of the team. The three worlds together form a narrative that will lead the target to the idea they want to implant, but they must keep that narrative simple and direct. Once they’re in the dreamworld, if they change things radically from the reality of the dream layer, then the whole thing can fall apart, so they can’t just dream stuff up. Eames shows up with a big gun in one layer, but that’s because he designed to have the gun before he went into the dreamworld. He is also able to change his face to appear as another person, but that’s again because it was designed beforehand.
Complicating things further is that to insure they’re able to go through the dreamworld layers and do the inception, they all have to be sedated, which means the shock of dying in the dreamworld won’t wake them out of it like normal. Instead, if they die in the dream world, they’ll just dive deeper into their sub-conscious and could even end up in a coma. Instead, they need to effect their inner ear with a sensation of falling and/or plunging into water, which will cause the brain to kick the sedative. This is obviously a weak point, but they do stick to that logic in the film. Further complications occur when their target, who has been trained to defend himself against dream thieves, realizes he’s in the dream and they have to accept and use such obstacles in order to keep him on track for the narrative and get the idea implanted. (Plus then you can have neato fight scenes, including a moving tribute to James Bond movies. Ariadne apparently has a sense of humor.)
So essentially, the shared dream world becomes like a video game. You can make a few choices, but you can’t change the design. (And of course, Inception will make an awesome video game.)
Confusion #3) Is Cobb dreaming or in the real world at the end of the movie?
Nolan left it up in the air. The likelihood is that Cobb is in the real world. However, if he decides to do a sequel and he wants to, Nolan could have the whole team be still trapped in a dream state, etc.
Some of the Problems:
The concept of dream thieves is largely flawed. To put the target into a dream world, you have to kidnap him and drug him. If a corporation is willing to fund a kidnapping attempt and that attempt is successful, then it’s just as simple to assassinate the target and create havoc in the rival company, rather than the far more elaborate attempt to get information out of the target’s head. (Yes, you get the info without the person knowing maybe, but surely someone is going to notice that they’ve been kidnapped.) Or better yet, just steal the info in the real world the old fashioned way. And going to the exorbitant cost of an assassination team for the dream thieves if they fail means that it’s an even less efficient spy idea, and that dream thieves have little loyalty to their employers and are likely to sell them out. Basically, Cobb’s job makes little sense the way it’s presented to us.
It’s never really explained why, if a person dies in the inception dreamworld under sedation and plunges deeper into shared sub-consciousness, or dives deeper on purpose, they got dragged down into Cobb’s deep sub-conscious world. We’re told that this is going to happen, and presumably it’s because Cobb’s been building a memory palace and is screwed up, but we never really get a clear explanation for why — if Ariadne designed the worlds and Arthur, Eames, and Yusef then hold those worlds in their heads — the lowest limbo level is Cobb’s domain.
We’re told that the deeper you go, the more time will pass, even though it’s less time in the upper levels and even less time in the real world. We’re told that the mission could take them months in perceived time because of this. But while time moves slowly in the upper levels compared to the lower levels, it’s not a matter of months passing, but of hours in the dream worlds, except for Saito down in the deepest limbo, who appears as an old man at first, but then is able to change. Mal and Cobb supposedly lived lifetimes down in the deep levels of sub-consciousness, but when Cobb gets Mal to kill herself in the dreamworld, she is her current age, not old, so also changed herself. So the time aspect never gets very logical and seems completely mutable.
Overall, most of the logic in Inception holds together, at least as much as it does in any thriller these days, and it is a fun and visually interesting heist story. The characters are a lot of fun, impeded though they are by having to establish the very complicated system Nolan dreamed up. But the movie does keep doubling back on itself, as College Humor so adroitly points out in this spoof: