Thursday 18th January 2018,

Inception Theories: Is There Any Point?

UPDATE: Christopher Nolan speaks out, basically calling most of the theories out there ludicrous.

ORIGINAL: If you’re following the discussion around Inception, you’ll notice there have been three clear waves of public opinion: hype or praise (Nolan is a genius; film is cinema classic); dissent (the New York critics — Observer, New Yorker, Magazine, Press); and assimilation (rampant theorizing).

We’re in the third phase now. I’m ready to call the next phase: resignation.

I have to admit, I’ve been glancing through all the theories, and I’ve hit fatigue. I wasn’t even going to write anything about Inception, giving many inches have been used up already. And boy are there a lot of theories. There’s even a — frankly, inevitable — website dedicated to them. Here are some of the key ones:

NYMag: An Inception Within Inception

Actor: The Top Stops

Faraci: Metaphor for filmmaking (also, Awl)

Cinematical: Many theories, all the theories you need to know

Slate: 5 ways of reading the film

Me? I’m done before I started. Why?

1) There’s obviously no right answer.

2) The fact there is no right answer actually seems to work against the point of theorizing in the first place. The meta-point about the movie, at its most abstract, is about the power of the human psyche and our own culpability in defining what is real vs. fantasy. Therefore, any attempt to decide one way or another is not only futile, but goes against the premise of the film.

3) Cobb doesn’t care. Cobb’s character turns away from the spinning top. He doesn’t care if it falls or not. So neither do I.

4) Seeing the film allegorically is great, but most meta-films are allegories for lots of things.

5) I actually think David Denby is right when he mentions a big hole in Inception: the corporate intrigue. I understand why Nolan dropped the fallout from the inception: if we know what happens to the big companies it ruins the illusion that the whole film is a dream (DiCaprio wouldn’t care about two fictitious companies who could potential control a lot of energy resources). But this plot hole makes the whole practice of theorizing the film, for me, a bit a concession game. The prequel comic, Inception: The Cobol Job, which was pretty cool, sets up the importance of a the corporate intrigue. This suggests possibilities beyond the human pysche. If you don’t particularly care about Cobb seeing his kids — which I kind of don’t — there should be something else for you: imagining a world beyond the self or imagining the self within the world. That’s what interests me, but Inception gives me little to go on.

I love when people talk about film, and I’m always happy when films like The Matrix and Inception come along that get people completely engrossed in cinema, and it’s really hard to write those movies (Nolan spent as much time on Inception as Cameron did Avatar; does this show Nolan is smarter?). I’m just resigning myself to my lack of interest in the details.

For me, Inception is valuable as a vote of confidence by Hollywood in the power of giving a good director lots of cash to create something original. I weigh it against all the sequels and franchises we have (plus Avatar) and, against them, it comes out on top.

But I’m not sure how much lies beneath the surface, and if it’s there, if it’s worth my time going there. In the end, the film is about how we come to grips with reality, and, particularly, one man’s journey to find himself, and he does, through his own imagination and grit. Said simply, it sounds nice. For me, I’m not sure how much more there is.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.


  1. SHOOTtheSUN August 11, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Brilliant review! I totally agree with everything said here. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this film, because my brain loved having something to work on (a rarity in much of cinema these days, I fear) – and the editing rivals the best of Tarantino…however, I did feel that the unrelenting intensity of Di Caprio’s character dragged me screaming and kicking through each layer of his/someone else’s psyche only to find such an unsatisfying and unoriginal solution to his (and the world’s) psychological problems: forgiveness heals all. *yawn* As I said to you on Twitter: observational, not insightful…

  2. Karole Finkelstein November 3, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Inception is really a very good film!