Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Who's to say what Cobb's ordinary world is?
Maybe we get a glimpse of what his ordinary world used to be as he talks to his mother and father-in-law, but this is only very briefly…and only happens sixteen minutes into the movie.
Instead, the movie starts with a crazy cascade of dream levels, starting with limbo, moving to a second level dream, then a first level dream, and finally reality. Perhaps it's this crazy, mixed up mental mess that constitutes what is ordinary for Cobb these days.
Call To Adventure
Saito says, "Perform inception." Arthur basically says, "Can't be done, dude."
Refusal Of The Call
Cobb thinks about Saito's offer but turns to walk away. He claims to have done inception before but by the look on his face it didn't turn out very well. This stage however, doesn't last very long—because Cobb immediately turns around when Saito mentions he can help Cobb see his children again.
Meeting The Mentor
This could be one of two meetings, depending on the character we're following.
Since Cobb is the obvious choice, we could say his meeting with his father-in-law, a former architect who taught him everything he knows, is when this stage happens. He does try to give Cobb some fatherly life advice.
But maybe a more interesting mentor meeting is when Ariadne connects with Cobb who begins to teach her how to create dreams.
Crossing The Threshold
Cobb and company plug in to Robert and gain access to his subconscious. This is where the plot thickens. (It must be one of the few movies where the real action doesn't start until all the main characters are asleep.)
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Well, there certainly isn't any shortage of enemies in Robert's mind.
His subconscious has been trained to resist dream invasion and so our dream team must outsmart his imaginary gunmen while fooling Robert himself and dealing with the biggest problem of them all: Mal.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
The third dream level, the snowy military base, is when Robert is finally getting close to that inmost cave, his father's fabricated wish for his well-being represented by a safe. This is the moment that everything has led up to; now all they have to do is evade an army of lethal skiers.
The unexpected fourth layer, where Robert dreams of being by his father's side at his death, is the moment where the inception will either work its magic or collapse entirely. The whole operation hinges on whether this single, final dream can convince Robert to dissolve his father's company while leaving them time to get out alive.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Robert opens the safe and finds his old pinwheel flower, cementing in his mind that his father did truly care for him and would want what's best for him in the present. The inception is fully realized and all that's left is to get out of Dodge.
The Road Back
Ariadne and Cobb do not have an easy road back home: they're both stuck in limbo, trying to save Saito from the clutches of Mal. They wander through the city-turned-wasteland that Cobb and Mal built the last time they were here.
Cobb's resurrection is also Mal's death.
While the inception was a success, Cobb's own journey isn't complete until he is able to let go of his dead wife. When Mal stabs him and Ariadne shoots her, Cobb stays behind and holds her as she dies, looking into her eyes one last time as he tells her it's time to finally say goodbye.
Return With The Elixir
The elixir could be a bunch of things.
Perhaps it's just the fact that all of them have miraculously made it back to the real world alive after all that went wrong. Maybe it's Robert dissolving his father's company because of the inception (though did we really care all that much about the whole business motivation in the first place?). Maybe the elixir is Cobb putting Mal to rest and finally getting to see his kids again.
Either way, the journey is over and Cobb and pals can finally go back to their normal lives...which they really didn't miss too much of.