Study Guide

Inception Water

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We hope Leo had a bathing suit on beneath that business suit during filming, because Inception is one wet movie. Water is everywhere.

Water is more of a motif than a symbol in Inception—it appears everywhere and does all sorts of things. Let's put on our goggles and look at a few.

Guess what the very first shot of the movie is? That's right: water! We get some rolling waves of the ocean and see Cobb washed up on the beach looking… not so hot. We actually see two other instances of people washing up half conscious on random beaches; first when Mal and Cobb enter Limbo and then again when Ariadne and Cobb go in after Fischer.

Cobb later describes the former as he and Mal "washing up on the shore of their subconsciouses." The ocean, with its vast tumblings and nebulous depths, is like the untamed but powerful subconscious of our mind. Coming out of the ocean then is a discovery of sorts: it's the genesis of each trip into Limbo as those minds must realign with where they are and what is real.

That's not the only watery symbol in Inception, though. There's still plenty more water to dive into.

When Arthur is killed while trying to extract information from Saito, Cobb refuses to wake up despite the dream collapsing around him… so they dump him into a tub of water. As Cobb goes under in the first dream level, in the second dream level Cobb witnesses massive amounts of water shooting through the dream. All this H2O is about to drown him right when he wakes up.

Then we have the Fischer mission. Level #1 of the dream is set during a torrential rainstorm, thanks to Yusuf (the Level #1 dreamer) needing to use the little boy's room. But while the rain certainly adds to the dreary, hostile dream, the more interesting water is the water under the bridge that the van swan dives into.

Like in the first dream of the film the water is used as a kick… although this time it's used as an improvised kick after they miss the van falling over the railing. This water is dark, a subtle reminder of the fact that, most of the time when water appears, Cobb is drowning in it. While everyone else escapes the sinking van, Cobb and Saito are trapped, unconscious; they're bodies still stuck in Limbo.

Does water represent the guilt that Cobb is metaphorically drowning in? Does it represent truth? Or a corollary that transmits people between the real world and the dream world, and between levels of dreams?

Trick answer, Shmoopers: it's all of the above.

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