Study Guide

Inception Themes

  • Betrayal

    When you share your pencil with someone, you're trusting they won't return it eraser-less and ridden with chew marks. When you share a secret with someone, you're trusting they won't post about it on social media. When you share a dream, that's trust on a whole other level.

    Unfortunately for the extractors in Inception, trust is hard to come by. Not only are they betrayed by one another but they're even betrayed by themselves when their subconsciouses take on a life of their own. If you've got some skeletons in the closet we suggest you clean them out before doing any dream sharing.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. What would have happened if Cobb had never incepted Mal? Would she still be showing up in his dreams to betray him?
    2. Is Cobb determined to trust Mal despite her betrayal?
    3. Is Cobb justified having kept the truth about dying when sedated from the team? Was this deception a necessary risk for his children, or is Cobb just plain selfish?

    Chew on This

    Inception is a movie about the futility of trust. Even with the best of intentions, our subconsciouses betray our true motives.

    Betrayal is the antithesis of trust. Inception is a movie about how the lack of openness can lead to catastrophe, both in a dream world with Cobb, or in a relationship like the Fischers'.

  • Guilt and Blame

    While scapegoats come in handy for placing blame, there's unfortunately no such alternative for guilt (because Cobb could really use a guiltgoat…or whatever you would call it).

    Cobb is dealing with a phenomenal amount of guilt. In his mind—and it's his mind that sets forth a lot of the action in Inception—he effectively killed his wife and brought a parentless world upon his children. Gulp.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Should the team feel guilty for incepting Fischer? Is what they're doing ethical, or is the way in which they're manipulating him immoral despite the outcome?
    2. Could Mal possibly be a positive influence on Cobb?
    3. Does Ariadne help Cobb realize he is not at fault, or does she make him realize that, although he is guilty, the guilt must be overcome?

    Chew on This

    Cobb's guilt is brought on by grief. He doesn't know how to deal with the loss of his wife and so he has decided to place the blame on himself. It's easier to hate himself than to admit that her death was out of his control.

    Cobb's grief is brought on by guilt. He knows he was responsible for his wife's death. Mal will definitely be returning to him until Cobb stops running away and turns himself in.

  • Versions of Reality

    Basically, Inception asks us if matter matters. If we change our definition of real, we can change our reality. Yeah, it's deep.

    Cobb changes Mal's perception just like the extractor team messes with Fischer's perception. In the dream, Fischer's father seems very real, much like Mal can be real if Cobb lets her. "Real" is just a matter of perspective.

    Like the people dreaming in Yusuf's basement, the world we think is real is the world that matters most to us: it doesn't have anything to do with physicality.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. If you could dream whatever you wanted to dream, how much would you dream? Would you spend all your time sleeping or would you try and limit your time in your dreamworld?
    2. How is a shared dream different from a shared virtual world? Maybe video games in a number of years will be like what Nolan created in Inception. How would you evaluate that kind or reality?
    3. The big question most people ask is: was Cobb dreaming? Does it matter?

    Chew on This

    Even in the physical world, our experience is completely in our own minds. We only think it's a physical reality because of what we think we know about the things we see.

    Each of us has a moral obligation to other people, and more consciousnesses make a reality more real. That's why dreams will never count as "real life."

  • Time

    The importance of time is pretty relative. Think about the two and a half hours you spent watching Inception: there is clearly nothing better than doing just that, so it was well-spent. How about the five hours you spent taking Buzzfeed quizzes, though? That was, um, probably less well spent.

    Time for Cobb is essential because every moment that he has not spent with his kids is time lost. Luckily for him, time in the dream world moves much more slowly. We get some crazy cross-cuts of the different times moving at different speeds, emphasizing both the simultaneity of events and the importance of every second.

    Questions About Time

    1. Did Cobb ever really grow old with Mal? Does time in Limbo have as much value as time in other dream levels or in the physical world?
    2. What would it feel like being Saito? He's lived with himself (literally, with projections that are his subconscious) for forty or fifty years. What would it feel like coming back to an old life you hardly remember?
    3. If you had five minutes of slow motion, what would you do?

    Chew on This

    Inception is a race against time for Cobb, who must make amends before it's too late. The emphasis on time, and watches, and slow-mo isn't all about literal dreamtime; it's about Cobb rushing against the clock to get back to his family.

    Living as an "old man filled with regret" is all about living alone. Saito's stay in Limbo is far worse than Cobb's when he had his wife. Saito's regret is unshared and the regret that Cobb is trying to avoid stems from a future without his children.