A dream within a dream, but what’s a dream?


Inception  (In science fiction), the act of instilling an idea into someones mind by entering his or her dreams.

If you haven’t seen Inception, the 2010 science fiction movie written, co-produced, and directed be Christopher Nolan, you must. This post will contain spoilers, so quit reading now if you haven’t seen it, and come back when you have. This is a movie that merges the dream world, with reality. The question is, is reality the same as a dream for some? Might the entire movie just have been a dream? If you left the theatre scratching your head, you’re not alone. I had to re watch this movie, twice, to get any sort of idea on what was a dream, I believe it all was a dream, layered into other dreams, as opposed to layered with reality.

The ending of the movie threw me through a loop, I had thought Cobb finally made it back home to reality, leaving the dream world once and for all, until the movie cut with the little top still spinning, indicating that Cobb was still dreaming. That made me question everything I had just seen, what was the point of trying to escape the dream world, if he actually hadn’t?  The whole movie was based on the premise of him returning home to his children, but it didn’t happen. There is a lot of debate about if he was still in dream land or not, I say he was still dreaming, and these are my reasons.

The thing that clued me into this movie being a dream, which I only caught onto the second time watching it, was the line where Cobb said ” A dream always starts in the middle of something, but not really the beginning, and we never think about how we got there.” That is exactly how this movie begins, it sets the premise for it all being a dream. It starts in the middle of Cobb’s story, as well as in the middle of a dream heist. We aren’t even introduced to any of the characters, instead we are given a small glimpse of the end of the story, then it shifts over to a dream heist.


The ground work for “it’s a dream theory” is based on how limbo works. When the “kick” happens, which is suicide in this movie, you will go one level up when you are in a multi-level dream.  Cobb explains to Ariadne that he and his wife Mal, ended up in Limbo because they went to many levels down in the dream world, and couldn’t get out, or determine what was reality, and what was a dream. At the end of the movie he explains that he and Mal grew old together, eventually committing suicide on the train tracks to go back to reality, but this would only have bumped them up one level in the dream world, not far enough up for it to be reality. They would have had to kill themselves over and over to return back. Cobb believes inception is the reason his wife Mal went insane and killed herself. Totems are described in this movie as ” An elegant solution to keep track of reality.” Mal locked her totem in a safe, while it was continually spinning, meaning she was in a perpetual dream. If her totem tips over and stops spinning, that is an indication that she is in reality. Cobb breaks the rules of totems that he had explained to Ariadne, he says nobody but the owner can touch the totems, yet he carries around Mal’s. He doesn’t even own his own totem, so how does he actually distinguish whats reality and what isn’t? It’s just another construct of the dreams. For those of us watching, it’s the interactions, the buildings, where the story starts, that clues us into what is dreams, not the totem.

Cobb believes he is in reality when his wife jumps off the side of their hotel building, leading to her death. I actually had to rewind, and pause this scene of the movie to realize why they were still in a dream world. She appears to be across the street leaning out of an identical hotel room as to the one Cobb is on. If it was reality, they would have been standing on the ledge together, not on opposite sides of the road. It was a mirror image of the hotel, that has to be a dream. She destroys her hotel room, as well as his image by making it appear that he killed her, in hopes that he will join her in committing suicide, it doesn’t work. We know he believes it’s reality because he tells her to think about their kids before jumping off the hotel ledge, and she explains how they are illusions, and by killing herself she will get to reunite with them. She makes it appear that he killed her for the purpose of him being prosecuted for her murder, making his life in that “dream world” ruined. He would have to kill himself to escape it, which is exactly what she wanted.


Another point that struck me as odd, and why I believe the entire movie is a dream, is that Cobb’s children never age, and are wearing the exact same outfit in every scene. If at any point he was actually in reality, they would be changing, not reenacting the same scene of them playing in the grass, wearing the same clothes. It’s not until the ending that we even get to see their faces, every shot up until then that they are in, we don’t see their face, just their backs turned to us, playing for a few seconds before running off. In reality children age, change clothes, it cannot be reality at any point.

inception kids.jpg

Entering into someones dream, and exploring their sub conscience is in itself a dream. It defies the laws of physics as we know them, this isn’t possible. Making the whole argument of the movie invalid, in no point does Cobb return to reality, because switching between people’s dreams cannot happen. The only way one could even believe this could be doable is to dream it up while dreaming, not while in reality.

If you re watch the movie, you never see the beginning of any scene, which is how Cobb describes dreams. The scenes always start in the middle, you don’t even realize this is happening unless you consciously think about it while watching the movie. This further supporting my thesis about the entire movie bouncing between layers of dreams, instead of between reality and dreams. He isn’t in a state of reality throughout the entire movie.

The ending of this movie is what really nails my point of it all being a dream. That’s where the entire movie clicked in my mind, or to support my theory. Cobb awakens on an airplane looking confused, traveling back home to the Los Angeles with all of the characters he travels through dreams with in the movie. Yet none of them have any more dialogue, as if he just dreamed the entire movie, and is now in reality for the first time. The people around him are studying him, just as the illusion people study the dreamer while in their own dream. He passes through immigration without an issue, but mind you he thought in reality he was wanted for murdering his wife, which furthermore proves his “reality” was simply a dream. His dad is at the airport waiting to take him back home, which was what he was striving to get back to the entire movie. For a few minutes I believe that he was once and for all back to reality. He gets home and his kids are again shown in the same scene as they have been all movie, outside playing in the grass still young children, in the same outfits. The only thing different is this time they turn around, and he is able to see their faces for the first time. The next shot is of the totem spinning on the table, and the movie cuts off. The last few seconds of the totem spinning, it starts to wobble just before the screen goes black.

This is the big debate (you can read more about the debate here), that has had everyone going crazy trying to figure out if in the ending the totem falls over, and he is back to reality, or does it continue to spin and this is yet another dream. There is no defiant answer, but I believe this is another dream, and the reason that he gets to see his children finally, is because he is accepting that this is his new reality. He cannot escape the dream world, so instead of finding reality, he finds peace in his situation, leading him to his end goal. We don’t see the totem fall over, we only see it wobble, leaving the ending up for interpretation. Cobb accepts his own subjective reality, even if it doesn’t line up with what we believe would be reality, as indicated by the totem falling over. Home was his end goal, whether that is in reality, or if he can only achieve it by staying in a dream. I don’t believe the writer Christopher Nolan wrote it for us to have a sure answer, it’s as subjective as the meaning of reality in the movie. Cobb walks away from the spinning top signifying that the answer no longer matters, if he was concerned with whether he was in a dream, or in reality, he would have stuck around to see if the top fell over, or just kept on spinning. This is the reality that he chooses to accept, he is finally home, no matter what that means to us, it’s reality to him. That was his main goal, and he has finally achieved it, regardless of how.

I read an interview with Nolan that backs up my interpretation of the ending, if you are interested you can read parts of the interview here. Here are a few of the main points he stated. “In the great tradition of these speeches, generally someone says something along the lines of ‘Chase your dreams,’ but I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t believe that. I want you to chase your reality.” Taking from the movie he states that while we are dreaming we aren’t aware of things that don’t make sense until we awaken from our dream, that’s one of his main points of this movie. Dreams aren’t always what we need to be chasing, sometimes we need to make our reality, as good as a dream. This brings so much value to the film, for me at least. As mind boggling as this movie is, there is a huge lesson to be learned, if you look deeper than trying to determine if the top is still spinning at the end. That can’t be you’re main focus, or you are missing the point. Nolan also says “The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black.” While there is no right answer on whether he is back to reality, or not, we need to look past that. As Nolan states “all levels of reality are valid.” It isn’t up to us to determine what his reality should look like, as long as it’s a reality for him.

Whatever side of the Inception debate you stand on, I hope you can agree that there is a deeper value in this film. I challenge you to re watch Inception, and keep the points I have made in mind. I hope you come back to this post with some more points to debate! This is arguably one of the best films I have ever seen. It caused me to think outside of the box,  challenge my own personal views of reality, and to deeply appreciate Nolan’s work of art. There is something to be said about the lack of closure, that makes me want to rewatch this movie, maybe just a few more times.

You can rent the movie to watch on iTunes for $2.99 Here

{Just for fun, go ask Siri [iPhone] what the movie Inception is about}

Totem Picture Link

Beginning of movie picture link

Mal suicide picture link

Children Picture Link


One thought on “A dream within a dream, but what’s a dream?

  1. That was a hell of a movie. Very visually appealing and leaves your mind reeling a little bit. Which is why we watch movies, right? It was so sad, the situation with the kids. But the rest of the movie was pretty awesome. Crazy how Mal was locked away countless dreams down while time passed only a few seconds or so above she was living out endless eternities down below. I think I’ll have to give it another watch sometime soon, I’ve only seen it once. Kudos on tackling this for a blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

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