Novelty-Seeking: Inception


‘Inception’ stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page (with Ken Watanabe).

(Ed. note: For the beginning of my series of favorite film reviews, the order of reviews was selected by a random number generator, rather than in order of preference- which is how they were initially listed in my first post to this site.

This review, like the rest I’ll be posting, assumes the reader has seen the film and understands its basic plot points. With that in mind, spoilers galore.)

 “Against boredom even gods struggle in vain.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In medieval Buddhism, clergy were instructed in yoga methods designed to allow for self-awareness even in periods of sleep. The goal of these disciplines was to allow monks to separate reality from unreality, even during meditation or death. As lucid dreaming became known in the Western world, however, it became used as a psychological distraction; a game to amuse playwrights and psychologists. More often than not, lucid dreams in theater and media is seen as a character’s way to expand the extravagances of their mind beyond the boundaries of what they can control in waking moments.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been argued about since its release in the respect that, like a dream, it is impossible to know for sure what happens in the final few frames. That Cobb, the dream-thief portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an unreliable narrator is established almost from the beginning. Cobb is hounded by feelings of guilt following the suicide of his wife, Mal; which in turn was motivated by Cobb’s insistence on the two of them engaging in deeper and deeper levels of lucid dreaming, where seconds turn into years, and the psychic landscape of the subconscious can be rearranged by the dreamer. Cobb and his wife, emerging from a dream that-from their perspective-lasted half a century, were unable to believe in the fixed reality around them, and they destroyed their lives, and the lives of their children, trying to regain a footing in a world where they couldn’t mold the world with a single thought.

Over the course of the movie, Cobb and his compatriots (among them, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page) move from one dream state to another at the bequest of a mysterious corporate benefactor (Ken Watanabe) who promises to fix Cobb’s legal problems following Mal’s death. Among the chase scenes and fight sequences, however, there are layers of meaning if looking at the film as a reflection of social anthropology on dependency issues and psychiatric illness.

The set dressing of Inception clearly infers that the lucid dreaming the characters partake in is an illicit behavior. The dreams are induced intravenously, sedating the participants and removing their ability to interact with the ‘normal’ world, instead placing them in an isolated setting where only other drug users can communicate, or even be aware of, their actions. The dream replaces the laws of science with a world based on emotion, where geography represents mental conditions and physics bend to the condition of the doped body the dreamer left behind. Mental urges and subconscious motivations are represented by ‘projections’, human shapes that alternatively ignore or attack the dreamer.  And dreamers, given enough use of the drugs to induce their condition, are left unable to dream without chemical support, and begin using stronger amounts to create longer periods of the dream state, which is their new reality. Dreaming is a communal but secluded activity, taking place in mostly in bedrooms (one of them is referred to a character’s “love nest”), drawing an inference between the dreaming and sexual addiction. One of the notable exceptions to this a scene in Kenya where Cobb is smuggled in to see the effects of a powerful dream sedative- in this scene, a whole roomful of men are slumbering under the drug’s effect. The similarity of this setting to a 19th century opium den is unmistakable, from the low ceilings to the sober, cantankerous guard the den employs to watch the users.

Beyond those obvious parallels, though, the movie goes out of its way to demonstrate symptoms of addiction in the characters. Two scenes are set in bars (the first appearance of Tom Hardy’s Eames, and the ‘Mr. Charles’ scene where DiCaprio demonstrates to confidence game victim Cilian Murphy that he is dreaming), and three other scenes show the protagonists partaking in alcohol, including a scene where DiCaprio sedates Murphy with a drink laced with a knockout drug. Two more of the supporting characters (Eames, and the mercenary Arthur portrayed by Gordon-Levitt) are also referenced as having active gambling habits.


Dream states in ‘Inception’ takes place most often in hotel rooms, abandoned spaces or vehicles. None of the characters are shown as having stable residences or personal lives.

By halfway through the film, we are aware that the film is showing us differing levels of addiction, from the newcomer (Ellen Page) still in thrall to the exhilaration of the dream-drug; to the still-functional users Eames and Arthur; and finally, the end user near the ‘bottom’ of his addiction in Cobb- a man who cannot sleep without using dream- drugs, who can no longer construct worlds in his subconscious, and struggles to separate one mental state from another. Throughout the film, the characters talk to each other as though they are sharing the dream experience like drugs: Arthur and Ariadne (Page) refer to Cobb’s problem of his subconscious manifesting as murderous projections as “getting worse” much like one would refer to an illness or addiction spiraling out of control. Ariadne also brings up the danger of sharing dreams with Cobb, whose mind is riddled with neurosis he brought back with him; from this perspective, the character Mal- who, although dead, reappears in Cobb’s mind as a traumatic memory- could represent AIDS or hepatitis: the shared infection that jumps from one user to the next, dependent on their shared usage for survival.  The characters also refer to waking up from their dreams as “kicking”- the same term for drying out from drugs.

In a larger context, the characters of Cobb, Eames, Arthur and to a lesser extent, Ariadne, demonstrate poor impulse control capabilities that would be consistent with drug-seeking behavior and imply underlying personality disorders. Cobb, the main protagonist, is impulsive and secretive throughout the film, from the opening scene where his initial rudeness to Saito (Watanabe) costs him the element of surprise, to resisting Arthur’s urgings to walk away from Saito’s offer of a corporate espionage job against a business rival. Cobb repeatedly lies to his teammates in order to get them to go along with his scheme, which nearly derails the narrative and almost costs Arthur and Eames their lives. (It is worth noting here that this is the second film by Christopher Nolan to have a central character named Cobb, both of them being thieves. In Following, the character Cobb is a serial burglar and voyeur who is addicting to watching the lives of others and manipulating a younger, more inexperienced thief into taking a fall for him).

The characters proudly tout job titles that refer to an illegal lifestyle, alternately calling themselves ‘thieves’ and ‘forgers’, or in the case of drug dealer Deelip Rao’s character, a ‘chemist’ that is reminiscent of ‘Breaking Bad’. And Ariadne, despite seeing the cost of dreaming and the ravages it has had on Cobb, is unable to resist the impulse to return to Arthur for another fix, after her first taste of controlling dream architecture.

More troubling than these characteristics, though, is the troupe’s shared characterizations of self-harm and suicide, both of which are strongly connected to the novelty-seeking behavior of substance abuse and poor impulse control. The characters can only escape dream with the assistance of an outside force (the aforementioned ‘kick’) or by dying in a dream, which allows them to awaken in their true body (or at least at the next ‘layer’ of dreaming). Cobb kills Arthur in the first scene, allowing him to escape a dream that’s been sabotaged by Mal, and there are three suicides (Mal and Cobb lay underneath a train together to escape their long-term dream kingdom, and Mal then kills herself again under the delusion that she is still dreaming), and one attempted suicide that Cobb derails for his own ends. As a metaphor for rehabilitation, these are bleak options but realistic; comorbidity rates of substance abusers with suicide, particularly those with self-image problems or past self-harm, is grotesquely high. The dream-users of Inception, who change their self-image to fit in among dreams, and use self-harm as an escape hatch, seem to be purposely created under this criteria as strong cases for psychiatric care.

The only character not included in this symptomatology is Saito, the powerful syndicate kingpin who uses Cobb and his partners as his cats-paw to eliminate a business rival from global energy dominance. Despite his lack of any previous dreaming experience, Saito insists on accompanying Cobb on his mission and winds up stranded in ‘limbo’, a formless dream state where the dreamer is forced to construct reality around him from the dream fragments of those around him. Wounded and abandoned, Saito is left to rot in the bottom rung of the dream state for what is implied to be decades of time, left only to be rescued by Cobb in the opening/closing scene of the film.

Under our previous paradigm, one could look at Saito as an example of the ‘first time use casualty’ drug user: the inexperienced user who dies from an overdose or “hot shot”. But looking more carefully at Saito’s character, we can ignore the fact that he is (or seems to be) a newcomer to the dream-drug experience and see that he has some capabilities that appear to violate Christopher Nolan’s rules for the world of Inception.


Loss of a significant other, particularly one with the power to assign social rewards, is often the trigger for impulse control problems and reward dependence.

Saito is the only character in the film besides Cobb-who also spent time in limbo-who shows the ability to create dream projections that talk directly to him: his servants who, in the opening scene, present the bedraggled DiCaprio to him. In that same scene, Saito also picks up and spins Cobb’s top, which is a ‘totem’- a psychic marker used by the dreamers to distinguish between reality and dreams. It is later explained that totems can only be used by those that bring them into the dream, and that the top was originally Mal’s until her death, when Cobb began using it. Lastly, Saito ages in his limbo state, which neither Mal nor Cobb did, despite being held inside a dream for fifty years; and despite this time alone, Saito recognizes Cobb upon his appearance, and asks if he is there to kill (free) him.

Aside from this scene, Saito is shown as an almost omnipotent deus ex machina for most of the film. He initially sets up Cobb for an audition to determine if he is skilled enough to extract memories, and upon Cobb’s failure to impress him, kidnaps one of Cobb’s teammates and has him murdered. He also saves Cobb twice during the film-once by whisking him away from pursuers, another by purchasing an entire airline to create privacy for the act of inducing a dream state on his rival. Saito even forces Cobb to allow him into the mission, despite no knowledge of how to navigate dream geography or basic combat training. Until he is wounded near the end of the film- and it’s important to note that he is the only one of Cobb’s team who suffers as much as a scratch- Saito appears to be the only whole, healthy character in the film.

Thematically, it is easy to see Saito as God: he demands obedience from Cobb and faith that he will fulfill his end of the bargain once Cobb accomplishes the tasks Saito has set before him. Cobb, on the other hand, would represent Satan- the creature that emerged from the void (limbo) and exists outside of the promised land where the rest of his family resides; he also insists that “they have to be given a choice” when speaking about his desire to recruit Ariadne to his cause, depending on free will rather than Saito’s fate or omniscience to coerce her into joining. However, Cobb’s Satan undermines that free will by tricking Ariadne into thinking that they are awake when, in fact, he has drugged her and placed her in a dream. But Cobb and Saito, unlike Satan and God,  seem to be working at complimentary purposes- Saito needs Cobb to eliminate his business rival, and Cobb needs Saito’s power to escape Purgatory (in this case, Heaven being the U.S. that Cobb is exiled from following Mal’s death).

The Catholic overtones of Nolan’s reference to Limbo and Purgatory aside, it is entirely possible that Saito is not God, or at least, not a true God. His ability to violate Nolan’s laws of dream-state (aging, speaking dream projections, taking custody of Cobb’s totem) point to him being the lowest, most decayed form of addict of any of the characters. Twice in the film, characters refer to limbo as “hitting bottom”; parlance in substance abuse rehabilitation as the lowest point in life an addict can achieve before having nowhere to go but up (or to death).

Looking at Saito as an addict then, we see that he has progressed beyond being able to spend any time in the waking word, and is totally trapped and isolated away from other humans in the dream world. The beginnings of addiction that we see in Ariadne, who was immediately hooked after creating a dream from imagination, is now fully realized in Saito, whose resides within layer upon layer of self-created dream structures. From Tom Hardy’s character of Eames, we know that dreamers can assume the identity of another in order to trick projections into thinking they are someone else-and that this can also be used to trick other dreamers not aware of another human’s presence. Like all addicts, Saito has withdrawn so far away from humanity that his self-imposed exile is now the reason for his addiction: with no one to assign him social status or psychic rewards for positive behavior, he reinforces his own negative behaviors.

Paired with Saito’s level of addiction, it is not a far leap of imagination to suggest that Saito has moved beyond constructing architecture for his dream worlds and is now indulging his addicting by creating dream projections of other human beings that he can steer around and direct like playthings- which is exactly what he sees Cobb and his teammates as. It’s an interesting aside that all the totems shown in the movie-those belonging to Cobb, Arthur and Ariadne- are all toys and game pieces (respectively, a top, a loaded die, and a chess piece). Even as semi-autonamous dream projections, the dream projections of these ‘humans’ know at a certain level that they are nothing but diversions for Saito. Further, two of these potential projections- Cilian Murphy and Leo DiCaprio-suffer the deaths of immediate family members in the film, a traumatic event that is often an impetus for relapse in addictive personalities.

Saito, as a character, took a certain pleasure in demonstrating his ability to outwit Cobb and his team, as well as the ego to demonstrate his financial wealth to them; the only difference in Saito as an Earthly character and Saito the dream-addled addict is the canvas upon which they draw their designs. One is addicted to the manipulation and exploitation of actual human beings; the other might only be addicted to doing the same thing to figments of his own imagination. And as the elderly guard of the sleeping dream addict says in the movie, “The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”


About theoldsquid

Walking proof of the power of sublimation.
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