"What's the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? [...] An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood? That sticks."
— Dom Cobb
Inception, a 2010 film from director Christopher Nolan, works like a heist film in reverse: instead of taking something, the main character must leave something behind.Dominic Cobb works as a freelance "extractor": using a specialized set of drugs, Cobb and his team share dreams with their targets (usually individuals with lots of power and money), which allows Cobb to find and open the safes and vaults within said dreams that contain secrets he can sell to his clients. Cobb's skills in understanding the human mind make him one of the world's best extractors, but his job has turned him into an international fugitive who can't return home to his family in the United States. When an attempt to extract information from a Japanese business magnate named Saito goes wrong, Cobb goes on the run from his current employers.Saito catches up with Cobb and makes the extractor an offer: he'll arrange to wipe Cobb's criminal record (which would allow him to go home) if Cobb can manage to perform an inception on one of Saito's rivals. Whereas extraction involves stealing ideas or information already in somebody's head, inception involves the insertion of an idea into someone's head in a way which convinces the target that they independently conceived the idea. Cobb accepts Saito's proposal, even though he knows it has a catch: nobody has ever pulled off a successful inception, as the targets always realize that they didn't come up with the inserted idea.To attempt the impossible, Cobb assembles a Badass Crew of experts: longtime extraction partner Arthur, dreamworld-building architect Ariadne, expert forger Eames, and chemist Yusuf (who devises the specialized sedatives that make extraction possible). The task requires them to perform a very risky "dream within a dream within a dream" scenario which will allow the team to bury the idea deep enough to leave no trace of their influence. As Cobb's group works their way into the target's mind, a complication Cobb failed to warn them about arises: inside the dream world, Cobb's subconscious demons makes for a worse enemy than their target's — and if they die in the dream, well, the sedatives assure that they simply don't wake up...
Inception extracted the following tropes from the minds of humanity:
Adult Fear: The protagonist is forced to flee his home and his country, leaving his very young children behind, possibly forever. There's also the horrific situation when he has to watch his beloved spouse succumb to mental illness and suicide - and realize it was his mistake and that he was responsible.
Air-Vent Passageway: Exaggerated. In the final maze there were air vents large enough for a full-grown man to stand upright, and bypassed the maze completely. Justified in that they were only there because Eames deliberately had Ariadne install them.
Alien Geometries: One of the architect's tasks is setting up Escheresque loops in the dream world, in order to confuse and trap the projections if they become hostile.
All Just a Dream: Played with. From the perspective of one level of the dream world higher, whatever happens in each dream layer is All Just a Dream, but things that happen while you're dreaming can have very real results in the real world. Also, one theory surrounding the film is that the entire thing is in Cobb's head and that he's the one who's had inception performed upon him to believe that his dream is the real world. In a dream, the top will never fall, and it sure seems to stay up for a long time, but it clearly wobbles before the credits roll. But it may or may not straighten out, and we don't see it fall. It also leaves a second question on top of "Was it a dream?": If it was a dream, how much of it was a dream?
Well, according to Michael Caine, the top wobbles and Cobb deliberately does not check, as he has confidence that he's in reality, and Word of God vaguely alludes to this as well. But Caine's theory hasn't stopped people from coming up with their own interpretations of the ending.
Another popular interpretation is that the spinning top is not actually his totem - since the top was what he used to make Mal doubt the reality of their limbo world. The theory is that his actual totem is his wedding ring.
It's not so much limbo as it is the effects Limbo has on the mind. Since, once there, you are a Physical God, you have decades worth of time in a single afternoon... Limbo is, in a way, a Lotus-Eater Machine version of the perfect world. Leaving it is likened to a drug-addict off their fix... you can't just up and leave, you'll always want to go back. You'll "need" to just to have some sense of feeling. And that is the grand fear of limbo, because once you tasted it... you never want to leave, even if the door is right in front of you.
The whole caper, if you judge by the events in the first layer of dreaming, lasts no more than 10 hours tops. This means that it took most characters a maximum of 30 minutes of real-time to get through the movie. Meanwhile, the flight is 10 hours real-time, which leaves Cobb with 9 hours 30 minutes to find Saito – multiplied by 20, by 20, by 20 and by 20 again. That's 1 and a half million hours. So Cobb and Saito were rotting in Limbo for more than 170 years. On realization, it would make even the viewer scream, to say nothing of these fellas.
Anti-Hero: Both Cobb and Saito have rather selfish motives for messing with Robert Fischer's subconscious, and all the other team members are motivated by either money, curiosity, the thrill of the challenge, or a combination of all these. They're arguably altering Fischer's subconscious for the better, in that he'll have a more positive outlook on his father and life in general, but it's an outlook that was based on lies.
Even if you put aside their selfish motives, the team's remarkably deceptive and manipulative methods are morally questionable, to say the least.
The yellow sedative to stabilize the dreamer by putting him into a deep sleep. A sleep so deep that all sensory input is just about muted, with the precise exception of their inner-ear sense of falling.
There seems to be a wide variety of sedatives that can be used for various purposes. The sedative mentioned here, that leaves inner-ear function intact, is but one example. Another is the sedative used when Cobb and Arthur enter Saito's dreamed dream at the start of the film, that leaves the dreamers able to feel water. The sedative used on the train does not appear to have any sensory gaps, aside from a vague sense of hearing.
In the movie it is mentioned that the technology was first created for military applications as a training simulation.
Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Saito uses his to buy the entire airline for the single airplane they're infiltrating. Purchasing an entire airline in under a month, without attracting attention, would require a staggering amount of money.
Arc Number: 528-491. Amusingly, it means absolutely nothing, being just the first six numbers Fischer thought of. As they go deeper and deeper into the dreams, though, Fischer's subconscious starts giving them importance, because hey, he was thinking about those six numbers.
Audience Surrogate: Ariadne. In a refreshing twist on the trope, she doesn't just sit there and ask questions so that the more experienced characters can provide exposition. She catches on to the idea of dream-sharing rather quickly, and makes an effort to sway Cobb from his self-destructive course. Not to mention that it's her idea to go into the fourth level after Cobb and Eames have basically given up. In short, she's a character who behaves exactly as the audience likes to believe they would in that situation.
Badass Bookworm: Arthur. Cobb mentions that he's in charge of doing the research, and he's smart enough to figure out how to simulate falling in zero gravity. He's also badass enough to pull it off, in limited time, while fighting off mooks. Again, in zero gravity.
Ariadne designs all the dream levels, complex enough that if Mal hadn't showed up to screw everything up, the mission most likely would have gone smoothly.
Badass Crew: The Inception team. Especially Arthur and Eames.
"Mr. Charles" — In the second layer of the dream, Cobb tricks Fischer Jr. into participating in the inception plan by convincing him that his godfather Browning is the one that's really invading his dream. This plan would only attract attention from the hostile projections once they become aware they're in a dream, thus increasing the danger for everyone involved. Indeed, it's shown that last time this was tried, it backfired horribly for Cobb, Arthur, and their crew.
Nolan's plan for getting the film made also seems to have elements of this. Bonus points for using Batmanin the Batman Gambit.
Better than a Bare Bulb: In-story. The Mr. Charles gambit: when Fischer starts to near an awareness of the artificial nature of the world, Cobb assumes the role of Dream Security expert Mr. Charles to call attention to the fact he's being dream hacked in an effort to gain his trust and continue the hacking. It works.
It's clearly stated that two levels deep is the maximum stable level. This means anything deeper would send you into Limbo. Subverted the first time: The group uses Applied Phlebotinum to tweak the rules and reach a third. For the fourth, they just go for it. Overall justified because Cobb disagreed with other dream experts and was a pioneer in the technology.
There's so many levels in regards to the movie as a whole, its hard to tell what level they're on without Word of God. The pages Head Scratchers has more speculation about how dreams are supposed to work and whether or not that logic is broken.
BFG: The grenade launcher Eames uses in the dream when Arthur fails to hit his target.
Bilingual Bonus: The French song used as a signal to wake up is about letting go of the past. Due to the language's love of double negatives, it could be literally translated to "I regret nothing of nothing:" how can one regret something that only took place in a dream? Also, although that part may not be audible in the film, the song famously goes on to say "(I don't regret) any of the evil/hurt inflicted to me" with the word for "evil/hurt" being... mal. It Gets Better: Marion Cotillard, playing Mal in Inception, impersonated Edith Piaf (singer of the aforementioned French song) in La Vie en rose, the movie that gave her an Oscar (and thus made her known to American audiences).
Regarding the "double negative" above: repeating a word (especially an adjective or an adverb) in the "X de X" construction is commonly used as an intensifier. While "I regret nothing of nothing" is a possible (if unlikely) translation for "rien de rien", it's really closer to "I really don't regret anything."
Billed Above The Title: Leonardo DiCaprio (makes sense, as he's the lead). In a fair move, the rest of the principal cast (minus Dileep Rao) are all billed in accordance to their screen time below the title.
Bizarrchitecture: The further down into the dream world you go, the more bizarre it gets.
Black and Grey Morality: No major character is perfectly morally upstanding in these movies. The "good guys" are very manipulative, deceptive, and arguably even downright cruel at times in pursuit of their goals. Then there are the good guys' targets (or "bad guys" if you think they are bad enough to be distinguished from the "good" ones) who are considering maintaining a dangerous corporate monopoly, which is part of what drives the other side to resort to such ethically questionable methods in the first place.
Black Box: The PASIV. How it works is never really explained, aside from an large yellow button that needs to be pushed and the IV lines that go into the operator's arms.
Blank Book: The papers recovered from the safe that appear white.
Blind Alley: Averted. Cobb runs down an alley to try and ditch several agents that are chasing him. They notice him stuck in between the two buildings at the other end of the narrowing alley and he barely escapes them.
Bloodless Carnage: There is almost no blood at all in the entire movie. The notable exception is Saito, whose injury is a critical moment in the plot and for a fatal wound it's still just a very small hole that barely bleeds. In the snow level Fischer and Mal get shot, but show only a small red dot on their white jackets to show that they have been hit. Like so many other tropes, justified by the fact that most if not all characters never were in actual firefights and would only know them from movies, so that's how they'd expect gunshot wounds look.
Mal — brainwashed in that Dom's inception in her mind of the idea "your world is just a dream" could reasonably be considered brainwashing, and crazy in that though she may be technically sane as a living person, Dom's subconscious version of her is just wacked out.
She's crazy as a living person too: because of the brainwashing, she thinks that she's still living in the dream, and then intends to kill herself and Dom to get back to the "real world". She goes to such lengths as to get herself declared sane and him abusive so that he'll be arrested and kept away from his own children, all in order to make sure he kills himself too.
But He Sounds Handsome: Saito sees Browning, who he assumes to be Eames in disguise. He walks right up to him and says, "I see you've changed." Browning gives him an odd look and Saito sees Eames behind him. Saito quickly says, "I mistook you for a friend of mine." Browning smirks and says, "Must be a good-looking fella."
Butt Monkey: Poor Arthur. Especially when it comes to testing out the "kicks", somehow Arthur's always the one getting his chair knocked over, his gun dissed by Eames, and so on. His awesomeness at the end makes up for it, though.
Not to mention he gets shot twice at the beginning. Once just to cause him pain, and once BY HIS OWN TEAMMATE (admittedly to wake him up).
The Caper: You could say that again. Inside the world of your subconscious. Played with in the beginning of the movie and later as the group is attempting to place something in Robert Fischer's head, rather than take something out as was the case with Saito.
The top comes back with a vengeance, and the train makes a few appearances before it gets any context.
The Penrose stairs.
The dollhouse is pictured very briefly near the beginning and turns out to be where Cobb planted the inception in his wife's mind.
Cobb mentions early on that he doesn't like trains. Ariadne also briefly sees a freight train in his memory. In the first level of the inception job, Cobb's subconscious rams them with a freight train. Turns out it's the train he and Mal killed themselves with to get out of Limbo.
The large butcher knife Mal is seen fiddling with.
A literal one. Cobb's Beretta PX 4 Storm handgun which he dramatically loads in the elevator up to Mal. Ariadne gets a hold of it and uses it to kill Mal once and for all.
Subconscious security. In Cobb's first interaction with Saito, he mentions being able to teach his mind to protect itself from Extraction. This comes back to bite them in the ass when they try to pull the job on Fischer but not when Cobb has to retrieve Saito from limbo later, because this time his subconscious knows Cobb is doing the best thing for him.
The picture of Robert playing with his pinwheel.
A lot of the tricks of the trade of extracting show up in the earliest scenes of the movie way before they are explained - the kick, using music to time waking up, having a dream within a dream, etc.
Chess Motifs: Ariadne handcrafts her totem into a Bishop chess piece.
Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Dreamers when inside the dreamworld have this power. While you can literally do just about anything, doing so to someone else's dream is a VERY BAD idea since the more you mess with their dream the more likely their projections will catch on to the dreamer and force them out.
Cold Sniper: When the team enters the third level, Cobb is equipped with a sniper rifle and shoots several mooks to clear the way to the fortress. Subverted in that he's unable to bring himself to shoot Mal, who then shoots Fischer.
Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: In the snow level of the dream, Cobb's crew carry guns and/or wear goggles that have all been colored white, and the mooks defending the fortress cover their faces in black while carrying black guns without winterized camouflage. Helpful since everyone is wearing winter combat gear and would be otherwise indistinguishable. Possible Justified Trope: Eames may have made this adjustment as the dreamer for the snow level, or Fischer may be influencing the projections because the Mister Charles gambit worked and he wants the Inception team to win.
The dream layers are also tinted differently to help the viewer discern between the switching scenes. The top dream layer is blue, the second is brown and the final dream level is white.
Come with Me If You Want to Live: Saito does this to Dom. In a subversion, Dom (as Mr. Charles) does it to Fischer, albeit it's "if you want your secrets kept safe."
The Constant: Played straight with the "totems." Inverted with everything else in the world around them. Furthermore, if you believe the entire film was a dream the totems have no meaning, and everything is nonconstant.
Corrupt the Cutie: Ariadne. Michael Caine's character even refers to Cobb as wanting to "corrupt" one of his best students. Cobb openly tells her the job is not legal, but he, Arthur, and Ariadne herself each admit that after tasting the power of dream architecture, she would never want to go back. She willingly joins the team.
Crashing Dreams: A dreamer getting wet, being physically jostled, etc. results directly in events occurring in their dreams (such as a sudden flood, or gravity ceasing to function normally) which reflect whatever their body is feeling.
Crusading Widower: Cobb, though rather than revenge he wants to reunite with his children.
More accurately, the movie is Post-Cyberpunk, lacking both the "cyber" and the "punk", while still being clearly a successor to the parent genre.
Cyberspace: Subverted in that this movie hits every cyberspace trope it can without computers.
Dark and Troubled Past: Cobb has some serious issues concerning his past which have a major impact on his ability to work. Not that he feels he has to be upfront about it to those endangered by it!
Deadpan Snarker: Eames and Arthur, usually at each other, though Arthur tends to buckle down once the work starts.
Death Is Cheap: Being killed in a dream merely leads to the subject waking up, although if it happens while they're sedated, it can lead to remaining in limbo for what feels like years (see And I Must Scream).
Determinator: Deconstructed. Quite literally, Cobb is his own worst enemy. The mental projection of his wife that hounds the protagonists is merely his dogged determination to keep his wife "alive" in some shape or form, to ease his own guilt over her death. Furthermore, Inception itself is revealed to be a brutal deconstruction of this. Once an idea is incepted, it defines the victim, making that single idea the one thing that they will never give up on, no matter what.
Disproportionate Retribution: In a bizarre case of dream logic, Cobol Corp. sends assassins after the heroes the very minute they find out they've failed to infiltrate Saito's mind, then sends two dozen more when the heroes are spotted in Kenya. This is somewhat less disproportionate if you take into account the prequel comic "The Cobol Job." The Arthur/Cobb/Nash team had failed to retrieve information on Proclus Global (Saito's company) twice by the start of the movie.
And, of course, extraction is technically industrial espionage, which is illegal. Getting rid of Cobb after Saito's rumbled him would prevent Saito from discovering who hired Cobb and having Cobol either sued or prosecuted.
Extraction is particularly illegal after "what happened" (which isn't explicitly said to be related to Cobb's previous inception).
Distracted from Death: In the third layer of Robert Fischer's dream, he looks away from his dying father just long enough to open the safe and see the contents. He then turns back to find his father dead.
Dramatic Gun Cock: Early on, Mal has Arthur at gunpoint and pulls the cock to make Cobb confess.
Eldritch Location: The dreams, especially the second dream Ariadne entered where she plays with the laws of physics there by tilting a portion of the town and messed up the gravity. Cobb's deepest dream level also qualifies here.
Enemy Within: Mal, or more accurately Cobb's projection of his guilt from injecting an idea into Mal's mind that ended up driving her to kill herself in Limbo to return to reality, only to believe that reality was just another dream and kill herself again.
Epic Movie: An all-star cast. Years and years in the making. Large nonuple-digit budget. From the director of The Dark Knight. This fits the trope to a T.
Epiphany Therapy: At the climax of the film, Cobb finally summons up the courage to confront his projection of Mal and accept the fact that she is dead.
Possibly the single most awesome fight scene ever to appear in anything ever, when Arthur takes on the man in the spinning corridor. Made even cooler with little CG necessary for said fight. The hallway was a giant rotating set, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did all of his own stunts in the sequence.
Everything Trying to Kill You: If you meddle with someone's dream too much, all the nice not-real people (and architecture) start getting feral. And they always know who's doing it. And sometimes, what's effectively Pyramid Head finds her way in.
The Faceless: Cobb's kids. Justified, since they are the projection of Cobb's memory — specifically, his last memory of them, when they didn't turn around to look at him. He vehemently refuses to make them turn around in the dreams, because when he sees his children again he wants it to be for real. In the end, Cobb finally sees his children's faces. Or does he?
Fakeout Makeout: Arthur asks Ariadne to kiss him to keep Fischer's subconscious from detecting them.
Fate Worse than Death: Limbo. It's an unformed dream state where you go if you die in a dream but are too sedated to just wake up. The time dilation is so pronounced that a few minutes of real time is experienced as hundreds, if not thousands, of years. You're going to be there for a very long time. If you've got 30 minutes to go before your kick hits, or if you've missed the kick and are gonna be under for hours until the sedative runs out you'll be in limbo for an effective eternity. And then subverted when it's shown you're also effectively God there. So no, it isn't that bad.
As noted in And I Must Scream, the bigger problem is returning to the real world and then discovering you've become addicted to the "omnipotence" of Limbo...
An interesting variation, as most examples feature characters discussing events they already know about, but the audience does not; the characters may be calling back to an event in the chronological past we have yet to see, or predicting the future using information we have yet to learn.
An example calling back to the characters' past: Mal asks Cobb in one of the first scenes whether she will die from jumping off the building. She had committed suicide already by this point, and this is Cobb's projection of her haunting him. If you look at the room behind her on the ledge, it's identical to the one he's in, but you might not notice if you were focused on the characters.
An example of a conversation that does foreshadow future events, but which the audience does not know what they are speaking about (in this case, Cobb's projections of Mal sabotaging the mission):
Arthur: And you. What the hell was that? Cobb: I have it under control. Arthur: I'd hate to see out of control.
Fischer says to Saito after the avalanche "Couldn't someone have dreamed up a goddamn beach?" Later, he dies and goes to limbo which starts on beach.)
In Ariadne and Cobb's second session, Cobb's subconscious starts to get aggressive:
Ariadne: Mind asking your subconscious to take it easy? Cobb: I can't, it's my subconscious.
Taken into context with Mal and Cobb's repeated projections of her that's revealed later, this line suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
In the beginning after Cobb wakes up he mutters:
I hate trains.
From Bad to Worse: Mal infests Cobb's brain to the point where he can barely focus on the mission. The team's employer gets shot and ends up on the verge of death. Then of course there's the ending, which may or may not be this trope. And pretty much everything in between.
A God Am I/Reality Warper: Ariadne enjoys herself too much while learning what it means to be an architect. Arthur is also no slacker when it comes to warping reality, and he even manages to turn recursive, impossible geometry back on his opponents.
Gravity Screw: The entire hotel corridor fight sequence between Arthur and the projections. There's also Cobb and Ariadne walking straight up a wall in the "Paris folding" sequence.
Grey and Grey Morality: On one hand, they are essentially brainwashing their target on behalf of a business rival. On the other hand, they are helping the guy get over his deep-seated father issues and getting him to forge his own path. They're also stopping him from creating a dangerous energy monopoly.
Grow Old with Me: Part of Mal's anger with Cobb stems from his promise that they'd do this. They did in 50 years of Limbo.
Guile Hero/Manipulative Bastard: Eames, who specializes in manipulating the emotions of marks by impersonating people close to them in their dreams, is one or the other.
Guns Do Not Work That Way: One of the first clues that the prologue is a dream sequence (aside from being set in a massive Japanese castle) is a gun working in a way it should not.
Many when it comes to the Applied Phlebotinum that drives the plot. For example, making the dreams mostly realistic instead of bizarre abstractions.
The "characters" do it all the damn time, as per Real Life lucid dreaming. Except as they're doing it to other people's dreams, the more they do it, the more likely that "projections" who populate the dream will notice the discrepancies, then hunt down and kill the intruding dreamer.
Hoist by His Own Petard: In the third dream level, Eames gets his gun knocked over a railing by a projection. The same projection then throws Eames over the railing. This allows Eames to retrieve his gun and shoot the projection.
Hollywood Silencer: Used in the beginning. Oddly enough, it's paired with fairly realistic stealth techniques — catching the bullet casing and gently placing the body on the ground as not to make too much noise. Possibly justified by the action taking place in a designed dream.
Honor Before Reason: When Saito is shot in the first layer of the dream and Cobb explains about the consequences of the sedative and how death will send the dreamer to limbo until he wakes up, Saito tells Cobb that he will still follow through on his promise to Cobb. Cut to the end and Saito has died within the dream and has gone into Limbo and Cobb goes in to get him out. After they wake up, Saito who would understandably be shaken after having spent decades in Limbo having all but forgotten everything about himself until Cobb jolted his memory, takes one quick look at Cobb and reaches for the phone and starts dialing, indicating that holding to his promise was the first thing on his mind when he woke up. Saito is Japanese right? So honor would be incredibly important culturally speaking.
Hypocritical Humor: Arthur dryly points out how often Dom does things he tells everyone else not to do.
I Did What I Had to Do: Cobb's justification for everything throughout the film, from his illegal activities, to deceiving his crewmates, to incepting Fischer and doing the same to his wife. Usually in these Exact Words.
Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: All over the place. A nasty subversion occurs in the first dream level (the rainy city). Apparently in the world of Inception, executives and other people with secrets to guard can receive dream security training — Cobb poses as such a trainer early in the movie. Fischer has apparently had it, and as such has military projections who can shoot quite straight. They fatally wound Saito and send the entire team scrambling.
However, the mooks from the corporation who hunt Cobb and Arthur in what is allegedly the real world absolutely live by this trope. Two of them are equipped with semi-auto handguns and can't hit Cobb while he is running just few feet from them in the alleyway in Mombasa.
Implacable Man: Mal. Absolutely relentless and nearly impossible to reason with. Even if you're a trained dream infiltrator, when she shows up it's time to panic.
Impossible Mission: Though it's a very original variation on it, the film basically uses this standard plotline beat-for-beat.
Improbable Aiming Skills: Played straight-ish. Cobb's crew can fire from uncomfortable positions and awkward locations and still drop plenty of mooks... in dreams, where they can also produce grenade launchers out of thin air. It's possible their aiming skills have more to do with skill at dream-manipulation and preconceptions as to how hard it is to hit a target than actual ability with firearms. Something similar probably explains how the basement-dwelling chemist is adept at driving in a high-speed chase through a crowded, rainy city, and how the crew happens to be skilled at rappelling down an icy mountainside.
Improvised Weapon: When the variable-gravity fight moves into the hotel room, Arthur clocks his opponent with the room's phone.
One at the end of the film during a panning shot of Robert Fischer. He's talking about the Aesop he's learned to "Browning" (Eames-in-disguise), whose form is briefly blocked from view by Fischer's body. On one side it's Browning; on the other, it's Eames.
Living MacGuffin: Fischer is an interesting variant in that he is living but it is his projection that is more relevant.
The Load: Saito. Eames warns him that a shared dream is no place for "tourists." He becomes a literal load in the first dream stage when he's shot and has to be carried around, although he gets better from the second stage on.
The deep levels of the subconscious, especially being no easy way to wake up.
Cobb warns Ariadne against constructing her dream world out of real life memories, lest it becomes this. And then he proceeds to completely ignore his own advice. He should know — that's exactly what happened to his wife. He was only able to pull her out by implanting the idea in her mind that her world was All Just a Dream, and getting her to kill herself with him so that they could wake up. It worked, but the idea stayed in her mind, and she started thinking that the real world was a Lotus-Eater Machine as well.
Love Makes You Evil: Played with interestingly. Cobb's love for Mal prompted him to Mind Rape her in order to get her out of Limbo. In turn, the brainwashed Mal ruined Cobb's life to make sure he would commit suicide with her. Cobb then knowingly risked the lives of his crew by trying to keep Mal alive in his dreams, whereupon she constantly sabotaged his jobs and attempted to kill his comrades so that he would join her in Limbo. You follow all that?
Magic A Is Magic A: The rules of the dream world and extraction are continually elaborated upon throughout the movie; the movie makes more sense when you take notes.
While the protagonists can alter dreams however they wish, in order to successfully steal or plant information they have to keep attention away from themselves long enough to do so. That means limiting in-dream special effects to subtle paradox trickery and convenient firearms, a la Mage: The Ascension/Mage: The Awakening.
Dom's repetition of Saito's words about dying alone as an old man, filled with regret.
The entire You're waiting for a train speech given by Mal was originally said by Cobb, when he and Mal were stuck in Limbo. He says this as they lay their heads on a railroad track, so a train could run over their heads to wake themselves up.
"Cobb" means "dream" in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. It was also the name of a gentleman thief in Following, Nolan's first feature film.
The proper pronunciation is 'khwaab', not 'cobb'.
It's also an old English word for "spider" (hence the word "cobweb"). Fitting, for a man who weaves webs and traps others in them. And who, depending on how you look at it, may have indirectly killed his own mate.
Fischer's name may be a reference to the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, whose kingdom physically changes to parallel his wounds and suffering; this is appropriate given that much of the film takes place within his troubled mental landscape. Also, Robert "Bobby" Fischer is the name of one of the most famous chess players in history.
Mega Corp.: Cobol Engineering is Absurdly Powerful. They have dozens of assassins in, say, Kenya, waiting to be activated in a strangely dream-like plot development (though we are warned beforehand that Cobol operates heavily there). See Disproportionate Retribution.
Even more powerful are Proclus Global - Saito's corporation whom Cobol was trying to steal secrets from - and Fischer-Morrow, who will have a monopoly on the majority of the world's energy concerns if Fischer Jr. decides to continue the empire instead of dissolving it.
Mercy Kill: There's a non-fatal version in the introductory sequence.
Meta Twist: Given the circumstances or their arrangement, a Genre Savvy viewer might expect Saito to try to screw Cobb over on their deal by the end. Theories on the ending aside, Saito appears to be on the level with Cobb and honors the deal.
Perhaps less so— would you want to screw them over after what they just pulled off? Besides, Saito is the Honorable Samurai.
Take notes. Better than most, due to Magic A Is Magic A. There are several different kinds.
The most obvious mind-screw is keeping track of how many levels of dreams they take Fischer into. It's stated that beyond two is too unsafe to attempt, and three is what the characters are aiming for all along, but they go into at least four. They go from the plane to a rainy city (first level) to a hotel (second level) to a snowy mountain fortress (third level) as planned, but when From Bad to Worse, they're forced to go into Cobb's crumbling wasteland (fourth level). And the beach where Cobb meets the aged Saito (may or may not be a fifth level). Alternately, the wasteland and the beach may not be "levels" at all - one or both may be limbo. And depending on your interpretation, there may even be some question as to whether the plane is "real" and not itself a level of another dream Cobb spends virtually the entire film in. One theory is that the film itself is a symbolic representation of the movie-going experience, essentially making the audience itself another "level" of the dream.
The movie starts In Medias Res, as noted above, and most scenes do as well, jumping straight from one bit of dialogue or action to another without establishing shots of people introducing themselves, walking up the street, etc. Coupled with the observation that dreams often work that way, it forces viewers to question either the nature of the scenes in this movie that supposedly aren't dreams, or the nature of movies in general.
On two separate occasions, Cobb doesn't check his top to see if it stops spinning. The obvious one is at the end, when the movie ends and credit stops with the top wobbling but not actually fallen down. A more subtle example is right after Ariadne discovered Cobb's wife locked in his subconscious. He never checked that he was in reality when he started the whole heist mission.
When Cobb is in Mombasa, He goes under to test the new sedative. He is then interrupted by Saito after he "Wakes Up" from his dream. However, he drops his Totem, Picks it up, and Doesn't spin it afterwards. It's very possible that he could still be in that Basement.
The whole thing becomes tragic considering that it's possible for Cobb to have been guilty over nothing (and the entire 'heist' to have been pointless since Mal technically was never wrong about it all being a dream and them needing to wake up, and could possibly BE still alive.
Cobb always uses Mal's totem, and has been since he found it in their limbo dream. We never see what his was and Adriane was warned not to use another persons' totem or let them use yours (though this is probably to avoid them tricking you). It is possible that Mal was right and Cobb never woke up, but thinks he has because he is dependant on a totem that isn't really his.
The Mirror Shows Your True Self: Within a dream, Eames can copy other people's appearances, but almost always has his own reflection. On one occasion he was, when in disguise, seated in front of multiple mirrors. Some reflected his true face, others reflected his disguise. Which mirrors reflected his true face and which reflected his disguise changed (almost certainly deliberately) between cuts.
Possibly Justified, since in an lucid dream, the reflection in a mirror is that of your self image.
More than Mind Control: In order for inception to work, it's necessary to manipulate the subject into finding the idea that is to be implanted emotionally appealing on a subconscious level - otherwise the mind will reject it.
Mortal Wound Reveal: After the shootout/car chase in the first level, it's revealed that the only character who didn't escape unscathed was Saito.
Mr. Fanservice: At least half of the male cast counts, especially the guys in the inception crew. General consensus is that Arthur and Eames are particular favorites (helped by their choice of wardrobe and theiractors).
90% of Your Brain : Cobb tells Ariadne that when awake, people use only "a fraction" of their brains, but when sleeping, their whole subconscious is unlocked. This makes sense, to a degree. When you are conscious, immense resources are used to process sensory data. When dreaming these resources are known to be co-opted for other purposes.
Narnia Time: Five minutes of real time is an hour in a dream (possibly more depending on the specific sedative that you use). This is compounded with each level of dream you go down.
Neuro-Vault: A more metaphorical example. In the first dream layer, Browning suggests that Fischer Sr. may have subtly implanted the combination to his safe in his son's head in this way. Plus, according to the universe's rules, a person's subconscious mind often places hidden desires, secrets, etc. inside literal vaults in the person's dreams.
The early trailers seemed to imply that the "folding up a city block" thing would be much more crucial to the plot than what it was, basically a party trick. They also cut together dialog to use "inception" as the name for stealing an idea from a dream, but that is "extraction." "Inception" is the film's actual plot of planting an idea within a mind.
Mal appears on the posters labeled as the Femme Fatale. The implication is that she's part of some rival organization working counter to our antiheroes. In a sense, she is one of our heroes. Also, she's dead.
Trailer three seems to indicate that Mal is Cobb's wife, and is still waiting for him back at home. Well, one out of two is right...
Saito was advertised as the main bad guy. He really isn't. In fact, there is no Big Bad at all. The closest people are Mal and Fischer's dad, and they're both dead before the real conflict starts.
The trailer made the movie look like a lot more of a Mind Screw than it actually was.
N.G.O. Superpower: The protagonists are trying to stop Fischer's company from becoming this.
Every aspect of the dream sharing technology is kept purposefully vague. There are a few interviews online that set up the plot. Cobb's father-in-law is noted as the inventor of the technology. Apparently, the technology was outlawed or regulated some time ago because of some unspecified incident.
Cobb references "The Stein Job", in which he had previously used the "Mr Charles" gambit. Arthur points out that it didn't work.
There weren't a lot of legal opportunities for extraction after an incident which may have been Cobb "killing" Mal or maybe something else entirely.
No One Gets Left Behind: Averted and played straight. In the third layer, just before going into Limbo, Eames says that they're going to go once the kick comes, whether Cobb and Ariadne are back or not. A few moments later, Cobb stays in Limbo to find Saito.
No Pronunciation Guide: Early on, people were pronouncing Saito's name as Say-toe as opposed to Sigh-toe. This changed later in the film. However, Arthur still messes it up in every line, putting this into Spell My Name with an S territory.
Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Fischer Jr., who's supposed to be Australian (according to his passport), speaks with an American accent. Cillian Murphy, the actor who plays Fischer Jr., is Irish in real life. It is entirely possible that Fischer Jr. was raised in America, or that his mother was American, which would help explain, but none of these things is explicitly stated.
The Not-Love Interest: Ariadne to Cobb. She grows to understand him more than any of the other crew, and is perhaps single-handedly responsible for saving his soul. At the same time, her concerns are more practical than romantic, as Cobb was taking an enormous gamble with everyone's lives.
Not So Similar: What allows our protagonist to finally overcome the figure in his head that's trying to kill him, is realizing it isn't the person it appears to be and confronting it over the issue.
Oh Crap: Cobb's expression in the 2nd dream-state when he hears broken glass which brings to his mind the night Mal killed herself which results in the projection of his children showing up during the Mr. Charles gambit.
Older than They Look: Both Cobb and Mal were in Limbo for around 50 years, making them mentally in their late 70s to early 80s. Saito too. And, depending on how long Cobb was in Limbo hunting him, he may be north of a hundred by now.
If you count the transpacific flight time, which is 10 hours real-time, Cobb hunted Saito through Limbo no less than 9 and a half hours. Multiplied by 20, by 20, by 20 and by 20 again, it comes to a whopping 170+ years. So psychologically, at the end of the film, Cobb is at least 250 years old.
One Last Job: Cobb tells Miles that Saito's job will be his last, and that he's only taking it on so that he can see his children again.
One-Man Army: Although The Team as a whole is extremely badass, the gold medal of badassery goes to Eames. In the snow level, Eames distracts an entire scout team so that Saito and Fischer can infiltrate the stronghold. He then beats the scout team consisting of several snowmobiles and skiing mooks all by himself, steals one of their snowmobiles, and proceeds to destroy an entire convoy of a snow-Humvee and several skiing mooks by cutting the rope between the Humvee and the mooks with his snowmobile and blowing up the Humvee by throwing up a C4 into the turret-guy's hand. Moreover, when he told the injured Saito to look after Fischer, Eames went outside to the perimeter of the base, defended the base from a ton of Mooks while planting C4 in every pillars.
Only a Flesh Wound: No characters show injury or bleeding from the blood vessels in their wrists. And at the beginning of the movie, one character yanks the tube off like it's not even sticking out of his body, going against the guidelines of the PASIV manual.
The Ophelia: Mal's madness starts off Cobb's character arc.
Opinion Changing Dream: The title and concept of the movie involve attempting to engineer one of these in another person's mind (and without them realizing you've done it, to boot).
Painting the Medium: Cobb offers Ariadne a job, and they discuss it while walking through Paris, cutting between several locations. He then asks her how they got to the café they're sitting at. She can't remember what's been happening during the "cuts" and realizes they're in a dream.
In a meta example, a lot of the film's special effects were accomplished through perspective magic: the zero-gravity fight in the hotel corridor (using a rotating set) and the water meniscus levels going all weird (using a tilting set). Both times, the camera was level relative to the moving set.
Pinch Me: Averted. Even if you are aware you're in a dream, you can't leave it unless you're given a "kick" in the real world or if you die in the dream world. The very basis is averted too, as you can still feel pain in a dream. Extreme pain, as we learn early on.
Please Wake Up: Used multiple times, sometimes in the "dying" sense, sometimes in the "wake up from sleep" sense.
Plot Armor: The team (and Fischer, to some extent) seem to be wearing this during the shootout in the rainy city. Their cab is riddled with bullet holes, all of the windows have been shot out, and yet only Saito is hit—once. The car chase in the van with the sleeping heroes is even more egregious.
Pretty Little Headshots: When Cobb shoots Arthur in the head at the start of the film so the latter can escape from the dream.
Properly Paranoid: All dream extractors keep a special "totem" with them that's supposed to help them determine whether they are in someone else's dream or not.
Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Played straight and then promptly subverted in the beginning. Cobb puts the gun down when Arthur is brought in at gun point, then makes a grab for the gun to snap Arthur out of the dream.
Race Against the Clock: Played with; it's a race alright, but it's different clocks for different characters. Essentially, clocks within clocks within clocks: the "kicks" that wake people one stage closer to reality, but don't work more than one level deep.
As each dream level has a timed kick, and time slows down further with each level downward, the twist is that if you don't make one kick, you're stuck having to possibly wait what feels like years in the lower level. Stuck there while everyone is trying to kill you, as someone the level above you arranges another kick — if they can do it before being taken by a higher kick themselves. Therefore, the reward the characters get for beating one clock? Beating several more clocks.
Rare Guns: Being in a dream world where everything is possible, Arthur has no problem whipping out a SCAR-L, which in real life costs better than $2500, roughly $4000 with the scope, and is hard to find even if you can afford it. And then Eames upstages him with the revolving grenade launcher.
Reality Warper: The whole point of having an Architect on the team (in this case, Ariadne).
The Reliable One: For all that Arthur "has no imagination", he's the best he is at what he does, which is making sure that you get out of any situation in one piece. Definitely the kind of guy you want watching your back.
Rule of Symbolism: with in-universe justification, no less - that's how dreams work. For example; why is Fischer Sr. lying on a hospital bed inside a bank vault inside an Arctic fortress? Because he has a big secret, of course. Indeed, for a typical extraction, the architect will place a vault in the environment. The dreamer's subconscious will instinctively hide all important/secret information there. Then you just need a good team to extract it. Think of the other things can be added to the environment to aid or hinder a heist and it's easy to see why Nolan thinks the movie has potential as a game.
Scare Chord: When Ariadne is looking into Cobb's dream and sees Mal in his "house." Mal suddenly looks up at her (and directly at the audience), and BAM! Out of your seat! In this case, the cause of the scare chord is a cute french lady, thus proving that this trope makes anything scary. Considering that this is Mal we're talking about here, and the wide-eyed look she gives Ariadne is not surprised but murderous, the scare chord may not have been entirely necessary..
Scenery Gorn: Paris exploding near the beginning and the dream city collapsing into the sea near the end.
Scenery Porn: Near on everywhere. Tokyo, Paris, the snow fortress, the final dream city...
Schrödinger's Butterfly: The characters take great pains to avert this. The ending takes great pains to leave it ambiguous.
Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Saito is rich/powerful enough to clear Cobb of his murder charge with a single phone call. Then there was this priceless moment when The Team is discussing how to be left alone with Fischer for ten hours during a flight...
Arthur: But you'd have to buy out the entire cabin. And the first class flight crew. Saito: I bought the airline. [Everyone looks at him incredulously] Saito:[awkward]It seemed neater.
Secret Test: Saito's test of skill, which the team (and Cobol) mistook for a job. In level 2, they succeed in getting the documents (though key info is blacked out), but fail in Saito's eyes because the deception was obvious (or so he thought at the time). In level 1, they fail because of the carpet mix-up, but succeeded in impressing Saito.
Shoot the Money: Did they ever. Filming took place in six different countries, and the filmmakers made sure to make creative use of the exotic scenery. They don't just show you downtown Paris — they fold it on top of itself. They don't just set a few scenes in an ancient Japanese castle — they flood it, and then blow it up. And so on.
Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Yusuf, despite being a key player in the dreamscape, doesn't appear much in the promotional material, certainly not as much as the big stars. Mal isn't in much of the trailers either, though she does make it to the posters. In fact, on the main theatrical release poster that shows the entire team, Yusuf is pictured despite the fact his actor isn't among the sizeable billing list of actors; even Pete Postlethwaite and Tom Berenger receive a mention in the billing despite appearing just a few minutes apiece in the film, but poor Dileep Rao is left out...
On a positive note, his is one of only three actors names to appear on the Netflix envelope for the movie.
Smart People Play Chess: There are several chess references in the film, including Ariadne's totem (which is a bishop), the black-and-white tiled floor of the fortress, and the character name Robert Fischer, after Bobby Fischer.
The Smurfette Principle: The crew consists of around six guys and one girl. There is one other important female character, and for most of the film, she's a projection of the main (male) character's subconscious.
In addition, the Epic music for the later parts of the movie are just Je ne regrette rien slowed down substantially, as it could be expected to be heard by the crew while several layers down from the source of the music.
Spanner in the Works: Cobb's projection of Mal in the extraction at the beginning and almost again later when she kills Fischer in the snow level. It takes Cobb and Ariadne going into limbo to retrieve him to save the mission.
Spotting the Thread: In the prologue, Saito figures out that he's still dreaming by recognizing that the carpet in his love nest is inauthentic. So it's not so much spotting the thread as spotting the thread count.
Stealth Pun: They spend much of the movie talk about "training your subconscious" ... and then they bring in an actual train.
Take Our Word for It: The "horrific" ramifications of Limbo. Once it's introduced, Limbo is sold as a Fate Worse than Death; a place one's mind will be trapped for eons until it turns into "scrambled egg." Despite this we never get to see the full extent of this. Of the five characters who go there, the one who went the most insane (Mal) got that way because she was incepted. Cobb, the next most problematic, only got that way because he incepted Mal and drove her crazy. Saito becomes an old man, but Cobb rescues him before any lasting damage (seemingly) occurs. Ariadne and Fischer both get out pretty quickly and with seemingly little consequences. The implication is that Limbo itself doesn't drive you crazy, it's just that unless you know and are willing to take the way out, you'll be there for a very, very, very, long time.
Talking in Your Dreams: Dreams are not only a way to communicate with other people, but also to steal or implant ideas.
The Team: Extractions have to be done by a team because there are different roles involved.
The Smart Guy: Averted; there is no single smart person becaue everyone has to be smart to be in this business.
The Point Man: Arthur is in charge of doing the research and he's smart enough to figure out how to simulate falling in zero gravity.
The Tourist: Saito; yes even he counts because he's a CEO that twisted Cobb's arm into doing this in the first place
Thanatos Gambit: Mal commits suicide, but makes it look like Cobb murdered her so he'll be compelled to do it with her or lose custody of the children. Of course, like the many characters who kill themselves in dreams in this movie, she doesn't believe she's really dying.
Saito gets a bit of this, holding off the incoming mooks with a pistol and grenades while still being injured.
Toyota Tripwire: Saito appears and knocks out the last mercenary chasing Dom in Mombasa with this.
Trash the Set: Most dreams fall apart at the end, leading to some spectacular special effects.
Treacherous Advisor: Fischer's godfather. Or at least the team decides to play up that angle to prevent him from getting control of the company.
True Companions: The Inception team. Ariadne tells Cobb to get over this guilt not for himself, but so that the others don't stuck in Limbo. Cobb remains in Limbo to get Saito, who returns the favor by immediately making a call that gets Cobb off the hook.
Twenty Minutes into the Future: The technology to enter another person's dreamscape is only used by a small number of people. When talking to the professor, Cobb mentions that there are legitimate uses for it, but he hasn't really been able to find honest work after being accused of killing his wife.
Undisclosed Funds: It isn't out right stated how rich Saito is, but he seems rich enough to buy an entire airline for the operation (in what appears to be seconds), plus have enough connections to clear Cobb's murder charge.
The speed of the airline purchase is actually the result of how quickly his line goes by. He already took the precaution of buying the airline, before telling the group that they would be using it.
The Unreveal: Whether or not Cobb is still dreaming at the end of the movie. Cobb spins the top, but the movie ends before the audience sees whether it falls or not.
Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Eames, Forging a woman, does this to Saito. Thankfully, Saito's reaction is mostly "Oh, quit screwing around."
Up to Eleven: It appears that even a two-level dream setup is tricky and reserved for only the most important missions. Cobb wants to go three-levels.
The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: Cobb's deepest dream world, which consists of a decaying city full of skyscrapers collapsing into an ocean shoreline. The thunderstorm that happens later on definitely adds into the mood here.
Viewers Are Geniuses: The first published review by Rolling Stone suggested that the film is quite ambitious in this regard.
Vision Quest: The mission becomes this for Cobb when Ariadne tells him he has to confront Mal, or rather his unresolved subconscious feelings about her. Also, one interpretation of the entire movie is that it's a Vision Quest Cobb is being put through so that he will wake up in reality.
The Walrus Was Paul: Christopher Nolan provides enough conflicting evidence to keep everyone arguing over the ending (or the whole film); anyone looking for a theory that satisfactorily addresses every point is going to have a rough go.
A Wizard Did It: As with having all the enemy mooksconsistently miss when they fire at the heroes, the unique premise of the movie allows Nolan to employ a normally cheesy element of Hollywood blockbusters — in this case, action sequences that would be physicallyimpossible in real life — in a way that not only makes sense, but enhances the story's believability.
"World of Cardboard" Speech: Dom gives one in his final confrontation with Mal. He admits that he wished things didn't happen the way they did and regrets manipulating her with an inception, but explains that trying to keep any "promises" to Mal by growing old together in the dream world is irrelevant. Despite all his imagination the dream Mal is a fragment of the real Mal and he even chastises himself for not being able to do better.
Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Mal planned to kill herself (though only to "wake up"; she thinks she's dreaming) and convince her husband to go with her, and she used a Wounded Gazelle Gambit as part of the means of convincing him of that. She told her lawyer that she was fearing for her life, and then trashed the room Cobb was in, just so that if she died and he didn't agree to go with her, everyone would think he killed her. She threatened her own husband with false incrimination on murder, and actually followed through on that threat when he didn't agree to go with her. Because of this, she manages to come across as the most manipulative character in the movie, which says a lot in a movie where even the good guys are manipulative.
Writers Cannot Do Math: Dom states that Arthur has "a few minutes" on level two, and that they have "about twenty minutes" on level three. Unless Yusuf suddenly started using a different chemical compound, if Dom and his team have twenty minutes, then Arthur would have one minute. Also, if Arthur had even a couple of minutes, Dom would have at least forty, and the van would have to be in free-fall for six seconds or more, which is a much longer drop than what was shown in the film.
Yandere: Mal. Or at least, the projection of her created by Dom's subconscious. Though real Mal, after her Inception, was a Yandere as well, seeing as how she pretended to be kind and gentle, but in reality was psychotic beyond words, going so far as to trash her own hotel room as part of an elaborate plan to make it seem like Cobb killed her.
Year Inside, Hour Outside: Subjective time stretches in a dream compared to the layer above, with the exact amount of time depending on the sedative used. For the dreams earlier in the movie, time stretches by 12 times per level, for the inception operation, time stretches for 20 times per level.
You Cannot Kill an Idea: As seen in the top quote, an idea is the most resilient parasite. Moreover, we're told that subtle as inception must be, it will relentlessly grow into an obsession that can change everything about the target, so it's more like "Don't even dream of killing an inception."
You Can't Go Home Again: Cobb cannot return to America or step foot in any country with an extradition treaty with it because he's accused of killing his wife. The main reason he agrees with Saito's request is to have a chance to return home.
Your Mind Makes It Real: They manage to avert actually uttering the line, but they come darn close. Totally subverted when it is shown that dying is actually the easiest way to escape from a dream. Unless you're too heavily sedated to wake up, in which case you are doomed to dream for near-eternity. Played straight with pain, for it is a function of the mind anyway.
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: The Team was literally a few steps away from the final vault when Fischer Jr. was shot, and they were forced to travel into another level of subconscious to finish the mission.
Zerg Rush: Non-militarized projections are limited to this, forming enormous crowds of hostile people who overwhelm intruders through sheer numbers. Militarized projections are more controlled, better-armed, and come in fewer numbers, but no less suicidally relentless.
Zig-Zagging Trope: As noted above, the film initially subverts the typical "if you die in a dream, you die in reality" idea, but then plays it straighter later on, as if you are very deeply sedated, dying in the dream means you lose your mind in real life due to being trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine for what might seem like eternity, and then subverts it again as it is possible to escape from said Lotus-Eater Machine very easily if you know how, and if you're willing to, which is, of course, much harder when you don't know that you're in the dream world, or just plain refuse to leave.