Understanding One of Christopher Nolan's Greatest Mysteries: An Analysis of 'Inception'

Studying the intricate details of films is a great way of becoming a better filmmaker, and we're definitely big fans of the work Darren Foley does in analyzing some of cinema's great modern films.. In yet another great film analysis, Foley breaks down Christopher Nolan's cerebral thriller about dreams within dreams within dreams. Find out how Inception lures its audience into their own dream state through "disorientation", as well as the subtle hints that let them know whether what they're watching is real or a dream.

[Warning: There are spoilers ahead!]

Inception is one of those movies that most viewers have to watch more than once to understand it -- even on a base level. It has been on my personal list of films that I wanted to really dig into and analyze if only to unravel the mystery behind and complexity of the narrative and story structure. The big questions I've heard about this film revolve around what's real and what's a dream within the diegesis.

This is one of the first aspects of the film that Foley tackles in his analysis by focusing on the presence of Cobb's wedding ring, positing that when he's wearing it, he is in fact inside a dream, and when he's not, he is in reality. This is an important claim, for two reasons:

  1. Cobb's trusty totem, the top, is actually a red herring that is meant to distract and fool the audience, as well as Cobb himself. The ending is indicative of this. The one thing we are told will let us know whether he's in a dream or not fails to answer the final, most pressing question: is Cobb dreaming at the end of the film? We all read and heard and argued about whether or not the top began to wiggle before the shot cut to black, but Nolan didn't give us the satisfaction of knowing for sure -- because the top wasn't the real totem.
  2. As the film gets deeper and deeper inside the multi-leveled dreams, it gets more difficult to follow, to where what we know about the story becomes a stack of ideas that quickly begins to tower -- teetering and swaying as we replace and rearrange our understanding as we receive new information. The wedding ring -- the audiences totem to their own "Inception" experience -- is a great visual indicator to let us know for sure if we're on the right track.


Foley touches on many aspects of Inception to untangle its many mysteries, including how Nolan uses the titles of his films to offer the audience a clue as to what will become an important concept. In the video, Foley mentions the titles of Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises to explain that each title signifies a key concept within the narrative that you can always go back to if the maze of the story gets too confusing.

Check out Foley's analysis below, and then head on down to the comments section to discuss the intricacies of the film.

[via Must See Films]

Your Comment


This is great collaborative film making, the writing, the dp, director, cast etc , even the visual effects played probably the most part in that it was a distraction that help confuse the mind and plot, amazing movie.

June 15, 2014 at 11:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I just realized inception is very similar to the film," Dreamscape" with Dennis Quad in the 19080's. Nolan's a genius regardless.

June 16, 2014 at 1:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You're... a time traveler! And apparently so is Quaid.

June 18, 2014 at 3:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Another interesting connection is that the song to wake the dreamers, "Non, Je ne regrette rien", was an Edith Piaf song. Edith Piaf was the breakout role for Marion Cotillard, who plays Mal.

June 16, 2014 at 2:34AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Moe McLendon

Probably the most overrated film of all time. Boring nonsense than seemingly went on forever...

June 16, 2014 at 3:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


No such thing as overrated. What you really mean is "I did not enjoy, appreciate, or see merit in this as much as the large number of people who did."

June 16, 2014 at 9:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Yeah there's definitely a thing as overrated and Inception's poster is actually in the dictionary when you look the meaning of the word.

June 16, 2014 at 10:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Lance Bachelder

I agree with you Coty!
To each their own. I don't like Steak but most people I know love it. Is steak overrated? In my opinion it is, but in general it is not.

June 17, 2014 at 4:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


"I'm sorry my films require you to think." -Christopher Nolan (intentional misquote). I'm with Coty. Maybe it's not your type of movie. Just joking around

June 16, 2014 at 12:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You've gotta respect this film even if you don't like it. It's an original, non-franchise, non-comic book, mega-budget summer blockbuster for adults that not only made a fortune but also was universally appreciated critically.
Made a really nice change from all the sequels and remakes.

June 16, 2014 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I enjoyed Inception, but it was a total comic-book movie.

June 19, 2014 at 4:03PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


How do you feel about "The Shining" by Kubrick?

June 16, 2014 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Casablanca is easily the most overrated film of all time.

June 16, 2014 at 6:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


haha @keith I totally agree, did not care about the characters at all. Trying to be too clever, Chris Nolan should let his brother stick to the writing

June 16, 2014 at 11:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I wouldn't be surprised if Nolan doesn't really even know, but just has a general idea of what he was after and wanted the audience to fill-in the blanks as they see fit. Of all the interpretations presented, the first one is the cleanest.

June 16, 2014 at 6:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Indeed, great movie.
The idea reminds me a little bit on "Total Recall", which also allows two interpretations.

June 16, 2014 at 8:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Tom DoP

I didn't particularly enjoy the film - it seemed unnecessarily convoluted just for the sake of being so, and that Nolan coerced too many uninspired and unnecessary action sequences into a film that deserved a more meditative script. Impressive from a technical perspective, though.

Thinking back on it now, I bet it would have made for a more compelling novel than a film.

June 16, 2014 at 10:42AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'll begin by saying that this was a WELL MADE movie, but, i also think it's way overrated. A script teacher i had once said: "making a movie should be like having sex, and the climax it's like when you're cumming and the end it's like when it's shrinking" (yeah, you know what)... That said, i thought the climax of Inception was SOOO LONG, that i actually got bored of it. When the van's falling, and the elevator it's (also) falling, and they're in the snow; then the van, the elevator, the snow, the van, the elevator, the van (and i watch this thinking: "is this really necessary?"). And i must say, i re-watch it. Half the movie i'm like: "i'm crazy, this movie it's actually GOOD"; but, by the end of it i'm like "not, this stills sucks, too much climax it's NOT climax". Yes, it presented a fine argument, even better effects, and the cast wasn't bad at all; but i think Nola maybe got carried away in postproduction.

June 16, 2014 at 4:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Rafa Ga

I would say Nolan's biggest weakness as a director is his (at least recent) inability to be succinct in his themes. I think a big part of the problem with his storytelling boils down to pacing. Having said that, I still think he's one of the better filmmakers out there today. I've loved most of his films and at least like all of them, and The Prestige is one of my favorite films. However, I will say that I think it was The Prestige was where he started to experiment with pacing.

June 16, 2014 at 5:34PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


As endlessly watchable as Inception was, it still has it's fair share of plot holes you could drive a truck through. Even Memento has one gaping story flaw. The Prestige is still by far Nolan's best film (pending the outcome of Interstellar).

The music at the end of the credits is meant to wake the audience up. Remember that you are in a trance state while watching a film, similar to a dream or to use what was said in the essay, a daymare.

June 16, 2014 at 6:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


June 17, 2014 at 2:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Inception is a great film, you can take away so much from it. Its both fantastic from a story telling aspect and film making, the hotel action scene with the whole room turning over could have easily been done in cg but it really would have taken away from the scene. Its so easily in our digital age to call something overrated, in that year what film where as original as this film? Took risks as much as it did.
- a Blockbuster and an artistic film combined
- a cast full of the best actors around
- using real stunts and practical effects
- did not treat the audience like children
- an iconic score that every blockbuster today emulates
- has audiences constantly talking about the movie even YEARS after release
- fantastically shot
The list goes on.
You may not have enjoyed the film, but you cannot deny the impact or the praise for it. It is a loved film by the majority and will live on in the years to come, how is that overrated? At some point there's just the ones trying too hard to be the contrarian.

June 17, 2014 at 3:01AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You can buy the shooting script with notes and diagrams from Christopher Nolan. It's an amazing complement to the story itself.

June 17, 2014 at 5:52AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Personally I have found all his films too long and trying to be clever clever, even this one which has disturbing similarities to an old Scrooge McDuck story!

June 18, 2014 at 2:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The characters were never in the Real, it starts in Dream and ends in Dream.

June 18, 2014 at 5:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Steven Grant wrote what I consider the best and definitive interpretation of Inception (http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=27664). His opening key points:

Okay, the first two things you need to realize about INCEPTION:

1) Only one scene takes place in the film's real world. All worlds depicted are dream layers.

2) There are only four real characters in the film: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio); Miles (Michael Caine); and Cobb's two children. The other characters, save Cobb's wife Mal, are strictly constructs of the dream.

June 19, 2014 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Now THAT is a very interesting idea

June 19, 2014 at 5:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


at the end of the movie, the wedding ring rounding is just saying that we all are in dream right now.... nothing is reality... this was an old concept of indian mytho called MAYA - an illusion..... nolan also signify this with various objects.....like in inception he narrated that u dont know when u start dreaming similaraly u also dont know when ur life begins on the earth..... there are also more similarities... find it

October 10, 2014 at 9:08AM