An essay from last year.

This research paper presents a critical discussion of the 2010 film Inception directed by Christopher Nolan using the following theoretical frameworks: postmodern and psychoanalytical.

Inception is a “big action heist movie” (Itzkoff 2010) where a team of conmen infiltrate the dreams of powerful people and extract the secrets of their subconscious. The film won 4 Oscars along with 81 other wins and 103 nominations as well as successfully earning over $62 million in the box office of opening weekend (IMDb 2012). This paper will undertake a critical discussion of this contemporary creative work through the postmodern and psychoanalytical frameworks. Postmodern creative works rebel against the standards and styles set forth by renowned modernist artists. Psychoanalysis is a way of reading a creative work through understanding the mind that creates it and understanding the minds contained within it. Through analysis of cinematic and narrative forms such as characterisation we can better understand how these two frameworks apply to this film.

Postmodernism is a time period wherein creative practitioners react against the preceding period of modernism. Thus defining the postmodern framework is dependent on our understanding of modernism. Featherstone suggests modernism is founded on “an aesthetic self-consciousness and reflexiveness; a rejection of narrative structure in favour of simultaneity and montage; an exploration of the paradoxical, ambiguous and uncertain open-ended nature of reality” (Featherstone 1991 7). They take the notion of the “unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological” (Jameson 1998 6). Through their creative works, postmodern artists break down the boundaries between elite and mainstream culture. An important aspect of postmodern creative practice is the use of recursive structures in a narrative. As noted by McHale, “a recursive structure results when you perform the same operation over and over again, each time operating on the products of the previous operation” (1987). This technique predates the notions of the postmodern however, in the hands of postmodern practitioners, the intention and consequence of such a technique purposefully confuses the audience (McHale 1987) for the recursiveness exists to challenge our notion of reality.

The psychoanalytical framework was founded by Freud as a way of understanding how the human mind works. Freud maintained the best way to understand how the mind worked was to free the unconscious mind from controlling thoughts. The human mind is structured so that its great weight and density lie beneath the surface (Guerin et al 1992 118). Based on the concept of the unconscious and the case that all human behaviour is motivated by sexuality or libido, Freud determined three separate but interlinked parts of the mind: the id, the ego and the superego (Guerin et al 1992 119). The id is raw desire and governed by the pleasure principal. The id has no moral restraints whereas the superego is the moral compass and is ruled by the values society teaches us. The superego is generally in direct conflict with the id. The ego keeps the balance between the id and superego. In an unconscious state, we are less aware and controlling of what our minds are doing. As our minds are more in their natural state we are able to comprehend them better. The best time access our unconscious is through our dreams.

Inception uses dreaming at multiple layers to lead us into the “reality” of the movie and attempts to reset our real world. Nolan himself admits the purpose of the film is to recognise how real a dream feels until we wake up (Hiscock 2010). This postmodern work has the audience question whether their life is real or a dream. Nolan constructs the film so that we enter on a diegetic level of no specific orientation – that is we are not sure where this level fits in the “stack” of ontological layers that make up Inception (McHale). It is revealed through a cut to a flashback in the same setting of a Japanese temple that we are in the past. Cuts between scenes quickly cause us to question which level is the primary diegesis as we are introduced to the Mombasa level where all of the characters are sleeping but for one. We assume this is the primary diegesis and the Japanese temple is the first level within this diegesis, the hypo-diegetic level. However at the close of the dream sequences, which begin to fall in on themselves, all of the characters except for the subject, Saito, awaken on a train. From this point onwards in the film this level is treated as the primary diegesis although there are many aspects of cutting between scenes to throw off the audience’s comprehension. Ariadne’s introductory scene where Nolan cuts from Ariadne taking Cobb’s architectural maze test to the two of them talking about dream spaces in a Parisian café is a perfect example of confusing the audience’s understanding of the diegesis. We seamlessly transition from the primary diegesis to the hypodiegetic level with only a small clip of Arthur walking into a warehouse separating them. Also, the curious notion of the hotel diegesis is treated as primary for the benefit of the subject, Fischer, until he is made aware of the dream during the “Mister Charles gambit” (Inception 2010).

McHale recognises various aspects of postmodern use of recursive structures including “frequency: interrupting the primary diegesis not once or twice but often with secondary hypodiegetic worlds” (1987 113). The frequent cutting between the van, hotel and mountain as each level is entered into supports this idea. The ontological layer is explored, used and then moved beyond. However, a character must remain behind as an anchor, meaning it is necessary to revisit previous layers and justifying the frequent cutting between these scenes. There is “a general pattern in postmodern multilevel texts: complexity increasing to the point where levels collapse as if of their own weight, into a single level of diegesis” (McHale 1987 115). The first example of this is the simultaneous “kicks” the characters ride up to the primary diegesis. This is represented through special effects and music to convey speed and a falling feeling both to the characters and to the audience. The kicks are engineered by explosions in the hypo-hypo-hypo- and hypo-hypodiegetic levels and a car crash in hypodiegetic level. Limbo also seems the result of levels collapsing in on themselves to a single diegesis, however that diegesis is not reality but simply “unconstructed dream space” (Inception 2010).

Postmodern style thrives on the confusion and disorientation of the audience. Inception contains ontological discontinuity between primary diegesis and hypodiegetic worlds. McHale suggests these worlds “need not always be foregrounded” (1987 113). Inception does not begin in the present but in the future it would seem. (It is hard to consider the opening scene as current time given the near-entity of the film is spent catching up to this, one of the final concluding moments.) One could argue beginning within the undefined diegetic level, a level that is never actually defined (in order to escape this level, the characters need only ascend one level to the primary diegesis) and ending with the still spinning top represent the boundaries established within the film. The architect must set boundaries in order to prevent the dreamscape from continuing infinitely. In essence, the opening scene and the closing scene are the boundaries of the film, trapping the story within its film-length structure.

Psychoanalytical theory can be applied to a few aspects of Inception. Firstly, Geurin et al propose the idea of various characters representing the id, ego and superego (1992). In the case of Inception the story revolves around the character of Cobb. Cobb could be seen as the ego, while the projection of his late wife Mal represents Cobb’s id. Ariadne, through her persistence to understand Cobb, gains insight into his unconscious’s projection of Mal and begins to act against it, recognising it as a threat. This threat is clearly conveyed to the audience from the beginning when Mal betrays the team to Saito and shoots Arthur, waking him up and removing him from that dream. Ariadne acts as the superego to Cobb when she joins the team for the inception of Fischer to protect them from Cobb’s id (Mal). “The adult … is ashamed of his fantasies and hides them from other people” (Freud). This is clear in Cobb’s reluctance to confide in Arthur or Eames or Saito about the threat his projection of Mal poses to the job they are working. Ariadne, as the superego, forces him to deal with the issue and its various and somewhat life-threatening implications. What does this say of the id-ego-superego relationship? In identifying these various characters as their aspects of Cobb’s mind, it begs the question of what Mal’s, and therefore Cobb’s, desires are. “We can never give anything up, we only exchange one thing for another … formation of a substitute or surrogate” (Freud 1972) – perhaps the example of Cobb’s wife Mal, whom he trapped in a building of memories to keep alive in his mind. This links to passion, sexuality and the id the notion of real becoming a villainous entity. This type of fantasy could be too extreme to stay under control or be socially acceptable.

“The opposite of play is not what is serious bit what is real” – the dreams of Inception are treated as both real and serious, real in the sense that the sedative keeping the dreamers asleep affects death in a dream to become stuck in “unconstructed dream space” – doomed to live life in a pseudo-reality without access to a wakening “kick”.

Child distinguishes its “play” quite well from reality (Freud 1972). The “totems” each character takes with them into a dream space allow them to differentiate between true reality and dream due to unique natures inherent only to the owner. Freud also notes “the motive forces of fantasies are unsatisfied wishes … fulfilment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality” – in the case of these dream worlds, the experience can be much more vivid than the experience of life itself. Inception explores this notion scene beneath the chemist’s basement when the team witness a group who dream share daily and it is explained, “They came to wake up” (Inception 2010). The audience questions whether dreams are reality and reality are dreams as the film shows the two are inextricably linked.

In conclusion, the film Inception very deliberately engages with both the postmodern and psychoanalytical frameworks. The analysis provided has shown the interplay of cinematic techniques and narrative form in the presentation of these ideas about dreaming. This paper has proved how the theme of dreams feeling inherently real is the reason these two frameworks provide so much insight for they both draw on the notion of dreams as a mode of representation in Inception.



Featherstone, M. 1991, ‘Modern and Postmodern: Definitions and Interpretations’ in Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Sage, London, 1-12.

Freud, S. 1972 [1908], ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’ in Lodge, D. 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, Longman, London, 36-42.

Guerin, W. & Labor, E. 1992, ‘The Psychological Approach: Freud’ in W. L. Guering et. al. (eds) A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Oxford University Press, New York, 152-182.

Hiscock, J. 2010, Inception: Christopher Nolan Interview, accessed 21/10/2012, <>

IMDb, 2012, Inception (2010), accessed 21/10/2012, <;

Itzkoff, D. 2010, A Man and His Dream: Christopher Nolan and ‘Inception’, accessed 21/10/2012, <>

Jameson, F. 1998 [1984], ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, Verson, London, 1-20.

McHale, B. 1987, ‘Chinese-Box Worlds’ in Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen, New York, 112-130.

Nolan, C. 2010, Inception (film), Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Legendary pictures, Syncopy.

Rose, G. 2012, ‘Psychoanalysis: Visual Culture, Visual Pleasure, Visual Disruption’ in Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials, 3rd Edition, Sage, Los Angeles, 149-188.


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