Christopher Nolan’s screenplay Inception (Nolan 2010) is about the mental-images of dreams that are shared by multiple characters. In the film, characters enter and exit dreams, manipulating the dreamer, to leave the audience to ask: “Is this the dream world or the ‘real’ world?”

Gilles Deleuze is a 20th century philosopher who believes cinema is the “universal language of humanity” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 25). Deleuze’s Cinema 2: Time-Image (Deleuze 1989) and Difference and Repetition (Deleuze 1994) present philosophical theories which could extract meaning from Inception and the 20th century’s Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory (Bergson 1913) also support the Deleuzean interpretations (Deleuze, 1989, p. 68). Both Deleuze and Bergson share views concerning the human perception of the “virtual” and the “actual”; they believe “the real object is reflected in a mirror-image as the virtual object which, from its side and simultaneously, envelops or reflects the real,” to form a “coalescence between the two” and “an image with two sides, actual and virtual” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 68).

This essay takes a Deleuzean approach, to interpreting Inception, in a hope to decode Christopher Nolan’s cinematic language and bring clarity to what the writer perceives as human life in the “real” world.

“The theatre of repetition is opposed to the theatre of representation,” says Deleuze and that during repetition “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space” that “act upon the spirit, and link it directly with nature and history (Deleuze, 1994, p. 10).

Bergson refers to this as “habitual recognition”, which helps the mind to perceive what is “real” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 43). He suggests that habit teaches humans that real is generally a product of matter – the actual – which is mirror-imaged to become the “virtual-images” of memory for reflection (Deleuze, 1989, p. 68).

During Inception’s first scene, a bearded man washes up on a beach in front of a Japanese castle. He is exhausted and “delirious” (Nolan, 2010, 00:01:30). The man is the film’s protagonist – “Cobb” – who is a “skilled extractor” (Nolan, 2010, 00:03:30) who works in the field of dreams. By the end of the film it becomes evident that the scene was actually a dream, although initially, habitual recognition persuades viewers to think that the scene is of the real world. The audience eventually reshuffles recognition to accept that various scenes are of Cobb’s imagination. This is thanks Cobb’s visual-images – his two children playing in nearby sand (Nolan, 2010, 00:00:45) are examples – and they can also be seen as the “recollection-images” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 54) which furnish dreams. When movement is seen in life an image must free itself from within the “movement-image” to become a “virtual-image” that is purely optical, a sound, or a tactile image, to be frozen to become a “recollection-image” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 23). Recollection-images are accessed, from a source belonging to images of the “past”, to help perceive the present. Dreams can be seen as recollection-images – images from the past – put together to form “dream-images” (Nolan, 1989, p. 55).

Cobb’s recollection of his children, project pain throughout Inception, which becomes evident in various comments throughout the film; “the children are waiting for their dad to come home” (Nolan, 2010, 00:24:15). Though, Cobb is unable to see his children, or go “back to reality” (Nolan, 2010, 00:24:10), as in “reality” Cobb’s wife, “Mal,” committed suicide, mistakenly thinking that she was in a dream, but she was awake. The recollection-images of characters throughout the film go on to structure the architecture of scenes while “dream sharing” (Nolan, 2010, 00:28:25), therefore pain recollections contribute to an unpleasant dream. In Cobb’s mind his reason for not returning to reality is that “Mal won’t let me” (Nolan, 2010, 00:24:00) and Mal keeps visiting Cobb’s dreams. On top of this Cobb is wanted for Mal’s murder. To Deleuze, dream-images are an “unstable set of floating memories,” and “images of a past in general, which move past at a dizzy speed” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 55). The instability of the dream-image is what Cobb finds difficult to control, resulting in problems furnishing dreams with his own projections. The projections that furnish dreams in the film can be thought of as “pure recollections” which are “summoned from the depths of memory to develop into “recollection-images”” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 54). Cobb decides to contract an architect, to assist with dream projections, as in the film, “architects are supposed to make dreams real” (Nolan, 2010, 00:23:40).

During the start of Inception, after the recollection of Cobb’s children, Cobb is escorted to a nearby Japanese castle to meet an elderly Japanese man. Cobb’s only two items are placed on the table: a handgun and a small pewter cone. The elderly Japanese man picks up the pewter cone then spins it gracefully on the table’s top while saying, “I know what this is. I’ve seen it before. Many, many years ago… It belonged to a man I met in a half-remembered dream” (Nolan, 2010, 00:02:28). The pewter cone is referred to as a totem in the film (Nolan, 2010, 00:32:55) and is apparently what helps Cobb to distinguish if he is in a dream or is awake. The elderly Japanese man reminisces with recollection-images, reflected in his memory, to add clarity to the “half-remembered dream”. The clarification of the “half-remembered” is the actualization of the virtual (Bergson, 1913, p. 28). Recollection-images fill the gaps of the mind when the contemplator “calls up the past in the form of an image,” and “withdraws from the action of the moment,” while maintaining “the power to value the useless” (Bergson, 1912, p. 94). In contemplating the recollection, the elderly Japanese man examines the past via the mental-images. The images are initially limited to the Japanese man’s view, though they are then externalized for the audience in a scene flashback (Nolan, 2010, 00:02:49). Onscreen, the flashback is the cinematic device, which can bind the real with the imaginary. This is not possible off screen for viewers other than the thinker. The flashback gives cinema the power to challenge Albert Einstein’s statement, “now for one observer is not the same for another observer” (Einstein 1916), and offers another perspective for observation.

Up until the elderly Japanese man’s recollection, Cobb was nothing more than a “delirious” (Nolan, 2010, 00:01:30) man who hadn’t spoken and the order of time had also been chronological order. Time shifts when a nameless voice-over asks, “What’s the most resilient parasite?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:02:46). The scene jumps to a different time, as the voice-over continues in the next scene, showing that the voice-over is Cobb. Cobb is sitting in an identical scene, at the same table, presenting the voice-over – now dialogue – to a younger Japanese man. The younger Japanese man appears to have replaced the elderly Japanese man and Cobb is now tailored and shaved.

“A flashback is a conventional, extrinsic device […] like a sign with the words: ‘Watch out! Recollection!’” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 48).

The flashback device allows viewers to see the mental images of characters. It is a recollection of the past that is “always virtual – being naturalized, at the moment when it might become actual […] to lose itself in something else” (Bergson, 1912, p. 28).

It is not always possible to examine a mind with clarity. Rather, the mind actualizes the virtual by ignoring details, “diminishing it by the greater part of itself,” so that the “thing” can become a “picture” (Bergson, 1912, p. 28). In the same way the mind is able to move forward with mental images, the memory-images and dreams-images, the flashbacks and time shifts in Inception, allow viewers to experience the mental images of characters, which are only possible with cinema. This allows the virtual to become the actual, through a virtual actualization (Bergson, 1913, p.51). At the same time characters are actualizing the virtual, the viewers are actualizing the virtual flow of time. Habitually recognition suggests that chronological order is expected in the actual world. Viewers soon find that the flashback scene is actually in a dream – the internal world of the elderly Japanese man’s mind – and additional characters appear, namely “Arthur,” Cobb’s colleague (Nolan, 2010, 00:02:50). Cobb tells the younger Japanese man that “an idea” (Nolan, 2010, 00:02:57) is the “most resilient parasite” and that “once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate” (Nolan, 2010, 00:03:03). “But surely to forget…?” replies the Japanese man, while tapping on his forehead. “Information, yes,” replies Cobb who then continues, “Fully formed, understood? That sticks…” The Japanese man becomes “Saito” throughout Inception and the “idea” becomes the driving force in the plot, with characters setting goals to manipulate an idea within a series of dreams.

To Deleuze, the “idea” is part of the imagination – the virtual – until it is actualized (Deleuze, 1989,p. 56). It is the virtual issues of metaphysics that are difficult to define, as the virtual world is a space of probabilities, which are not always fulfilled as each probability often has multiple possible outcomes. Deleuze attempts to give concrete reason to the virtual world with an a posteriori approach to the virtual, as apposed to the a priori, typically approach by the 18th century’s Immanuel Kant. To Kant, the virtual aspects of an “idea” are “problematic” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 168). This is different to Deleuze’s thoughts, as to Deleuze, the idea of being “problematic” is an “idea” in itself and the idea of a false problem raises the idea of an “illusion”(Deleuze, 1994, p. 168).

“There are mathematical, physical, biological, psychical and social problems, even though every problem is dialectical by nature and there are no non-dialectical problems” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 179).

Throughout Inception, characters discuss the virtual with certainty, as though they’ve confirmed it in the past. Arthur explains to Saito that, “In the dream state, conscious defences are lowered and your thoughts become vulnerable to theft.” Arthur refers to the theft as “extraction” (Nolan, 2010, 03:22). Cobb then adds, “I’m the most skilled extractor,” (Nolan, 2010, 03:30) and then locks eyes with Saito while saying, “If this is a dream and you’ve got a safe full of secrets, I need to know what’s in that safe” (Nolan, 2010, 00:03:50). Saito becomes uneasy, from the potential theft of his idea, so leaves the room. As this happens, a tremor begins and glasses shake in the scene. “What’s going up there?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:04:15) says Arthur. Cobb glances at his watch to show that the seconds’ hand is not moving, though the hand slowly begins moving, to indicate that time was frozen then recommenced. The scene cuts to a scene with Cobb and Arthur asleep in chairs (Nolan, 2010, 00:04:25). It appears that this could be the real world and that the previous scene was the dream – though we later find there are multiple levels of dreams. Every scene until now has been a dream. Outside of the building, from where Cobb and Arthur are sleeping, there is chaos and rioting from what appears to be a civil war. The rioting was sensed back in the dream as a tremor when Arthur asks, “What’s going on up there?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:04:15). Characters occasionally use “Up there” to indicate that characters are within dreams, or at least one level of the dream. As Arthur and Cobb continue to sleep, another clock face is shown with the seconds’ hand ticking at approximately one tick per second (Nolan, 2010, 00:04:50). The hand slows, to show that time in the virtual world is not always equal to time in the actual world and that the film scenes are transitioning between dreams. The audience is lead to believe that the current scene is one of the actual as Arthur and Cobb are sleeping and time velocities shift from virtual speeds to approximately actual

Australian screenwriter
Australian screenwriter


Then, the scene cuts to Cobb and Arthur walking, and Cobb meets with the projection of his wife, Mal (Nolan, 2010, 00:05:40). At this point in the movie it is not clear that Mal is dead, or that her presence is due to Cobb’s image recollections furnishing the dream. This soon becomes evident when, Mal turns on Cobb by kidnapping Arthur to help Saito who also appears in the dream. Mal holds a gun to Arthur’s head and Saito asks Cobb, “You’re here to steal from me?” then continues quizzing, “that we’re actually asleep?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:08:30), leaving the audience to call on their own recollections to answer. Mal loads the gun to Arthur’s head then Cobb quizzes, “No use threatening him in a dream?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:08:45) Mal replies, “That depends on what you’re threatening. Killing him will just wake him up. But pain,” (Nolan, 2010, 00:08:55) says Mal, as she shoots Arthur’s leg. Arthur screams from pain, not waking from the dream then Mal continues, “Pain is in the mind. And, judging by the decor, we’re in your mind, aren’t we Arthur?” (Nolan, 2010, 00:09:10). The film becomes increasingly complex, as scenes cut in and out of time, leaving the audience wondering if scenes are dreams, reality, or dreams within a dream.

“The dream is not a metaphor but a series of anamorphosis which sketch out a very large circuit” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 56).

The complexity of an anamorophosis is seen in Inception with distorted projections reflecting off each character’s point of view. Viewers who stay with the complex plot do so regardless of an accurate interpretation. This could be due to Nolan’s inclusion of realistic characters that satisfy Deleuzean thoughts on humanity: “Everything is summed up in power” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 8); and these views are shared by Nietzsche, “humans have the natural will to power” (Nietzsche, 1886, p. 39). As the will to power is projected in likable characters within Inception, it could be said that the screen of cinema, like any movement-image, will have the power to be captured in the minds of viewers through the mirror-image (Deleuze, 1989, p. 68), casting the power image of the film, to be stored as the viewer’s memory. This “will to power” is seen in Cobb’s goal to return to reality. This becomes evident when Cobb says, “I think I’ve found a way home. It’s a jobs for very, very powerful people, people who I believe can fix my charges permanently” (Nolan, 2010, 00:23:18). Cobb begins working for Saito to plant an idea in the mind of a corporate man by the name of “Robert Fisher” (Nolan, 2010, 00:44:30). According to Saito, Robert Fisher’s company will soon “control the energy supply of half the world” (Nolan, 2010, 00:45:05) and Saito’s company is “the last company standing between them and total energy dominance” (Nolan, 2010, 00:44:55). According to Saito, without Cobb’s help, Fisher’s company “will become a new super power!” (Nolan, 2010, 00:45:08). Cobb and his team, which was once five people, though is now six as it now includes Saito, begins work within dreams to stop Robert Fisher from becoming the “new super power”.

During the time of Inception’s launch in 2010, the world was in the midst of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The collapse threatened some of the world’s largest financial figures and potentially many of Nolan’s viewers with many American’s experiencing bank foreclosures due to rising unemployment rates, stock market losses, during the time. Inception’s plot is driven by power, a force many viewers may desire, according to Neitzsche and Deleuze. This may cause viewers to continue with the real, yet surreal plot, and potentially fall victim to what Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to as “becomings” through seeing the virtual becoming the actual and the viewer becoming-cinema.

“For Deleuze and Guattari, becomings are real in a very specific sense, according to which the traditional opposition between the actual and the virtual no longer stands” (Beaulieu, 2011, p. 74).

Gilles Deleuze’s believes memory-images result from the “passive synthesis” of time (Deleuze, 1994, p. 71), which teaches the mind that the sun arrives in the evening with a particular shade of light and the same applies to the morning. The norms are perceived in the mind by what Deleuze refers to as “sensible and perceptual syntheses” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 72) and both of those are what contribute to passive synthesis. During Inception the usual order of time does not allow for habitual recognition, through passive synthesis, as scene transitions follow no order. From time to time a clock appears with changing velocities of its seconds’ hand (Nolan, 2010, 00:12:38) to assist viewers in determining if scenes are the virtual or actual worlds. The passively synthesised moments make it increasingly difficult to separate the real from the imaginary as the film goes on. During the last scene of the film there is a return to the first scene with Cobb being taken, from the beach to the Japanese castle, to the elderly Japanese man. Cobb recognizes that he has been in the situation before as the pewter cone is spun on the table and he sits in front of the elderly Japanese man. This forces viewers to reshuffle their thoughts, to recognize that the first scene was actually a dream and to question if all of the scenes in the movie were those of a series of dreams. By the end of the film, Inception becomes a film without definable boundaries between the virtual and the actual worlds, as the start of dreams is unclear, along with the dream endings. Gilles Deleuze may say the film reflects the rhizome, which “has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (Chisholm, 2007). Add the notion of cinema as the “hidden language of humanity” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 25) to Inception and it could be said that human life reflects the qualities of the rhizome, since the human life – actual and virtual – also appears without a clear beginning or an end.

Gaston Cavalleri is an Australian travel writer, novelist, screenwriter, and jiu-jitsu fighter. To support his travel writing & literature give a “like” to the Facebook page.



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