Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey follows a “hero with a thousand faces” as he or she undergoes a change. This formula has been adapted into a number of films, books, and television shows. In some cases, this is obvious, like Star Wars by George Lucas, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, but in other cases, like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and David Fincher’s Seven, the inspiration is not so clear. Inception is another example of the latter. While the film seems void of any similarities to the Hero’s Journey, the resemblance can be found by those who look under the surface. In the film, the hero, Dom Cobb, changes from a troubled, guilt driven, tragic hero, to a happy man who lives in the present, regardless of which reality he is in.
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Inception begins as the hero’s journey does, where Cobb the protagonist’s ordinary world is displayed to the audience. Cobb and his partner, Arthur, work as extractors, stealing ideas, plans, thoughts, strategies, and just about any concept that resides in the human mind. They do this by entering a person’s dreams, at which point their minds are in their most vulnerable state to extract information from.
The film opens with a scene where Dom and Arthur are extracting corporate secrets from Mr. Saito, the CEO of a major energy company. The operation seems to be running smoothly, until the appearance of Mal, Dom’s dead wife. Mal alerts Saito to the fact that Saito that Arthur and Dom are thieves, which sets off Saito’s projections, subconsciously controlled defenders of the dreamer. This results in the mission failing and the heroes having to go into hiding.
Despite their efforts, they are easily located by Saito. Saito tells them that the main goal of the job was to see if they were capable of doing a job for him. The job is not a typical mind heist. Saito wants the team to plant an idea in the target’s mind, instead of stealing it, which is known as performing an inception. Arthur tries to explain that this is not possible and he shouldn’t go through with the deal, but it silenced by Dom, who disagrees. Saito leaves the decision with him.
Like most heroes, Dom is on the verge of refusing the call, due to Arthur’s protests. However, Saito makes the deal too tantalizing to resist with the words, “A full pardon for your crimes and…a chance to see your children again,”(Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan Perf. Ken Watanabe. 2010. Film).
Saito then explains the operation to Cobb. His primary competitor is a man named Maurice Fischer. Fortunately for Saito, Fischer is dying of an undiagnosed disease and his empire will be inherited by his son, Robert. The objective of the mission is to convince Robert, through inception, to dissolve his father’s empire.
This offer is too good for Dom to refuse, and he decides to build a dream team. He starts by visiting his mentor and father-in law, Stephen Miles, who is a professor of architecture at the Paris University. Cobb explains that for the job, he needs an architect, someone who can construct an environment in the dream, and successfully navigate through it. Miles brings him his best student, Ariadne, an aspiring architect.
The group begins to prepare. Arthur trains Ariadne in the art to creating a dream, while Cobb goes to Mombasa, in order to recruit Eames, a forger, who is capable of disguising himself in a dream, allowing him to make a personal connection with the mark. He also recruits Yusuf, a skilled chemist, whose job is to make a sedative that is strong enough to put the mark to sleep for a sufficient amount of time.
Now that the team is complete, they begin planning the heist. This phase in the story is used to demonstrate a number of rules about shared dreaming. Under normal circumstances, one would simply wake up when he or she dies in a dream, but in a dream as heavily sedated as the one they will enter Limbo will be entered upon death. The limbo is a shared state in which people can be trapped for years, but never realize that they are dreaming. Limbo quickly becomes their reality. The only way to exit Limbo is to realize that it is just a dream and die, often by committing suicide. People often spend an entire lifetime there, but, in reality, are only there for a few hours.
The group decides to use a kick, to get out of the dream. A kick is when something from the outside world leaks into a dream, in such a way that the dreamer is awakened. This can include:creating a falling motion, dumping water on one’s head, or even simply slapping someone awake. But, an idea being given, is far more complex than one being taken. The idea must be planted deep in one’s subconscious. One dream is not enough. It must be planted three layers deep, so that the idea is ingrained into the mark. The group decides to perform the task when Fischer is on a twelve hour long flight.
In this film, the threshold guardian is Cobb’s own self. The night before the heist, Ariadne notices Cobb sleeping, but connected to the device that allows people to go into a shared dream. Curious, Ariadne connects herself to the device. She goes into Cobb’s dream and sees that he has constructed an environment, in which he can use an elevator to access his various memories of his life before he became a fugitive. Cobb had said to never take anything from reality into a dream, because then the human mind starts to lose track of the difference between dreams and reality. Ariadne enters the elevator and sees Cobb, who tells her to leave. Ariadne refuses to do so, and realizing the it is futile trying to her out, Cobb lets her stay and shows her his dream landscape. He reveals that he is a fugitive and is unable to return to America and that this last job is his ticket home. Ariadne sees Mal’s projection, who attacks her. But, Dom saves her and they leave. Ariadne adamantly states that she would like to come on the mission. When Dom refuses to let her come, she asks is anyone else is aware of Mal’s projection, which could possibly jeopardize the mission. He finally agrees and the group proceeds with the plan. Sharing his experience stabilizes his subconscious and allows him to partially come to come to terms with his demons, enabling him to bypass the threshold guardian. He is now ready to proceed into the job that is going to change his life for better or worse.
As they board the plane, Cobb asks Saito if he will honor their arrangement. Saito says that he will make a phone call as soon as the task is done. He will honor their arrangement. Saito asks how he plans on performing the job. Cobb explains that they are going to try to convince their mark to step out of his father’s shadow and be his own man, therefore splitting up the company. After the plane takes off, Dom drugs Fischer’s drink and puts him to sleep. The group connects to the device and prepares to cross the threshold into Fischer’s subconscious.
The first layer is Yusuf’s dream, the plan being to kidnap Fischer, while Eames is posing as Peter Browning, Maurice’s best friend and vice president, who is also being kidnapped. However, as soon as they kidnap Fischer, Mal enters the dream and suddenly the dream is plunged into chaos. Fischer is revealed to have received training in the art of protecting his subconscious and due to this, his projections are far more efficient than others. In the ensuing destruction, Saito is shot in the stomach and begins to bleed. The group meets up at a warehouse and decides to keep going through with the current plan. They throw Browning(Eames) and Fischer into a room, where Eames explains the “situation.” Telling fischer that the kidnappers had been torturing him for days regarding the password to a safe that was in Maurice’s office. Eames says that before he died, Maurice’s father told him that Robert knew the code, but Robert denies all knowledge. Eames asks if there is some series of six numbers that means something to him and his father. Fischer gives a random number, 528491 and tells Eames that his father’s final words to him were, “Robert, I’m disappointed.” (Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan Perf. Pete Postlethwaite. 2010. Film).
Meanwhile, Ariadne confronts Dom about Mal and asks him why she is so angry at him. Cobb explains that they both were trapped in the limbo and he realized it, but Mal did not. The reason that he knew that inception was possible was because he had done it on Mal, when they were in the limbo, in order to convince her that it was not real. When they escaped, Mal still thought they were dreaming and committed suicide, in order to “wake up”. Mal delebrately set Cobb up to be framed unless he came with her trying to force him to commit suicide as well. This the reason he’s on the run.Fischer and Eames are then loaded into a van after they use an incapacitating agent on Fischer. Eames explains what he has learned from Fischer. Yusuf stays behind to initiate the kick, by driving the van into a river, while the group descends to the second layer.
The second layer is Arthur’s dream. Here, the team decides to run the Mr. Charles gambit, in which one of them, in this case, Cobb goes to the mark and explains that he is dreaming and that people are trying to break in, but does not specify as to who those people are. He makes Fischer aware of the strange occurrences that are happening, which a dreamer would typically overlook. Cobb then decides to project the crime to Browning, who is still Eames in disguise. “Browning,” confesses that he was the one who hired the kidnappers and thinks that Fischer is too young and stupid to lead a major corporation and that he is nothing compared to his father. This monologue wins Fischer over and he joins the team. Cobb convinces him to try and delve deeper into Browning’s subconscious, by entering Eames’ dream. Meanwhile, Saito is still being affected by his previously inflicted wound.
The team enters the third layer of the dream, a snow fortress. The objective is to get Fischer into a room in the middle of the fortress, in which the inception will take place. This room has been constructed, using the information gathered about Fischer’s life, over the course of the heist. Ariadne asks Dom how he is doing regarding Mal and Dom replies that he has it all under control. The group is attacked by projections and after a lengthy shootout, Saito succumbs to his previously inflicted wounds and dies. Seeing this, Dom loses control of his subconscious and Mal suddenly appears and executes Fischer. With the two most critical people, to the plan’s success gone, Dom and Ariadne decide to enter the limbo, in a desperate final effort to save the operation. Eames waits in the dream, ready to carry out the task.
In this film, the abyss is represented by the limbo. This chapter in the story is used to demonstrate the hero’s fall and rebirth. Dom and Ariadne find Fischer, who is being held captive by Mal. Mal talks to Cobb, trying to win him over. In this conversation, Cobb comes to terms with Mal’s death and he lets go of her. He has his moment of redemption and revelation, when he says out loud that the Mal that is in front of him is just a shade of the woman she was. He continues to say that even he would not be able to make something or someone who can have the depth and complexity that his wife had. He concludes by stating that his wife is dead and there is nothing that he can do about it. In her anger, Mal tries to stab Cobb, but is shot by Ariadne. The limbo begins to collapse and Ariadne escapes with Fischer. Cobb stays behind to find Saito, so that he can honor their arrangement.
Fischer and Ariadne come back to the third layer and Fischer enters the room, that has been set up for the inception. He sees his father on his deathbed. Struggling, Maurice utters the words, “Robert I’m…”(Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan Perf. Pete Postlethwaite. 2010. Film).
Fischer replies, “I know Dad. You’re disappointed that I couldn’t be you.”(Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan Perf. Cillian Murphy. 2010. Film).
Desperately holding on to what little of a life he has left, Maurice shakes his head, “No. I’m disappointed that you tried.”(Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan Perf. Pete Postlethwaite. 2010. Film).
In this moment, Fischer undergoes a change of his own. He realizes that his father wanted him to be his own man, rather than follow in his footsteps. He undergoes a hero’s journey, but on a much smaller scale than that which Cobb does. He subconsciously begins to develop and change. The beginning of his catharsis signals the end of Cobb’s.
Eames, seeing that the plan has worked, initiates the kick, as the dreamers from the other two layers do at the same time. Yusuf drives a van off a cliff, into a river, creating a fall and impact, while Arthur blows up an elevator, causing a falling motion, and Eames causes an explosion in the fortress. This snaps the group awake.
Meanwhile, Cobb is in the limbo, completing his hero’s journey. He manages to find Saito, now an old man. Saito initially does not recognize Cobb, but remembers the promise that he made all those years ago. They shoot themselves and awaken on the plane. Saito makes the phone call necessary to ensure Cobb’s freedom. At the film’s conclusion, Cobb meets up with Miles at the airport and Cobb returns home to his children. This is the point in the hero’s journey, in which the hero comes home to share the elixir, which in this case in the presence of their father, with his children and the rest of his close acquaintances. Dom Cobb is a free man, who is finally allowed to be happy after all those long, difficult years.
Though unorthodox and complex at times, Inception is a hero’s journey. In the film, Cobb undergoes a change from a depressed fugitive, who lives in the past, to a happy man, who is reunited with what he cares about the most in his world, after he has had to literally go through hell and back to get there.
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