Inception: The Architecture of Paradox

By  Staff Writer


A totem-top spins on a table, the background score stops abruptly as the screen shifts to black – nothing’s clear, nothing’s explained and yet there’s an inexplicably unsettling emotion that the screen leaves you with; that’s the climax of Inception for you, no wait, in fact, that’s the essence of Inception for you. When Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece released over 7 years ago, it was inevitable that it would instigate more than a few theories and speculation; movie-goers frantically scrutinized every element of the movie’s plot with excruciating attention to details that were in the first watch. This post does not aim to doctrine another theory after all these years; but rather try and decipher how Nolan’s love for Architecture proved an essential element in constructing the story. (though not going into much detail about the plot, fair warning to you: possible spoilers ahead)

It seemed natural to involve Architects in the designing of a dream. Inception isn’t like any other heist or conman movie; it’s corporate espionage of an imaginative kind, assigning Architects to mentally ‘design’ the crime scene. The importance of designer is established by the need to create the world, and that world should not coincide with the memory of reality.


Penrose staircase (Continuous Staircase) as featured in the film


There’s a distinct and tangible flow in the Architecture depicted not only because of the script’s backing but, as it seems, Nolan’s interest in architecture. In an interview with Wired, Nolan says “The only job that was ever of interest to me other than film-making is architecture.” His interest lay in the similarities or analogies in which people experience three-dimensional spaces created by architects and in a way how, as an audience, we experience a narration in the movie – scene by scene in a two-dimensional medium constructed in a three-dimensional reality. While the similarities between architecture and film-making are not all that far-fetched, movies themselves are dream-like in nature.


Aerial shot of Tokyo and Paris (Establishing shots 1 and 2)


When the scene unfolds in a cafe in Paris, Cobb explains to Ariadne, an architecture student, about how she was tricked, because we never really remember the beginning of the dream, do we? We always wind up in middle of what’s going on, discovering it ourselves. Scenes in the movie often start in the midst of the action, not at the beginning, and we are engrossed in the concept of the film even though we are constantly thrown in the middle of a new scene, we accept it – we accept the cut, we accept the disjointed story. As the two discuss the limits of dreaming, we stumble upon the facts of the concept of Inception/Extraction. We understand that the trick is to cheat Architecture and create an impossible design which allows you to create closed loop, the infinite staircase thereby disguising the boundary that is to be created – like the Penrose step. Probably, for this very reason, the helicopter scene when a powerful businessman recruits DiCaprio shows an aerial view of Tokyo. The geometrical and physical structure of Tokyo’s Skyscraper has irregular shapes, and fragmented scales of all measurements between the tallest and smallest structure ascertain the size and physical properties, the structures behave as if the dimensions of the structure are greater than the spatial dimension.


Streets of Paris (testing the physics of a dream)

Streets of Paris (Infinity Mirror)


When Cobb reveals that they are in fact within a dream (revelation!) Ariadne begins experimenting with the physics of the dream, effortlessly bending entire streets in the French capital city. The busy street linked to several activities connects the foot-bridge also created from the real world.

The movie is generous with is exposition, and its correlation between the logic of cinema and logic of a dream to confuse the audience about what’s reality and what’s a dream. The maze-like planning of Mombasa was either to heighten the tension in the movie or to create the delusional claustrophobic effect in dreaming. In an interview, Nolan admits the importance of portraying Mombasa with maze-like planning was to create a precise narrative point, to validate the confrontation to Cobb – that he no longer believes in one reality. The audience must realize that the real world has the same set of rules as dreams. And that is why the maze-like nature of Mombasa was critical. It is quite common for directors to manipulate spatial orientation to create a dramatic effect in a screenplay.


Aerial shot of Mombasa (establishing shot 3)

The maze-like streets of Mombasa, as featured in the film


Dreams can captivate us into believing the most absurd scenarios, so why not cinema? A single idea, building cities of dreams, transforming and rewriting all rules in a dream to mentally construct the scene of the crime.

In the stunning final sequence when Cobb’s team attempt to plant an idea into Fisher’s mind, they break into five levels of dream each with distinctive characteristics. In a plush business class cabin of the airplane, comfortably seated, they plug into the dream machine.

“That wasn’t in the design!” Ariadne yells as a train rams into the streets of Los Angeles, the second level of the dream distinguished with its characteristic weather (rain showers). The dream level shifts to a hotel, where Cobb confines Fisher and tricks him to engage in the next dream level. The following zero-gravity hotel lobby scene is a remarkable fight sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur) and Fisher’s projection battling it out with their human limitations in an inhuman environment. The walls, floors, and ceiling continuously interchange – the walls become the ground, and the floor and ceiling become the walls. Technically, this shifting realm was achieved by using massive, rotating sets that twisted and turned and forced Gordon-Levitt to maneuver them. The final act set in a snowy fortress was designed as a labyrinth (continuous maze) with air ducts that conveniently cut through the maze. A secure vault in the ominous ski-chalet is where the idea is implanted but not before Ariadne and Cobb plunge into the state of limbo, a dream realm conjured by Cobb and his wife. An enormous and elaborate city built on the shores of the endless ocean – limbo an unconscious dream state that has been abandoned. The limbo created under the influence and memories of Cobb and his wife, has been decaying since her death and due in part to Cobb’s internal struggle with his dual realities.


Zero-gravity hotel lobby

Collapsing buildings of limbo


The ambiguity of the ending no longer matters. We got the happy ending. The movie is not about thieves or soldiers; it is about using setting as a weapon, and Architecture as an effective narrative component. As Christopher Nolan acclaims – “The film is about architects, builders, people who would have the mental capacity to construct large-scale worlds — the world of the dream.” One of the movie’s central themes is creation, from the opening scene of sand castles on the beach built by the kids to the abandoned collapsing buildings in limbo, washed away by the sea.

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