ZOMG you guys, did you know labyrinths are like one of my personal symbols? And that the first paper I got published was about labyrinths??? Well, it's true. I love labyrinths. Also, I know way too much about them. So imagine my unholy delight when I watched Inception, which is really all about labyrinths.
Leonardo di Caprio, aka Cobb, is a freelance thief who steals secrets from people's dreams. One day he and his partner, the rockin Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are hired by a Japanese businessman named Saito--not to steal an idea out of someone's head, but to implant it. This is much more complicated than what they usually do, so they have to take their subject into a dream within a dream within a dream, and eventually even beyond dreams.
Sound confusing? It is. Let's focus on something that makes sense: the dream worlds are based on labyrinths. The first clue that this is the case is the name of Ellen Page's character, Ariadne. In the labyrinth myth, Ariadne is the daughter of King Midas, and one of the few people who know the secret of the labyrinth Midas created as a prison for her half-brother, the Minotaur. Theseus was sent to Crete to be food for the Minotaur; but fortunately, Ariadne fell in love with him and taught him the dance of life and death that would carry him to the center of the labyrinth. She also gave him a gold ball of thread and a ball of pitch. The pitch Theseus threw into the Minotaur's mouth to keep the monster from chomping bits out of him; the twine he used to guide himself out of the labyrinth, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs. Theseus then grabbed Ariadne and sailed for home, but abandoned her on a deserted island for reasons unknown. Once he reached his home port, Theseus immediately started partying, drinking, and teaching all his friends the labyrinth dance; meanwhile, his father was committing suicide, in despair because he believed Theseus dead. You see, Theseus forgot to switch his ship's sails from black to white to signal his success before he ported on Delos.
At first, it seems obvious that Ariadne the character is Ariadne, the mythical figure, and Cobb is Theseus. But is this really the case? It's interesting that Ellen Page's character is the architect of the dream worlds, the one who designs them. In the myth and creation of labyrinths, the architect is unique and celebrated--the Cretan labyrinth, for example, was designed by Daedalus (the same inventor who created the wax wings), and was heralded as a work of artistic genius. Of the four ancient labyrinths written about by Pliny the Elder, three of them have known, celebrated architects. Even though Ariadne can navigate the labyrinth, she can't see it in its entirety--that privilege is reserved for the architect and one other--the king who orders its construction.
I think the answer in regards to whether Ellen Page is that Ariadne or not is that she is, but she also isn't. And Cobb is Theseus, but also not. That's because there are two labyrinths, two architects, and two Theseuses. The first Theseus is Fischer, Jr., the person whom Cobb is supposed to be implanting with an idea. His Minotaur is his father, and the king in this case is Saito (the golden room at the heart of his dream world suggests an association with King Midas, and the dream worlds are built at his order). But there's another labyrinth within Fischer, Jr.'s labyrinth, this one created by Cobb. His Minotaur and Ariadne are both his wife, Mal (considering that in French mal means evil, it's interesting Cobb's French wife allows this nickname). The first time Cobb traveled into the heart of his labyrinth, called Limbo in the movie, Mal was his Adriadne, holding a spinning top representing the spinning dance of the labyrinth. The second time, Ellen Page his Cobb's Ariadne, and Mal is the scary Minotaur he has to face; but just as Theseus abandons Ariadne before he returns home, Cobb abandons Mal before he wakes from the dream world.
Finally, Cobb is Theseus because he travels into Limbo to rescue Saito and Fischer. In the French Gothic cathedral labyrinths like the one at Chartres, the cannons of the church would reenact a dance every Easter of Christ's Harrowing of Hell, in which He traveled to the center of the labyrinth to rescue the souls of the Old Testament prophets from Limbo, and led them out of the labyrinth and into heaven.
What does this all mean for the cliff-hanger ending of the film, where the top continues to spin, leaving us uncertain about whether or not Cobb has escaped Limbo? Significant to the scene is the presence of Professor Miles, played by Michael Caine, because just as there are two Theseuses and two Ariadnes, there are two kings. Saito is the first and the Professor, Mal's father, is obviously the second. In an interview Caine stated, "If I'm there it's real, because I'm never in the dream. I'm the guy who invented the dream," just as King Midas invented the labyrinth.
But if Cobb is out of Limbo, why does the top keep spinning? If the spinning top represents the spinning labyrinth dance that Ariadne taught to Theseus, then one can imagine that the dance is continuing to be performed, even once Cobb is out of Limbo. Like Theseus' father, the viewer waits for a definite sign that Cobb has made it out of the labyrinth alive; and, deprived of that signal, we fear he is forever lost. But the dance of the labyrinth is the dance of life and death; and now that Cobb has conquered his Minotaur and abandoned Mal, he is not either/or, but both.
Obviously you don't need to know all this useful (read sarcastically) information to enjoy the movie--it tells an excellent, suspenseful story all on its own. But the filmmakers also have clearly done a lot of research into labyrinths and layered their meanings, symbols, and myths into the film in a very interesting way. If you haven't seen Inception yet, I highly recommend it!
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