Inception is Strangely Lovecraftian in Design

inceptedInception is the type of movie where people walk away scratching their heads. Most people. I watched it when it first came out, enjoyed it for what it was, and moved on. (My brother, on the other hand, wasn’t such a fan.) It’s a “cerebral” thriller where the environment itself tells as much (or more) of the story as the characters. The premise surrounds a man who can extract information from another person’s subconscious via a cocktail of drugs and a carefully constructed “dream.” He brings a “Get Shorty” group of people in with him where they directly talk to the dreamer’s mind and find information, therefore performing an “extraction.” While the possibilities for creative enterprise is boundless, the movie pares all creative deviation to the story at hand, which is great for the masses and thus made for a somewhat accessible movie. While I understand why, the possibilities were literally endless for subject matter.

The content, on the other hand, is not only a throwback to “Weird Fiction” stories from the early 20th century, but also pays direct homage to the writer H.P. Lovecraft via dialogue and imagery. I watched the movie a second time yesterday, and was surprised by the correlation.

As any Lovecraftian scholar would know, Lovecraft’s body of writing comes in three parts. While he’s most known for his Elder Gods and Cthulhu Mythos (along with his encouragement for everyone to write as much as they wanted in his universe), he also had Poe-esque scifi mysteries (where his writing began) and, between the two, a bout of dream-fiction that covered drug-induced worldbuilding (from the narrator, not the author) and the idea that the mind was much larger, and much more capable, than we give it credit for.

(I’m no Lovecraftian scholar. That was tongue-in-cheek.)

So Inception is about the Extraction crew implanting a thought inside a person’s head, which is the opposite of Extraction, and therefore much more difficult. The creator must dive into a dream with the “victim,” then take that victim deeper, into a second dream, and finally into a third dream, where the actions of the previous two dreams become a part of the person’s own thought patterns. If a person goes too deep, he risks staying in the subconscious for years, growing old, and possibly dying before he can wake up.

I won’t give away too many spoilers, but the character Cobb (DeCaprio’s character) firmly believes he can traverse the tricky terrain of multiple dream-lapses because he and his wife had traveled those spaces before, and ultimately got stuck in the depths of the subconscious.

Technicalities arise, the crack team of Extractioners share dream after dream, the director keeps rainbows and unicorns somehow out of the dream-places, and the idea of “Mind Palaces” is repeated over and over. Cobb is quintessentially Lovecraftian, with his unmentionable terror at whether he’s living in reality or a dream, his “haunting” wife who follows him through every situation to cause trouble, and his deep-seated romantic attitude toward life: Love is bigger than everything else. To a detriment.

With throwbacks to Celephais and the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (And The Dreams in the Witch House, but much less so), director Christopher Nolan pulls information directly from the texts to meld and develop Cobb: he suffers a kind of madness, he is visited by his own horrors, he has created a prison to keep out the truth of what has happened in his life, etc. He even walks, in the deepest part of his subconscious, a crumbling world he and his wife made, together, with all the uneasiness of a Beksinski painting. (See pic below and compare to Inception art based on imagery found within the movie)


Another moment I nearly missed was when Ariadne (Ellen Pages’ character) looked at Cobb and said, “He’s the man outside of time.” This line, while not directly quotable from Lovecraft’s stories, is so similar to titles from his novels and similar in construction to early 1900’s speech patterns it’s likely not a coincidence. With titles like “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Man of Stone,” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” the line seems off-setting in its original context (although in the movie Ariadne is a college student and given her place as a dream architect in the team, speculation standing, she could have been reading Lovecraft as an elective due to her specific interests).

Lovecraft dove heavily into dream imagery and ideas, and with this very specific type of movie, it’s surprising if Nolan DIDN’T take a page out of the writer’s book to create his world.

I avoided going into much detail from the short stories I used for example.I highly recommend researching any and all of these stories, as they are available online.

If you disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts.



5 thoughts on “Inception is Strangely Lovecraftian in Design

  1. Hmm never considered this! But it really is amazing how many stories out there are a derivative of others. And yet as humans we constantly crave more and more. Thanks for writing!


    • Thanks for stopping by! I think a mark of true creativity is actually looking back at the “old ways,” or the inspiration of others, to find the connective tissue for your story. I could be way off with my theory, but it seems Mr. Nolan found some from Lovecraft.

  2. Fascinating. Inception is one of my favorite movies, Lovecraft, my favorite writer. I have seen the movie many times, but missed the Lovecraft connection. I went back to see it again in the light of Lovecraft’s influence, but I have to go back and read the stories of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle to really wrap my brain around this.

    • Thanks for leaving a note! I’d love to read about what you find. Inception isn’t heavily dosed with Lovecraft, but I’d go so far as to say it’s the backbone of DeCaprio’s character, and the canvas for the “Subconscious” dream images, journey, etc. Given how much of the story arc leans on Cobb’s mental state, I’d go so far as to say Lovecraft provided great fodder toward the success of this movie. Personally, the love story is exactly why I enjoy this movie so much.

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