Inception: The meaning behind character names

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Did you really think they were random?

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Sarahana | July 27, 2010

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Conversations sparked by Christopher Nolan's Inception will soon become a leading source of irritability, break ups and dinner fights, because nobody will want to hear your thesis titled Yet Another Interpretation: can't we just all enjoy this summer blockbuster for what it is and shut up?

However, in yesterday's Wired post on the neuroscience of the movie1, author Jonah Lehrer sets us up with a good excuse, and we — you and I — are going to run with it:

“The literary critic Frank Kermode famously argued that all successful
works of art have the ability to inspire multiple interpretations. We
read the classics, he said, because we believe they say more than the
author meant. In other words, it is the ambiguity of art – this ability
to inspire arguments and blog posts – that makes it so interesting.”

Well then, some words of advice: there isn't a real devastating spoiler in this post, but it's better to avoid anything written on the movie if you plan to watch it. And that applies to all movies.

Part I: Meaning behind Character Names in Inception

I came upon this theory buried in the comments section of that same Wired post. It was suggested by an annaobrien. I've taken what she started and added my findings:

Mal Cobb's wife, played by French actress Marion Cotillard
Her name is Molly, but she is officially referred to as “Mal.” “Mal” means “bad” in French. “Male” means “badly” in Latin. In English, “mal-” is a combining form that gives the meaning a shade of “badness” when added to another word: example, “malpractice” — please note that her movie poster description is “The Shade.”

Eames The Forger, played by Tom Hardy
This surname is most popularly associated with architects/industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames, who in the 50s designed famous pieces of furniture such as the Eames Lounge Chair. It's hard to draw a direct logical connection here, other than “architecture” being thematically relevant.

Dominic The Extractor, lead character (Cobb) played by Leonardo DiCaprio
In Latin “Dominic” means “of our Lord” or “belonging to the God.”

Ariadne The Architect, played by Ellen Page
Unique name, don't you think? She not only builds mazes for Cobb but also guides him through them. In Greek mythology, Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete. She helped Theseus find the way out of Minotaur's labyrinth by giving him a
sword and a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning.

Arthur The Point Man, played by Joseph Gorden-Levitt
[updated] Commenter annaobrien doesn't get into this one, but I'm going to take the obvious guess: King Arthur. Commenter Alex brings to our attention that some versions of folklore claim King Arthur never died, but was instead put to an “enchanted sleep”, from which he is expected to wake up any time.

Yusuf The dream potion maker, played by Dileep Rao
Commenter annaobrien doesn't get into this either, but the choice of this name is clear: In the Quran, Yusuf's story begins with a pleasant dream he's had, and he is prominently known for being granted the ability to interpret dreams.

I didn't find any significance to the rest of the names, but the ones listed here make up the core team, with the exception of Mal, who is not technically in the team, though she can be read as a shade of Cobb's. “Saito” seems to be too common of a Japanese name for me to find any special meaning attached to it.

Thanks Wikipedia. Thanks annaobrien.

Links:

1. Wired, “The Neuroscience of Inception”

As an experiment in online writing, I'm joining a few other writers in not hyperlinking any body text in this blog.

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