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Lost vs. Inception: Solving the Puzzle of Ending a Puzzle-Story

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in Inception.

SPOILER ALERT: This post totally spoils the TV series Lost and the movie Inception. If you haven’t watched either and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading. I said stop!

Over the weekend, Lost producer Damon Lindelof tweeted his admiration for Christopher Nolan’s new movie: “I wish that someone would break into my dreams and give me an idea HALF as good as INCEPTION.” If you’ve seen the movie (and a lot of you did, apparently) and watched Lost (and I have to imagine that Venn diagram has a pretty big overlap), you may already have thought that, in some ways, Lindelof already had that idea, and it was called “Lost.”

There are, of course, plenty of differences between the TV series and the movie. But there are also enough similarities—superficial and more deeply thematic—that the two raise some questions about the genre of the puzzle-like story, and what constitutes a good ending and a good narrative in it.

The superficial similarities are pretty glaring to any Lost fan seeing the movie.* The primary action takes place on a flight fron Sydney to LAX. (And the scheme—to plant an idea in a businessman’s head during a long in-flight dream—was enabled by the subterfuge of a mogul, though it involved buying the airline rather than faking a plane wreckage.) The entire story involved multiple levels of reality, leaving characters (and sometimes us) at points to doubt which level was real. Both stories had characters use an object (in Lost, a “constant”) to anchor themselves so as not to lose their minds. The very premise of the movie—that what you perceive as reality could all be a dream—was a theory advanced at one point for Lost. And in a larger sense, both were stories constructed on one level as puzzles—mind-pretzeling constructions that required the viewer to simultaneously juggle multiple narrative threads and timelines.

*Apologies in advance if I’m remembering any details of Inception wrong. I saw a screening a couple weeks ago, with no specific plan to blog about it.

I won’t give a review of Inception here, except that I thought it was an incredibly fun and satisfying piece of entertainment and a remarkable piece of plot-engineering, but not so much a work of art or or an especially moving story. (Cobb’s guilt and mourning for his late wife, and his desire to get home to his children, worked mechanically, but the relationships felt too generic to really work emotionally.) I don’t know if the movie wrote around every implausibility or hole—I’m still trying to figure out why, since the team had to rush the inception ahead of schedule, they nonetheless emerge from the dream minutes before landing—but as with Lost, I don’t really care that much.

What I’m really curious about, though, is how well Lost fans—those who loved and hated its finale alike—thought Inception handled answering its own questions and tying up its own ending.


Obviously, a six-year series and a two-and-a-half-hour movie have different advantages and challenges. It’s easier, on the one hand, to tie up loose ends and make all the pieces fit together in a (relatively) short story for which you have a complete script before shooting. It’s easier, on the other hand, to develop characters beyond familiar situations and gestures if you have six years to deepen the story.

I was struck, watching Inception unfold, with how its elements meshed together in the way that the ideal version of Lost would have in many fans’ minds: the timeline of each dream-within-a-dream, for instance, resolved in sync with one another. But Inception was able to do this by using devices that Lost probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with: had the finale of Lost, for instance, in any way suggested that the series had been a dream, I’m guessing there would have been rioting in the streets.

But more important, consider the last image of Inception: Cobb finally arrives home to see his children. He sets a top spinning on a tabletop. The top, we learned, was a totem that Cobb’s wife had used in her own dream-travel; when she saw her personal object, she knew that she was not in the middle of someone else’s dream. (Or was it her own dream? Again—I saw the movie once.) The special property of that top: when she set it spinning, it would never stop. Cobb spins the top and goes to see his kids. The top spins. And spins. And wobbles. And spins. And—credits.

Your mileage may have varied—and you may have read the last image differently—but I thought it was a brilliant if infuriating question mark to end the movie on. Was Cobb really free at last, or was he in yet another dream? But I think it’s safe to say that if Lost had ended on a similar note of unresolved ambiguity (a la The Prisoner), fans would have gone absolutely nuts. [Update: Oh, and for all I know, audiences did at the end of Inception—that’s a disadvantage of seeing movies at small press screenings.]

Of course—as we saw with Lost’s finale, which brought the characters together in the afterlife—not ending on a note of ambiguity has its own perils. Does Inception’s basing its resolution in science (albeit a “science” that amounts to “plugging wires into someone’s arm and entering their oddly literal dreams”) make all the difference?

Two stories with similar themes and similar pleasures, resolving themselves in very different ways. I don’t want to argue which is better—the apple or the orange—but for a fan of both, the TV series and the movie are an interesting study in how to build a story and a puzzle, and how to reconcile the story part with the puzzle part.

So, alumni of the Lost Discussion Group: what did you think of Inception?