• Tyler Mierzwa

DiCaprio et al.: An Analysis of Inception Through a Criminological Lens


A few weeks ago, I was watching Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning film, Inception, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and was in total awe with how intricately layered a film can become while still maintaining a plotline. For anyone who has seen this movie, you know what I’m talking about. For anybody who hasn’t, load up the ‘Flix and give it a watch. Now, I admit, I’m guilty of analyzing every movie afterward on IMDB and reading about the casting, trivia, goofs, etc., but being a criminology student (and also having no life), I thought Inception drew some interesting parallels to one particular criminology theory: the routine activity theory. I will hopefully demonstrate this link to you, in hopes of seeming a little less…manic.

For some background on the theory, the routine activity theory was coined by Cohen and Felson (1979) and describes both the spatial and temporal contexts of crime using what are called direct-contact predatory violations. Specifically, a direct-contact predatory violation is described as the simultaneous convergence between a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a capable guardian, where, when met, there is a higher likelihood of a criminal act occurring.

Without going too deeply into the plot, Inception is about a team of thieves who have mastered extraction, the art of entering a victim’s dreams and stealing their secrets when their mind is most vulnerable. With that being said, a majority of the movie is spent doing the complete opposite, where the protagonists are instead entering their victim’s dream to plant an idea (hence the title of the movie).

Now for the fun part: how does routine activity theory parallel Inception? The first tenet of routine activity theory, a motivated offender, can easily be applied. This is Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) and his team of specialized thieves who are motivated by a paycheque, redemption, and ultimately, their lives. The suitable target in Inception is a newly promoted CEO and heir to a wealthy family business whose dreams must be infiltrated to plant the idea of demerging the family business. Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the wealthy target in the movie, is suitable in the sense that he is the only target that will result in a payday for the team, but he is also an unsuitable target in the sense that he has trained his mind to defend his dreams and secrets - much to Leo and his team’s surprise. Lastly, there is the absence of a capable guardian element, which is basically where most of the film’s action scenes come from (e.g. Tom Hardy with a rocket launcher on a snowmobile). Since there is a trained ‘army’ defending Mr. Fischer’s subconscious and protecting him from corporate espionage, Leo and co. are trying to force the third element into place by killing the subconscious army, ridding Mr. Fischer of capable guardians, and achieving a complete direct-contact predatory violation.

I won’t completely spoil the movie by sharing whether the team is successful in achieving inception, but what I will say is I bet Cohen and Felson would have never thought their theory would be used to describe Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrating Cillian Murphy’s dreams.

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