Inception was the fifth-highest domestic grossing film of 2010, and a personal favorite. It grossed over $292 million in the domestic market, and $823 million worldwide. I'll admit that I've already seen Inception multiple times, and I can say before reviewing it on this blog that it does pass the Reverse Bechdel, quite easily. But it may not pass the Original Bechdel; I remember Ariadne talking to Mal, but they may have just been talking about Dom. There's only one way to find out, so let's go deeper... (yeah, I couldn't resist, sorry).
The first man in the movie is Dom, although he doesn't immediately speak. The first person with lines is one of Saito's projections, which immediately raises the question: Do projections count as people for the purposes of the Bechdel test? They're certainly characters in the movie, but they're only real within the dream. My first instinct is to say that projections should only count when they reflect real people; for example, Dom's projection of Mal, and Fischer's projection of his dying father. However, I think it would be more interesting to keep track of both reality and projections, so that's what I'll do.
What if only real people count?
(I am assuming for simplicity that people who seem to be real actually are.)
The first real person to speak is Saito, to Dom. He asks, "Are you here to kill me?" Dom does not respond in this time frame. The next scene takes us back to Dom's first infiltration of Saito's dream world, this time with Dom speaking.
Dom asks Saito, "What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?" Arthur tries to interrupt, saying "Uh, what Mr. Cobb is trying to say..." Dom continues that the most resilient parasite is an idea, to which Saito responds by asking, "For someone like you to steal?" Arthur explains extraction, and Dom offers to help him defend himself. Inception thus passes the Reverse Bechdel test within the first four minutes of the movie, with real people (albeit, while in a dream).
The first real female is Dom's young daughter, Phillipa. She's shown on screen as a projection in the first minute, and seen around the sixteenth minute in a memory flash, but we also hear her real voice on the phone. Her first line is "Hi Daddy." The second female, heard but not seen, is "Grandma", telling the kids they've talked enough and to "say bye-bye." The kids don't audibly respond to this, so it doesn't count for OB-2. Ariadne, the film's third real female character, and the first to be seen speaking on screen, makes her first appearance 25 minutes into the movie.
In the entire movie, there are only six female characters with lines. Of these, one is a projection (see below), and one is actually the male Eames in disguise, leaving only four real female characters. These are Ariadne, the airline stewardess, Phillipa and Grandma. Neither Ariadne nor the stewardess talk to any other real woman, and the only "conversation" between Phillipa and Grandma isn't really a conversation at all (see above). If projections don't count, then Inception fails both OB-2 and OB-3.
What if projections count too?
The first three characters to speak in the movie are all Saito's projections, and all are men. One yells to another projection. The other two talk to Saito, but Saito does not audibly respond.
Inception passes RB-2 and RB-3 with real people before passing it with projections (see above).
The first woman in the movie is Mal, Dom's projection. There are no other female projections during the Saito job. Inception passes OB-1 around the 17th minute with real female characters (see above).
About half-an-hour into the movie, Mal kills Ariadne in Dom's dream, the first interaction between the two main female characters. However, Mal kills her wordlessly. It's not until 59 minutes into the movie that Mal talks to Ariadne, the first time two women talk to each other directly in Inception. Dom has been using the machine to dream every night, returning to his memories. Ariadne joins the dream, and visits the memory of the night Mal killed herself. She leaves Dom in a different memory to see it, so at first it's just Ariadne and Mal. Mal asks, "What are you doing here?" and they have a conversation:
Ariadne: "My name's..."
Mal: "I know who you are. What are you doing here?"
Ariadne: "I'm just trying to understand."
Mal: "How could you understand? Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole?"
Mal: "I'll tell you a riddle. You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don't know for sure. But it doesn't matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you?"
It could be debated whether this conversation passes OB-3. Aside from the issue that Mal is actually Dom (at least, his subconscious), it could be argued that Mal's lines about being a lover and about the riddle are about a man, to the extent that they are about her relationship with Dom. In asking what Ariadne is doing "here", Mal is also in effect asking what Ariadne is doing in Dom's dream. However, I think this is reading too much into it. "What are you doing here?" is a straightforward question. Although the line about being a lover is clearly about Dom and Mal together, the riddle is different. By telling Ariadne the riddle, Mal is trying to tell her about her own history. This is Mal's way of introducing herself. I believe that this scene counts, and Inception passes OB-3.
Inception is without question male-dominated. Of the six members of Dom's team, five are men. Ariadne is the only woman. Of course, if incarceration rates are anything to judge by, a five-to-one male:female ratio on a team assembled for an illegal job is higher than normal-- only 8.8% of prisoners in the United States are female (Arthur lives in the US, and Dom is trying to get back). That number is 3.7% in France (where Ariadne is from), 4.5% in Kenya (where Yusuf and Eames are working), 7.0% in Japan (where Saito is from) and 7.2% in Australia (where the plane leaves from, and presumably where Fischer lives). Ariadne's inclusion in the six-person team makes it 16.7% female.
Even so, there are only six female characters in the movie, as noted above, and one of them is a man in disguise. There are only two with any significant on-screen presence, and one of them is the movie's antagonist. Ariadne is said to be a better architect than Dom, but her purpose in the movie is to probe Dom's mind and find out why his subconscious is manifesting Mal in his dreams.
So what about that final scene? Different interpretations of the final scene could color the results of the Bechdel test. On the one hand, it could mean that every single character except for Dom is a projection; or maybe there are other real people within the dream, but some that we think are real are actually projections, and maybe some that we think are projections are actually real. On the other hand, if he is in the real world in the last scene, then the distinction between real and projection would follow the same lines that I've drawn in the sections above.
Ultimately, the final scene is the reason why I think the Bechdel test should include both real and dream characters. The movie is intentionally ambiguous as to the nature of reality here. To draw a definite distinction between "real" and dream characters for the Bechdel test presumes a certain interpretation of the final scene, and I don't think its appropriate to do that. It is better to interpret the Bechdel test with regards to film characters rather than "real" or "not real" people within the film, and leave the interpretation of the film itself to the viewer.
Since projections count for this reason, Inception passes both the Original Bechdel and Reverse Bechdel tests.