I’ve seen Inception twice now, and I really like it. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time perusing the Internet for various theories about what it means and what actually happens. I’ve discussed the story with almost all of my family and friends – more than once.
This film is a great example of storytelling that engages the audience on complex levels but still manages to keep them from getting lost (mostly). It also asks lots of questions and provides many clues that reveal themselves more in the hours and days after the audience leaves the theatre and just can’t. stop. thinking.
If you haven’t seen Inception yet, I think you should. I also think you should stop reading this post now because I’m about to write some spoilers. 🙂
The way I see it, there are two theories that make the most sense to me.
- The one that many audience members seem to embrace as soon as the credits roll: Cobb participated in a complicated heist, succeeded against outstanding odds, faced and overcame his own demons, and then made it home to his kids to live happily ever after. This is nice. It’s what we want to happen all along because we’re drawn in to Cobb’s story, and we want him to go home. And yet, I can’t accept that as the actual outcome for a couple of reasons that I will list in #2.
- The one that most audience members seem to accept after reflection, and the one that I think I take as the actual truth: Cobb participated in a complicated heist, succeeded against outstanding odds, but faced and succumbed to his own demons, getting lost in a dream world where Saito also remains trapped. This is not nice, unless you want to imagine that the dream world is just as valid as (or is better than) the real world. There are two reasons I feel this is more likely than option #1.
a. The kids. They haven’t aged, changed clothes, or even altered what they’re doing. Though everyone will point out that we don’t know how much time has passed, we know that it’s been long enough for Cobb to escape, take on illegal extraction jobs, and nearly give up hope about ever getting home. Kids age pretty rapidly when they’re that young, and certainly they change their clothes. This is the biggest clue, as far as I’m concerned, that something isn’t right.
b. Cobb wakes up on the airplane without the audience seeing how he got back. He looks confused. From then on out, everything is in his point of view. We’ve learned earlier that dreams send us places without giving us information about how we got there. This is the only time in the film when a necessary transition is deliberately left out, suggesting (to me, at least) that Cobb didn’t wake up at all. Saito probably didn’t, either.
Beyond these two, there are a few other theories that I’ve heard/read.
One is that everything was a dream, from the start of the film to the end. This is possible, but I think it would be a cheat. Like an entire season of Dallas where we “wake up” just to find out that Bobby never really died, our next question has to be, “Then what was the point of all of that?” I prefer to believe that there are at least a few waking moments in the film. It’s also problematic because there is one scene where we see Cobb’s top spin and then fall over properly. Why would his totem work if he was asleep the entire time? (because it wasn’t his to begin with, so therefore it’s unreliable.) (good point.)
Another is that the entire film is a dream from X point on. Mombasa is a likely candidate for several beginnings of the lengthy dream, though it gets a bit confusing from there because the film switches point of view to others who are not near Cobb, and the meaning of this sudden switch to dreamland is unclear. I think it’s more likely that the film presents Cobb as losing his grip on the difference between waking and dreaming, and therefore the film feels strange in certain places.
One interesting theory suggests that Cobb is dreaming for all/most of the film, and the inception he is asked to perform is simply an elaborate intervention being put on by his family and friends who are worried about him after the death of his wife. This is a neat idea, but I’m not sure what it says about Cobb’s inability (or perceived inability?) to return to his children.
There are other possibilities, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around them. I’d love to read more. Here is a great article on the same topic, though as I’ve already explained, I don’t subscribe to the author’s theory that it is all a dream.
Have you seen Inception? What did you think? And, while we’re at it…
Why is Mal on the opposite balcony? What does this mean?
Why do some characters speak the same lines as others later on?
What other confusing questions do we have? 🙂