First and foremost, this is a lengthy discussion of Inception that focuses on its plot and themes and involves huge, huge spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want me to ruin it for you, look away now.
Everybody sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.
Right, seeing as I’ve only seen the film once I won’t be breaking it down in order of events in the movie, nor by actual or perceived timelines within the film. I’ll just be going through things as they occur to me and as they naturally lead on to each other. Also, I’m presuming that you’ve seen the film so I won’t be giving a plot summary or detailed character descriptions – if you want to re-familiarise yourself before reading this, then check this site.
First things first: that masterfully suspenseful ending, where Cobb is reunited with his children and sets his/Mal’s totem spinning to test whether he’s still dreaming or not – and we never get to see if it falls. I totally think he’s still dreaming, that we’ve been inside Cobb’s subconscious for the whole of the film; dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams. Everything that happens in the film and everyone we encounter is a dream, all in Cobb’s mind. Let me explain why I think so.
To start at the end: Cobb’s children haven’t aged. He has been living in exile long enough to find a regular crew of people he works with, long enough to establish a reputation as a master-extractor, long enough for his father-in-law to be warning him that a few toys and gifts won’t help Cobb’s kids remember him. Yet not only are they not apparently a day older than when Cobb left, but they’re wearing the exact same outfits as they are in Cobb’s last memory of them. Hell, they’re even in the same place and taking part in the same activity, playing in the garden in the sunshine.
Then there’s the father-in-law; when we first meet him, he’s working in Paris – which is where Cobb sets up his base of operations and where they practice the stages of the Inception. However, Miles is there, ready to meet Cobb at LAX when he lands after the successful Inception. How did he get from Paris to LA faster than them? How did Miles know the job would be successful and that he should therefore be waiting at LAX?
Also consider how Saito manages to eradicate the charges and allegations against Cobb with just a single phone-call: no matter how rich and powerful you are, getting in touch with the right people in the right places takes time. They’ve already used up most of the flight-time from Sydney to LAX with the Inception itself; there wouldn’t be much time left to get charges of murder dropped.
Speaking of which charges, although Cobb mentions while in Paris that the extradition laws between America and France are complex and mean that it’s unlikely he’ll run into trouble because of being in France, nothing is said about extradition while he’s in Australia. Yet Australia have clear and definite extradition agreements with the US (see this site for full legal details). How did Cobb get into the country to be on the Sydney-LAX flight? How did he even get through customs and the restrictions at Sydney airport?
While talking to Ariadne, Cobb asks her, “How did you get here?” and reveals to her that you can tell whether you’re in a dream or not by the fact that, in a dream, you don’t remember how you got to your starting location. The first apparently-real-world location in the film is on the train in Japanwho ; how did Cobb and his team get there? What are they doing there? What they’re supposed to steal from Saito is never explained, never discussed.
On to Ariadne: a name from Greek myth, in legend it was Ariadne who gave Theseus a “clew”/ball of thread to help him find his way out of the labyrinth (check this page for a full analysis of Ariadne in myth and legend). She’s also been referred to as the “Mistress of the Labyrinth”. Not only is the Ariadne of Inception the Architect, the literal creator of the “closed systems” (read: labyrinths) that the characters use; it’s Ariadne who helps Cobb to realise that his memory of Mal is not real. Ariadne helps lead Cobb out of his own subconscious labyrinth. Also, the bridge she creates in the first dream-world Cobb takes her in to, is a bridge that is familiar to Cobb from his own memory. All the places they visit, the worlds they create, are places Cobb has been to before – every location in the film is Cobb’s memory. Ariadne helps Cobb to escape from his own limbo by aiding him in realising that Mal/his guilt has power over him, and how to get past this – she gives Cobb the tools to escape his labyrinth. He listens to Ariadne and trusts her, despite just having met her, because she (like every other character in the film) is a projection, a side of Cobb’s own subconscious. Cobb says early in the film that one of the ways extraction can work is through talking to projections, as they can tell you truths about the mind they inhabit – Ariadne’s role is Cobb’s own subconscious trying to help him escape from the dream-state. She can only lead him so far out, however, because she is, after all, trapped within the dream-world herself.
There are also broader clues: Mal herself (another projection of Cobb’s subconscious) points out how he doubts his reality, being pursued around the globe by nameless assailants (to paraphrase the film). Also, scenes where Cobb is being chased through the “real world” by his nameless employers are very reminiscent of the scenes where the mind-defences of subjects like Fischer chase down those invading the host-mind. Saito’s motives are also a wee bit idealistic: wanting to get Fischer to break up his father’s business empire so the company don’t have global dominance over energy resources. It just seems a bit too sugary-sweet, too unrealistic. It would be much more real to have a corporate rival want Fischer to break up the empire so Saito’s company can get ahead and make more profit.
Well, that’d my reasoning! If any of you interpret things differently, please post your thoughts!