Call me a late-comer to the party, but I have a young child and getting to the movies isn’t easy sometimes, even for Christopher Nolan! Still, I finally managed to get to see the movie last weekend and wasn’t disappointed at all.
On the surface, everything seems to be rather straight-forward if thought-provoking. Cobb and friends need to plant an idea in Fischer’s noggin such that he breaks up his mega-conglomorate for the good of the world. In return, his benefactor Mr. Saito will miraculously make all of his issues vanish. We later learn that the issue is a murder charge against his ex-wife, Mal.
Yadda yadda yadda, action ensues, multiple levels of dream misdirection, and ultimately success as he’s re-united with his kids. Right? Right?? Did the top fall or not?
Ultimately, if you get caught up in that question I think that you’ve taken the red herring bait. Just as Inception depicts Dreams-within-Dreams, Inception-the-movie serves up multiple levels of what’s actually happening.
Before enumerating my theory, let me draw your attention to a few facts to keep in mind:
- In the dream world anything can happen under the control of the dreamer. People can appear to be other people (the blonde at the bar), trains can rip through the downtown, etc, etc. There are no limits other than the self-imposed ones. In the words of the forger… “Dream bigger.”
- Limbo isn’t a place, or a level. Limbo is a description of a dreamer’s state of mind when they forget that they’re dreaming and mistake the dream for reality… they lose their way in the maze and never find their way back out.
- In order to help Fischer realize that he’s dreaming, Cobb tells Fischer to try to remember how he got there. In a dream you generally show up in the middle of a scene with no transitions.
- Dreams are described as mazes.
- There are a LOT of extremely unlikely coincidences that occur in Inception’s reality. Saito’s rescue of Cobb, Saito being able to buy an airline at the drop of the hat (no regulations, board meetings, etc?), an architect that happens to be a dream-working prodigy working for the one man that Cobb trusts, the architect’s name is Ariadne.
So, lets start at the end with #5. Ariadne is a rather uncommon name. It would have to be an EXTREMELY uncommon name for an american student studying architecture in Paris under the tutelage of Cobb’s dad. So, what significance can Ariadne have?
As fate would have it, Ariadne fell in love with the dashing Greek hero Theseus. They met in Crete, where Theseus was sent to kill the deadly Minotaur. According to the myth, it was Ariadne who helped Theseus to escape the Labyrinth (which was the Minotaur’s lair) by supplying the hero with thread used to navigate the tangled passages.
Let that roll around in your head for a few moments and I think your eyes are likely to get rather wide. The dream worlds that Cobb inhabits are described alternatively as “levels” and “mazes.” Ariadne’s recruitment test was to literally draw mazes. Ariadne of myth helped the hero escape from the maze. HUGE coincidence, or a hint from the writer to the audience? A hint to Cobb? I think we can all agree that it isn’t coincidence.. it’s chosen quite deliberately. Once we agree on that, we can now choose to interpret Inception from a higher vantage point, where we can see the whole Labyrinth!
We know that Cobb and Mal were experimenting with the dream-within-a-dream scenario when they got lost to Limbo. Dream (level 2) within a Dream (level 1). Level 2 = their joint Limbo where buildings crumble into the sea, no people exist, etc. Rather bleak if you ask me. We know from the end that while in Limbo they lived a lifetime and grew old together… bear that in mind, it’s important to understanding the end. Eventually, Cobb realizes that they’re still dreaming and that they need to leave Limbo but Mal doesn’t believe it. Cobb plants the idea in her subconscious so that she’ll commit suicide and leave limbo. Cobb believes that they leave the dream world behind. Mal believes that they’re still in a dream. Mal is right! Committing suicide doesn’t break the dream, it brings them up one level. She ultimately manipulates the situation so that she’s going to die, and arranges things so that Cobb may as well join her even if he doesn’t really buy it. She failed.
The result is that Cobb is still dreaming, while Mal exits to the outside. Mal organizes a rescue operation. She inserts herself into Cobb’s dream, posing as Cobalt (presumably) setting Cobb onto Saito (probably Cobb’s dad, but maybe still Mal) who then co-opts him into a job onto Fischer to get back to his kids. Along the way he visits his dad who introduces him to the person who will be his closest companion later, the aforementioned Ariadne (who is actually Mal, posing as a new assistant.) What an utterly improbable stroke of luck for Cobb that she’s so talented at something she just picked up! Ha ha.
Once Mal is working with Cobb, she’s constantly going places that he doesn’t want her tinkering with. She’s trying to figure out why he’s stuck in Limbo, and what she’ll have to do in order to rescue him. She realizes that his guilt over her “death” and his subsequent imagined abandonment of his kids is causing his subconsciousness to surround himself with difficulties as he punishes himself. In this state I believe that death will only lead back to Limbo. She needs to break him out of the cycle.
Knowing that Ariadne is the real Mal makes the confrontation in the basement of Cobb’s dream more interesting. “What are YOU doing here?” says Cobb’s projection of Mal. “I’m…” “Oh, I know who you are…” Deep down, Cobb realizes that Ariadne is Mal too and that’s why his projection is reacting this way. He’s not ready to admit it though, so his projection of Mal tries to kill Ariadne so that she can’t ruin things.
Knowing that the whole dream is ultimately Cobb’s, several occurences make a lot more sense. The train attack as well as several phrases uttered at different points throughout the film, such as the “leap of faith.” Mal did the leap of faith, and Saito keeps asking Cobb to take one. It all reinforces the central idea, which is that Cobb is dreaming.
Ultimately, Ariadne manipulates Cobb into needing to shoot his projection of Mal and finally letting her go. Unfortunately, he’s now hung up on needing Saito to rejoin his children so he shun’s Ariadne’s help and tells her to go back by taking her leap, which ultimately she does.
Saito (his dad/Mal) has one further shot at helping him, uttering the magic phrases, etc, and seems to be getting through. The implication of the scene is that Saito kills himself and that Cobb was supposed to follow through himself. It may or may not have happened, but it doesn’t really matter either way. Even if he did shoot himself, if Cobb still didn’t really believe in his situation, he could end up right back in Limbo.
There’s an immediate transition to the airplane as we’re supposed to believe that the drug finally wore off. But did it? Saito now places an improbable call and we have another immediate transition to the airport where he passes through customs and meets his dad. There’s a third immediate transition where they’re at his home and seeing his kids as he spins the top. The top spins and spins… Now remember Cobb’s advice to Fischer: if you can’t remember how you got here, you’re dreaming. We just saw several scenes where we don’t know how Cobb got anywhere. It COULD just be odd cutting room bits, and weird direction but that’s not likely in my opinion… it’s a hint to the audience… more jarring than in the rest of the picture. Cobb is still dreaming. He’s just now dreaming about a wonderful life with his kids rather than a miserable life on the run from the law and separated from them.
“But,” you say, “the kids are older now! His dad is there! He’s not wearing a wedding ring! The top was starting to wobble!”
Dreams behave according to the whims of the dreamer. If Cobb believes himself to be back in “the real world”, then the dream world should be behaving according to normal laws. When Cobb and Mal were in Limbo previously, they grew old together because they expected to age.
At the end, it’s been a while since he’s seen his kids, he’d expect them to age. Poof. His projections of his kids will be older than when he last saw them. In “the real world” he took off his wedding ring because of Mal’s suicide, so he’s never wearing it on the “real world” level. In the real world tops don’t spin indefinitely. Once he finally and utterly gives in to the lie that this is real, the top starts behaving like a top should… it will wobble and ultimately fall down, not that we got to see it.
And that’s why I described the top as a red herring. We’re always told that a stopped top means that you’re in reality. There’s a loophole to that rule. It can also stop if the dreamer believes that it should, because, for example, the dreamer mistakes the dream for reality.