Five Ways of Looking at Inception

Slate's Culture Blog
July 20 2010 10:03 AM

Five Ways of Looking at Inception

Christopher Nolan's Inception may have left us emotionally cold , but it did make our brains overheat. The puzzlelike film is stuffed with so much detail it threatens to collapse in on itself, just like that folding city—while also providing enough material for careful (obsessed?) viewers to excavate several plausible interpretations. Here are some of the prevailing theories currently floating around the Internet. Avast, there be spoilers ahead !

READING 1: Saito hired Cobb and co. to plant an idea in Fischer's mind. They succeed, and in the end Cobb really does go home to his kids.

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READING 1A: Saito hired Cobb and co. to plant an idea in Fischer's mind, but the ending everything from the moment Cobb "wakes up" on the plane until the credits roll is just a dream.

As soon as Cobb wakes up, everything progresses almost too perfectly. Could the ending, in fact, be too good to be true? Nolan plants the seed for this reading by having Cobb spin his top at the very end, then cutting to black before we can tell if it falls. (As a reminder: The top is Cobb's totem—if it falls, he knows he's in the real world; if it continues to spin indefinitely, it's a dream.) Plus, the children don't seem to have aged. They're wearing the same clothes and are in the same positions as they are in Cobb's memories, suggesting that these children are projections of his subconscious.

But if he is dreaming, where exactly is Cobb supposed to be? Is he still in limbo? In a deeper realm of limbo? By what mechanism did he get there? (In other words, what happens immediately after the aged Saito reaches for that gun?)

Meanwhile, a commenter on CinemaBlend notes that Cobb appears to wear his wedding ring in all the dream sequences, and only in the dream sequences—but he's not wearing a ring in the final scene. This suggests that Cobb did, indeed, go home to his kids and the real world.

READING 2: Cobb is actually the subject of the inception. At least some maybe all of the "real world" scenes are actually dreams.

In this reading , someone (Miles? Ariadne?) wants Cobb to let go of his guilt over Mal's death. Saito, Eames, Arthur, et al. are in on the ruse.

The repetition of the phrase "Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?" is key here, as Bilge Ebiri notes on NYMag.com. That's the concept the team is trying to plant in Cobb's mind: Let go of your regret, come back to the company of your children, return to a life of youthful promise . It would explain why Cobb is the only one besides Fischer—the purported mark—who's able to "populate" the dream world with a figure from his subconscious, and why Cobb's menacing pursuers in Mombasa look so much like Fischer's menacing pursuers on the hotel level. (The dudes in Mombasa are projections.)

It would also explain some of the more implausible elements of the plot: The fact that Saito could overturn a murder charge with a single call; that he shows up in Mombasa at the exact moment Cobb needs help; that Ariadne immediately accepts all this folderol about dream invasion. Ariadne's name is suggestive, too: In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus (Cobb) work his way through the labyrinth (Cobb's subconscious), at the center of which he found and slew the Minotaur (Mal).

Dileep Rao, who plays the chemist Yusuf, doesn't buy it : " [You're] saying it's like some sort of crazy-ass psychotherapy session where the whole thing is a constructed narrative of massive complexity only to distract Cobb so that he will achieve his change? I mean sure, you could totally say that that's what it is. In a way, that's what we're doing to Fischer, so it's not unfounded. The problem for me is that you're using negative evidence to support a story that isn't there. I don't know what to say about a character who only exists before and after the movie. ... I mean I don't know where that kind of speculation ends. It's like people who are convinced 9/11 is an inside job."

READING 3: Everything we see is a product of Cobb's subconscious.

Cobb is dreaming on his own —there is no team—and he's working through his feelings for Mal. Maybe there's no such thing as dream extraction in the first place. Maybe Mal didn't even die!

This one seems the least plausible to me, if only because it discounts so much of what we've seen. I can't imagine Nolan would spend that much time and energy laying out all those clues and rules if every single one of them was bunkum.

READING 4: Inception is an elaborate metaphor for moviemaking.

This reading holds water no matter which version of events you ultimately subscribe to. As Slate 's own Nathan Heller notes, "When people talk about seeing movies, they tend to fall back on the rhetoric of dreams— the lights came up, and we went back into the real world , etc.—and it's true that a creative artist's mandate, such as it is, is to figure out how to get under people's skin and to create a world from that. There's a way in which that job is almost exactly parallel to the role of the 'architect' in the movie; when you see a film in an immersive setting, you basically submit to this person's creation of a world."

But be wary: Think about this one too hard and you'll start to wonder whether you're the mark. After all, as Slate 's Juliet Lapidos points out, every film ever made fails Cobb's reality test. If you can't tell whether or not you're dreaming, you're supposed to ask yourself, "How did I get here?" If you can remember, it's real. If not, you're in a dream. But in the movies, you can't cut between scenes without ellipses—the viewer just takes it on faith that the rules of space and time haven't been violated in the interim. Maybe, in this case, we shouldn't be so credulous ...

What do you think of these theories? Have some of your own? Let us know in the comment section below.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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