The perception of "Inception"

Sun 18 July 2010

It's no secret that I primarily use this space to talk about programming and the web at large. It's a huge part of who I am, but it's not all that I am. Sometimes I see something so incredibly cool and inspiring that I just feel the need to talk about it; such is the case with the movie "Inception".

  • Please note: the following is full of spoilers if you haven't seen the movie yet!
  • Believe me when I say that this is a movie that you should avoid having spoiled at all costs, because it's just such an incredibly fun ride. This post will also make little sense unless you've actually seen the movie. Seriously, go see the movie if you haven't already, then come on back, this post isn't going anywhere.

What really happened in this movie?

I'll start by making sure this is noted right off the bat: I believe that the Wikipedia explanation of the ending of the movie is completely wrong. The article states that, in the end of the movie, everyone wakes up on the plane just fine. The genius part about this movie is that Christopher Nolan, the director, rarely strayed towards one ending; everything throughout the movie is meant to spark discussion about the final ending scene, where the top may or may not have fallen.

Throughout the film, Nolan obviously took great care to make the audience aware of the mathematics surrounding the way the levels relate to one another. The idea with this is that, in the end, even though Cobb is left underwater in the van, the time that he spent in the sublevels beyond could be as little as a few minutes there, giving enough space where he could've magically gotten back up through the levels.

That's all nothing but a ploy, though. Here's the thing - in the ending, I believe Cobb never actually woke up. Let's look at the film this way...

Cobb and his children

First off, the kids and the shot at the end. Did anybody else notice anything strange about it? The kids never aged!. Cobb goes back to his place and it's as if he never left. We're purposely never given a timeline as to when Cobb and Mal had their little incident with Mal having a bad case of PMS and jumping out a window. I'd say it's safe to assume that this has to have been at least a few months to a year, though; we're shown shots of Cobb talking to various psychiatrists, attempting to persuade people that he did not, in fact, kill Mal. If this is in relation to court proceedings of some kind... well, we all know how long those acts can take.

That said, we really don't even need to consider that, it's just a nice piece to note. What we should really be looking at is that, throughout the film, every time Cobb sees his kids in a dream, they're the same (just like in the end of the film). It's his last memory of his kids; in some way, they're his inception.

Keep this in mind, because the rabbit hole goes a bit deeper.

Cobb and Saito: honoring the agreement

When the team is in the first sublevel, Saito takes a bullet to the chest. There's a scene where he specifically states that no matter what happens, he'll be sure to honor their agreement. Of course, at that point in time, we all have reason to believe that Saito is going to make it out alright, Cobb will be able to get back into the US, and everyone will go on their merry way.

As the film continues, though, Saito's condition worsens, and he eventually passes away in the third sublevel. This is a huge fact: Saito is now in limbo. Cobb, after finally killing Mal, stays behind in limbo to find Saito to make sure he honors the agreement.

See a pattern here? In this case, there's more than one way to honor their agreement. Cobb eventually does find Saito, when Saito is much, much older. They speak of honoring their agreement, which is why Cobb came, and Saito reaches for the gun. This is the most notable piece of their entire level of interaction throughout the movie - if dying in a sublevel when you're that far under puts you in limbo, what happens when you die in limbo?

Of course, we're never directly told. Tricky, tricky Nolan, but we'll pin this down yet.

On Heaven, Hell, and Unicorns

Mal's dead, no? What's funny about Mal inside Cobb's subconscious is that she's located in the basement of his mind, an eternal hell that Cobb can't seem to get rid of, as if he was condemned to that fate for his action against Mal (trying inception on her first). Eventually, when they make it down to limbo, Cobb finally kills the idea of Mal - this is his redemption.

Cobb is essentially painted as a fallen angel throughout the movie, barred from heaven. By atoning for his sins, he's allowed back in and everything is supposedly great. That said...

What was really Cobb's Heaven? Real life, where he got back to see his kids? His one goal was to go home, to be with his family, but it's made apparent to us, the viewers, that when you're in limbo it's difficult (or almost impossible) to get out.

Bringing it all together

As I said before, Cobb never actually woke up. Saito reaching for the gun is meant to imply that he kills Cobb, setting him free - not in the sense of waking him up, but allowing Cobb to dream that which he's wanted for ages, to be back with his family (hence why, when he goes back to his kids, they're exactly the same as in every other shot).

Nolan again takes great care to make sure this is difficult to prove - specifically, the scene where Cobb and Mal allow themselves to be run over by a damn train. This is supposed to imply that simply dying in limbo allows you to truly wake up. That said, unless Saito kills himself and Cobb (which seems a little odd - Saito knew the rules of the game, why wouldn't he just kill himself prior to Cobb finding him?), the final scene really does seems like Cobb is dreaming forever.

See, Saito supposedly woke up just fine, made the call, everything's great. However, what guarantee is there that either of them woke up normally from limbo, the level that seriously messed up Mal? None.

This all brings us to the final scene with the spinning top: it was a great move on Nolan's part to end it right as the thing supposedly topples, essentially forcing the entire discussion this article was even written about. Sure, we could assume that it signifies Cobb is alive and well, not dreaming.

However, a friend of mine offered this suggestion, which I think really ties it all together: she proposed that the top falling was Cobb giving in to his dreams, accepting that reality as reality itself. This is utterly genius, and makes an insane amount of sense.

The other theory that comes to mind is that it was Mal's totem originally, and she's now, for all intents and purposes, finally gone, a demon purged from his mind, allowing him to dream peacefully forever.

This movie was an incredible mental trip, and one I definitely intend to watch again. What do you think? Feel free to leave comments below; they'll be moderated to deal with spam and trolls, but healthy discussion on this film is highly encouraged.