As you might guess, this entire article is full of spoilers for Inception, so if you haven’t seen it, go see it before reading any of this. We’ll wait.
When the first trailers for Inception debuted, it had people asking what it was all about. Now that the film has hit theaters, it has people asking what it’s all about. As the antidote for the mindless action flick – yet staying tucked away in the world of the accessible – Christopher Nolan has created an intense work of art that promises to prompt theories well into the next decade.
What follows is three different explanations for the film. You can decide how correct any or all of them are.
The Jungian Archetypes
Rich Knight at CinemaBlend offers a great portrait at what the characters of the film may represent personally to Dom Cobb by using the age-old Jungian archetypes. Knight asserts that Cobb is asleep through the entire film and that these characters are the subconscious manifestations of a mind slipping away. Arthur as the hero of the story, Mal as the dark shadow, Ariadne as the female presence in the male mind. It’s a fascinating read, and it seems spot on from the casual psycho-analyst’s perspective.
The site also has a great set of rules for the film’s world alongside a glossary of terms.
Inception as a Metaphor for Filmmaking
In what might be the best exploration of the film, Devin Faraci at CHUD offers a graceful breakdown of the characters and situations as they relate to the world of filmmaking, and the catharsis of a great story. Even the audience has a role to play. He, too, asserts that Dom is dreaming throughout the entire film, and that he’s billed himself as the director in order to have some control over the entities around him. Leonardo DiCaprio likened his character to the main man in 8 1/2. Could Inception be Christopher Nolan’s autobiographical waking dream?
A Half-Remembered Dream
As for my personal take on the film, I choose to believe that Dom and the rest of his team are all real people inhabiting a real world where dream-infiltration is possible, and that Dom has truly joined the waking world at the end of the film.
While I loved reading the other explanations and while I think there’s a certain beauty to Devin’s piece, they ignore the true genius of the film – it’s ability to project different truths at the same time. There will never be a singular accepted reading of the movie because it offers something different for everyone. There will be strong arguments heading in several directions, there will be hangups for each interpretation to explain away, but the we’ll never know if the top kept spinning.
The film opens with Dom being dragged in front of Saito with only his gun and his totem on him. This places massive importance on Dom’s top from the onset as it acts as a touchstone for Saito and for the audience – a mysterious object that will have to be explained. That explanation, that importance lies in the top’s ability to show whether Dom is awake or inside a dream. It’s a compass that points the way home. If you choose to, you can discredit that importance by viewing the top as a dream construct itself. Another confusing artifact that has power only because Dom believes that it does.
There’s an argument claiming that since it was once his wife’s, the totem Dom holds may not be a physical object at all, but one that shows he’s still tied to limbo.. However, it’s also a fair reading to accept that he kept the physical marker she used as a keepsake after her death.
Some have called into question the strange way in which Mal commits suicide, but it’s hardly proof that Dom is dreaming the entire time. Yes, instead of a tear-filled scene in a hotel room, there’s a tear-filled scene on the ledge of a hotel room where Mal has seemingly rented a second room from which to jump. While it’s odd, it’s also explained in the film.
Mal tells Dom her plan to incriminate him in her death if he won’t jump with her. She rents a second hotel room across the way in order to be a safe distance from the man who might physically stop her from jumping and leaves him with the ultimatum of joining her or facing criminal charges of the most severe kind. She’s staged an elaborate set for him to be caught in (or for investigators to find later), and she’s made sure that he can’t stop her from going through with what she feels she has to do.