“Interpretation 1: All of Inception is a dream.
We are never once shown reality. Every frame of Inception is a dream. Whose dream? My money is on Cobb, though it is conceivable that Cobb is simply the subject and that he is in someone else’s dream (see Interpretation 3 and 4 below).
…Now, that’s not to say that the movie is ruined if everything is a dream. It doesn’t negate the emotional breakthrough that Cobb goes through, which is ultimately what the film is about. In fact, everything being a dream is the ace upInception’ssleeve: if it’s all a fantasy, then there can be no plot holes; the lack of deep characterizations for anyone other than Cobb can be chalked up to the fact that they are all his projections and thus do not require rich histories or distinguishable character arcs. It’s basically a catch-all safety net for any complaints registered against Inception’s narrative.
Interpretation 2: Everything after Cobb’s sedation test is a dream.
If you do not require an “audience totem” to prove that the Japanese train sequence is our first glimpse of reality, then the first moment in the film that begins to shred the line between the dream world and the real world is Cobb’s test of Yusuf’s custom-made sedation chemicals. After hearing tale of how potent of a mix it is, Cobb goes under to see for himself. After “waking up” we see Cobb in the bathroom, splashing his face with cold water and then spinning his totem. However, he’s interrupted before he/us can see whether or not the top falls over.
…If that’s the case though, what’s the benefit of such a “twist” from Nolan’s standpoint? It has no real bearing on the overall story and is thus a less-logical intent than if Nolan had scripted that the entirety of the film is a dream.
Interpretation 3: Saito is the architect, pulls a Mr. Charles on Cobb.
Much has been discussed of deciphering what actually happened in Inception by identifying the layers of reality, but little has been said toward identifying character motivation. Ultimately there are only two characters who have objective-based motivations, Cobb and Saito. Everyone else is either in it for the money or the experience. From this viewpoint alone, everything is either based on Cobb’s reality or on Saito’s.
…It’s a stretch, no doubt, and I don’t personally think that’s what Nolan intended, but there is select evidence causing people to believe this is the case. The most crucial support for this theory being Cobb’s trip to Mombasa, which is when A) Saito improbably saves the day by pulling up in a car right when Cobb needs him the most (this last-minute save being a real world continuation of the Saito-Mr. Charles gambit) and B) where Saito interrupts Cobb’s post-sedation bathroom trip, where his appearance coincides with Cobb’s hallucination/aborted confirmation that he has returned to reality, thus planting the seeds that will eventually lead to Cobb’s decision to stay in limbo.
Interpretation 4: Ariadne is the architect/Cobb’s therapist.
Hal Phillips’ theory that Ariadne is Cobb’s therapist and that the real objective of the film isn’t to give Fischer an emotional breakthrough, it’s to subvert Cobb’s deep, deep layers of guilt over causing Mal’s death, is even flimsier than Saito as the architect, but it is an intriguing one…
…It’s an interesting proposal, that’s for sure, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that this is Nolan’s intention; that Ariadne is monitoring Cobb’s dreams (everything before she arrives) and then selectively inserts herself at all the key moments to usher him toward the idea that he is capable of letting go of Mal. Also, Cobb being inmate #528491 in an insane asylum is just too much of a stretch (though it is pretty funny).
Interpretation 5: We do see reality during the film, but Cobb is still in a dream at the end of the film.
I suspect this is one of the most common interpretations of Inception: That the moments that are most likely reality are, in fact, reality (the train ride, Cobb’s time in Paris/Mombasa, the plane ride), but at the end of the film Cobb’s totem keeps spinning forever, meaning that after he freed himself of Mal’s guilt he was finally able to live happily in a dream state where he could be with his family once again.
The biggest piece of evidence supporting this theory is that Cobb’s children do not have appeared to have aged a single day since he last saw them. They may even be wearing the exact same clothes, though I’d have to see the film again to confirm this myself (can anyone recall?). We’re never told how long Cobb is on the run, but presumably it’s for a long-enough period of time that he has exhausted all possible ways of re-entering the country or convincing his children’s grandmother-turned-guardian to bring them out of the United States. At their young age, even a year or two of Cobb’s absence should bring noticeable growth when he finally sees them “up there”, but the change just isn’t apparent enough.
Interpretation 6: We do see reality during the film and Cobb is in reality at the end of the film.
If we ignore never being shown how we transition from dream to reality and back again (the audience’s totem), then we can accept that the implied moments of reality are indeed reality. What evidence do we have, then, to suggest that the top falls over moments after Nolan cuts to black? Ultimately very little, unfortunately.
The only evidence we’re really given is the slight wobble the top develops right before the cut. But until a physicist whose expertise is calculating torque and rotational momentum examines the footage shown and calculates whether it’s about to topple over, that’s not solid-enough evidence. We can ignore the curious lack of aging in his children, though, simply because Nolan never establishes a time frame between Cobb’s departure and return. It’s not likely, but it’s also not impossible that it’s been only a matter of months.”
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