“…For me, the three biggest issues with taking this movie as “reality” have been:
1) Mal’s suicide and Cobb being framed for murder. It just doesn’t hold in “reality”. Even if he had been charged with it, he would certainly be acquitted by any relatively good lawyer. Even Cobb’s reason for not seeing his kids’ faces seems weird: How many times in your life “right now or never” was that strong that he couldn’t even take one minute to say goodbye to his kids, who were only a few yards away.
2) Saito’s omnipresence: He can clear Cobb’s charges with a phone call, he can set up Cobb and Cobol just to have an “audition”, he can sabotage Fischer’s plane, he buys a whole airline (even before knowing they needed the plane), he can rescue Cobb from Cobol’s thugs and make them magically disappear as soon as Cobb gets in his car. It seems quite ironic that this man with, apparently, infinite powers, can’t compete with Fischer’s company.
3) Ariadne’s uncanny knowledge. OK, she’s gifted, she’s a “natural”. She can create from the first moment. I can buy that. But, even in her first dream with Cobb, she already knows that Cobb can’t build anymore, she knows why Cobb can’t build anymore, she knows that there is something very wrong with his subconscious (why doesn’t she think, instead “OK, i was told not to change too much, and i did. I had it coming” or, “getting into people’s subconscious is dangerous in general” )
Now, the fact that these things contradict reality, doesn’t mean that they have to be part of a dream: There’s other things that contradict reality, two of which are: Deception and the fragility of memory. Nolan dealt with them before, in “The Prestige” and “Memento” respectively. I think that for this movie, he grabbed this concept again, and added dreaming, as a third element.
The background of the story:
Cobb and Mal went to Limbo, Cobb planted the Inception in Mal, they came back, Mal killed herself.
Cobb couldn’t cope with it. The guilt and horror for what he did consumed him, he ran away not afraid of the law, but afraid and ashamed of himself: He may have thought himself unworthy of enjoying being with his kids, he may have been afraid of, at some point, damage them like he damaged Mal.
Consciously, though, he wants to see them. But in his subconscious, he doesn’t deserve them. The only thing he has is his dreams and, just like a guilt ridden person can drown himself in alcohol or drugs, he drowns himself in dreams. His subconscious creates a scenario in which he is a fugitive, not allowed to go back to his kids again. His subconscious provides an excuse, and traps him. After so much dreaming, it’s that scenario, created by his own mind, that he recognizes as “memories”.
Like the old man said “the dreams have become his reality”.
He’s gone insane, and is suffering his insanity.
His friends, co-workers and Miles humor him (because it’s all you can do with a madman), and play along. He can still work, he’s still good at it. But as time goes by, his subconscious starts interfering more and more, and he’s becoming a bomb about to explode.
Miles figures out that, if they can’t help him in reality, they can at least try to perform some “therapy” in a dream: Enter Ariadne, trained in the basics of “navigating” people’s minds by Miles, and who learned all that Miles knows about Cobb.
At the same time, Saito, a powerful business man, wants to destroy his competition and has heard of Inception. He might have contacted Eames first: There is a not too clear relation between Saito and Cobol, and the fact that Eames was living in “Cobol’s backyard” makes us think that Eames may have done some work for them.
Maybe Eames accepted the job and attempted the Inception (he says he tried it before, and failed). Eames knows Cobb, so he must have been aware of his delusion, and comes back to Saito with a counterproposal: “I know a guy who can do it, a guy who has gone deep enough before. But you will have to offer more than money to this guy for him to accept. If you want this job done, you’ll have to do a little something for us”
Eames, being a forger, is the one who has the deepest understanding of people’s minds, and he’s also an expert con man. He knows that the only way to bring Cobb back to his family is to play into his delusion, and give him a way out from within the delusion.
Miles and Eames get in touch and realize that their plans are the two sides of a coin: Miles will help Cobb get rid of his guilt with the help or Ariadne, and Eames, by means of Saito, will give Cobb a way back home.
Nash is probably not only alive and kicking, but enjoying a load of money given by Saito as “severance pay” (plus some extra for taking a few punches). Why would Nash betray Cobb? It always bothered me. He didn’t. But the plan needed Ariadne, and making it look like Nash had betrayed them, and that Saito handed him to Cobol was the only way to make sure that Cobb wouldn’t hire him back.
The Mombassa sequence was orchestrated by Saito. Chances are Cobb is being chased by Saito’s men. The purpose? To make Cobb believe that Saito is a reliable man, to build trust. To make Cobb believe that Saito will deliver when the time comes.
Saito has the same reasons to go into the mission. Eames’s line when they visit Yusuf “this is no job for tourists, Mr. Saito” was probably just part of the “acting”, and the weird exchange of knowing smiles between Saito and Eames near the end might point at that.
I don’t want to make this even longer than it is, so i’m not gonna go through all the scenes of the movie according to this theory. You probably already got the gist of it.
Just one more thing: I think Arthur is clueless for the most part. Not 100% sure, but his dialogues with Ariadne when they’re alone points in that direction.
How could Arthur be kept out of the loop? Well, it seems to be agreed upon that he lacks imagination. “You need imagination to perform Inception”, Eames says, and you need a lot of imagination to perform a long con. Also, he’s Cobb’s closest collaborator. If Arthur knew, the risk of Cobb finding out would increase exponentially.
The end is real. Cobb is the last one to wake up. He has forgiven himself, and let go of Mal. He looks at Saito, as if reminding him of what he has to do. Saito (still confused after his Limbo experience) has nearly forgotten the last line of the play: To make a phone call that Cobb (as all of us) will assume is what he needs to go back safely into the US.
The long con worked perfectly, and Cobb is now back home to his family….”