“…The genius of Inception is that it is ambiguous enough that you can come up with a good theory and find corroborating evidence in the movie for it. Here are the theories I’ve seen so far that sound interesting to me.
#1 Everything in the movie actually happened, but at the end, Cobb was stuck in limbo, and dreamed he came back to his kids (what I thought when I walked out)
Why? His kids had not aged, and they were wearing the same clothes he always imagined them in. This made the top spinning moot.
Also, a friend of mine noted that when he called his kids earlier in the film their voices sounded older than the kids that physically appear to Cobb: i.e., he actually talked to them earlier, but he sees them as he remembers them in the dream at the end.
However, I no longer support this theory. Read on.
#2 The entire movie was an inception in Cobb’s mind, to help him let go of his wife’s death
Miles (Dom’s father) in the movie tells him to “come back to reality.” It is Miles who introduces Cobb to Ariadne. Her first task is to create a maze. If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you’ll know that Ariadne helps Theseus to escape the labyrinth by giving him a sword and thread to find his way out after he slays the Minotaur. Ariadne in the dream is the one who is guiding Cobb to confront Mal and work through his issues. Some people also speculate that Ariadne is in reality Cobb’s daughter, which is why Miles says things like, “she’s even better than you used to be” which sounds cocky but it could be grandfatherly pride.
A variation on this theory is:
#3 The whole thing is an Inception set up by Miles (Michael Caine) to get the truth about Mal’s death, so Cobb can be vindicated.
This theory written by a commenter in a forum:
Just throwing this out here, but something I thought was that Dom’s “team” was actually trying to extract information from Dom in order to really determine if he is innocent or guilty. They finally found out the true story about Mal’s death and are able to vindicate him and he is then able to return to U.S. to be with his family.
I’m not sure I can get behind this theory. it’s been proven over and over again that human memory is fallible. We can overwrite and change things subtly as we reconstruct memories on the fly (they don’t exist verbatim in the mind, but are stitched together as they are retrieved.)
#4 Mal is actually still alive, and Cobb is the one who doesn’t realize he’s stuck inside the dreamscape and the inception is to get him out.
I haven’t really fleshed this one out totally, but a few things that Mal says/does support this theory.
- Mal saying things to Cobb like, “do you really think you’re being chased by faceless international agents?” and “come to be with your real children.”
- Mal being on the opposite ledge. This is a very dream-like situation.
A commenter said:
…Mal is probably just trying to get Dom to come out of the dream world. The fact that she is in a different building from him is a very important point. …Are we to believe that she rented the hotel room precisely across from the one where Dom is? …then, of course, trash the room, go down the elevator, go across the street to the other hotel, go back up the elevator, and climb out onto the ledge? That’s a lot of faffing, and it’s totally unecesarry if that’s a real life event. It is, however, the way a scenario like that might play out in a dream, where everything is fraught with symbolism. Her being close to him, face to face, but just far enough away to where he is completely helpless to intervene…
When Mal is on the ledge, she is the one who is trying to convince Cobb to kill himself and come with her so they can move a level up and get out.
If this is true (and they are still down a level or two in a dream), this makes the whole slowed-time aging in the lower level more possible – they are down more levels than just one. Otherwise it didn’t make sense both of them went down one level and suddenly one afternoon was 50 years.
And maybe Mal keeps appearing in his “jobs” because she’s trying to make him realize that they aren’t real, and to get him to finally come out.
#5 The entire movie was a dream Cobb had while flying home to see his children
This one could also be true. The reason it could work is that in the airplane after he wakes up, no words are exchanged between Cobb and “the team.” Although Joseph Gordon Leavitt’s character does sort of “smirk” at him (I’ll have to watch again to see for sure). Saito wakes up, and although he picks up the phone (presumably to make the call that will allow Cobb to re-enter the country), we don’t know for sure. He could just be making a random call.
#6 The dream actually started in Mumbasa when Yusef gave Dom a taste of the sedative. He was then dreaming like the others in that room.
This page contains more theories (especially in the long comments)
Other wrenches and unknowns
The wedding ring
One commenter remarked,
“If it were all a dream, why is he wearing his wedding ring in all of the “Dream” world scenes and not wearing it in all of the “Reality” scenes?”
This would mean that most of the movie is real. Also, some have postulated that the wedding ring is Cobb’s actual totem (the spinning top was actually Mal’s totem). Will have to watch again to check this one out.”
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