“…here’s an alternate understanding. Cobb, the guy whose dream we’re watching, is not in true Reality (level 0) a professional dreamer who can get into other people’s dreams. He’s just a regular guy having a very elaborate dream. And it happens to be a dream in which Cobb learns some important lessons about himself, and Reality. When Fischer wakes up on the plane, Fischer knows that there was not really a pinwheel in his father’s bedside safe. But finding the dream pinwheel has helped Fischer grow emotionally, and make progress in his own real life. There is an obvious parallel between Fischer’s cathartic confrontation with his personal demons on level 4 (ice world) and Cobb’s confrontations on level 5 (getting rid of Mal, and—with Saito—remembering to come back to Reality). A more subtle point is that Cobb is continuing this process of discovery, of personal reintegration, when he returns to level 1; there, the barriers that have kept him apart from his children disappear, and he reintegrates into his family. When he wakes up, eventually, into level 0, he will have all the insights he gained from dream levels 1–5.
Maybe real-life Cobb has been feeling bad because he wife walked out on him. Or maybe his real-life anxieties have nothing to do with a spouse. Someone named “Mal” can represent all kinds of pernicious influences or obstacles. Is Ariadne (who in Greek mythology gave Theseus the string which he used to escape the Minotaur’s maze, and who in Inception creates the maze for Fischer which will lead him out of his own mental prison) a projection of the part of Cobb’s personality that he needs to help him escape from Mal? Is she his real-life psychotherapist?
The real answer is that we don’t know the meta-story around the movie, but we do know that the movie invites us into the creative process of creating the meta-story, and there is not necessarily only one true answer.
One can reduce Inception to a didactic 1969-style moral like “There’s no reality. Just whatever makes you happy.” And it’s also true that no-one can fully answer the movie’s “Am I dreaming?” question, namely “How did I get here?” You may have scattered memories from when you were a baby, but those memories could just indicate a very long dream. However, blithe unconcern for reality vs. unreality is not entirely consistent with Cobb’s realization that Mal and he needed to escape from their fifty-year excursion in level 5.
More broadly, Inception plants many diverse ideas in the audience—multiple ideas for every person who sees it. Like the characters in the airplane sequence, when we watch the movie we experience a shared conscious dream. Like almost all performance artworks, Inception is a deception; it is an unreal artistic construct which we choose to believe for a while, in order to find a deeper understanding of reality.
Inception is not only about dreaming, but also an optimistic invitation to awaken to the creative possibilities of sharing imaginations—as some people do when participating in the creation of a film, and as we all can do with our diverse talents when we share our dreams with others, and they share ours.”