There’s a certain smugness to be attained from a first viewing of Inception, if you manage to keep up. Of course, the smugness is swiftly followed by a weary disillusionment when (spoiler alert), in the final few seconds of the film, your understanding falls into a swirling vortex of uncertainty that spins in your head like a Tasmanian devil in tandem with the endlessly spinning top at the end.
Confused? Of course you are. The internet is, as ever, teeming with theories, each one as complex, multilayered and intricate as the film itself. Here’s a mere few.
The whole film is Cobb’s dream
Much as a true movie geek hates the “it’s all a dream” ending, it’s only natural that it should raise its ugly head here. It’s Nolan we’re talking about after all – why shouldn’t the whole film be one level lower than we realise at first? The spinning top that we don’t see fall over certainly seems to suggest it unequivocally.
But there are also certain flaws in the film, such as Arthur, so impeccably excellent at his job, forgetting to remember that Fischer’s subconscious would be protected by psychotic militants. It seems a massive slip to make for someone whose every waking hour is spent figuring out the details. His children don’t seem to age, and in his reunion with them, they are wearing the same clothes as in his other dreams.
But sharp-eyed viewers will notice the actors playing the children are actually different, and significantly, older – so maybe not. And then there’s the really suspect awakening of all involved, no questions asked or answered, on the plane, and the neatly tied up resolution to Cobb’s massive legal problems that smack of unreality.
The inception is happening - to Cobb
“Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret?” is a phrase repeated over and over in the film. We think we know why – after all, it’s Cobb’s obsession with dead wife Mal that keeps rupturing his dreamscapes, and she’s never far away, knife in hand, from stabbing anyone who gets close to taking his attention away from her.
Is Cobb under the whole time, being “incepted” with the concept of coming back from the oblivion of the multilayered prison he keeps his memories in? If so, whoever is planting ideas in his head has created about seven different layers of narrative so highly and distractingly complex, they’re likely to strangle their subconscious with their own dream maze – so maybe not.
Cobb isn’t dreaming and the end is actually real and Nolan is just fucking with us as a test – a bit like God sometimes does in the Bible
Watch the film again. Close your eyes at the end. Can you hear the spinning top start to wobble? Earlier in the film, Saito tells Cobb “I can help you, but it’ll have to be an act of faith”. If you accept Nolan’s premise that faith conquers all - and it seems to be a running theme, whether it’s Mal’s lack of faith in Cobb that causes her to jump, or Cobb’s lack of faith in Mal that causes him to plant the seeds of doubt in her mind in the first instance – then the end is an in-joke between audience and director. He knows it’s going to fall, he almost lets you see it fall and all that’s required of you is to believe that it will.
Inception is an allegory for making movies
Here comes the geeky bit. The real targets of inception here are the audience. Are we merely sitting ducks, opening our subconscious for Nolan to plant idea after idea in our willing brains, spreading his gospel like a conceptual virus?
Devin Faraci of C.H.U.D. seems to think so, in a fascinating, but brain-melting article, in which he hypothesizes that Cobb is not an extractor, Mal is a projection of his subconscious and the entire film is in fact a metaphorical lesson by Nolan. "Inception is about making movies," writes Faraci, "and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director”.
And as irritatingly nerdy as that sounds, have another look and see if the “reality” sequences in the film aren’t a little bit, well, vague. You might as well - you know you’re going to see it again anyway.