This is an insightful analysis of Inception, but I think it doesn’t go far enough.
Hal’s interpretation of Inception's ambiguous ending is that the whole film is Cobb's dream, and that the titular “inception” is convincing Cobb that he has to move past his guilt (“Non, je ne regrette rien”). He suggests that in the true reality, which we never see in the film, Ariadne attempts to perform this inception on Cobb, with presumably therapeutic motivations. I think if you take this interpretation a little further, you get a much more satisfying answer.
The whole premise of the film is a technology which allows a sleeping person to enter another’s dream and interact with them. The dream-sharing technology is given a hasty introduction halfway through the film (“the military developed it for combat training”) and never explained. There’s nothing wrong with that - plenty of science fiction movies depend on some hokey tech to make their cool settings or plotlines possible - but to me it does stick out as an oddity.
All the other fantastic elements of Inception - zero-gee fistfights, tops that spin forever, bending Paris in on itself - take place in dreams, so we don’t think to question them. Like science fiction films, dreams often take place in the context of some absurd premise which you accept as perfectly natural and obvious. You’ve got to get somewhere, but you’re on the wrong train, and you’re going to be late - only when you wake up do you realise you don’t even remember where you needed to go. Or you can fly and shoot lasers from your hands, and of course you can, because how else could you save the world from the evil killer wasps? Fantasy in dreams is normal, familiar and obvious during the dream, and fantastic only when you wake up. But Inception asks us to suspend disbelief that dream-sharing is possible.
Wait a second…
If the whole film is Cobb’s dream, then the one piece of science fiction, the nebulous dream-sharing technology, on which the whole plot depends but is never properly explained… is just part of the dream!
Inception isn’t a science fiction adventure where people can invade each other’s dreams and plant secrets in their minds. It’s a chronicle of Cobb’s dream, which is a science fiction adventure. Dream-sharing, extractors, architects, the sinister corporation chasing him - they don’t have to actually exist, because they’re all figments of Cobb’s imagination!
So, my own interpretation of Inception: Cobb’s flashbacks of his kids and of his wife’s life and death are idealised glimpses of the real real world, which we don’t otherwise see in the film. He has very real issues to deal with. He’s also apparently been watching The Matrix a lot, because when he dreams, his subconscious chooses to frame his issues in an epic struggle against faceless oppression with reality-bending special effects. Sure, it’s elaborate and intricate even by dream standards, but Cobb’s really messed up.
The “inception team” - Ariadne, Arthur, Saito and the rest - are simply projections of Cobb’s subconscious; their purpose is to force him to confront those aspects of his memories and emotions he can’t face up to while awake. His revelation in the cottage on top of the skyscraper is real: that clinging to his guilt is what is keeping him from his children. That’s the climax of the movie because that’s where his subconscious was trying to get him all along. Cobb is performing inception on himself.
If you’re not yet convinced that all the characters are simply created by Cobb’s unconscious mind, look at Ariadne - named for the woman who gave Theseus the tools he needed to slay the dreaded Minotaur, and then escape from the Labyrinth that is its lair. The first thing Cobb asks of her is to design a maze which he can’t find his way out of: he must surround his guilt - the Minotaur - in a Labyrinth before he can slay it. She leads him to the confrontation, gives him the strength to win, then shows him the way back out.
This interpretation feels pretty satisfying to me. It doesn’t seem to have any holes. Anything is possible in a dream, and indeed noticing strange inconsistencies and inaccuracies after you “wake up” (leave the cinema) is a familiar feeling. And the way the film both refers to and represents itself is a hallmark of Nolan’s films: see for example The Prestige, which illustrates the mystery and allure of stage magic by performing an elaborate feat of misdirection on the viewer, who - Nolan asserts - “wants to be fooled”. Dreams are so powerful because we fool ourselves.
Tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.
Spoiler photo credit: charlo.be on Flickr