The Great Inception Debate: Alive? Dead? Both?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Yes, the world finally got to behold Inception this weekend, so now I can loop you all into the same debate that I’ve been having with other critics for the last month.

First things first: Tons of spoilers here. Stop reading if you don’t want it all ruined. And feel free to post a comment simply with your reaction – I would so love to know what everyone is thinking of the movie.

You can read my very first reaction piece here, and then my more detailed review here. (I also interviewed Ellen Page about working with Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio). Please tell me I’m not alone in absolutely loving this movie.

But about that ending – man what a final shot. What a fantastically ambiguous conclusion. Here are my thoughts:

Couldn’t this whole thing be a dream? The entire film – from minute one to the end? Is Christopher Nolan just screwing with us?

The most obvious evidence for me is pure physics. You can’t actually go into people’s dreams. That’s not physically possible. So aren’t we already in the realm of a la la land – a dream-based fantasy concept? The kind of thing we would come up with … in our dreams?

But beyond that, we never really see the beginning of Cobb’s story – which parallels something that Cobb himself notes about all dreams later in the film: You can’t remember how it started.  The movie starts with Cobb inside another person’s dream. And beyond that: We never really see Cobb traveling anywhere. He just shows up. The movie leaps forward in huge bounds. Just like a dream does. The storyline skips around violently.

The last shot is clearly meant to make you debate whether that spinning McGuffin is going to keep spinning – meaning he’s in a dream – or whether it starts to wobble – meaning he isn’t. But I think it’s pretty obvious. He’s down in limbo land when all the other kicks happen, propelling his comrades out of the dream worlds. They wake up in the plane, he’s still down there.

So how could he possibly make his way out? Say he got out of limbo to the ice mountain just before the building collapsed…well, if he then jumped higher still, he would have woken up in the van at the bottom of that river. His avatar would have already drowned. He’d be dead.

More than that: When he supposedly does reawaken on the airplane, none of his teammates seem the least bit concerned about him. Which they would be.

Then we don’t see him de-plane. He whisks his way right through security. He arrives at home. All in the blink of an eye. And then that top keeps spinning. Personally, I think it just keeps twisting – proving that he’s now in a permanent fantasy land.

But that all being said: Even if he ends the movie in a dream, I think he’s been trapped in this loop for a long, long time. Here’s why: He says earlier in the movie that there’s no escaping limbo land. And then he recounts how he and his wife put their heads on a railroad track, and the shock forced them into waking up.

But why the hell would killing yourself in limbo land wake you up in reality? And at the end of the movie, he’s not even in his own limbo land; he’s in the businessman’s. So when Fischer wakes up, cancelling out all the dreams, how could Cobb possibly make his way back to the airplane? All the highways have been cut. The dreams are done. Game over.

I think the permanent dream state started way back. When he and his wife put their heads on that railroad track, they entered purgatory forever. Sure, his sleeping brain has created a whole new plot line – giving him a new persona, and this whole notion of extraction and inception – but he’s still sleeping.

After all: Why does Mal keep showing up during these missions? Cobb and company are injecting themselves into other people’s dreams, and no other team members bring any subconscious baggage with them. So why Cobb and Mal? Because this is all in Cobb’s brain.

Even if I’m wrong with the specifics, Nolan is definitely stoking this confusion deliberately, yes? Structuring the entire movie so that we walk in Cobb’s shoes, never knowing what’s real and what’s a dream? At what point the real story derails in fantasy?

I feel like all of these layers were designed by Nolan precisely to trip us up, just as our dreams do in clouding our judgment, and that there are numerous easter eggs layered in there that hint at what’s really going on.

So what do you think? Is he still dreaming at the end? Has he been dreaming since the beginning?

And the far more important question: Does it matter, in terms of his happiness? Has he finally achieved ignorant bliss? I remember that scene where all those people are lying asleep, drugged out for days on end because the dream world has now started to seem more real to them than reality. Could that be the larger theme here – that Cobb is now not resigned to hell, but heaven, until the end of time?

If it’s all now just a dream, does it have to be a nightmare?

P.S.: After all the screwing with time in Memento, with the unstable minds in Insomnia, with the subversive anti-heroism of The Dark Knight, can we all agree that Christopher Nolan is one of the most skilled – and daring – filmmakers working today? Love or hate him, this dude is swinging big. Aronofsky big.