Yes, there are spoilers below.
Like the movie itself, my reactions to Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, are complex. Rather than trying to write a flowing review, I’ve broken my reactions into sections.
What Annoyed Me
First let me get past the two things that really bothered me about this excellent movie: the music and the guns. It seems to me that the whole movie works because of its subtleties. Why then must the musical score act like a hyperactive juvenile? The totem keeps spinning . . . BUM, BUM, BUM, BUMMMM! Uh, yeah. Was there really a need to bloody my nose with that symphonic facial disgracial? I saw the screen go black.
And look, I’m no camo wearing, assault rifle owning, Guns and Ammo reading nut case, but I am a boy. One dream level down the entire cast would have been shredded into the consistency of confetti and spent the rest of eternity wafting their way down to limbo in their unwakeable sedated state. Couldn’t the van have been armour plated or something?
Capers. This movie is a classic caper flick. And do you know what is required of all heists? Real things. Something real to steal. Real clues. Real consequences. At all levels, from reality all the way down four levels of dreams into limbo, the movie remains committed to the coherency of truth. It’s not just one big dream. The rules of the movie’s genre are never broken. In other words, the movie isn’t trying to pull a fast one on us. This isn’t about how there’s no truth.
Paradox. Note how the dream architects use paradox to create the boundaries of the dream space. How might this correspond to our knowledge of the truth? At the boundaries of what we can understand exists, not untruth, but paradox -- two seemingly contradictory truths.
Waking up. My wife and I have been wondering about the significance of that one scene in the chemist's basement. I think I've figured it out. In the scene one of the characters seems surprised that anyone would want to dream for as long as the people down there do. The helper-guy responds, "They do not come here to dream. They come here to wake up. And who are you to say otherwise?" In other words, Who says that our dreams are not actually our reality? Well, right after that idea is suggested, Cobb tries out the sedative. What does he dream about? He dreams about Mal's suicide. Here's my interpretation: when we believe that our dreams (the "reality" we create) is more real than actual reality, it always ends in dysfunction and ultimately death. Upon reflection, I think this scene is the most direct repudiation of the notion that we make our own reality. [Note: this observation was added after my original post.]
Prodigal. My feeling is that the father relationships are fundamental clues to understanding the movie. What does Fischer find locked away in his father’s safe? He finds that his father loves and accepts him. Who is waiting for Cobb at the airport to pick him up? His father, Professor Miles. Listen to what the customs agent says, “Welcome home Mr. Cobb.” Notice that Cobb’s father is excitedly waving his arms while every other person picking up someone is passively waiting. Very much the imagery found in the parable of the prodigal son, where the father enthusiastically welcomes his son home.
Totems. Arthur’s totem is a loaded die. Arthur is the character who more than any other splits the difference between calculation and chaos. He’s always aware of everything, able to keep time through two layers of dreams and endless mishaps. But he has to set off the “kick” that brings them all back to reality using his intuition and feel. His totem is a symbol of chance, but one that’s been rigged for reliability. Ariadne’s totem is a chess piece, a bishop. She’s Cobb’s confessor, the only one who knows of his guilt. She’s also the one who leads him through maze of his mind with some pretty sound therapy. (Also, look up Ariadne in Greek mythology.)
Was Cobb Dreaming In The Final Scene?
No and Yes. Here’s my theory. Notice Cobb’s wedding ring. The cinematography goes to great lengths to establish throughout the movie that when Cobb is not dreaming he is not wearing his wedding ring. When he is dreaming, he has it on. While it’s not easy to tell, I believe in the final scenes there’s enough evidence to say that he is not wearing the wedding ring. No wedding ring = clue. (Remember, caper genre.) He’s not dreaming. He really makes it home to his kids.
But then, why are his children the same age and wearing the same clothes? This is what I think. They aren’t. I’d have to watch the movie one more time to confirm my hunch, but I think that a careful viewing would show what is very hard to see through the screen door, namely, that the children are dressed differently.
So what’s going on when he looks out and sees his kids seemingly just as he left them when he had to flee? Well, I think he is moving on. He’s forgiving himself for the thing he thought he’d “regret for the rest of his life,” leaving without seeing his kids’ faces one last time. He finally sees them turn around. There’s closure.
So Why The Hell Doesn’t The Totem Fall Over?!
Because it doesn’t matter anymore. He doesn’t need to check anymore. Cobb is back in reality, which is a place where absolute certainty isn’t the point.
No, Christian readers of my blog, this is not subjectivity. As my favorite Christian philosophy professor, Dr. Holmes, once quipped in class, “Whoever said you have to prove something for it to be true?” Reality is not dependent on our confirmation of it. Dreams are dependent on us. Truth isn’t.
In his book Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner describes a fairy tale this way, “It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive.”
Our lives are not unlike fairy tales. If we insist on more certainty than that, well, we’re only dreaming.