I’m here to help you out. This is in no way gospel — frankly, I think “Inception”’s deepest secrets are intentionally left open to interpretation — but rather one fan’s attempt to piece together a few answers out of pre-existing interview content and personal opinions. I welcome debate, commentary, alternate possibilities and whatever else you can cook up in the comments below. Please, bring your thoughts. “Inception” is built for continued discussion from the ground up. Needless to say, major spoilers ahead.
How does this dream-exploring tech even exist?
Dream exploration is nothing new, really. A lucid dream is one in which the sleeper is aware that s/he is in a dream state. The first book on the subject was published in the late ’60s, but there’s evidence that human awareness of the actual phenomenon extends back much further. Techniques even exist that, with practice, can be used to induce a lucid dreaming state.
The jump from there to actual technology being developed for such purposes is not a tremendous one to make. In the case of “Inception,” a drug is used to induce the dream state. More than that, the same drug allows for shared dreaming. The sedative that Dileep Rao’s “Chemist” adds to his dream-sharing drug cocktail is intended to ensure that the dreamers remain in their sleep state for the length of their overseas journey.
In the big set piece dream, which “level” belongs to which dreamer?
The story in “Inception” hinges on a small group of dream-sharers and their attempts to implant an idea — the so-called act of inception — into the mind of a third party. This plot involves a complex house of cards construction, a dream within a dream within a dream. Each “level” of the dream is unique, carefully designed to further draw Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) into the illusion, to better facilitate the act of inception.
Rao has the best breakdown of the climactic dream’s levels I’ve seen yet, in an interview with New York Magazine. “Okay. So first there’s reality. We get on the plane. We go to sleep. Then we’re in my dream, Yusuf’s dream. Because my pee urge causes it to rain. That’s how I see it. The architecture is Ariadne’s (Ellen Page’s) design, but it’s my dream. Then we drop down a level and go to the bar, to the hotel. I think we’re in Arthur’s (Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s) dream at that point. Then — this is where it gets mind-bending — we drop down into Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy’s) dream, even though he thinks they’re going to Browning’s (Tom Berenger’s) dream.”
I’m not sure how accurate Rao’s read of the second level is. All three levels are Ariadne’s design, since she’s the Architect, right? Wouldn’t it be Fischer’s subconscious populating the level, given how the bar patrons respond when DiCaprio’s Cobb reveals himself at the hotel? Unless dream-sharers all populate a dream with their subconscious. Then, even as Rao’s Yusuf and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur are the master dreamers on their respective levels, there’s still room for Fischer’s people, such as Browning and his protectors, to show up as well. Why then wouldn’t that in-dream security go away when Fischer descends another level? Gotta love it when questions breed more questions.
What happens if you die in limbo?
One of the single most confusing elements in “Inception” is this idea of limbo, a place where dream walkers can essentially become stuck. By the movie’s logic, in-dream death results in a return to wakefulness. The exception to that rule is when a sedative is also involved; die in a dream while under sedation and you become stuck in limbo which, as I understand it, is a shared dream space whose design is based on whatever’s been built there previously by any of the shared dreamers. In the case of the movie’s dreamers, only Cobb and Mal have been there, so we see their crumbling paradise.
We are initially told that death in a sedative-fuel dream leads to limbo, which leads to a vegetative state for the dreamer in the real world. But we also get to see hard proof that this is an escapable situation. Fischer and Ariadne both ascend through the levels of the shared dream after they die in limbo. Cobb manages the same feat after he finds Saito many years later (in limbo time) and, we are meant to understand, they kill themselves with Cobb’s gun.
The common bond between Fischer/Ariadne and Cobb/Saito seems to be their awareness of Self within the dream state. They’re all aware of where they are and what the stakes are. The in-dream deaths thus function as the required “kick” to bring them back to their real selves. That’s my own read; I welcome any alternate reads.
What are we meant to understand from the final shot of Cobb’s spinning totem?
Ah, the final scene. Was it all a dream? That totem sure spins for an awfully long time before we cut to the credits. My initial response after a second viewing was yes, the whole thing was a dream. More than that, it was all an extended psychotherapy session for Cobb’s benefit, to help him dispel his demons. Ariadne is either his therapist or a fabricated agent of the same. The strongest proof we have that the reality we’re introduced to is in fact a dream state? Cobb’s kids, who are apparently the same age in both his memories of them and his real life reunion.
Only that’s not the case. If you check the credits closely, or take a look at the IMDb page for “Inception,” you see that two pairs of children were cast as Cobb’s kids. It’s a shame too, as that theory actually holds water if you overlook the casting. It certainly isn’t obvious, the age difference. But then, the problem with that visual motif is you never see the kids’ faces until the end, so there’s really no basis for comparison.
Okay readers. Your turn. Tear these thoughts apart. Introduce some of your own. Tell me I’m crazy for diving deeply into “Inception.” I want to hear what you think!