I got back from seeing Christopher Nolan's Inception about thirty minutes before I started to write this post, and hence I am still reeling from the experience. One of the few complaints I have, at least immediately, is that it was a bit difficult to follow - not in terms of the action or the plot, but the dialogue. Mostly because Hans Zimmer's music would drown out whatever silent conversation there was, and the accents of a few of the characters made understanding them absurdly difficult. But that's not why I'm writing this, I'm writing this because of the ending. That ambiguous, ambiguous ending.
If you clicked the jump link or were linked to this post in any other way, do not continue reading if you have not seen Inception and intend to.
Alright, so Cobb spins his little dreidel or top or whatever you want to call it, but is so caught up in seeing his children that he doesn't bother to see if it falls. The movie cuts to credits, the entire theater lets out a collective groan of disappointment at the unresolved tension. I laugh at their reactions but mentally I'm cursing Nolan for the unreveal.
The way I see it, there are three things that this could mean. The simplest explanation is that the top eventually falls after the cut, and the dream is over. Cobb is with his children and gets his happy ending.
The second possibility is fairly obvious: Cobb never woke up from the fall into limbo, and his subconscious has constructed the false reality that Saito kept his end of the deal and he has reunited with his children. This is the alternate possibility that immediately comes to mind when you don't see the top fall over. And it makes sense when you consider how quickly the issue of Cobb and Saito's limbo was resolved: Cobb just washes up on a beach and because they see each other, they just magically remember everything?
Obviously, the audience is meant to simply wonder "Did Cobb really wake up?" The thing is, I have considered this question a bit more deeply. Perhaps TOO deeply.
The third possibility I offer is that Cobb never woke up from his dream with Mal. It's going to take me a while to explain all of the reasoning behind this theory, so please bear with me.
1) We know that Cobb is capable of constructing extremely elaborate worlds within his subconscious - after all, we get to see the one he and Mal made. But we only ever see two of them, the afore-mentioned one he made with Mal and the one composed of his memories, because he is afraid to create any more while he and his companions are doing a job. And multiple times in succession we are shown that a dreamer can very easily mistake their dream for reality - so is the world where everyone is "awake" reality, or did Cobb's subconscious create it? He seems capable of having done it, and if he thought it were real, he wouldn't make it elaborate and strange as his and Mal's dream world was.
2) Cobb's subconscious is more powerful than everyone else's - Mal appears even when he doesn't want her to. But why? Cobb tells Ariadne while explaining the concepts of extraction and inception to her that the architect of a dream determines the setting, while the dreamer creates the people who occupy it. So is Cobb's subconscious simply manifesting Mal in other people's dreams because of his experience in limbo? Because of his tremendous guilt? Or...is it because he's really the dreamer?
3) The members of Cobb's team, in a way, are too simple. In a way, they are similar to the cast of a heist movie, in that each has a task to carry out while they perform the job. The Wikipedia page even gives each member of the team a title - Extractor, Chemist, Point Man, Architect, etc. Even Saito, labeled the Tourist, provides the finances for their operation. Those with less screen time come across more as devices than as true characters, and perhaps that's the point. If Cobb is dreaming everything, and the rest of the cast are shades, then they are images cast by his subconscious. Adding to this simplicity is that none of the other members of the team even have last names.
Now here is where I really started thinking my theory held water, rather than just turning it over for the fun of it. It is established that most members of Cobb's team are people that he already knows, except for five people - the three targets of the job, and Saito and Ariadne. Saito carries a very specific and obvious function in relation to Cobb - he offers him the chance to see his children again. But some of the questions the audience may have about Saito are, a little too conveniently, never answered. How does he know about extraction? How was he able to hide whatever it was that Cobb was able to find in the movie's opening scene? What WAS the idea Cobb was trying to find? How did he know of Cobb's existence? The obvious solution is "He's rich, he has the resources to find those things out", but if that's the case, why don't the Fischers have the same information? In addition, Saito is the film's greatest plot device - he sets Cobb on the mission to perform an inception, and when he is shot and 'dies' within the dream, he forces Cobb to confront Mal and overcome her, his subconscious representation of his guilt. And when Cobb confronts Saito in limbo, and so easily pulls them out of it, he does so cleanly, assuring himself that he can overcome limbo should he ever fall into it again (or so he thinks).
Ariadne is a more subtle but more important plot device, and the part of the story that really makes me think Cobb never escaped his dream with Mal. She comes out of nowhere, knows absolutely nothing, but is more innately talented than Cobb and learns absolutely everything there is to know about his situation. To me, it makes sense that Ariadne is a shade because of her total lack of experience at the beginning of the story. Because she is not based on memory, she can be however Cobb's subconscious wants her to be. This cannot be the case for Saito, who has to know certain things in order to back their job, nor for the three targets of the job, whom Cobb has to trick. Cobb is honest with Ariadne, and she follows him through every leg of their journey. She is the only member of the team to go with Cobb into the fourth level of the dream, as well as the only one to speak with Mal besides him. She is also the only other woman. In short, she provides a reflection of Mal, and works in opposition to her. I suggest that Mal and Ariadne are like a shoulder angel and demon, but rather than representing simple good and evil, they represent ides - Mal is the doubt that everything is a dream, as she insists, and Ariadne is the belief that the level Cobb normally operates at is when he is truly awake. My theory is based on how intimately Ariadne comes to understand Cobb's situation, when nobody else does.
4) Mal's argument makes a bit too much sense. Secret crime organizations that we know next to nothing about hunt Cobb wherever he goes? Sounds vague enough to be a dream. And the reality is, Mal's mere existence proves that Cobb has been doubting if he is awake ever since her death, and because the movie is told from his perspective, we simply have to acknowledge that possibility.
5) The fact that the movie begins in media res seems like a tell. Recall when Cobb was explaining to Ariadne the ways of telling if one is in a dream that he didn't just mention totems, but also that in a dream one is usually unable to tell how they arrived at the place the dream takes place in. Well, in that case, how did Cobb and his companions arrive on the train with Saito? Cobb can vividly remember things that occurred before the job took place, but what about actually boarding the train and setting up the operation?
6) Finally, we are never given a clear explanation of how one escapes limbo. If it were as simple as killing themselves, why didn't Cobb and Mal just try to do so? They knew everything was fake when they initially fell into the dream. Did they have to wait a certain period of time before killing themselves would allow them to escape? If so, why didn't Cobb just shoot Mal, rather than performing an inception? And if Cobb had to perform an invasive inception on Mal to convince her she could escape the dream, why did he only have to briefly talk with Saito? This type of vagary leads me to consider the possibility that Cobb never really knew how to escape from limbo, he merely tricked himself into thinking he did.
Now, everything I have stated here is all a theory, and not necessarily one I believe in. My personal opinion is that Nolan did not intend the film to be perceived in one way, he intended that the audience consider the possibilities and question what may and may not have been a dream in every. Single. Scene. Really, I dislike myself a little bit for even offering this explanation, as I hate "It was all a dream" endings. But I felt as though I should put forth everything I had considered into the open discussion that has been going on ever since the film's release. Perhaps I will realize at a later time that my theory holds no water, but for the time being I would be happy to hear everyone else's thoughts on...my thoughts.