Here be spoilers again – go watch it dammit!
Having watched Inception a second time, I’m not really sure it has a central theme or story – there’s a lot going on with a number of the characters – but I think I understand the film differently (possibly more fully) after a second watch. The characters that really stood out on the second viewing were Cobb, of course, Fischer, who didn’t seem all that important first time round (indeed I still think he’s a bit of a plot device for the others to play around, but he is important), and Mol (if anyone gets an Oscar out of this, it should be Marion Cotillard not DiCaprio).
One of the primary ideas that runs through the whole film is the relationship of the characters to reality.
You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter – because we’ll be together.
I didn’t really get this riddle or how it fits into the film first time around but now I think it’s quite central to understanding it. These are the words Cobb says to Mol as they wait to be woken by the train from their dream world that Mol has chosen as her reality (by locking away her totem). This is the pact between Cobb and Mol – they’ve gotten lost in dreams and they’ve both lost track – there’s now the risk that, in dying, they won’t wake up – but it doesn’t matter because they’ll be together. These are then the words that Mol says back to Cobb before she jumps. But he doesn’t jump – he betrays their agreement to stay together whether or not it’s a dream. When Ariadne meets Mol in the basement of Cobb’s memory dreams, we see that maybe Cobb’s guilt isn’t just from knowing that Mol jumped because of his inception (this world isn’t real) but also knowing that he betrayed her by not jumping with her. It’s the fact that they didn’t stay together like he said they would (because it doesn’t matter) that his projection of Mol is most angry about as she chases them back into the elevator.
There is a point near the end of the film, when Ariadne and Cobb meet Mol in limbo, where Mol says to Cobb that he can’t be sure of what’s real any more so why not choose this reality? Why not choose to stay with her? It seems Cobb has somewhat lost his ability to distinguish dreams and reality but he does at this point manage to see through his incomplete projection of his wife and convinces himself that he has to let her go (you might theorise that the whole film is, in fact, him performing this inception on himself – eek!)…
I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.
“all your perfection, all your imperfection” – I think that’s such a beautiful line.
… however, once we ride our way back up through all the kicks (another awesome sequence as we follow Ariadne’s face through the dream worlds), Cobb is finally reunited with his children and he spins his top one last time, just to check, and it spins, wobbles, teasing us, but keeps on spinning, and then black. The cinema audience lets out a gasp and a knowing chuckle and everyone goes away feeling slightly jarred by the tantalising ending.
Was it still a dream?!
I now think that to ask that question is to miss the real point of the ending – all through the film Cobb is desperate to watch the top spin and fall to check that he’s come back to reality but then, in the final scene, he spins the top and then walks away to be with his children, not waiting for an answer. The point isn’t whether or not he’s still dreaming but that it no longer matters. He has made peace with losing his wife and he’s found a way to be with his children. He’s reached his catharsis and the question of whether it’s a dream or reality has become irrelevant – he’s choosing this reality and sticking to it.
This whole thread of the film is carried in Saito’s line that comes up three times – “Do you want to take a leap of faith, or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?”.
So what do we learn? The film asks questions of the viewer and we are left asking the same questions of the film – what is real? what did it all mean? was there more to it than meets the eye? – and, just as Cobb chooses his children and Fischer chooses to believe his dad wanted the best for him (Fischer’s catharsis parallels Cobb’s), in life we sometimes find ourselves making choices that are not so much about truth as they are about finding a way to live.
This quote from Carl Sagan seems relevant at this point…
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that we’ve been so credulous. So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new bamboozles rise.
Viewing 2 has changed the way I see the film quite substantially and I’m sure there’s still more to pick apart and theorise over but I enjoyed it just as much, maybe more, and certainly differently from first time around. I would note that there’s a scene early on where Cobb gives Ariadne a pencil and paper and 2 minutes to create a maze that takes 1 minute to solve. This is one of the many scenes where the film folds in on itself (just as Ariadne makes the streets of Paris fold in on themselves) – this is surely Nolan referencing the creative process of building such a complex maze of a film. Of course, with the film we’re not really sure that there is a way through at all but it took Nolan 10 years to make Inception so we’ve got a bit of time to think about it!