Devin Faraci offers the best explanation I’ve read (so far) on the meaning behind ‘Inception’:
This entire article is a major spoiler for Inception. Please do not read it until you’ve experienced Christopher Nolan’s film for yourself.
Every single moment of Inception is a dream. I think that in a couple of years this will become the accepted reading of the film, and differing interpretations will have to be skillfully argued to be even remotely considered. The film makes this clear, and it never holds back the truth from audiences. Some find this idea to be narratively repugnant, since they think that a movie where everything is a dream is a movie without stakes, a movie where the audience is wasting their time.
Except that this is exactly what Nolan is arguing against. The film is a metaphor for the way that Nolan as a director works, and what he’s ultimately saying is that the catharsis found in a dream is as real as the catharsis found in a movie is as real as the catharsis found in life. Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director.
I believe that Inception is a dream to the point where even the dream-sharing stuff is a dream. Dom Cobb isn’t an extractor. He can’t go into other people’s dreams. He isn’t on the run from the Cobol Corporation. At one point he tells himself this, through the voice of Mal, who is a projection of his own subconscious. She asks him how real he thinks his world is, where he’s being chased across the globe by faceless corporate goons.
She asks him that in a scene that we all know is a dream, but Inception lets us in on this elsewhere. Michael Caine’s character implores Cobb to return to reality, to wake up. During the chase in Mombasa, Cobb tries to escape down an alleyway, and the two buildings between which he’s running begin closing in on him – a classic anxiety dream moment. When he finally pulls himself free he finds Ken Watanabe’s character waiting for him, against all logic. Except dream logic.
Much is made in the film about totems, items unique to dreamers that can be used to tell when someone is actually awake or asleep. Cobb’s totem is a top, which spins endlessly when he’s asleep, and the fact that the top stops spinning at many points in the film is claimed by some to be evidence that Cobb is awake during those scenes. The problem here is that the top wasn’t always Cobb’s totem – he got it from his wife, who killed herself because she believed that they were still living in a dream. There’s more than a slim chance that she’s right – note that when Cobb remembers her suicide she is, bizarrely, sitting on a ledge opposite the room they rented. You could do the logical gymnastics required to claim that Mal simply rented another room across the alleyway, but the more realistic notion here is that it’s a dream, with the gap between the two lovers being a metaphorical one made literal. When Mal jumps she leaves behind the top, and if she was right about the world being a dream, the fact that it spins or doesn’t spin is meaningless. It’s a dream construct anyway. There’s no way to use the top as a proof of reality.
Watching the film with this eye you can see the dream logic unfolding. As is said in the movie, dreams seem real in the moment and it’s only when you’ve woken up that things seem strange. The film’s ‘reality’ sequences are filled with moments that, on retrospect, seem strange or unlikely or unexplained. Even the basics of the dream sharing technology is unbelievably vague, and I don’t think that’s just because Nolan wants to keep things streamlined. It’s because Cobb’s unconscious mind is filling it in as he goes along.
Continue reading this must-read piece here.