One of the more interesting thing about dreams is they do not play out like a conventional story. They are at best carelessly stitched vignettes that at times speak through their absurdity more than by anything else. Idiosyncrasy is central to majority of dreams. And so is departing out of order.
“ Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange,” says Cobb to Ariadne. It is quite clear that Nolan is obsessed with this particular facet of dreams. He is constantly endeavoring to erase the line between dreams and reality and thereby forcing the characters to question themselves. He very astutely places his characters in a world where they emotionally invest themselves and then slowly tracks back to show the world never existed. This is the single most frustrating thing about dreams too, you invest yourself so much emotionally, but when you wake up you can’t make much of them.
The best way to make sense of the movie is to be steadfast to one plane of reality at least. Otherwise, it just becomes a nested loop which is even more complex to fathom. Lynch in Mulholland Drive subtly differentiates between dreams and reality mostly via the use of colors, and Nolan does it in Inception sometimes by means of quite unnatural architecture, sometimes by means of physics defying universe. Nolan’s concept of dreams is quite literal here. However, he doesn’t concentrate much on his real world too, so we can never be entirely sure of what is real and what is dream. So any attempt to deconstruct the movie should be first attempted with a basic premise of what world is real, although I am pretty sure most people will agree on the first base of their real world, that is the world where Cobb is given an assignment to plant an idea into Fischer’s mind that would enable him to go back to his family again.
One of the major thing I was wary about the movie was the fact that Nolan might have been just too clinical for the film’s own good, too obsessed on the technical finesse of the plot and in the process depriving the audience an emotional connect with the characters. However, Nolan surmounts this by making the protagonists as vulnerable and rugged as perfect and deeply layered the world they wish to penetrate.
I was also worried that the movie might be neatly executed at a cerebral level but would ail from a rather hollow heart. Or, Nolan would try to cover it up by adding a parallel track that would be a Mcguffin of sorts. But, he doesn’t do all that. By introducing Cobb, a character with a troubled and closeted past, he seamlessly merges the two worlds of dreams into one, thereby both stories not playing out in exclusive to each other but rather in a queer way as a function of each other.
What is even more interesting is our allegiance to a particular character pretty much shapes our own movie experience. The movie can be analyzed from an entirely different perspective if we give in to one character rather than the other. Who do you believe more? And what world do you see from their eyes? There can always be things we can believe in, but nothing we can be sure of. Can Cobb be trusted enough? I am not sure I have the answer to that question after just one viewing. And that is just one of the strands that Nolan has left loose.
At a certain plane, everything is as real as we want it to be. That was what underlined the protagonist’s motive in Memento too. We make peace with ourselves to construct a moat of truth around us. And we live happily in it, safely sheltered by ignorance.
Multiple viewing would make things clearer relatively and the recollection from the first viewing can only be very dream like – at best vague and roughly concocted. And that is the beauty of the movie, Nolan doesn’t make it mind numbingly complex to turn off the audience, rather he just keeps the carrot dangling by adding back stories that keeps the audience interested enough to speculate and propound.
And for all the people debating whether the totem spinning would have fallen or not, consider this: Cobb finally comes back, sees his kid’s face and holds him up in his arms. In the same frame the totem is still spinning, juggling between the two worlds. Cobb penetrated different levels of dream(or at least, that’s what he thought they were) to get what he really wanted. The totem is still spinning, but he doesn’t turn back. He got what he wanted. And then Nolan blacks out the screen. Our lives look like a sweet dream when we are with people we love the most. So, why do you even care whether the totem would have fallen or not? Cobb does not any longer.