Was it all a dream?
Inception cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. It draws from our collective unconscious, which is depicted by other movies.
It is impossible not to compare Inception to The Matrix, and Nolan, eyeballs deep in post-modernism, must know this. He actually begs us to to make the comparisons-- Ariadne touching the mirror (which, rather than passing through it, she shatters); the tailored clothes ("residual self image"), the gravity defying fight scenes; the bullet time explosions. I doubt these are gratuitous or even an homage, he's responding to the Matrix using Matrix language, which is ultimately our language since we the language of media. And his response-- the same one in Memento and, The Dark Knight, is that what you do, not what you think, defines you.
The Matrix was a straightforward, though awesome, story of narcissism; a single man for whom reality is incidental to ego, who defines himself not on what he does (initially, he does nothing except hack computers) but who he thinks he is. He is the main character in his own movie-- maybe not the best, not the strongest, but the main one. Everyone else is supporting cast. All he needs is the right cluster of magical (think like a 2 year old) events and the awesomeness that he knows is inside him will become real. Note also that everyone is perfectly content being the supporting cast. Everything they think or do is about and for him.
Inception is the exact opposite. It doesn't matter whether you think it's all a dream, or just some of it, or it's actually someone else's dream, or it's all real. The main point-- and Nolan makes it twice-- is that you can't hide from yourself.
Second main character Fisher could choose to coast, identity handed to him by his father-- pretend he is who everyone says he is-- but he wouldn't have actually done anything himself. He would be the person who hasn't done things, but everyone still thinks he has. His only choice is to grow up, find his own way, define himself.
Cobb-- a former Architect-- can dream anything he wants; his wife begs him to stay with him, and many characters admit that ten years or a lifetime in a dream is just as good as real-- "who's to say?"
But though Cobb can do that, it's still no solace because it doesn't work. No matter what world he picks, the guilt follows him, the guilt defines him. Cobb can't pretend to be anyone, he can't hope to become anyone, and not clothes or guns or drugs or genetics or hypnosis or even being in someone else's dreams will change who he is.
It's almost impossible, in real life, for any of us to understand how a single emotion can be so defining; it's the stuff of movies, and we prefer to define ourselves rather than wait for events to shape us. Usually, movies try to make that defining emotion love, but that fails because it's idealized love that doesn't take into account that there is someone else on the other side who has their own ideas about love. Nolan doesn't go that way-- this isn't a love story. Nolan chooses (twice) death. When someone very close to you is abruptly, unexpectedly, incorrectly taken from you, everything else is contaminated by that.
The death of a parent is different because it is never completely unexpected (unless you're a child) and it is understood to be something to overcome by moving forward. Fisher succeeds. But there is no forward when your child or your spouse dies. The only way forwards is downwards.
If you've not lost such a person, you wouldn't know that every morning before you open your eyes, you spend a moment trying to change reality: I am going to wake up, and everything will turn out to have been a dream. Cobb doesn't wait for morning to try this.
Did the top stop spinning? Probably not-- it spins a very long time, given that it started well before the camera fixed on it. But that's totally beside the point: the audience was rooting for it to stop. We have an instinctive aversion to other people's false realities because they aren't our realities.
Cobb doesn't bother to check the top at the end because it doesn't matter whether he is dreaming or not. No matter what, he's the same person that the same things happened to. Nothing else is real.
These are just random thoughts I had about the movie, feel free to add or correct them; I'd like to write something better about this movie when I have thought about it more.
Totems are for people to project their ambivalence (e.g. hate) about others.
Magical thinking is the "omnipotence of thought"-- that your thoughts can alter the world
Last line of Totem and Taboo: In the beginning was the deed.
Ariadne = the woman who helped Theseus navigate the minotaur's labyrinth (ball of red thread-- follow Saito's blood trail); Ariadne was eventually abandoned by Theseus-- left sleeping on the beach at Naxos. Didn't Ariadne and Arthur share a kiss, and later wind up on the beach?
Ariadne's totem/token was a PAWN; Arthur's was a loaded dice.
All dreams are always wish-fulfillments.
Matrix references abound; "you have to dream bigger" (of a bigger gun); the fights, defying gravity. Perfectly tailored suits, hair-- "residual self image?" Signals the dream world?
Totems, like tattoos (Memento)--- physical reminders of reality
If it's a dream, who is "watching" the top spinning all by itself?
Suits also call up the old aesthetic that so many post-modern films have (Dark City, the Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, etc.)Leads to "Eames" (the forger)-- likely Charles Eames, the modernist designer and ARCHITECT who also made some experimetnal films... like 1969's "Tops. "Tops are born, they live, and then they die."
First scene with Mal (= "mal")-- he ties a rope to her chair to hold him as he goes out the window, but the chair slips empty-- she is not his anchor.
Fisher is the audience, the mark. We/he need to have an idea incepted, we need to experience the drama, the dream, and the catharsis.Each level of the movie was a different kind of film: The kidnapping is a thriller, the hotel is a heist, and the mountaintop was an action film. Each also had different hues: first Saito meeting was red/yellow, kidnapping=blue, hotel/heist=brown, mountaintop=white. Think Matrix reality=brown, in the Matrix=green
Were all the totems game pieces? pawn, poker chip, top, loaded die. Why?
This movie can also be seen a a metaphor for movies. Cobb is the director, Eames is the actor, Arthur the producer, Ariadne is the writer.
You can tell a dream because you can't remember how you got there; much like scenes in a movie, which either have an establishing shot (e.g. a wide shot of a building where the scene will take place) but Inception noticeably lacks these establishing shots-- you're dropped right into action.
The top at the end is for us to see if it's a dream, not for him-- he doesn't even wait-- but the truth is that he's in a movie, not a dream, so complete is our suspension of disbelief.
Why is it called Inception? If they're doing the "opposite" of extractions, it should be Insertion.
Raskolnikov's guilt was over the murder of a PAWNbroker
There was a scene after dreaming that he runs to the bathroom to check the top, but he is interrupted. From that point on, all bets are off as to whether we are still in dreamworld.
MAl CObb is played by MArion COtillard, who also played Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose." Edith Piaf is the singer in the song played on headphones to time the wake up ("Je ne regrette rien.")
The top is Mal's totem, not his. His totem is his wedding ring.
A more complete explanation can be found here: The Ultimate Explanation Of Inception.