by Vaughn Swearingen
“You’re waiting for a train. A train that’ll take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t know for sure.
Yet it doesn’t matter. Because you’ll be together.”
When it comes to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, people often ask the wrong questions. The primary debate has always been over its ambiguous ending, whether or not Cobb’s top falls, whether or not he’s actually woken up or if he’s still dreaming. People have painstakingly analyzed the movie, deconstructing its rules and its different dream levels, trying to discover some sort of concrete, universal truth. However, like Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) says to Ariadne (Ellen Page) early on, “dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange.” The truth is that there is no answer, and looking for an answer misses the point of Cobb’s journey.Nolan himself has agreed with this idea, stating that Cobb’s reality at the end of the film is just that - it’s Cobb’s reality. Whether or not it’s the reality shared with the rest of the team or if it’s his own constructed dream is irrelevant, because Cobb has accepted the reality he’s existing in. It’s a reality where he’s moved past the pain of Mal (Marion Cotillard), and a reality where he can live with his children. He’s no longer an old man, filled with regret. He’s spent years so focused on his mistakes, the moments where he failed, that he could never change them. He spent his nights reliving memories of those mistakes, staring at his failures, taking responsibility for things that weren’t his fault, and by finally releasing those burdens from his mind, his mind was ready to accept whatever came next as reality. Just as Yusuf’s associate says of the people who spend their lives dreaming, “the dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” The importance of Cobb’s final moments are not in what we don’t see, but what we do see, and we see him finally being able to call out to his children, and seeing their faces, and being happy for the first time since he lost his wife. Is it real? There’s no way to know for sure, but the elegance and brilliance of Inception is within its ambiguity, and within the way Nolan constructs the film to create something that feels like a dream. Something that feels rich, complex, and real while you’re in it, but is really much more simple.
Nolan’s greatest skill as a filmmaker is his ability to craft movies like this, constructing the reality of the movie as the characters would experience it. Memento plays out backwards and forwards simultaneously, keeping the viewer guessing just as much as Guy Pearce’s character Leonard is. The Prestige plays out like an extended magic trick, creating a film that misdirects the viewer at every turn only to reveal something that’s been in front of your eyes the entire time. The dream-like world of Inception is no different, throwing things at you that just work and flow within the dream, but feel strange once you ‘wake up’ outside of the movie. Everything that happens is so immersive and awe-inspiring that you look past all of those little flaws, just like you would look past all of the little oddities in a dream. Those things being pointed out to you is like Cobb pointing out the strange weather to Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and turning him onto the nature of the dream. When you start to notice those holes, you realize it’s just a movie, and it’s flawed like any other, but by watching the movie and searching for those flaws, you become like Cobb at the beginning of the movie. Obsessed with the wrong things, unable to let go. By accepting the reality of the movie, just taking it for what it is, you become like Cobb at the end. It doesn’t matter if it was a dream or not, because your mind is at peace. The characters largely lack depth, yes, but this is Cobb’s story, and as if in a dream, they’re like projections of Cobb’s mind, people that serve a greater purpose within the story. Individually they don’t need depth because they further Cobb’s development that leads to his ultimate peace.Mal, of course, is the most literal presentation of this - she is a projection of Cobb’s mind, and a representation of the guilt of his past. She exists to constantly remind him of his mistakes and his regrets, and keeps him trapped in a world where he cannot escape or get past his guilt. Cobb cannot escape the idea that it’s his fault she died. He cannot escape the idea that despite his best intentions, his attempt to save her from an infinite dream is the thing that ultimately killed her, and so she constantly returns to the forefront of his mind as a vengeful spirit, trying to wreak havoc on his plans and on those he’s with. This is Cobb being self-destructive as a result of his guilt. Part of him feels like he killed Mal, and that same part of him feels like maybe he deserves to live a life on the run as a result of it. Therefore, Mal tries to ruin his test with Saito (Ken Wantanabe), tries to scare off Ariadne, and even returns to kill Fischer just when their plan is about to succeed.
Thankfully, Mal’s attempts to scare off Ariadne fail, as her understanding of Cobb helps him to come to terms with his situation. Her name is an obvious connection to the mythological Ariadne, who is part of the myth of Theseus and the labyrinth. To some, an almost obnoxiously overt reference - the character who creates the mazes is named after the mythological maze character, but it’s not that simple. The Greek Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread so that he could lay it as he found his way to the middle of the labyrinth, and once he had slain the minotaur he could follow the thread back to the entrance of the labyrinth. The film’s Ariadne doesn’t just design the mazes the dreams take place in, but she helps Cobb navigate the maze of his own mind. While Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) represents the part of Cobb’s mind that has accepted his guilt - he turns a blind eye to the fact that Cobb is perpetually struggling with the loss of Mal and her continued intrusions into his dreams - Ariadne is the one that comes along and helps Cobb realize just how far he’s allowed this to go, and helps him understand that he needs to let go of his guilt over what happened to Mal. “Do you think you can just build a prison of memories to lock her in?” She asks after discovering that Cobb spends his nights reliving his guilt in the form of dreams. Since she’s the only one who knows so much about his past with Mal, he feels comfortable opening up to her and begins to understand the truth that he faces when they all fall into limbo at the end of their journey - that he had grown old with Mal, but his projection of her doesn’t represent the woman he loved in his youth, and that he needs to be at peace with the fact that her death was not his fault.
Ariadne, however, is not the only part of Cobb’s path to self-acceptance and forgiveness. Fischer and Saito are crucial to Cobb’s journey, existing to remind him, as Cobb says himself, of “a truth that he had once known, but chose to forget.” By working to plant an idea inside Fischer’s mind he’s constantly reminded of the power of inception. He understands that this idea will become a part of who he is, and may change everything about him. Ariadne says quite literally, “the truth that, as we’re going deeper into Fischer, we’re also going deeper into you. And I’m not sure we’re going to like what we find.” She understands that Fischer’s journey and Cobb’s journey are connected, and as Cobb watches Fischer come to terms with the relationship with his father, he starts to come to terms with his relationship with Mal, as well as reminding himself constantly of the power of inception, and reminding himself of how pervasive those simple ideas can be. He’s essentially reliving what he did to Mal, and slowly realizing that without understanding what you’re doing to someone, inception can have devastating consequences. It’s why he treats Fischer so delicately, and also why he decides to use the “Mr. Charles” gambit with Fischer, because it gives Cobb more control over how Fischer perceives what’s happening to him. By directly involving himself with Fischer’s journey, he can guide him and ensure that the end result of their plot is Fischer coming out with a positive view of his relationship with his father, and not being haunted by his past like Cobb has been for so many years. Saito keeps Cobb grounded, reminding him constantly that he has a way back to his real family, and reminding him constantly of his question early in the film “do you want to take a leap of faith… or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” Seeing Saito in limbo, like Mal seeing the top in their limbo, jolts Cobb’s memory, telling him that their world is not real, and that they need to escape.
The final part of Cobb’s journey is a recurring theme throughout. The “kick” song. The song is “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (No Regrets) by Édith Piaf, and its importance passes most people by, as it is sung in French, but its lyrics, when translated, are very relevant to Cobb’s journey. The song tells the story of someone who is letting go of the emotional weight of their past, coming to terms with their life, and choosing not to regret. The narrator doesn’t want to regret the good or the bad, sets fire to their memories, and states they are starting over, ending the song with “because my life, because my joy, today, it begins with you”. In the original song it likely refers to a new romance allowing the narrator to let go of their past, but I think alternately it refers to Cobb letting go of Mal and allowing himself to begin a new life with his children. It’s hopeful, uplifting, and representative of Cobb’s journey. The question that people should be asking about Inception is not “is Cobb’s world real”, but “was Cobb able to overcome his guilt,” and the answer to that is a resounding yes. Now it’s time for Cobb to become an old man without any regrets.