TAGS inception
CATEGORIES Unscripted

The last thing you expect when you go to see a summer blockbuster these days is to be asked to actually think. But that's just what director Christopher Nolan is demanding of audiences with his latest mind-bending tour-de-force, 'Inception,' which blew away the competition on its way to a $60 million haul over the past weekend. Audiences, it seems, actually like to be challenged once in awhile. For most people exiting 'Inception,' though, there's still one lingering question waiting to be answered:

What just happened?

If you left the theater scratching your head over what you just saw, don't worry, you're not alone: The meaning of 'Inception' is already a topic of fierce debate around office watercoolers, in barbershops and across the Internet. Even New York (the magazine, not the city) is trying to figure out what 'Inception's' convoluted dream-within-a-dream-ad-infinitum storyline is trying to say.

The last thing you expect when you go to see a summer blockbuster these days is to be asked to actually think. But that's just what director Christopher Nolan is demanding of audiences with his latest mind-bending tour-de-force, 'Inception,' which blew away the competition on its way to a $60 million haul over the past weekend. Audiences, it seems, actually like to be challenged once in awhile. For most people exiting 'Inception,' though, there's still one lingering question waiting to be answered:

What just happened?

If you left the theater scratching your head over what you just saw, don't worry, you're not alone: The meaning of 'Inception' is already a topic of fierce debate around office watercoolers, in barbershops and across the Internet. Even New York (the magazine, not the city) is trying to figure out what 'Inception's' convoluted dream-within-a-dream-ad-infinitum storyline is trying to say.

Well, don't schedule that appointment with your shrink just yet, because we're here to help soothe your troubled mind as best we can. Of course, it's clear that Nolan specifically created 'Inception' to ask questions, not answer them, so we figure the best way to begin unraveling the puzzle is to take a look at just what some of those lingering questions are. With the warning, then, that some major spoilers are about to follow, we'll start off by asking the one big question on everyone's mind:

What's with the ending? When expert mind-thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally reunites with his kids in the film's last scene, filmgoers are treated to a rare triple-twist ending, all in the space of just one second. Out of habit, Cobb spins his top, which is his touchstone to reality, as it is mentally programmed to spin endlessly in dreams; as the camera pans, fans realize first that the top is still spinning, but just as they realize everything is a dream, it begins to wobble. And then, as they begin to realize it's about to fall, meaning everything is actually real, Nolan cuts to black, 'Sopranos'-style, leaving whiplashed viewers debating whether Cobb ended up in a dream or in the real world.

So if it was a dream...? If it was real, of course, then there's not a whole lot to strain your brain over. But if that top is still spinning on some cutting room floor, then a whole new slew of questions open up. Are the other members of Cobb's team figments of his subconscious, or are they sharing the dream with him? If they are constructs, does that mean everyone is a construct, even Cobb's wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and his kids? And if it is a dream, whose dream is it -- is it Cobb's dream, or has another architect tapped into his mind and constructed everything? Which brings us to our main question:

Is Cobb the real target? The plot revolves around Cobb's efforts to implant an idea in the mind of a business scion (Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy). But is Cobb the real target of inception? There are some details that suggest this is the case, namely the fact that multiple characters, from Mal to Ken Watanabe's Japanese mystery man Saito, insist that Cobb "take a leap of faith," along with repeatedly warning Cobb that he will become an "old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone." It seems to us that even while Cobb is running around trying to pull off his inception scheme, these ideas are being planted in his mind just as subtly as anything his team is doing to Fischer.

Is Cobb still in limbo? Of course, there's another answer, one suggested within the film itself: that Cobb is still trapped inside the limbo of his own mind. The repeated appearances of his (supposedly?) deceased wife Mal culminate in a showdown where she insists that he is still dreaming and she begs him to leave the dream world to join her, the same thing she said when she apparently died by leaping to her death. Cobb, of course, claims throughout the film that Mal was mistaken, leading to her accidental suicide, but what if she's right and everything in the film is simply another dream within Cobb's endless limbo? This seems possible, especially when you ask yourself this:

Why does Fischer end up in Cobb's limbo? Several times in the film, Cobb's subconscious spawns elements -- mainly Mal, but also an entire train at one point -- within the carefully constructed dreams they are visiting. But how? After all, Cobb isn't the architect of those dreams -- Ariadne (Ellen Page) is. Nor should he be able to populate the dreams himself, as that is done by the dreamer, which is Fischer for most of the movie. This climaxes in Fischer's descent into limbo, which, as it happens, is the same limbo that Cobb and Mal previously constructed during their endless exile there. But think about it: Unless they are in Cobb's dream, this limbo should either be one created by Ariadne or, since she hadn't designed that far down, more likely by Fischer's subconscious, if in fact it wasn't just a blank slate to begin with. Yet both Fischer and later Siato end up inside the version of limbo created in Cobb's dream -- something that shouldn't happen unless Cobb himself is the one dreaming. Which brings us to perhaps the ultimate question:

Is Mal still alive? If Cobb is still stuck in his dream, it means one of two things: either he and Mal are both still dreaming and have yet to wake up from their initial experiment or they have woken up only for Cobb's mind to have become permanently lost. In either case, Mal would still be alive, which may explain her actions throughout the film. Though Mal is the Latin word for evil, and she seems to embody this by killing a number of characters, it may be that she is actually the hero of the piece: having escaped from the dream, she is the one now using inception to try and get Cobb to wake himself as well. Just as she had to free herself by jumping from the building, though, Cobb has to decide to wake himself, which is why instead of just killing him as she does to the other dreamers (Ariadne and later Fischer), she is trying to persuade Cobb to kill himself. She knows that if he doesn't take this "leap of faith," he will, in fact, end up "old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone" -- alone because she is awake while he still sleeps on. If this is true, then the whole movie is really Mal's complex attempt to trick Cobb into thinking the idea of committing suicide and waking is his own idea -- an attempt that, in the end, fails.

Of course, this is the beauty of 'Inception': There's no definitive answer for anything, meaning that each person will have to decide for themselves what the truth is. Like the characters themselves, then, the only way to figure out 'Inception' is to take a journey into your own mind to find your own answers -- a journey that may, in the end, be Nolan's greatest achievement.

Watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page on Moviefone's Unscripted