Still Puzzling Over Inception?

Last night we watched Inception again and afterwards I jotted down these rough and rambling thoughts inspired by my continued attempts to figure out the ending one way or another. I change my mind every time I watch it!

Inception provides an interesting twist on the ‘brains in vats’ movies, such as the Matrix series (ie, how do you know you are not a brain in a vat right now?). Like such films, Inception also deals with classic metaphysical questions about appearance vs reality and how we can know the difference. Working with a sophisticated, futuristic interpretation of Descartes’ classic skeptical question – How do you know you aren’t dreaming right now? – the imaginary world of Inception presents us with a complex series of interwoven experiences representing both appearance and, we assume, reality.

As the film progresses, the narrative develops in such a way as to make the viewer increasingly unsure of whether certain moments are reality or dream states. The ambiguous ending is very clever; this is what keeps viewers coming back to the film. Does Cobb make it back to ‘reality’ – if indeed that’s where he was in the first place – or is he stuck indefinitely in some deep level of a ‘dream inside a dream’? Viewers have gone over the clues with a fine-tooth comb trying to come up with a definitive answer … because this curiosity, this desire to know the truth of the matter is natural to us. It matters to most of us to know that we are living in reality, and not a construct of mere ‘appearances’. Besides, we all love a good puzzle.

I think that whether you are happy to say that a film like Inception is ‘open to interpretation’ and leave it there, or whether you keep watching and searching for clues, says a lot about you, whether you have an inquiring mind and how much faith you have in the notion that there are objective truths ‘out there’ to be discovered; that is, although we don’t have all the answers about ourselves and the universe, there is an objective fact of the matter, independent of us and whether we yet have the mental faculties or technology to see or prove it.

But, even if this is your world view (it is mine), in the realm of fiction we really can have inconclusive states of affairs, possibly making the continued puzzling over what really happened to Cobb in the end quite pointless (though no less enjoyable). If the artist who created a particular imaginary world does not intend to answer certain questions raised within the narrative – What happens to x? Did x wake up or are they still dreaming? Is this reality or just the appearance of reality? etc. – then can there ever be any ‘correct’ answer to that question? In other words, suppose the creative minds behind Inception don’t themselves ‘know’ whether Cobb ends up in reality or a dream, they fully intended to leave the ending truly open; does it then make any sense for others to ‘solve’ the mystery?

This is related to an important question raised in Philosophy of Art: once in the public domain, is a work of art independent from the artist; does it now have a life of its own? Should the ‘correct’ interpretation of the work accord with the artist’s intention (whether or not we know what that intention was) or is any plausible interpretation, so long as it is supported by the internal features of the work, equally capable of being the best or ‘correct’ interpretation? It seems odd to say that, for example, the correct interpretation of Inception’s ending could ever be different from what the filmmaker intended. But it is of course always possible that in intending to leave an ending open to interpretation, a filmmaker might still have inserted clues into the narrative – perhaps some of them inadvertent – as to whether Cobb has made it back to reality or not. An interpretation of the film might be perfectly coherent and consistent with everything the audience sees, yet not be what the filmmaker intended. But I do think that when looking for ‘clues’ to support such an interpretation, we may be in danger of reading more into a film than is really there.

I am not sure what the filmmaker’s intentions were in the case of Inception. It doesn’t really matter in terms of my enjoyment of the film. What I do think is wonderful about the ambiguous ending is that it drives home just how difficult those metaphysical questions regarding appearance and reality are. If the plot had been neatly and definitively wrapped up one way or another, the audience would be less inclined to think any further about these matters.