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Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Escaping the Maze (Part 1)

21 Sep, 2010 | Brian

I doubt that I have any kind of overall thesis for what Inception is about, except that it carries, to me, the themes of simulation and existentialism. Let me be clear that I don't think existentialism is depressing; just the opposite. We create meaning from events that have no intrinsic meaning, because that's what we do - finding patterns and connections where there aren't any. This is based on perception, which is where simulation comes in. We have the remarkable power to forge profound meaning out of purely simulated experience. We yearn for catharsis, and create for ourselves wondrous cathartic plays.

Make of that what you will!

This may one day become a full-on essay like the "others," but I won't create it that way. I'll do it piecemeal as time and attention allows (both of which flag regularly). Right now I'll handle the main question.

By main question of course I mean whether Cobb was dreaming the entire film. I am sure he was not. I'll explain that in more detail momentarily. The spinning top at the very end was clearly supposed to be ambiguous, and I was pleased to see it wobble. If had been spinning steadily it wouldn't have been ambiguous! Look at Cobb. He's not even interested, which confirms that ambivalence is the right answer.

But what a strange thing to say, that not knowing whether you're in a dream or in reality is the right frame of mind. The film presents two contrasting end-points. The first is limbo. In limbo there is full lucidity, in the sense that there is free exercise of the creation-perception of dreaming. Edifices rise at a whim. Cobb and Mal built anything they wanted, like gods. The second end-point is in a safe, within a vault, within a bunker, within the frozen shoulder of a mountain. The subject, Fischer, is in a funny state. He voluntarily entered this dream level (I'll call it D3) from the previous level (D2), so in a sense he's aware of dreaming. Yet he wasn't aware that the rainy city (D1) was a dream, and he went into D3 on false pretenses. From the point of view of Fischer, what is real and what is a dream is entirely confused.

Now what happens to the characters in each of these environments is telling. In limbo there is stagnation, discontent, widening gaps, and secrets locked away. In the bunker there is healing, reunion, bravery, and secrets brought into the light. Where are Cobb and Mal's children in their limbo paradise? Importantly, although Mal claims the kids were a projection, nobody seems to be projecting children - all the projects look like grown-ups to me. Compare that to the central role the parent-child relationship plays in the bunker vault scenes.

This gets around again to the main question. I'll take this from two different angles.

If Cobb is dreaming, it means Mal was right, and her suicide should have woken her up. At only one level above Cobb, she could then have arranged a kick to wake him too. It shouldn't have taken more than an hour or two of dream-time, which is contrary to our information - it has been months and months. This could be explained if Cobb is, say, three levels deeper than "awake," but this goes directly against the rules and evidence in the film, where achieving D3 is considered impossible. I don't think a D6 or D7 fits. (And I definitely won't go down the path of supposing the film is lying to the audience the whole time.) The lack of a kick could also be explained if Mal simply decides not to do it. However, her logical motive would be to vindicate her suicidal decision, i.e., she'd want to kick him.

But even without a kick, it's hard to support a claim that Cobb is asleep for so long, and so deeply, that the amount of dream-time we see on the screen is credible. Unless, perhaps, we are meant to take cinematic cuts literally, and translate movie time to real time on a one-to-one basis. This would mean Cobb was only dreaming for two hours. It would also mean we are meant to disregard major film-making conventions. That's an interesting line of thought, but leads ultimately to the wheel-spinning conclusion that my writing this blog entry is not really happening.

The only option left is that Mal was wrong. In other words, she's really dead and Cobb was actually awake when she killed herself.

I think that seals it, although as I said I'll attack it from one additional direction. Supposing Cobb is dreaming at the end, then he's dreaming all the way through, and all the characters are his projections. We ought to assume the storytellers want us to arrive at this interpretation, or want to make it a supportable theory. Unfortunately, there are multiple scenes that don't involve Cobb, and projections interacting like that goes against the evidence. The projections aren't speaking to each other, or making plans, or undergoing character moments. Further, from a storytelling perspective, scenes without Cobb are giant detractors under this theory: they're just slowing down and befuddling the tale. Maybe the storytellers' aim is to befuddle the audience, but I am skeptical of that.