I don’t think that I’m going too far in saying that Christopher Nolan’s last two films were very heavy on themes of philosophy. In fact I can say that this is actually a flaw in the Dark Knight as he spent so long trying to dial up the difference in Harvey Dent’s carnation of Kantian rationality with Bruce Wayne’s Hegelian reasoning that the film ran twenty-five minutes too long and knocked it out of Oscar contention. I think that Heath Legder’s Joker, not unlike his best supporting actor predecessor (Bardem’s Anton Chiggur); act as a point of reference for amorality, which actually earns some minimal sympathy from the audience as both the Coen’s and Nolan illustrate the difference between amorality and immorality. But the Dark Knight’s best moments come not during Nolan’s explorations of moral philosophy, but the sweeping panoramas, the tensions (particularly the game theory exercise on the two boats), and the great performances by everyone not named Christian Bale. Furthermore it was a technical masterpiece that won several technical Oscars while being shut out of the marquee nominations.
Inception is only somewhat different. Instead of an action movie with themes of philosophy, it is an all-out exploration of postmodern philosophy with some great action scenes. And I think Nolan even one-upped himself making a film even more technically breathtaking with this one. Analytically, despite several smaller themes throughout the 148 minutes, the over-arching theme, to me, is that of blurring the line between perception and reality. Cobb’s sub-conscious projection of Mal, a character who appears in almost every dream, is obviously not real in the sense that she is a living breathing organic organism, but she is “real” in the sense that she is involved in almost every plot turn, and more pertinent to this discussion, she is real in the sense that Cobb treats her as if she exists. He makes decisions based on how they will affect the not-so-real Mal.
To take this one step further, real Mal was consumed by the idea that her perception was not reality, so much so that it eventually killed real Mal, only to spawn “real” Mal who has accepted her perception (limbo) as reality and is comfortable with that. I think what Nolan is using “real” Mal to do is show Cobb’s subconscious struggling with his own grasp on reality.
Inception explores this question. Unlike the Matrix, which, based on Beaudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, argues that nothing is real and one cannot truly be free until they learn that, Inception merely asks the question “What makes real?” To me, this question comes from the ideas of Juan Luis Borges, which not-so-coincidentally was the primary influence on Beaudrillard’s philosophies. So, instead of coming outright like Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus in the Matrix who illustrates that despite perception, your reality is not real, Nolan is asking a simple question: If one perceives reality to be real, does it even matter if it’s not? Or in other words: at what point does perception become reality? See, real Mal questioned reality and paid for that with her life, but in Nolan’s world, she didn’t so much die, as change worlds. In one world she questioned her own perception of reality; in another she had no choice but to accept her perception as real. This theme is the overarching theme of Inception.
This brings me to the ending (or at least my own interpretation). I’m fairly certain Nolan wanted to leave the question as to whether or not the top was still spinning ambiguous. It definitely looks like it’s going but there are several clues that it might not be, in particular sound designer Richard King’s audible clues that it might be slowing down. It should be mentioned that King won one of those aforementioned technical Oscar’s for the Dark Knight for sound design in that film, and could very well win again for Inception. King is obviously a master and it’s not a coincidence that the audience hears SOMETHING happening to that top as the camera cuts swiftly and without mercy to the title card. Nolan wanted us questioning what was happening. However, there was one very conspicuous person unconcerned with the fate of the top and that was Cobb. He spun the top, not unlike he had done several previous times, but unlike those previous times, he walked away not bothering to question his own perception. And this, I believe is the coup-de-grace: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Whether or not that top falls and Cobb is truly home to his same-exact-age-as-the-were-before-he-left children, or if he is in a dream created by Ariadne to believe he’s home is irrelevant. He is home because he perceives he is home. Unlike The Matrix in which perception is merely a figment of someone’s imagination, Nolan is saying that Perception=Reality. What we believe to be real is real not on the merits of its existence, but it is real because of our acceptance of it as “reality.” It’s a question that seems to be asked throughout the film and I think he doesn't use the ambiguity to leave the audience guessing, but instead to illustrate that any conclusions the audience come to are irrelevant as Cobb has accepted this perception as reality.
I get a boner for this type of philosophical exploration and I think this is one of the reasons I find myself thinking about the film more and more as the days go by. Of course I could be way off and trying to inject my own overly-academic mental masturbation into a 160-million-dollar action flick, or I could be onto something. At this point, I think I’m onto something not for any other reason that I perceive things this way, hence—at least in my own deranged consciousness—it is real.