I watched the movie Inception a couple of weeks or so ago and, ever since, have been immersed, albeit passively, in the online debate about whether or not the last scene was a dream. Some of my Facebook acquaintances are rather passionately convinced that the last scene is a dream (yes, I mean you Abdallah 🙂 ).
Oh yes, if you haven’t watched the movie yet, please be advised that there are going to be some spoilers in the rest of this blog.
The most compelling reason to believe that the last scene is a dream, apart from the fact that we did not see that totem topple, is that the children are seen wearing the same clothes in the last scene as they are wearing in Cobb’s memory of them. At least, that has been the reasoning until the costume designer revealed that they are in fact wearing difference clothes.
What now? Does this prove that the last scene is in fact real? Not really. Even if we accept that the clothes are different, there is nothing to stop us from believing that Cobb dreamed up new clothing for his children. The only way we could be sure that that last scene was real is if we had seen the top topple, right?
Wrong. Apparently, and I will admit to being too lazy (optimistic?) to think of this on my own, it is possible that the entire movie was a dream. What if the entire movie occurs in Cobb’s dreams? The totem means nothing if its properties were constructed within a dream — specifically, it is possible that Cobb dreamed of the totem and constructed its properties within a dream and that we never see reality in the movie.
I find this idea fascinating. Several years ago, I read René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method . Nolan’s film brought back the ideas in that book to my mind. Descartes tried to determine the nature of reality. He did this by trying to determine what could be considered real using objective criteria. He came to the conclusion that it is impossible to objectively determine the reality of anything, except his own existence.
He starts by postulating the existence of a “deceiving god” who tricks humans into believing that things exist when they don’t (note that we can substitute dreaming for this “deceiving god”). He then tries to prove whether or not things that are perceived by the human mind are real or imaginary; he comes to the conclusion that there is no way to objectively determine whether the physical environment we perceive is real or not.
One truth that he could objectively determine was his existence. Even if all of the world as he perceived was not real and invented by this deceiving god, the fact that he was there to be deceived implies that he exists. He is able to think, even if this though process consists of dreaming up the imaginary world around him, this implies that he does in fact exit. Hence the famous “cogito ergo sum”.
Now back to Inception. How can we determine what is real and what is not? We are told we can do this using the totems. But if the totem are themselves dreamed up in a dream, there is no way of determining what is real and what is dream.
From a philosophical point of view, the last scene of the movie was the perfect ending to the film. After all, since it is impossible to determine what is real and what is dream, even if that top stopped spinning, we would still be questioning the reality of that scene.
So, I will sum up my understanding of Inception in one phrase :- “Cogito ergo sum, tamen ego vires exsisto somnium”. Or am I taking this movie too seriously?