First let me introduce myself since I am new to your forum. I just saw the movie today for the first time, am a fan of Nolan's work, but rarely if ever post on any boards. I chose to post here because the title of this board seemed to me to be the best and most respectable forum that my brief Google search for discussion on the meaning and ending of the film provided. Obviously the film has generated a great deal of buzz and discussion and I had some conclusions from the film that I wanted to throw my two cents in about. It is of course only my opinion, and the continued discussion about this film is what makes it a great piece of work. If you disagree or agree with my post feel free to comment, but as I am normally pretty busy I won't often have time to respond. But I will check back occasionally to see if anyone thinks my take had any merit at all. Thanks.
My take on Inception:
First I think this movie is primarily about two major themes: 1. Loss/Grief and how we cope with it. and 2. The relationship between dreams and reality and how that is influenced or interrelated with theme #1.
I remember reading somewhere that Nolan's work on this project had taken 10yrs to complete, so if correct, it's 'inception', pardon the pun, began somewhere around the time he was making Memento. That movie also deals with loss and the internal workings of a crippled mind, and I postulate that Inception is Nolan's furtherance of an exploration on those themes.
I think that the entire movie is about Cobb dealing with his wife's death and feelings of guilt and responsibility over it (or his loss of her possibly by divorce, as another poster has theorized). I think that the loss drove Cobb mad and drove him deep into some catatonic state of multiple realities, and that the movie is about him recovering from that loss and regaining a bit of his sanity. I am speculating that the other players in the movie are there to help guide him back to a level where he can exist happily or perhaps prep him for an emergence from his grief back to the real world. I think Cobb is still dreaming at the end of the movie but the therapy, for lack of a better word, is the movie's story in him letting go of his wife's death and getting ready to come out of his dream state and back to the real world, or at least the reality that he knew before he went insane and became trapped in his memories.
For purposes of the story the technology of entering a person's mind had to be introduced to explain the presence of all the other characters, who I postulate are actual people assembled by Michael Caine's character to form a team to save his son-in-law so that he can be a father to his children. I think that the technology initially allowed Cobb and Mal to enter a dream world together where ultimately she did come to question "what is real?" and it drove her mad and she committed suicide, and Cobb blames himself for that (that is pretty clear in the movie). He needed to let go of his subconscious creation of her and recognize that it was only a construct of his memory in order to escape the multi-layered 'reality' that he created for himself to cope, but which had eventually driven him mad. Fischer was introduced as a parallel story of loss to show Cobb, and the audience in a hint, that the inception in Fischer's mind parallels his, but the real inception was always occurring in Cobb the whole time. Watanabe and Page's characters were the guides that needed to construct the roadmap to his subconscious and discover the meanings behind his loss so that Cobb himself could confront them within. There is much more that I could write about their characters and purposes, but I think they were the key players in freeing Cobb's mind. Watanabe was the architect of the mission that would allow him to achieve the goal to see his kids (and escape the exile of a insane mind) if he would make the leap of faith, and Page was the neophyte whose purposeful curiosity was needed for Cobb to reveal his pain and confront his grief so that he could start the journey home.
Closing with the top spinning at the end exists for several reasons. First, it leaves a huge question mark that spawns all the great discussion here about movies that have uncertain endings (maybe like "rosebud" at the end of Citizen Kane?). It puts the viewer in a position to question reality and continue the discussion of that theme (it is also good for repeat viewings and that is good for Hollywood business). Secondly, I think the question of the top may also be a metaphor for Nolan and his journey as a filmmaker (And to a lesser degree perhaps a third minor theme, the movie may represent the creation/process and questioning of reality that movies represent as was theorized on the Chud post).
But I think that by the time this movie came to fruition Nolan was stuck with a dilemma in his evolution as a filmmaker. He started with independent films that required thinking, but after Batman he also became known as a huge box office draw for action movies with great special effects and big name stars. If Nolan had simply shown the top topple or continue spinning instead of showing it spin and wobble a bit he would have left a decisive answer that would stymie further discussion about the reality of Cobb. Furthermore, if Nolan had at any other point introduced explicitly that the entire journey was through Cobb's mind, dreaming vs. reality, and about his loss and grief then the movie would be obviously about Cobb and his relationship to his wife, which would have people asking why the movie needed all the action and special effects. He could have made another version of What Dreams May Come and expounded on the relationship more, but he is also a huge box office action movie creator in addition to being a thinking person's movie maker, and he needed to merge the concepts and justify the fantastic scenes that were the initial draw for many viewers and part of his current role as a big budget, big Hollywood studio movie maker. By leaving the ending in doubt he not only continues his theme about 'what is reality?', but he also reconciles two approaches to film in a brilliant way that somehow marries the concepts of a thinking person's movie with important questions to the big Hollywood blockbuster. I think he did it much better than the Wachowski brothers and showed what a brilliant creative person he is.
Anyways, that is my take. Sorry for the long, verbose post. I hope I didn't waste your time if you read all of this. Obviously there is much that can be discussed about dreams as metaphors, the hero's journey, and all of the details of the film. This was just my take on the big picture of the story and what the ending meant. Keep up the good discussions. ~T