Saw it a second time tonight (with my brother and sister-in-law, who hadn’t been yet), and have a much clearer sense of the film this time around. Most of the things that were bugging me as inconsistencies turn out not to be; I just hadn’t caught the explanations that cleared them up. (Things like the distinction between the dreamer and the subject of the process — I had assumed they were the same person.)
(Which isn’t a spoiler, if you just flinched, thinking I’d given something away. I’m talking mechanics there, not plot.)
Definitely spoilery thoughts below the fold.
Having taken a second look, I’ve come around to the side that says the “external layer” (i.e. the parts that weren’t framed as the Fischer heist) is actually reality, and not another dream. I have several reasons for this, starting with the fact that you do see and hear Cobb’s totem wobble at the end; when you see it spin in a known dream-space, its motion is steady. More importantly, if I start from the assumption that the external layer is a dream, I have to ask myself how that works, and neither answer I can come up with is satisfactory:
1) We see the totem fall over when Cobb’s in the hotel after the failed Saito extraction, which indicates reality. However, after Yusuf puts him under briefly in Mombasa, Cobb runs into the bathroom and tries to spin the totem, but it falls on the floor. We don’t see him spin it again until the very end of the film (barring the flashback of his inception on Mal). So it could be that the external layer was reality, but everything from Mombasa onward is a dream — he hasn’t woken up yet. If that’s the case, though, you’ve got to explain why the rest of the film goes the way it does, and I don’t see a clear structure to answer that.
2) Cobb mentions that his totem was originally Mal’s. Arthur says that letting somebody else touch your totem defeats the purpose, because then they could fake it in a dream. The external layer could therefore have been a dream from the start (including the falling-over bit), if it’s Mal’s dream; she knows the totem already. But that doesn’t work, because the idea of Cobb being stuck there only works if it’s his dream — otherwise they could just “kick” Mal awake and the thing would start collapsing around him. Or just shoot Cobb; unless he’s heavily sedated (which we have no evidence for), he’ll wake up instead of falling into Limbo. Finally, if the hidden point of the film was that the entire thing was an inception effort staged by Mal from actual reality, to convince Cobb to wake up, then I don’t think we would have gotten that ambiguous ending. Either it would have succeeded, or there would have been clear indication that it failed, and Ariadne would have been arguing that point somewhere in the process. So I think the “it’s all a dream” interpretation requires too much reading-in on the part of the viewer for me to buy it, personally; you have to bring too much to the table in order to make it work.
So why the “lady or the tiger” ending? Two reasons that I can see. First, it’s just a generalized point, saying that you can never be absolutely certain that reality is real. Second, even if that is in fact reality, Cobb walking away without seeing his totem fall is a sign that he doesn’t care whether he’s in a dream or not: he’s seen his kids’ faces again, and that’s all he really wanted.
It’s still possible that Ariadne is trying an inception stunt on Cobb, though. (Which I hope is the case, though I’m not entirely certain; it would mean the title concept gets iterated threefold, which is 50% niftier than just twofold.) It’s a bit hard to say for certain because of how Nolan handwaves the functioning of the process; we know the subject isn’t the same person as the dreamer (which is what I thought the first time I saw the film), but can there be more than one subject? I think so, given that the subject’s role is to populate the dream with projections, and Cobb’s projections (Mal and the kids) keep showing up even when Fischer is the ostensible subject. So Ariadne, with or without the help of Arthur et al, could be taking advantage of the depth on the Fischer job to try and get Cobb past his own issues. I’m not sure if this is the case or not, though like I said, I hope so. Either way, I don’t think it requires that the external layer be a dream organized by Mal; that can be reality, and she can be dead, and Ariadne can still be the thread leading Cobb out.
Or her name could simply indicate that Nolan wanted a good name for a female maze-architect, and “Ariadne” sounds nicer than “Daedala,” even if its implications are slightly off.
There are a few things that still don’t quite hang together for me. What happens between Cobb leaving Mal in Limbo and showing up on the beach by Saito’s house — why is he unconscious in the surf? Why is Saito old, when he’s been in Limbo for less time than Fischer was? And how did Cobb and Saito get out of Limbo? I guess everybody else cooled their heels in the top layer of the dream for another six days until the scheduled time-on-plane was up — they said they’d have about a week there, and there wasn’t any kick planned from the plane — and maybe Fischer’s subconscious stopped attacking them, but what about the other two? You see Saito reach for the gun, but the script doesn’t specify whether dying in Limbo will wake you even in cases of heavy sedation. Or maybe they just chilled there, reminding each other that it wasn’t real so they’d wake up with their brains still functioning, until the time was up. I’m not sure.
But there were things I wasn’t sure about after the first watching that got cleared up by the second, so I’m willing to grant this might be more of the same.
Any way you slice it, it’s still an intricate, thought-provoking movie, with lots of bonus snarky lines (mostly from Eames) and eye candy (particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt rocking the three-piece suit), not to mention a female lead (Ellen Page) who actually uses her brain. So even if I can’t fit all the bits together, I enjoyed it a lot.