This film has more heart and soul than anyone is giving it credit and I deserve part of the blame for that. The general critical narrative for Inception has been that it's a film that features boundless creativity, a great imagination, and a pulse pounding plot; but sadly lacks the emotion to truly involve your heart along with your mind. Upon a second viewing of the film, I think we've got it all wrong. Inception is a film that beams with humanity and features a simultaneous affront and encouragement to its viewer.
In fairness, I think that Christopher Nolan is partly to blame for such a misinterpretation of his own work. The truth is, there is just too much going on within this film to be fully experienced in just one viewing. I'm not saying that it's too complicated, but perhaps too dense to reward a viewer it's fullness with just a single screening; at least it was for me. While I'm still in awe of the ideas at play and the visuals put on screen, my second viewing was more a revelation of themes and heart. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't fighting back tears, but I was touched by several themes that spoke to me in ways I hadn't thought about in my first viewing. It has helped me to reconsider the film, and I hope that you consider them as well. Let me explain.
For me, the film's central dramatic struggle was to keep hold of reality. For the most part, this means that our characters want to know if they are in the real world or are in a dreaming state. Although it also stands in for the central idea of inception; are these my real thoughts after all? It provides for great tension in the film, as it's a nagging problem for Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as we see him constantly spinning his top to remind himself of reality.
Upon first watch, I felt the Mombasa scene was more or less a throw away sequence intended to show how some have become addicted to the dreaming. In retrospect, it provides a sharp contrast and a strong argument against what would become the major theme of the film. With all that 'shared dreaming' has to offer; the extended lifetime, the creativity, and the experiences; it's not reality and therefore inferior, a shade of our real world.
In Cobb's final confrontation with his wife Mal he must confront the decision of spending a practical eternity with her in their own world ("I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go") and desiring to return to the real world and see his children*. Ultimately, Cobb declares to Mal, "Look at you. You're just a shade, a shade of my real wife. How could I capture all your beauty, your complexity, your perfection, your imperfection, in a dream? Yes, you're the best that I can do. But, I'm sorry, you're just not good enough."
When Saito offers Cobb the possibility of clearing his name in return for inception, Cobb asks what assurances Saito could give. The reply is "none" that he would have to take him on good faith. Saito offers, "Dare you take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone." Cobb decides to take the job, hoping the reality of seeing his children again would be better than becoming old and filled with regret. Similarly, when Cobb and Saito (now an old man) both meet again in limbo, a remarkable exchange takes place,
Saito: You remind me of someone... a man I met in a half-remembered dream. He was possessed of some radical notions.
Cobb and Saito have a vague remembrance that their current world is not reality, that reality was awaiting them, but they would both be required to die for it. There are clues, evidence (the spinning top, vague remembrances) and doubts about what is real and not (and ultimately the film still leaves room for doubt), but it will require faith in order for them to meet reality. It's not a math problem or a scientific experiment, but a journey.
Am I saying that Inception is a Christian film? Certainly not. Both seek to speak to the truths of our existence, and in that way they are indeed similar. The film's acknowledgment that there are not only clues to ultimate reality, but also doubt about our reality, makes it surprisingly relatable (especially in our postmodern context). Even more so, the films embracement of the necessity of faith in order to experience the realities of life, makes it thoroughly human. In that sense, I think it speaks not just to Christians, but to anyone who has experienced life. Appropriately there is room to doubt for those who look for it (does that top keep spinning?), but Cobb's and Inception's embracement of the real and rejection of the dream (making it very Matrix-esque), symbolized by Cobb's journey to his children, is a full on emotion and humanity.