In Inception, Christopher Nolan manipulates narrative structure (Following, Memento, The Prestige) and plenty of actiony sequences like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It’s a mix of both Nolan modes.
Guilt thematically unites Nolan’s entire body of work. It’s more easily seen in Leonard from Memento, and, in my opinion, best seen in the character of Det. Dormer in Nolan’s atmospheric, economic remake, Insomnia.
On a thematic level, Inception adds to an awareness of guilt and its effect on characters, principally represented by Cobb’s feelings towards his wife, Mal. In case you miss Cobb’s feelings, Ariadne, a character useless for anything more than exposition confronts Cobb about his guilt at least twice (complemented by the line: “you have to let her go”).
While we’re speaking of repetition, there’s at least three different exchanges between Cobb and Saito where we hear echoes of this guilt/regret theme: “growing old, a man with many regrets, waiting to die alone.”
The cursory sub-plot between Fischer Jr. and Sr. also brings up the theme as Fischer Jr. is released from his father’s faux guilt, which sounds a lot nicer than the truth that Fischer Jr. has been manipulated the same way Cobb treated his wife.
That final scene between Fischer and his father is played up too much – a sentimentalistic scene built on nothing substantial, only the deception of Fischer Jr. We’re told inception is possible (though every character exclaims it isn’t and then promptly offers a solution) because Cobb performed it on his wife, which the other characters and the audience react to with shock. But because of the scene between Fischer and Fischer Jr., we react to the success of the thieves’ inception with approval (even though it’s the same act of dishonesty and manipulation initiated by Saito’s greed).
The picture begins to establish an uncertainty in some of the characters’ (Cobb, certainly) ability to distinguish reality from dream. Cobb can’t distinguish reality from dream and neither can the audience at some points, making such debates one way or the other pointless. We could have been left to question the character’s familiar and perhaps deceiving surroundings.
As such, I feel that the last shot (of the top spinning) undermines the film’s greatest strength. That last shot is a nod to the filmmaker’s own cleverness; it’s not organic to the story. That last shot encourages debate over Cobb-in-reality vs. Cobb-in-dream and misses the point of the film: challenging our perception of both.
Think of a possible alternate ending: when Cobb enters the dining room, he looks around (as the audience does) since we have just left this room a few minutes before. We experience the same reaction: “we’ve been here before and do not trust our perception.”
His and our confusion heightened, Cobb looks at where his wife’s shade died then fumbles for his totem. We emotionally struggle with him, Cobb takes the top out, spins it while the camera is still focused on him – Fade Out. The end.
Thus we’re left only feeling Cobb’s confusion, that confusion between reality and dream, which has been the focus of the movie previously. In order to maintain that confusion, we should not have seen the faces of the children or had an additional shot of the top spinning, both suggest more than is necessary.
The forced-awe of Nolan’s narrative inventiveness and complexity leaves other parts largely undeveloped or hanging. The film’s logic and mechanics are so extensively discussed by the film’s characters that it corners the emotional core and allows for too many contradictions and plotholes.
It is possible to say more with less.