My mind is blown. It is. Just not quite as blown as I was expecting it to be.
I blame myself. I think not only like a critic but like a writer of fiction. I see a crazy-ass idea up on the screen in the opening moments of a film, and I can’t help but think: What would I do if I’d had that crazy-ass idea first? Where would I take it?
And I think not only like a critic but like a crazy-ass person who simply loves movies with such a passion that I’ve seen an unhealthy number of them (and read too many novels, too). I see the Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece even when a filmmaker goes out of the way to disguise it. And the thing is, I’m not sure Christopher Nolan goes out of his way to disguise his Chekhov’s guns here. (Chekhov’s gun? You know: If someone’s gonna get shot in Act III, there better be a gun on the mantel in Act I. And if there’s a gun on the mantel in Act I, someone sure as hell better get shot with it in Act III.) Good writers hide their Chekhov’s guns well. I’m not sure if Nolan has done that here.
It’s like this: Whether you know what goes into crafting a story because you’ve crafted stories yourself or because you’ve just seen so many of them that you’ve internalized the structure, sometimes it’s hard not to see the man behind the curtain, the puppet strings making it move, the underpinnings holding it all up.
It sounds like I’m being hard on Nolan, and I guess I am: I expect a helluva lot from him. Memento will surely go down in cinematic history as one of the most astonishing movies ever made. It’s a hard act to follow. Nolan’s done pretty damn well following himself. And he has done it again here. Mostly.
If there’s one major flaw here, it’s that Inception is more satisfying on an intellectual level than on an emotional one. Not that I’m really complaining about that: for here is a big-budget studio summer blockbuster that’s about ideas. This is a rare, rare thing. And this rare thing is thrilling, thinky without being stuffy, smart as if being smart was the easiest, most natural thing in the world, which is truly exceptional when Hollywood appears intent on going out of its way to dumb everything down these days.
And when I say this is a movie about “ideas,” I do mean ideas themselves: How ideas — just someone whispering something to you in the right way at the right time — can have a crude, subtle power like nothing else. How ideas can change us to our very core. Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige) drops in little thinkbombs here about the “raw infinite subconscious” and how “true inspiration is impossible to fake”… and then he goes about plumbing the depths of subconscious infinity and faking true inspiration. Inception is stunningly brilliant in how it does what it does, even if what it does isn’t quite as grand in scope as I might have expected — hoped, even — from Nolan.
So: Meet Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio: Shutter Island, Body of Lies). He can get in your head and steal your thoughts. It’s not exactly the most legal kind of work, and he’s ready to get out. Inception is the most audacious example of the one-last-job heist-capade, made even more audacious by dint of the spin on this last job: Cobb is hired not to steal an idea but to plant one, hired to do an inception rather than an extraction. This is, it is explained to us, a vastly harder thing to do.
Working with Cobb are a fascinating team of idea-stealers, most prominently Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Women in Trouble) Arthur, Ellen Page’s (Whip It, Juno) Ariadne, and Tom Hardy’s (RocknRolla) Eames. Watching these four bounce off one another leaves you with the exhilarating sense that if this is the future of The Movies, if these are the faces and the talents we’re going to be seeing for the next 30 years onscreen, that is a very good thing indeed.
Nolan is at his most beguiling here playing with, in the meta sense, movies as dreams, messing with the physics of narrative time, reminding us on multiple levels that movies are not to be trusted beyond our experience in the moment of them, as we’re watching them, that they are fleeting dreamscapes that begin midscene — we never do remember how a dream starts, do we? we just start remembering in the middle of a dream — and often end by leaving us hungry to know more, as if we awaken just prior to a resolution. Nolan’s tweaking of narrative time makes watching Inception like falling into a black hole: time is relativistic here, slowing down the closer we get to the event horizon of the movie. And that event horizon is forever out of reach: you never, ever stop falling into a black hole…
If I’m feeling just the teensiest, weensiest bit of disappointment that I can’t feel more for Inception, I am at least comforted by the fact that I am absolutely going to be thinking about it endlessly for days. And then I’m going to see it again, in an attempt to get to that event horizon, however impossible that may be.
This is a really well written review, especially for a woman.
I like you.
Golly wow, Banksy! On behalfs of da wimminfolks everahwhere, thank you!
My comment is this: Does no one else have a problem with the fact that Fischer is basically having his mind raped and his company potentially destroyed so that Cobb can get his precious life back…? Sounds like a thoroughly unsustainable premise to me.
But, then again, as Banksy would (I’m sure) be only too happy to point out, I’m just a dumb woman. Who cares about morality? More importantly, what the heck could I possibly have to say about the god Nolan and his ooh-so-epic thrillers…?
Banksy, from the bottom of my heart, go troll somewhere else.
Blip: Who said Cobb was supposed to be a likeable sort of fellow?
Also: Blip’s comment is starting to verge on the spoilerish. Please don’t post any plot details without a spoiler warning.
Not seen it yet, but is it a bit like The Prestige where it’s really good but you’re a little surprised and disapointed that it’s not more stunningly bamboozling?
How very strange that you should mention Chekhov’s gun in relation to this film. I’ve not seen the film yet, but the premise about invading someone’s dreams immediately reminded me of “Get Off My Cloud”, an episode of the ’70s BBC science fiction series Out of The Unknown. And coincidentally, in that episode, a gun was introduced inside the main character’s dreams as as young boy. Which of course becomes a key plot point later on, when as an adult he invades the bizarre dreams of a well-known scientist in order to try and bring him back from his comatose state.
Oh, and another coincidence: the reason the gun was required in the young lad’s dreams was that he was having nightmares about the Daleks, in a rare Doctor Who crossover.
I keep hearing stuff about the 3rd act – you can see the gun? That’s disappointing. Thanks for the spoiler free review, I can’t wait to see it!
Great review as always MaryAnn. I can’t wait to see it. What’s most interesting about it is that you’ve discribed how i used to feel about The Prestige. It does feel cold upon first viewing and a bit dissapointing.
But it just got better and better with repeat viewings to the point where it’s now it my top 20 of the last decade.
I’m kinda expecting the same with Inception.
It all sounds positively Brechtian! Count me in. :)
This is the only movie so far I MIGHT be interested in seeing in the movies (but, more than likely, will wait for the Blu-ray).
Don’t normally comment on stuff, but this was a spectacular review. I’m thoroughly impressed, gender not considered. Nolan does seem to prefer a cold approach to character development, prefering seething undercurrents that never seem to ammount to more than anger, jealousy or indignation. But his ideas are always top notch.
I’m still trying to avoid any and all details about this movie until I see it (I still remember how much fun it was trying to figure out what the hooey ‘Following’ was about knowing nothing more than that it was by Nolan) but I’m glad it has a green light and I’m looking forward to seeing how your take on it compares to mine.
I do have one question though, and I’m very sorry if it was already answered, is this worth seeing in Imax? The Dark Knight looked amazing in Imax but it looks like the local theatre bumped the prices up again. *Grr*
i saw it in non-Imax (with MaryAnn, full disclosure) and i don’t thinki t needs Imax. but then, i don’t think most movies other than nature films need to be in Imax.
doesn’t the Paris folding over like pages in a book bit look amazing in imax though?
^it might, but i didn’t see it in Imax, so i have no comparison. it looked amazing at any rate.
The biggest accomplishment of this movie is that the trailers only give you a hint of where the story is taking place. Unless you read something in advance, and most reviewers are being very careful in what they have revealed in their reviews, you are really in for a complete suprise when you watch this for the first time. Afterwards you’ll be wanting to revisit Mr. Nolan’s dreamworld again as soon as possible. Best movie of the year so far and probably the first real best picture nominee that has a shot of making it.
I have to say, this flick is definitely worth seeing once. But I do think this film will go over people’s heads and make them go “WTF?” (Some people are going to expect “Dark Knight”-style action, drama and a definite catharsis. “Inception” lacks the last part, unfortunately.)
I give credit to Christopher Nolan for coming up with something this conceptually-challenging and studio-unfriendly. He used his superb cast well, used his budget efficiently, but it left me unsatisfied. In terms of good Nolan films, I prefer “The Prestige” over this. (And his two “Batman” movies trump that.)
I hear ya. This movie also left me half-blown. It made me feel kinda blue. I think i’m gonna wait til the buzz dies down a little bit, then i’m gonna go into an empty theatre and hopefully fully blown.
Hopefully I don’t blow too early, or I’ll end up sleeping through the rest of it.
A very good thriller, but the lack of any real thematic depth beyond the plot and the fairly thin characters keep it from hitting the heights of Nolan’s previous work.
All I’m going to say is that this is a story about a wounded Fischer King who needs to be healed by a man who rolls with Arthur for anything to be right again; and all you need to remember is that Ariadne knows the way out of the poisoned blood labyrinth away from a demon of your own making whose name means “BAD” in every language, but for our purposes will be Mal because here she’s French.
And I’m glad that Nolan decided to remember that “show don’t tell” is only really a Koan, not a rule, because everyone in my theatre applauded at the end so maybe we’ll get more movies like this, because I love stories about Orpheus.
Oh that last shot of the movie. At the midnight premiere of the movie everyone in the audience was practically screaming at the screen at the implications of that last shot. But boy howdy did it have everyone talking.
My group and I walked out @ 2:30 a.m. and headed to a 24 hour family restaurant because we were just too wired to get to sleep. And I must say, the theorizing and discussions and general conversations inspired by the movie afterward did serve to enhance the overall experience.
We all started flipping out over the concept of Limbo, and generally wondered whether or not the human mind can handle multiple lifetimes worth of experience without suffering from abject insanity.
[MAJOR SPOILERS HERE]
So, anybody else think Cobb himself was actually the target of the eponymous inception? This would mean the basic movie world is level one, limbo is level five, and the whole thing was actually orchestrated by Michael Caine’s character as an attempt to help Cobb to cope with his wife’s suicide? The children aren’t real. They are the carrot Cobb dangles in front of himself to give meaning to her death. The phone call at the end was to Caine, not to immigration, to let him know that the inception failed.
Just one of many theories that were tossed about after the movie. Definitely my favorite of the year so far. Can’t wait to see it again!
Basically, the first thing I thought the very first time someone mentioned “a dream within a dream” was that the whole movie would end up being a dream itself. It seemed so glaringly obvious to me that I figured there was no way it would actually end up that way, but it appears that it did.
I also wonder whether the Marion Cottilard character actually existed at all in the real world, because for all of Cobb’s explaining about how important totems are, we never see his: he only ever uses hers. (Meaning, that it, that the spinning-top totem was actually only ever his.)
Oh, hey, and after all, the Impressive Clergyman *did* say that marriage was a dream within a dream…
Aha! It was all in Fred Savage’s head!
Seriously, I’m SO very tempted to try to start an internet rumor that (AGAIN, MAJOR SPOILERS!!) after the credits, there’s a scene where the top falls over.
…Granted, I didn’t STAY until after the credits, so it’s possible it might be the exact opposite, come to think of it. Or Thor’s hammer is found or something.
*SPOILERS* i think everyone is missing a lot of the audio effects in this film… particularly in the very last shot.
and while i thoroughly enjoyed the film, and at the time was very caught up in it, reflection over the past few days has left a rather dissatisfied feeling… i thought the cast was amazing and the effects completely germaine to the movie, but i sort of feel like it was almost *too* easy to follow. i’d be totally willing to see it again just to see if there was something i missed, thematically speaking, and whether the end is what i think it is, or not.
did that make sense?
About that totem — why didn’t we ever see Cobb’s totem? For most of the movie I was convinced the primary dreamer was Mal, and that she was trying to find a way to get Cobb back to her and their children.
In the end, I felt that nothing in the film was “real,” if such a thing could ever be believed in again. Cobb himself seemed to realize, in the end, that he was in yet another level of dream-state — he seemed to accept it, though. Once he saw his children’s faces, he was totally lost to it.
And to “Cam” — I like your analysis of the character names. It can hardly be a coincidence (and Ariadne is hardly a common name).
I enjoyed the movie. It’s definitely for thinkers which is nice.
[SPOILER DISCUSSION AHEAD]
I think Cobb was dreaming the whole time. There are a number of reasons why but the main one is when he saw his children at the end of the movie they were in the same position wearing the same clothes he always saw them when he was remembering them. If he was in the real world they’d have been wearing different clothes and been in a different position when he found them. I know that’s the case whenever I come home to my kids. The other giveaway, IMO, is the top kept spinning.
Some other reasons are; at the beginning he was trying to steal information from Saito one minute and the next minute Saito is all friendly and hiring him for a job. Seems a little dreamy to me.
Also, when Mal was “apparently” out of her mind and trying to convince Cobb to die so they could end the dream or go up a level, who’s to say she wasn’t in her right mind and it was Cobb that was denying reality?
Considering the movie took place in 2 hours 20 minutes, Cobb could have dreamed everything we saw in a fraction of that time.
[SPOILERS ARE FUN YOU SHOULD READ BELOW FOR SUPER FUN]
The top wobbled, though. The dream-totem top shouldn’t wobble, that was how you knew it was a dream. It’s not as clear-cut as people are making it out to be; it could all have been a dream, but maybe not — and if it is, it’s a dream that’s breaking down or the top wouldn’t wobble. It’s very, very ambiguous. Is his wife real? Are the kids real? Maybe his wife was right and they’re still in limbo and he needs to die one more time to be with his family for real. Maybe that’s an allegory. Maybe everything was on the level. It’s a big Maybe.
**MAJOR FREAKIN SPOILERS**
One interesting tip-off was during Cobb’s flashback to his wife’s “suicide”. Mal says something along the lines of, “I’m asking you to take a leap of fate…etc.” Those were the exact words used by Saito at the beginning of the movie – meaning that he was really just a projection of Cobb’s subconcious.
Mal was actually a real person. The whole movie she was attempting inception on her husband to get him to question his own reality and awaken. But Cobb had already dug himself too deep. Mal was at wit’s end, trying to murder all the high-level projections (but never Cobb, not until the very end, when he said to her face that she was lie).
It gives me an eerie feeling the more I ponder it. I think they’re both in some state of limbo now. Notice that Ariadne killed Mal within a very deep dream level. So Mal is stuck dying in her own personal limbo (or hell, rather) and Cobb is living in his “happy ending,” completely oblivious.
Regarding the top – I don’t think the totem method was foolproof. The characters imply that to plant an idea one needs only give a rudimentary nudge, then leave it to the person to twist it out of proportion. Hell, the first thing Cobb talks about is the insidious nature of ideas. The totem always toppled because Cobb was so convinced that he was in the real world. By the end of the film, he was just too far gone and I believe the spinning top was a hint for the viewer’s sake.
Reality is at your own discretion. Very twisted implications, very thematically reminiscent to the endings of Memento and The Prestige.
I loved this movie. I don’t see it as being as complex as some of you do. I followed it pretty well and figured the end was the real world. Especially because the totem was wobbling(plus the audio hints at it).
I thought the hallway fight with Arthur was damn clever and fun to watch, but was iffy about some of the other action scenes.
Great acting all around, with effects that supported the movie instead of taking it over.
If it’s as deep as some of you people think, then I’m clueless.
I would love to see it again right away, but that’s not possible.
I think I finally get the point of Inception and I think Nolan has pulled one over on us big time. I’ve continued reading critic and audience reviews on the web and can’t help but notice how much everyone is pouring forth their ideas about the meaning of the movie. Consider that the plot of the movie was to “plant” a non-original thought into someone’s mind while having that person think their thought is original. Looking at all the supposed original thinking, mine above included, regarding the meaning of the movie, I think the “inception” is the one Nolan has planted in us. When considering the movie as a whole, and the top at the end that wobbles but doesn’t stop, Nolan new how we’d discuss and dissect every possibility about the meaning of the movie with each of us thinking we have it figured out. But I think that whether Cobb was in the real world at the end or not is irrelevant to Nolan. Nolan planted each and every possibility in our minds to see what we come up with as though it’s our own. It’s not, Nolan put it there. That’s Inception. If I’m right about this, and this was Nolan’s intention all along, then from the relationship of the director and his audience, this is possibly the most brilliant movie of all time.
I agree with those who feel that Cobb is still in a dream state at the end of the film — and I agree that the children appearing in the same position and in the same clothing as they always had in his memory is the primary clue here. Those kids can’t look that way in reality. I think Cobb KNEW he was in a dream, which is why he hesitates before looking at the children’s faces (as if he is finally giving in and allowing the dream to claim him).
It makes some sense to think that Cobb’s father (Michael Caine) is the one who arranged the “inception,” trying to get Cobb to come to terms with Mal’s death. Remember, he was the one who introduced Cobb to Ariadne (who becomes the architect of his escape from the maze). Then again, the whole thing could just be a series of Cobb’s deeply nested dream states. Who knows where he is at any given time?
The point seemed to be that there is really little difference between dreams and reality. In a sense, we create the reality in which we live, which is very much like the way our subconscious creates dreams. Eventually, what does it matter? Cobb can have his children back, and he can forgive himself for Mal’s death. That’s what he needed — a way for his subconscious to get him back to what’s really important.
I really liked it, but I was kind of disappointed that Cillian Murphy wasn’t playing the Leonardo DiCaprio role. Murphy has a more fully developed range than DiCaprio IMO, and I think he would have brought a lot more to the Cobb character.
Yes, perhaps Mal’s inception is the totem itself–the idea, viral in its intensity, that we can ultimately tell the difference between “reality” (whatever that may be) and not. Which of course confounds the question of whether Mal is real herself. Throughout the movie you assume that Cobb is the architect of Mal’s dream…but we never know that do we? Of the two of them, which one was dreaming and which was the architect? This matters because of the question of whose projections are chasing whom? You never see anyone chasing Mal around, yet Cobb is chased nonstop…which suggests that in all his scenes, he is the intruder on Mal’s dream, and he got lost in it by using memories as the architect, which he says you shouldn’t do, lest you get lost, which he did. But as someone above pointed out, Mal might have turned the tables on him and planted the idea of the totem into his mind–by “hiding something away”, which he promptly searches out, just like his victims.
Ariadne is a name from Greek myth–she helped Theseus escape the Minotaur’s maze. This might support the idea that his father somehow entered Cobb’s (and Mal’s) dream to rescue Cobb by introducing Ariadne to him, which means at the end he isn’t dreaming…but Nolan cuts before the top falls, suggesting that either 1) he doesn’t want us to get too smug about that and/or 2) to call attention to the fact that the top *can’t* tell you the answer to the question of whether or not you’re dreaming, because you never know.
Having researched dreams for a while, however, there are actually some clues: in dreams you can’t read very well, and you usually don’t think about dreaming itself. We tend not to think about *thinking* when we’re dreaming. Of course lucid dreaming is an exception to this, and the reading thing is not an absolute rule–moreover, while dreaming, you won’t necessarily notice that you can’t read very well (unless you’ve trained yourself).
But ultimately, when Natural Selection gave us the ability to see things without seeing them, it created a whole set of weird problems for our brains, which have only partially effective solutions for them. One of these is the idea of “reality”, which our brains label some experiences and not others, but the criteria for this heuristic are obscure to say the least. We will always be befuddled by the fact that no matter how we try we can’t escape our brains.
Awesome movie, great review by MJ, though unlike MJ I think it was utterly bamboozling (far more than the Prestige, which was just convoluted, not mystifying). Nolan doesn’t simply make the whole movie a dream–he does something far more sinister: he makes you wonder whether *everything* is a dream by not answering the question, and even makes us question what “dream” and “real” actually mean. As the debate clearly shows, there is no answer to this question.
Very, very interesting theory iakobos. :)
I didn’t dislike this film, though I found it a little too much for one picture. Problems are solved as soon as they are raised – twice before the audience is made aware they are problems. It felt rushed. Also, I was not happy with the ending.
I left the theater wanting to see the prequel. I want to see the heist move about stealing ideas and the repercussions that abound from that.
I saw Inception on Monday, and though I really enjoyed it, I walked away feeling like a lot of other critics did: good movie, but where was the heart? I think I expected the underlying themes of the film to be traditional themes found in Sci-Fi or Fantasy films. The movie didn’t touch on humanity like most sci-fi films(maybe it discussed what it’s like to lose someone, and whether memories of them make them real), and there were no ethical discussions about what it means to violate someone’s mind (except toward the end of the film). So even though I liked it, I spent a full day trying to figure out what exactly Nolan was trying to say.
Then I read Devin’s piece over at CHUD. Devin argues that Inception is really about the film making process, and each character represents a player involved in making a movie. When I started looking at it from that perspective, everything made sense. Even the continuity errors made sense. It explains why both Cobb(the Director)and Fischer (the audience)can influence a dream level when it’s not his dream to manipulate. It explains the cryptic ending. It made me admire Nolan even more as an artist. Of course, I may have loved it more if it discussed more about morality or humanity.
Here be SPOILERS (although if you’re this far down the comments thread…)
I agree that the pleasures of this film are chiefly intellectual (no bad thing) – but there was a fantastic emotional climax for me: Cillian Murphy’s scene with his father in the dream-hospital.
It could be that I’m just a sucker for father-son relationships in film, but for me that was the pay-off of the story. From my memory Cobb had nothing really to do with the creation of the Fischer dreamworld either – he wasn’t the architect, or the forger, or even the chemist.
Assuming of course that the other “people” in the film aren’t just Cobb’s own projections, natch.
Well, I just got done reading another article from Cinemablend about Jungian Archetypes, so now I’m really confused. I still like the idea that the film is about art, film making, story telling and Nolan’s journey to create and ultimately inspire people. That still doesn’t mean there aren’t other meanings within this meaning. We can have dreams within dreams right? So I like the idea that each character is one of Cobb’s Jungian Archetypes, and that the entire movie is Cobb’s dream that ultimately leads to his catharsis. But these characters can also be Nolan’s archetypes as a film maker too. He is a producer, a writer, and a director. He’s also worked as an editor. Film making is his catharsis, and we the audience walk away with new ideas and emotional responses.
I’m starting to love this movie the more and more I think about it.
This is how I’m feeling, too. I commented to friends after I saw it that I was going to be thinking about it for days. That was Saturday, and I’m still going over things in my head.
And now, having read all the theories and concepts here, I NEED to see it again, with all of those things in mind! I can’t wait for the weekend.
Great job MJ ! Thank you.
I like iakobos’s theory.
My two cents: the cast/acting was great, idea facinating, effects superb. Sound mixing was off a little (explosions/gunfire too loud and Saito’s voice too low), too Hollywood at times, and a smidge too long.
*did I write “too” too many times?*..sorry…
“too Hollywood at times…”
Yeah, I’m a bit surprised that no one has mentioned the heavy overlay of car chasin’, shoot ’em up, blow ’em up action sequences, which I found distracting from the psychic drama and paradox of the film. Are dream states really full of that sort of thing? I think not. In my experience I usually awake from the dream when things turn violent or life threatening. Then again I have not mastered the art of inhabiting a dream at will, be it mine or that of someone else.
They explained the gun chase in the film. The team didn’t expect them either but Fischer had had his subconscious protected.
Plus, I’m not sure Nolan’s view of a dream is quite the same as ours. For one thing I’ve always thought dream time was faster than real time, I remember going to sleep once and then felt like I woke up in broad daylight just seconds later. Maybe it’s different in lucid dreams.
Samuel L. Jackson shows up at the end of the credits, inviting Cobb the Dreamer to join the team.
OK, I am wondering if I am dreaming this stuff up, natch, but I saw a bit more in the film than critics and comments seem to be discussing.
Did anyone notice Sato speaking of “waiting for a train” and “taking a leap of faith”? Things that only Mal should have known of?
Did noone think it odd that in Cobb’s memory of Mal’s death, she mysteriously appears on *the opposite side of the street* to himself, standing on the window ledge of *their shared hotel room*?
Did anyone else get a slightly creepy love vibe from Sato staring lovingly into Cobb’s eyes when awakened from the quadruple-layer dream web, before being startled into action?
Did anyone think it likely that Cobb himself was the victim of a Mr. Charles, trying to get him to turn against his own subconscious (crazy Mal)?
I’m not sure how to interpret all this, but it looks like the film is suggesting Sato was an Extractor/Forger performing an Inception of his/her own, at the least, if not Mal herself. What he/she was after though – to ensnare Cobb finally? Attempt to free him from a dream-prison? Something else?
I agree with Drave that the movie is about Michael Caine helping Cobb get over the guilt of his wife’s suicide. If you remember, Caine is the master inceptor. Also Caine conveniently finds the architect to help build the dream (scene where she hooks herself up to share Cobb’s dream).
The Fischer job was an elaborate inception by Caine to lead Cobb into resolution of guilt (Cobb feels that he has to pay a price/penance. He must accomplish this task to see his children again) at least subconsciously.
I believe Cobb is still dreaming at the end as the totem continues to spin and doesn’t topple. What’s most important however is that Cobb doesn’t care if he’s dreaming or not; only the audience does. If you pay attention to the last scene, you will notice that Cobb spins the totem and immediately walks towards his children not paying attention to what the totem does. I’m not sure when the dream begins but I think it is after he initially sees Caine. As before that the totem falls when spun. Note: I think Nolan purposely parallels the real story of Caine and Cobb to the ruse story of Fischer and his father to give us a clue to what the movie is really about.
AWESOME movie — even better the second time, when you have a better idea of what’s going on and can pay more attention to the details.
Rather than echo many of the comments already made here, I will leave you with this bit of mental floss: It seems to me that the question “Is Cobb dreaming the entire time?” is, in the long term, going to be as hotly debated as the question “Is Deckard a replicant?” In both cases, there are many arguments to be made pro and con, and only a statement from the man himself (Nolan vs. Ridley Scott) will definitively answer the question.