Christopher Nolan is an auteur, a cinematic genius with the ability to craft insanely complex plot lines in a way that very few do. Due to their level of depth, films such as Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006) and Interstellar (2014) are debated just as passionately years later. But even within the Nolan paradigm, 2010's Inception is arguably the most puzzling of all.
The subversive blockbuster is one of the most fascinating films to come out of Hollywood in a generation. It's philosophical and deeply labyrinthine nature is topped off with an ending that is torturously ambiguous, igniting much discussion around the true meaning of the film's conclusion.
Little leeway has been made, mainly because Nolan actively wanted it to be difficult to interpret. However, an incredibly well thought out Reddit theory by the beautifully named Dickwaffler appears to have cracked the essence of the film's ending, and in typical Nolan fashion, the answer is all a matter of perspective.
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First Things First: What Is Inception?
The concept of Inception in itself is difficult to condense, and for the sake of explaining this theory within a readable word count (and for my own sanity) I won't go into the nitty gritty details here, just the basics: Dominick "Dom" Cobb, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are con-artists (known as "extractors") who use special technology to access the subconscious of others, becoming part of their dream world.
Typically, while in the murky depths of the imagination, they perform a technique known as "extraction," whereby they orchestrate events to steal information, unbeknown to the target. The title of the film refers to the opposite and seemingly impossible process of "inception," where rather than steal information, an idea is planted.
Cobb knows this is possible due to tragic circumstances. While experimenting with the technology he and his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), lived in a shared, deep level subconscious. In order to bring them back to reality Cobb forced her into waking from the dream state.
However, the idea carried over in her subconscious, and when back in wakeful reality, she jumped to her death believing she would "wake up" to her true reality, while also framing Cobb to encourage him to join her. With the fabricated evidence she left behind, Cobb was wanted for murder, so he left his two children behind and went on the run.
High-level businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb with the intention of using his skill to break up a competing energy company by entering the subconscious of the son and heir of the company, Robert (Cillian Murphy), and convincing him to dissolve the family business. In exchange, he promises to remove Cobb's murder charge.
The much debated conclusion shows the apparent success of the mission, Cobb walking through customs to enter the US and, against all odds, being reunited with his children. But is it a dream, or is this reality? It's the question that has been consistently pondered ever since.
The Truth Is In The Totem
The antidote to the ambiguity lies with Cobb's totem, the spinning top, which is shown painfully up-close as the credits roll. The crux of the theory centers around this totem, Cobb's relationship with it and his actions at the end of the film, which all provide a resounding explanation.
A totem is an object, unique to each individual, that behaves normally in the dream world, but abnormally in reality. So for example, you may have a dice with two faces with the number two. The totem is used as a "reality check" to ensure that you are not inside someone else's dream; using our example, the objects peculiarity would result in the architect of the dream creating a standard dice with the numbers one to six.
But, crucially, Cobb's totem is different. His spinning top is the opposite of what you would expect; it acts abnormally in the dream world, and normally in reality. This appears to defeat the object of a totem, as an architect would create a spinning top that eventually topples, rendering it a fault reality check — so why does Cobb use a functional top as his totem?
As a highly skilled "extractor" familiar with dream worlds, Cobb's reality check is in fact different. As the theory astutely points out, when someone becomes aware that they are dreaming, the lucidity allows that person to manipulate reality. Cobb isn't looking at his totem to see if it topples. He's actively manipulating it in the dream world, to keep it spinning! If it topples despite his best efforts, he knows he's in reality. This also explains why he always stares at it so intently.
Note regarding the theory that Cobb's totem is his wedding ring: The theory disputes this being true for two reasons. Firstly, it wouldn't fit the criteria of being abnormal in reality and could be recreated. Secondly, if this was the case, Cobb wouldn't feel the need to always check the spinning top — all he'd have to do is glance at his finger.
The Inception Ending Finally Explained
This is a game-changer when it comes to the ending. After arriving home and being reunited with his children, Cobb spins the top. It spins and spins, but the film ends before we are shown the outcome. The problem is, we've been looking in the wrong place all along; the test is redundant, because the top will only continue spinning in a dream if Cobb is attempting to manipulate reality to make it so.
Instead, Cobb doesn't perform his dream-like Jedi mind trick. Instead, he spins, sees his children and decides to embrace this reality. His reality. Regardless of whether it is real or imagined. As he walks, the top will fall over whether this is reality or not, because Cobb isn't there to manipulate it. So, what does this mean for the ending?
This may come as a disappointment to those who prefer concrete answers, but it means the ending is entirely subjective. The one tool we thought we had to frame a debate is redundant, and we'll never really know whether this world was real or not.
Let's end with the words of Nolan himself from a speech given at the Princeton University (reported by The Guardian last year) where he explained the nature ending, in addition to a philosophical view on reality. He said:
"The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid."In the great tradition of these speeches [to undergraduates], generally someone says something along the lines of ‘chase your dreams,' but I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t believe that. "I want you to chase your reality."