Inception ending explained: Delving into Christopher Nolan's masterpiece

Clarisse Loughrey
·6-min read
Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In dreams, the mundane often takes on a kind of cosmic significance. A placid lake equals a clear mind. A key hints at new beginnings. And a spinning top? Well, in the world of Christopher Nolan's Inception, it means it's time to question your reality.

More than a decade may have gone by, but the movie's final shot – that small trinket twirling for a few seconds, before the movie cuts to black – feels no less provocative today.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief trained to enter the dreams of others and pluck secrets from their subconscious. He's asked to do the impossible: not steal a thought, but plant one.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

The mission requires him to delve deep – a dream within a dream within a dream – but carries the risk that, somewhere along the way, he'll lose his grasp on what's truth and what's trickery. In his eyes, it's worth it. His client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), has the power to clear the criminal charges against Cobb and let him finally reunite with his children.

To protect himself, he carries a totem: a spinning top belonging to his dead wife (Marion Cotillard's Mal), who now stalks him through dream space. If it spins and falls, he's in the real world. If it doesn't, he's asleep.

Cobb pulls off the heist and returns home. Before he runs to hug his children, he places his totem down to conduct one final test. It spins and spins and spins – then, suddenly, there's darkness. Credits roll. Audiences are left to wonder: is this still a dream?

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Watch Inception on Prime Video

It's the question Nolan's been asked most frequently since Inception's release in 2010. "What's funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer," he told Entertainment Weekly at the time.

It's become a full-on cinephilic fixation, cemented by 10 years of Reddit threads and YouTube analysis. The pro- and anti-dream camps are equal in their conviction.

Much of the debate centres on the top itself. It wobbles for a few seconds before the screen cuts to black. That, many would argue, is definitive proof that Cobb's in the real world. But there's a problem: it spins for almost twice as long as the other tests featured in the movie.

Others, meanwhile, claim the totem is actually a red herring. It doesn't belong to Cobb, but to Mal. As he explains to the newbie on his team, dream architect Ariadne (Elliot Page), totems should be entirely unique to their owner. Only they should know their look, feel, and weight.

And, considering Mal has developed a post-mortem habit of messing with Cobb's mind, it's hard to put much faith in the spinning top – who knows what she could have done to it.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Watch Inception on iTunes

A popular theory claims that Cobb's real totem is his wedding ring, which he only wears when he's in a dream. It's missing in the final scene. However, that doesn't quite fit with what we know about totems – all the ones we see appear both in the real and dream worlds, but with different properties. The ring is a bit of a wildcard.

Another major focus of discussion is the appearance of Cobb's two children, James and Phillipa. He hallucinates them throughout the movie, reliving his last memory of them out in the garden with their backs turned, the sunlight bouncing off their golden locks.

Contrary to belief, they do look different in the final scene. They're older (portrayed by a second pair of children) and are dressed in new outfits. But the similarity in their poses is eerie, especially after the revelation they've been busy "building a house on a cliff"– an apt description of Saito's fortress, the last place Cobb visits in the dream world.

So, who can we trust here? Michael Caine, who plays Cobb's father-in-law, has repeatedly claimed that Nolan offered him the solution.

"When I got the script of Inception, I was a bit puzzled by it and I said to him 'I don't understand where the dream is'," Caine said at a screening of the movie in 2018. "I said, 'When is it the dream and when is it reality?' He said, 'Well when you're in the scene it's reality.' So get that – if I'm in it, it's reality. If I'm not in it, it's a dream."

Surprise, surprise – he features in the very last scene.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, went on Marc Maron's podcast last year and admitted that he has "no idea" what the ending means.

Nolan has himself elegantly tiptoed around the subject. In an interview with Wired, he revealed that a definitive answer does exist – "I've always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a true interpretation" – but he'll never tell.

His brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan Nolan, warned him off revealing such secrets back when Memento was released, after he'd offered a careful point-by-point explanation of the plot to a festival audience. "You don't understand, nobody hears that first bit where you say it's really up to the viewers if you then give your interpretation," his brother told him.

As fun it can be to tumble down the rabbit hole of fan theories, to focus on whether Cobb is dreaming or not is to lose sight of what Inception is truly about.

"The real point of the scene... is that Cobb isn't looking at the top,” Nolan has explained. "He's looking at his kids. He's left it behind. That's the emotional significance of the thing."

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Whether or not it's his totem, the spinning top serves as a physical manifestation of his guilt over Mal's suicide.

As young, adventurous lovers, they made the choice to descend every subconscious layer and reach the "unconstructed dream space" known as limbo – a world of total freedom, that also threatens to erase your sense of who you are and how you got there.

To escape, Cobb implanted the idea in Mal's head that this world wasn't her reality. But, as he later explains "once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate". After they'd woken up, she couldn't shake the feeling she was still stuck in a dream.

Cobb confronts Mal and makes peace with the fact she exists as projection only. He has two children who are still alive, at home, and who need a father far more than his guilty conscience needs a mind to feed off.

According to a speech Nolan gave in 2015 at Princeton University, Cobb is now "in his own subjective reality". He doesn't care if the place he's ended up in is just another dream – it's where he feels he belongs. "And that makes a statement," the director added. "Perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."

Inception is available to watch on Prime Video and iTunes.

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