There are a ton of theories being tossed around the Internet about the ending of Inception, the two biggest debates being whether Cobb was still in a dream or did he in fact return to his children in the “real world.”
The ending of Inception is meant to leave you thinking and questioning the nature of reality. The important question is not “Is Cobb still dreaming?” – What is important is the fact that the character of Cobb goes from being a guy who is obsessed with “knowing what’s real” to ultimately being a person who stops questioning and accepts what makes him truly happy as what’s real.
But people want more concrete answers than that, so here you go:
After two viewings I can tell you that from the moment that Cobb and Saito (seem to) wake up from limbo, Nolan very purposefully shifts the film into an ambiguous state that leaves it somewhat open to the viewer’s perception and interpretation of that perception – two big themes of the movie, coincidentally enough.
From the moment Cobb and Saito wake, there is no more dialogue between the characters and few shots or images that would concretely explain or prove one interpretation. Is Cobb still dreaming and his team and family (and maybe Saito) are all projections? Or is it the job completed, everyone is back in reality and everything is happily ever after? There are a few pieces of “evidence” that we can certainly address:
- Was Saito truly powerful enough to make one phone call and end Cobb’s problems or was that just Cobb in limbo projecting his subconscious wish to go home? You can argue logistics all you want, but if it’s said that Saito is a powerful and wealthy man (he bought a whole airline on a whim), then there’s reason enough to infer that he could bend the legal system for Cobb. Rich powerful people bend laws all the time.
- Is there something up with that immigration agent or is he just an immigration agent? After two viewings, the conclusion should be that the immigration guy is just a guy. If he’s staring at Cobb, it’s because his job is to look people over and scrutinize them. Would you want immigration letting people through without face-to-face scrutiny?
- Did Cobb’s father (Michael Caine) arrange to meet him at the airport or is he there because he’s Cobb’s projection? At this point we’re reading way too much into things. There is a phone on the plane, so Cobb could’ve easily arranged for pickup. This was also an intricate plan they were hatching, so arranging for airport pickup would probably be on the to-do list.
- In early dream scenes Cobb is wearing a wedding band that doesn’t appear in the “real world” scenes or the end scenes in the airport – does that mean the ending is “reality?” Details like that are certainly strong evidence that there is a real world and that Cobb does live in it at times – such as when he isn’t wearing a wedding band.
- Does the fact that Cobb uses Mal’s totem mean it doesn’t work as a totem and therefore he never knows if he’s in reality or not? Again, we’re reading a little too deep into things. The only people who know the weight and feel of that totem are Mal and Cobb, and since Mal is dead, Cobb is the only one left who knows the totem’s tactile details. So yes, he could certainly use it as a measure of reality, the totem was not “ruined” by him using it.
- At the end, Cobb’s kids seem to be the same age and are seemingly wearing the same clothes as they were in his memory of them – is it “proof” he’s still dreaming? As carefully documented by our own Vic Holtreman, at the end of the film Cobb’s kids are wearing similar outfits to the ones he remembers, but their shoes are different. As for their ages: if you check IMDB, there are actually two set of actors credited with playing Cobb’s kids. The daughter, Phillipa, is credited as being both 3 and 5 years old, while the son, James, is credited as being both 20 months and 3 years old. This suggests that while it might be subtle, there is a difference between the kids in Cobb’s memories and the kids Cobb comes home to. That would suggest the homecoming is in fact “reality.” But feel free to debate that.
- Will the spinning top keep spinning or was it about to fall over just before Nolan cut to black? Sorry, we will never know for sure, although it does start to wobble and it is never shown doing that in the dream world. Each of us will take away a guess – kind of the point of that final shot.
At the beginning of the film, after the first job Cobb’s team tries to pull on Saito, we see Cobb sitting in his hotel room alone, spinning the top and watching it intently, gun in hand. This is a guy who is ready to blow his brains out if the top keeps spinning, in order to “wake himself up.” That’s how obsessed and paranoid he’s become.
Throughout the film, Cobb continues to obsess about spinning the top and verifying reality – however, at the end of movie, he spins the top and walks away from it before he can verify if it stops spinning or not. His kids come running in and Cobb couldn’t care less about about the top or “true reality” or extraction/inception anymore. He just wants to be with his children, in whatever place he can be with them. That emotional connection and desire is “reality” enough for him.
In the end, Cobb walking away from the top is a statement in itself that also completes the arc of his character. In a way, the movie is its own maze designed to plant a simple little idea in the viewer’s mind: “reality” is a relative concept.
UPDATE: Christopher Nolan himself has endorsed our interpretation of Inception‘s ending.
Bravo, Mr. Nolan. You’ve gotten us thinking and talking. I leave things there – hope you enjoyed our explanation and look forward to hearing all the wonderful discussion continue.