While we have an Inception review where you can leave comments, we’ve set up this page as a place where you can discuss the Inception ending and other spoilers without worrying about ruining the movie for folks who haven’t seen it yet.
To help steer discussion we’ve added a lengthy analysis of Inception (especially the ending) and explained why our analysis of the film fits with the story Christopher Nolan intended to tell.
Does our Inception explanation match your theory? Find out!
Many people walked away from Inception impressed. Some were confused, some were even feeling like they had their brains woken by the most exciting and thought-provoking movie experience to come along all year.
I realize that most people who saw Inception have already made up their minds about what they perceived the film to be (and Nolan will undoubtedly be proud of that). However, for those of you still looking for an Inception explanation, we like to offer a few thoughts.
We’ve organized things by category for you, in case you’re more interested in one facet of the film than another. If you want to read about specific points you can follow the links below:
- The Rules of the Dream World (this page)
- The characters and their functions
- Inception Ending Explained
So, the first thing to talk about are the rules of the dream world Nolan created for the film. With all the action that happened onscreen, it was easy to forget some of the finer details – but once the lights came up, and people had time to think, I know the question of who was dreaming which dreams certainly came up (among others questions as well).
Remember the basic premise: Cobb (the extractor) and his team are con artists, and like any con artists their job is to construct a false reality and manipulate it in order to confuse and/or fool a mark (in this case industrialist Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy). Nolan takes the classic concept of a con man a step further by making Cobb and his team dream thieves, but in the end, the basic concept is still your classic con/heist movie.
Dream Levels and Dream Time
Nolan throws a lot of fancy math at you but it’s all really inconsequential. All you need to really know are the basic concepts:
The dream within a dream process puts you into a deeper state of dreaming. The deeper you go, the further removed your mind is from reality. We all know what that’s like: the deeper you sleep, the harder it is to be woken up and the more vivid and real-feeling a dream becomes. If you’re in a deep enough sleep, not even the usual physical ques to wake up effect you, such as the sensation of falling (“the kick”) or even, say, having to go to the bathroom.
By the time you reach the Limbo state it can be so difficult to wake, and the dream can feel so vividly real, that the mind stops trying to wake at all – the mind accepts the dream as its reality, like slipping into a coma.
When you wake up in Limbo you don’t remember that there is such a thing as a “real world” – as in any dream, you wake up in the middle of a scene and simply accept it for what it is. Breaking yourself out of this cycle is extremely difficult, which is why Cobb and his wife Mal were trapped in Limbo for what seemed like decades.
Time is the other factor. The deeper you go into a dream state, the faster your mind is able to imagine and perceive things within that dream state. We’re told the increase is exponential, so going deeper into dreams turns minutes into hours, into days, into years. This is why Cobb and his team are able to pull off the Fischer job while the van is still falling through the air, before the soldiers break into the snow fortress, before Arthur rigs the elevator, and all within the span of a flight from Sydney Australia to LA.
In Limbo, the mind works so fast that actual minutes can be interpreted as years gone by. When Saito “dies” from the gunshot wound he received on level 1 of the dream, his mind falls into Limbo, and Saito remains there for the minutes it takes Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) to follow him into Limbo – those minutes in one dream state feel like decades to Saito in his Limbo state. By the time Cobb deals with expelling Mal’s “shadow” from his subconscious, Saito has begun to perceive himself as an old man.
Mal’s shadow stabs Cobb during the film’s climax, which throws Cobb back out into Limbo and onto the shores of Saito’s limbo house. When Cobb has to “wake” again in Limbo, his mind is muddled just like old man Saito’s brain. Through Saito’s memory of Cobb’s totem and some shared dialogue that included key trigger phrases – “Leap of faith,” “Old man full of regret, waiting to die alone,” etc. – Cobb and Saito are able to remember the meaningful conversations they had and that there is a reality they existed in before Limbo, where both of them had deep desires still waiting to be fulfilled (Cobb and his kids, Saito and his business). Once they remember that limbo is limbo, they are able to wake themselves up (likely with a gunshot to the head).
The Extractor – The extractor is a master con man, a person who knows how to manipulate a dreaming mark into revealing their deepest mental secrets. At heart, an extractor is a classic con man – he creates a false set of circumstances that manipulate the mark into revealing his secrets. Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) uses the same type of con man repertoire as George Clooney in Oceans 11 – only Cobb knows how to literally do his work on a subconscious level. Fancy premise aside though, the extractor (as I said) is basically your classic con man.
The Architect – The architect is the designer of the dream constructs into which an extractor brings a “mark.” Think of an architect as a video game designer, except in this case they create the “levels” within a dream, complete with all the aesthetic and tactile details. The mark (also known as “the subject”) is brought into that dream construct and fills it with details from their own subconscious and memories, which convince the mark that the dream the architect built is real – or at the very least, is the mark’s own dream.
The architect can manipulate real world architecture and physics in order to create paradoxes like an endless staircase, which makes the dream world function as a sort of maze. The dream is constructed as a maze so that A) The mark doesn’t reach the edge of the maze, realizing that they are in an imaginary place. B) So the mark runs the maze, leading the extractor toward “the cheese” – i.e., mental secrets the mark is protecting.
The Dreamer – The architect and the dreamer are not always the same person. The architect designs the dream world/maze and can then teach that maze to a separate dreamer. The dreamer is the person whose mind actually houses the dream and it is the dreamer’s mind that the subject/mark is ultimately brought into in order to to be conned by the extractor. The dreamer allows the mark to fill their mind with the mark’s subconscious, and unless the dreamer maintains the stability of the dream, the mark’s subconscious will realize it’s been invaded by foreign mind(s) and will try to locate and eliminate the dreamer to free itself.
When you start getting into the whole dream within a dream aspect of the movie, identifying the dreamer can be tricky – this is especially true when Cobb and his team start running their con on Fischer using three separate levels of dreaming. Once the tri-level dream sequence starts, one good way to keep track of the dreamers is by noticing which team member stays awake and doesn’t follow the team down to the next level of dreaming – a dreamer can’t enter a lower dream state, otherwise their level of the dream would end.
Here’s a rundown of who is actually dreaming each level of the Fischer con:
- The rainy city – Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao) is dreaming this level. Yusuf is drinking a lot of champagne in the “real world” on the plane, so when he goes to sleep he has to pee (hence the rainfall). Since Yusuf is the dreamer of level 1, he has to stay in that level of the dream, hence why he has to drive the van.
- The hotel – Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) dreams the hotel, which is why he has to stay awake when the rest of the team goes down to the snow level. When the van Yusuf is driving goes off the bridge and is flying through the air, Aurthur’s “body” is suspended in air, which is why gravity in the hotel level of the dream goes haywire – as the dreamer’s body is shifted and moved, it effects the physics of the dream he’s dreaming, since the mind (and inner-ear) is registering the change in gravity.
- The snow fortress – Eames the “forger” (Tom hardy) is dreaming this level of the dream. A question has been raised about why the gravity in the snow world doesn’t go haywire when Eames’ body starts floating in the zer0-gravity hotel. Well, you could say that Eames’ body isn’t being shook up or shifted in any way his mind (or inner-ear) would actively register or that being so deep in a dream state cushioned Eames from the effect of gravity. Or, you could say that it’s a glaring plot hole. Truthfully, it’s questionable.
- Limbo – Limbo is actually unconstructed dream space – a place of raw (and random) subconscious impulse. Ariadne drops a line early on about the fact that the extractor team can bring elements of their own subconscious into the dream levels if they’re not careful, and since Cobb has spent time in Limbo and has a raging subconscious, the Limbo space they enter includes his memory of the city he and Mal built for themselves.
If you’re more of a visual person, Cinema Blend has put together a handy graphic detailing the different levels featured in Inception:
The Mark – The mark (Cillain Murphy) is the person who the extractor and his team are trying to con. The mark is brought into the mind of the dreamer, and since the mark is unaware that he/she is dreaming, they perceive the dreamer’s world as real while simultaneously making it feel real to themselves by filling it with details and secrets from their own subconscious. The extractor uses those details and various mental prompts to steer the mark through the dream world maze, towards the mental secrets the extractor wants to steal.
As stated, the mark thinks he is still awake, perceives the dream world as real and reinforces that notion by “projecting” his conscious view of the world onto the dream – this is why projection people populate the dream cities, etc. Because of the extractor’s manipulations, the mark goes along with the faux reality of dream, ultimately reaching the point where they either realize it’s a dream, or open their mind and reveal their secrets.
Projections – Dreams feel real to us when we’re dreaming and part of the reason for that is our mind’s ability to construct a faux real-world setting for us to interact with in dreams. Often, that dream is something like a city or any populated area which has other people walking around it. In Inception, those people that the unknowing mark populates the dream world with are known as “projections.”
As is explained in the film, projections are not part of the mark’s mind – they are manifestations of the mark’s vision of reality. If a mark has been trained to defend themselves against extractors, they have a part of their subconscious which is always on guard against mind-crime in the form of militarized security which attack mind invaders. In Cobb’s case, Mal (“the shade”) is a projection based on his need to remember his dead wife. Mal wanted Cobb back in limbo – his own subconscious trying to pull him back to a place where he could “be with her.”
The Forger – As in “forgery,” Eames (Tom Hardy) is a master of imitating people’s handwriting, mannerisms – and in the dream world, even their very appearance. This is key to Cobb’s plan: on dream level 1 (the rainy city) Eames impersonates Peter Browning (Tom Berenger), Robert Fischer’s closest advisor.
Using Browning’s image, Eames subtly suggests things to Fischer that fools Fischer into creating his own subconscious version of Browning (seen in dream level 2, the hotel). The version of Browning Fischer conjures in his subconscious motivates him to run deeper into Cobb’s maze (dream level 3, the snow fortress) in order to find “the cheese” – i.e., the inception of the idea Saito wanted Cobb to plant. Basically, the Forger fools Fischer into using his own subconscious projections against himself.
Mal (and her shadow) – Mal is the character who acts as a vessel for all the more complex notions and questions about reality the film raises. Mal not only thought but felt that the world she and Cobb had built in limbo was real – it fed her emotionally and made her happy. When Cobb planted the idea that “Your world is not real” in her mind, he only meant for it to wake her from limbo. Instead, what he actually did by allowing that idea to take root in her mind was to destroy that sense of fulfillment and connection she once had – and once it was destroyed, it couldn’t be repaired.
Even with her husband and children all back together, Mal couldn’t access that emotional reality that comes with the bond of love and connection to our love ones. Because of inception, Mal couldn’t value love or connection the same way because a fake reality only offered fake connections and emotions – only she and Cobb and their love was real to her anymore. She needed to keep trying to reach some higher state where the nagging doubt would be cured and she could be happy again. And so, thinking Cobb lost in a faux reality, she arranged the hotel suicide and murder implication in order to force Cobb to follow her. The idea Cobb implanted in her led her to her death (seemingly), and the guilt of that act led Cobb to create a shadow of her in his subconscious.
At the climax of the film, Mal throws deep questions at Cobb (and the audience) asking if having faceless corporations chase somebody around isn’t yet another dream state. She questions the very nature of reality for all of us and certainly whether or not the faux reality of film isn’t its own sort of dream state – a place where fantastic things occur – an imagined place we as movie goers share and perceive differently and fill with our own subconscious views and interpretations. Pretty deep meta-thinking stuff.
Well, as an answer Mr. Nolan, I can say: only when a movie like Inception comes around to light that sort of spark in our minds. Seeing Clash of the Titans wasn’t nearly as thought-provoking, fun or worthwhile.
STILL confused about the characters, who’s dreaming when and what the levels of the dream (and how to kick out of them) are all about? Check out a second handy infographic, made by Deviant Art user “Dehahs”.
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.