'Inception' Ending Explained: Are We Still Dreaming?

‘Inception’ Ending Explained: Are We Still Dreaming?

It has been ten years since I left a premiere night screening of Christopher Nolan’s heist film Inception. I have been troubled by Inception’s confusing, contested ending shot. It’s a photo that has sparked several discussions, led to many of us taking shaky puffs on a metaphorical cigarette as we study over every frame in search of explanations, and left us constantly rewinding into the long night as we hold onto every last moment in the hope of some significant insight.

Since Inception’s premiere in July 2010, its conclusion has been discussed extensively, but has it ever received a conclusive explanation? Even though I don’t believe there can be a definitive solution (and I think this is part of the idea), I believe it’s time you sat down and listened to the explanation for the Inception ending that I have clung to after spending ten years processing it and molding it in my lizard brain.

The Ending

The Ending

Let’s begin with the basics. We have to start with the cold, hard facts in a film as cerebral, twisted, and arcane as Inception. The unconscious image of Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), appears from someplace (a ceiling panel?), just as Fisher and Eames are about to complete the task. Air ducts? Given the height of the surrounding mountains, was the air indeed thin? Who knows? Fisher gets shot, too.

Fisher’s attempts to regain consciousness are unsuccessful, so Ariadne, the designer of this dream world, persuades Cobb to take her into limbo, also known as the unbuilt dream space existing within the new subconscious, to retrieve Fisher. Fisher’s consciousness would have stayed trapped because of the drugs keeping him in this dream heist, so Cobb agrees.

As “they” work through “their” concerns, a voyage into limbo offers a terrifying, emotional meeting between Cobb and Mal. (I use quotation marks because, as the film has already established in earlier sequences, Mal is a projection of Cobb’s mind, thus in reality, Cobb is having a last-minute therapy session with himself.)

The crew disembarks from the 10-hour trip from Australia to Los Angeles after Ariadne successfully recovers Fisher. Cobb stays behind in limbo to rescue Saito, whose injuries also left him limbless, but I don’t have time to tell you about that in detail. The fact that Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles (Michael Caine), greets him at baggage claim is due to Saito using presumably dubious backchannels to have any arrest warrants that had previously prevented Cobb from coming back to Los Angeles dismissed.

Cobb can finally glimpse his children’s faces and hug them when he and Miles arrive at their house. But before he does, he is forced to test the integrity of everything by spinning his totem, a top that Mal once used. The top is still spinning as Cobb hugs his kids, and the screen darkens.

Cobb’s Totem

Cobb's Totem

Back in 2010, this is where we all freaked out together. Cobb, was he in reality or not? Or was this some dream deception, as suggested by the fact that his unique totem defied gravity? It has taken the tremendous time and effort to explain why the top truly topples, even if we can’t see it. 

One of the most current ideas is that Cobb’s wedding ring, not the top, is his true totem and that the fact that he is wearing it in the concluding scene (as opposed to not wearing it in what we assume to be nightmares) is unmistakable evidence that he is in the real world. In the meantime, the enigma, Nolan didn’t give a flying flip if the top tipped over or what the conclusion meant.

Ultimately, I believe that attempting to explain the finale while focusing on the top, the ring, and any mention of totems is a significant misstep. Do I trust Cobb to reveal his reality to me? Rather than “Did the top fall over?” is the fundamental question the Inception conclusion wants us to respond to. Although Inception appears to be a collective effort, Cobb’s journey is at its core. 

Due to Cobb’s struggles with his wife’s death and attempts to elude the authorities, Inception is also full of implications regarding his reliability and mental stability. Many signs throughout the film lead me to conclude that what Cobb perceives as truth after Inception is not reality but rather the product of his complete detachment from reality and his forgiveness of himself for exposing Mal to falsehoods that irreversibly altered her.

Saito, Cob, and Arthur

Saito, Cob, and Arthur

Part of the core of the debate that Cobb must be believed to comprehend the conclusion is found in two early interactions between Saito, Cobb, and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). At dinner in the first dream heist, Cobb informs Saito that the most resilient parasite is an idea. The mastermind thief adds that once a thought enters the brain, it’s tough to get rid of it. 

Cobb’s prior argument is echoed by Arthur around 15 minutes later in the first act of Inception, who argues that it is impossible to implant ideas because “the subject’s mind can always trace the source of the thought.”  

These two statements are the only things I can think of now as a spectator. For the remaining two hours of Inception, I will be considering where the thoughts the film wants to plot came from in my head, and I will be cautious since those ideas can spread like a virus. Two fundamental guidelines in Cobb’s field of work serve as the second pillar supporting his dependability as the concluding key: Every dream begins in the middle of the action. (Ignore the unresolved prologue; didn’t this movie’s plot start in the middle of an absolute dream Cobb was having?) Another person cannot touch a man’s totem. Cobb’s two totems—one of which is, theoretically, his wedding ring—were both taken from or given symbolically by Mal.

Whether Or Not To Trust Cob?

Whether Or Not To Trust Cob?

One of the beautiful things about Inception is that it encourages you to doubt what you see on screen. Cobb’s background serves as an anchor for the whole narrative, drawing us into his plight and giving us hope that he will be able to overcome his obstacles. To his team, us, or both, Cobb repeatedly demonstrates his lack of reliability. Cobb doesn’t reveal this crucial detail to his team until the first level, even though he knows the possibility of falling into limbo when playing any of the dream levels.

 What if Cobb determines the team will successfully execute the “Mr. Charles” gambit on the second level? The following conversation between Arthur and Ariadne serves as an excellent illustration of why one might think Cobb is considerably more suspicious than he lets on:

Ariadne: “Who or what is Mr. Charles?”

Arthur: “It’s a gambit designed to turn Fisher against his subconscious.”

Ariadne: “And why don’t you approve?”

Arthur: “Because it involves telling the mark that he’s dreaming, which involves attracting a lot of attention to us?”

Ariadne: “Didn’t Cobb say never to do that?”

Arthur: “Mm. So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.”

Cobb only tells Ariadne a piece of the narrative of his and Mal’s stay in limbo, which is the accurate kicker. The catchphrase Cobb implanted in Mal’s head to lure her back into reality, “Your world is not real,” isn’t revealed to us until the third act, when Cobb and Ariadne make their way back to limbo. The most ubiquitous concept is displayed after a whole movie is spent wondering what’s wrong with Cobb and whether he’s going to break, endangering the mission as his shattered psyche risks flooding the dream levels. After all this, all I can think about as Inception comes to a close: whether or not the world I see onscreen is real. Don’t you regard the same thing?

Life Or Dream?

Life Or Dream?

It is believed that Cobb has shed all of his former problems by the time he arrives at his house from LAX and goes to hug his kids. He has let go of the vengeful shadow of his wife that continues intruding on his mind, he is not wanted for murder, and he can hug his children. But wait—when Cobb finally gets to see his kids after a long absence, they don’t seem to have changed at all from his memories. Strange! Furthermore, it spins even after he walks away from the top. Moreover, Cobb’s integrity as a storyteller has already been called into question by these two last puzzles. There is only one question to consider: Is the world Cobb is witnessing, his home, actually natural?

Cobb spends the whole film analyzing, unpacking, going over, and attempting to come to terms with his experiences. Cobb allowing himself to see his children after letting go of Mal rather than being free from legal repercussions is the reason he can see their faces at home. It’s feasible that Cobb will have to process his separation from his children and the guilt that will likely follow him into this new dream (and I think the conclusion is based on a dream, not reality).

Dreams seem so real. They follow the natural principles that govern our world to varying degrees but also have a surreal character. Our reality, ideas, feelings, the day we just had, and so forth are all things we process during dreams. We cannot possibly keep onto the sacredness of dreams after we awake. We may devote valuable time to analyzing the significance of dreams and considering the lessons they provide for us. Whatever they may appear to be, those messages and solutions originate from within ourselves. We interpret our reality and our thinking. Inception is, told, Cobb’s dream.

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