I was watching It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia last week and the episode ended with the gang spinning a top to check to see if they were in reality or if the were in a dream. Without hesitation, I knew they were referencing the ending. I mean, can you think of a more ubiquitous ending to a modern film outside of The Sixth Sense?
This is Christopher Nolan’s action masterpiece. A movie about what happens when we dream, and maybe a metaphor about Nolan’s career as a dreamer.
But it did bring to mind the question again:
What happens at the end of Inception?
There are times when I think about this movie’s fabulous set pieces and the deft way it handles character development and exposition but when it comes down to it, the thing we talk about most is that ending to the movie.
A lot of people have differing opinions on that ending scene.
Inception just turned eight years old, and it’s crazy how much it has inserted itself into the cultural lexicon. Most of that has to do with the excellent screenwriting and directing by Christopher Nolan, which made the ending so impactful.
If you haven’t seen the movie, stop here and go rent it. Or buy it. Because once you see Inception you’re going to want to watch the movie over and over.
Today, we’re going to get the ending explained, or at least try to. And along the way, we’ll learn how giving your audience the necessary emotional payoff allows a writer (and director) to leave other things more ambiguous.
So get those tops ready…and SPIN…
Inception: Ending Explained
So what does the end of Inception mean?
I’ve divided the answer to this question into some pretty interesting sections, so keep reading to hear each side of the argument.
The Inception Ending Explained By…Me
There’s always a lot to discuss after seeing a Christopher Nolan film. Just ask us all our opinions on Interstellar!
Inception is a heist movie where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), leads a team of thieves into the mind of a man named Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy) to plant an idea that will help break up an energy company conglomerate and get Cobb a one-way ticket to reunite with his children in Los Angeles. The whole thing is paid for by a man named Saito, who wants his company to succeed, but has to have Fischer deal with him to do so.
Oh, and they need a new architect to put dreamscapes together. Enter Ariadne (Ellen Page), a newcomer into this world who can ask questions for the audience.
The plan is simple.
Just kidding, the plan is insanely complicated.
They take a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles where they go through multiple layers of dreams to get inside a safe in Cillian Murphy’s head. An insane amount of soldiers guard each layer, and the hook here is that our main characters are in such a deep sleep, that if they die in their subconscious they will die in real life.
We go from Yusuf’s dream, to Arthur’s dream, to Eames dream, and then into limbo, where there is no one dreaming. Cobb’s memories populate limbo since he’s been there before.
Along the way, we discover Cobb has experimented with these insane dreams within dreams before. He did so with his wife, Mal, and ultimately lived an entire life in the subconscious with her, only to have to kill himself to wake up. But the idea of killing oneself didn’t leave Mal, who then killed herself in reality because she always thought she was dreaming.
Mal now haunts Cobb’s subconscious, standing in his way. And often becoming the main antagonist in many of these dreams.
So how, in this crazy world of dreams within dreams, can you tell if you’re dreaming or not?
It’s a personal item you use to determine if you’re in a dream or in reality.
Cobb’s totem is a top he spins. If the top falls, he’s in reality. If it keeps spinning, he’s in a dream.
Throughout the movie, we can see Cobb spinning this top to remind himself of where he is and what’s happening.
As we reach the ending of Inception this top becomes more and more important.
Cobb heads int limbo to bail out their benefactor, Saito, after he dies in the dream and his mind travels into the deep subconscious.
Saito, who doesn’t realize he’s in a dream, ages, and lives within a fortress where he met Cobb many years ago.
Cobb sorts out life in limbo, which means understanding that Mal is just a projection in his mind, and dead in real life. Cobb lets Ariadne kill Mal, thus freeing him to go get Saito in limbo as well and sending Ariadne home.
Cobb then returns his group back to consciousness and succeeds in his mission.
As Inception ends, Cobb wakes up on the plane, learns his inception worked and walks through security at LAX without a problem.
When he returns home, he greets his kids and spins the top.
As the movie ends we watch the top keep spinning. It wavers… and then we cut to black!
If you want a more detailed explanation of the movie, check out this website, Inception Explained, which is dedicated to explaining all of it.
The big question left on everyone’s mind was “is the ending of Inception in reality or a dream?”
Did you try to Google “Inception ending dream or reality?” a dozen times like me?
Okay, let’s check out each possible answer…
The Ending Is In Reality, You Cynic!
Look, I expect this debate to hit the comments, so I’m going to make my case for the ending here.
And I’m on team “we’re back in reality.”
I think the film, like a top’s spin, is a perfect circle. We open with Cobb on the beach, seeing his family the way he’d like them to be, without him, his guilt, and with his wife. But at the end, we see them for what they really are: kids raised by their grandparent, desperate for their father’s return.
Also, the top is totally wobbling when the screen cuts to black. In every other top spin in the movie, it is a clean spin. It’s as if there’s no law of physics applied to the top. This one clearly meets the grain of the table and begins to topple.
Want more evidence?
The kids outside when he gets home are older than the kids he sees at the beginning on the seashore.
They are. I can tell. I don’t have any proof, but they are. Okay?
Here’s another thing. Only someone who really hates their own life could possibly believe that the ending was still a dream.
If you don’t take my word for it, here’s what Michael Caine had to say about the film:
“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’…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.”
That’s a mic drop! And a top drop!
I’m really confident that top dropped. Nothing can sway me.
Wait… maybe I’m not so sure of the Inception ending anymore.
The Ending Is A Dream, You Idiot!
Let’s get this straight, bozo. It’s all a dream. Cobb never gets out of there. That top spins an unnaturally long time.
And we don’t even know if the top actually works. It was never his totem to begin with, who knows if Cobb’s brain can work with Mal’s totem.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence those kids are older. And aren’t they wearing the same clothing from the flashback in the beginning? You think it’s a coincidence Leo walks in that door and those kids are in the same dungarees?
Let’s be real. Cobb is a man who killed his wife via inception. Now that he’s planting an idea in someone else’s brain, he wants this to be a dream and not a nightmare.
We can be certain he enters the deepest fathoms of limbo. And I think we can be certain he stays there.
The ending of the movie is way too idyllic. Are we supposed to believe that he has absolved himself for losing Mal?
Why? Because Ellen Page shoots her?
What are you, a naive, sappy, optimist?
That’s not the world Nolan believes in!
Nolan is hardcore! His refusal to answer if the movie is a dream or reality is basically him letting some fanboys have hope, while the rest of us know happiness, like dreams, is an illusion.
Also, let’s watch the ending again, and this time, listen to the music.
The music stops, almost like Cobb is trying to be woken up from a DREAM with a MUSIC KICK, which is planted at the beginning of the movie!
Also, at the end of the screenplay, it says the top is still spinning. There’s no wobble there.
I really like this Film Crux video essay that tackles Mal’s version of events. And explains the totem.
The Ending Of Inception
But…and bare with me here…what if neither of these arguments matter.
Christopher Nolan: The Inception ending explained!
We’re never going to get a definitive answer, but Christopher Nolan gave an in-depth interview for Wired where he had this to say:
Do people get it?
Nolan: People seem to be noticing the things they’re meant to notice, the things that are meant to either create ambiguities or push you in one direction or another. But I’ve also read plenty of very off-the-wall interpretations.
And was it really all just a dream?
Nolan: It’s very important to me that by the end of the film you understand what Mal (Marion Cotillard) means when she says to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), “You don’t believe in one reality anymore,” and that we see the potential for getting lost.
What’s your take on the ending?
Nolan: I choose to believe that Cobb gets back to his kids, because I have young kids. People who have kids definitely read it differently than those who don’t. Clearly the audience brings a lot to it. The most important emotional thing about the top spinning at the end is that Cobb is not looking at it. He doesn’t care.
So, there’s no one right answer.
Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.
Nolan: Yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a true interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. Ambiguity has to come from the inability of the character to know — and the alignment of the audience with that character.
So… what if the point of the Inception ending is that none of that really matters?
The Inception ending doesn’t matter…
The ending of Inception was a hot-button issue in the No Film School Group Thread this week. An informal poll had the team here split down the middle.
What can we say, we’re optimistic pessimists.
But what if the actual point of Inception has nothing to do with the ending?
What if the actual story was about moving past the worst things in reality, and being okay with fulfilling your dreams?
Cobb is a broken man when we meet him. He’s carrying the weight of his wife’s death. And he’s trying to perform inception on a man who just lost his father.
As Cillian Murphy’s character works out his daddy issues, we see Cobb work out his wife issues.
The ending isn’t about what’s real. Because the most real thing happening is that Cobb has accepted that it’s not his fault his wife died.
Not directly anyway.
Cobb intended to help his wife live, and even though that backfired, he’s forgiven himself enough to want to be a good father and a better person.
Cobb’s emotional journey is the point of the movie. Whether or not he completes this arc is all that matters, in dream or reality.
That’s incredible writing.
Mal has infected every single one of Cobb’s dreams from the moment she died. Even if he’s in a fantasy at the end, Mal’s not there to destroy it. We have seen her in the house a few times as a projection, but now Cobb’s conscience is clear, and so is each plane he’ll inhabit.
Mal is gone no matter where he is, and that’s the point of Inception. Cobb had this guilt planted inside him. And he planted hope and happiness there instead.
Not only is that beautiful, but it’s also essential for us to take away as creatives.
So where do we go from here?
We could read and watch more theories…
But it’s probably better to let the ending inspire our own writing.
The Ending Of Inception
Summing Up Our Analysis of The Ending Of Inception
The power of filmmaking is taking the audience on a journey. Making them deal with their issues, their drama, and then being able to make the cathartic moments of any character’s journey payoff.
What’s incredible about the Inception ending is that it not only makes us think, but it completes the arcs for every character as well.
And we know writing characters can be hard!
You don’t need the ending explained, you need to learn from it.
How can you take your characters somewhere that closes their emotional loops but leaves story possibilities open for the audience?
That’s some next-level screenwriting and directing.
Are you up to the task?
Maybe work on some short films first and see where it takes you.
We can’t wait to see where it takes you.