52

Sorry for the vague title--I don't want the title to be a spoiler.

I've seen the movie three times, and the last two times I looked specifically for clues to this question, but found none.

The final scene in Inception shows

Cobb's top spinning, as he goes off to be reunited with his children. The top continues to spin, then the movie ends, without telling us if the top topples--and therefore revealing whether he's in the "real world" or still in a dream. Do we know if he was in a dream at the end of the movie?

I'm assuming the answer is that we simply cannot know. But did I miss anything? Were there clues that I missed?

  • 9
    Personally, my interpretation was: He is in the real world which has now become so perfect - because of himself crossing over his fears and mistakes, and he is finally able to meet his kids that the top spins as if it's all a dream. – user5421 Apr 14 '12 at 8:48
  • 1

10 Answers 10

64

No, you didn't miss anything. Nolan intentionally left it ambiguous, but not for the reasons that endings in Hollywood are normally left ambiguous.

From an interview with Nolan on Screenrant, we get the following insight:

“There can’t be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake … It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it’s not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me — it always felt like the appropriate ‘kick’ to me….The real point of the scene — and this is what I tell people — is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”

To me, it makes sense in that perspective. The entire article is really good, and recommended for further reading.

  • 17
    So in other words... He's where he wants to be in any case so it doesn't matter. – Escoce Dec 11 '15 at 20:07
  • But that's totally at odds with the earlier scene in which Cobb tells Mal that she's not real, that she lacks the real Mal's "perfections and imperfections", that she's just a shade. I.e., there's a meaningful and perceptible difference between reality and dream, and the temptation only exists because there's no longer a real, living Mal. Cobb would not accept the shades of his children in preference to his real children. – bgvaughan Dec 26 '17 at 17:03
  • So, do we accept the words of Nolan over our interpretations of the cinema? Or accept that he changed over the course of the movie in a very real way? – Chuck Dee Dec 27 '17 at 18:02
32

The movie tries to convince you that the top is Cobb's totem. But it's not. Here is a really really very spoilery deep analysis.

When he's in a dream, he wears a ring; when he is in real life there is no ring. So easy? Then why did Cobb insist on using the top-- something that Mal had touched and hence defeats the purpose of a totem? Why not just look at his ring?

  • 8
    Wow! Someone (not you -- the article's author) has a LOT of extra time on their hands! There is such a thing as over-analyzing. – Tango Nov 12 '11 at 17:54
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    I actually did watch it again after reading about this. Imagine my dissapointment when I reached the end and he kept his hand of frame through the whole "awake" part... – Aifos Nov 20 '12 at 22:40
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    @Charlie it is simpler than that. Cobbs totem appears not to exist in the real world at all. Would make it very hard for someone to interact with it. – DampeS8N Dec 3 '12 at 18:23
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    The problem with the top as a totem is that it only works as a totem if the architect of the dream knows how it works. "If I'm in a dream, it won't topple" only works if the person making the dream knows that's how it works. It's dumb. – Rob Nov 20 '14 at 16:28
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    Wrong, he definitely wears a ring in real life also. You can see that when he explains to Ariadne about Mal around 00:57-00:59 – chefarov Feb 19 '18 at 9:30
22

No you didn't miss anything. This was deliberately ambiguous, leaving the question open, and the possibility of Inception 2.

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    And you gotta admit, if you actually knew the answer to that question, the movie wouldn't be as intriguing. – BBlake Nov 12 '11 at 12:38
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    Yes - and it left you in the same position of others in the movie, of not knowing. And whether you really care. – Schroedingers Cat Nov 12 '11 at 13:51
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    @BBlake, I'm with Orson Scott Card on this one. That final scene is "not art, that's a vulgar prank. A violation of trust." And I don't see why the question needs to be left open to allow an Inception 2. – cjm Nov 12 '11 at 19:36
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    @neilfein, yes, I liked it too (despite that final cut). Sorry if I gave a different impression. In fact, if you didn't like the movie, you wouldn't care that the ending chickened out on telling us what actually happened. – cjm Nov 12 '11 at 23:02
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    Sometimes ambiguous is good and sometimes not. But, that being said, if they created an Inception 2, it would ruin anything that was good about the first one. Leave it alone and walk away. – BBlake Nov 12 '11 at 23:46
15

As others have commented, the ambiguity has been intentionally put there, but Christopher Nolan knows the answer as per his Wired interview:

Wired: (snip) I know that you’re not going to tell me, but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”
Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.
Wired: You do?!
Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view of what you think is going on, and then allow the ambiguity to come from the inability of the character to know, and the alignment of the audience with that character.

So if you could get Nolan drunk enough, you might be able to find out!

11

During the dream sequences it's especially notable that Cobb's children don't age, nor have they changed clothes throughout the earlier sequences. This ties in very nicely with the idea that we're seeing a specific memory of his children (and his conscious regret at not seeing their faces one last time) as an indicator that he's inside a dream.

By contrast, at the end of the film, his children look markedly different. They've visibly aged and they're wearing similar but non-identical clothes. His daughter has changed from a sleeved dress into a sleeveless dress and his son is wearing shorts instead of rolled up trousers.

It's certainly possible to view this as proof positive that Cobb is seeing his children in the real world.

enter image description here

Additionally, Nolan apparently told the actor Michael Caine (who portrays Cobb's father-in-Law Stephen Miles) that any scene containing himself was set in the real world. Since he's in the final scene, it follows that it must be reality rather than a dream

"When I got the script of Inception," he said, "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."

Michael Caine Reveals All About The Real Ending Of 'Inception'

  • 1
    Or the children "just" dirtied the first set of clothes (being children) and the wardrobe department gave them very similar clothes to wear. – Cherubel Apr 5 '16 at 7:52
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    @Cherubel - That's a very real possibility, however my experience has been that 'wardrobe' would have multiple sets of identical clothing for the actors. Changing their outfits (in a film that costs hundreds of millions of dollars) is a very conscious choice. – Valorum Apr 5 '16 at 7:53
4

There is an important clue in the final scene that is easy to miss, and David Kyle Johnson, author of Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream, believes that Christopher Nolan intentionally misdirects the audience’s attention in the final scene.

In short, Johnson’s view is the whole movie is a dream, Saito’s in particular. Johnson gave a Google tech talk on the subject.

Johnson’s slides (DOI:10.13140/RG.2.1.4290.5683) are available elsewhere. Johnson and his collaborators sank considerable time and thought into their analysis of Inception and its implications. My summary of Johnson’s justification for his position is below.

To start, subconscious elements work their way through dreams, e.g., the train barreling down the street in the rain dream, the random string of numbers in the hostage scene appears repeatedly in later scenes: the safe combination, the fake phone number, hotel room numbers. At the beginning of the film, Saito dreams of a mansion on a cliff.

Picking up on a big clue in the final scene may require turning on the closed-caption subtitles. Cobb asks his children what they’ve been doing, and they reply that they were building a house on a cliff.

Nolan leaves many clues that the film is a dream.

  • Mombasa was a maze, and the walls closed in around Cobb.
  • Bad guys appear out of nowhere to give chase.
  • Saito appears out of nowhere to rescue Cobb with a cheesy line about protecting his investment.
  • Cobb’s father-in-law pleads with him to come back to reality.
  • Eames is a dream forger who is able to pickpocket people without touching them.
  • Eames bet his last chips in the real world but magically produced two stacks of chips to buy beers.
  • Mal somehow got to the other hotel across the street in the suicide scene, but Cobb begged her to come back inside to his room, reasoning that would have “made sense” only in a dream.
  • The top totem gives us no information about whether Cobb is dreaming because everyone else knows how it works.
  • The Édith Piaf song that signals the end of the dream is 2 minutes 28 seconds long. The film is exactly 2 hours 28 minutes long.

When someone commits suicide in limbo, the subject goes one layer up. For Saito, the next layer up was the snow fortress. But everyone was gone, so he filled the empty dream space with his own expectations, namely the airplane scene. Eames pickpockets the passport in the airplane without touching Robert, the way he did in other dreams.

But then consider what happened to Cobb and Mal who were experimenting with multi-level dreams after being struck by the train in Limbo. They also would have gone merely one level up, but still within a dream.

This interpretation makes a much better film. Consider:

  • All characters except Cobb are flat and one-dimensional; many didn’t even have last names.
  • Editing in the “real world” jumps around without transitions.
  • Saito poofs into Mombasa to rescue Cobb from a jam.

If the entire film is a dream, these are not gaffes but strengths. The characters are flat because they’re projections, not because the writing is bad. The jumping around is not bad editing but because that’s how dreams run. Saito’s well-timed appearance and corny line become subtle clues that Cobb is dreaming.

For completeness, at least two clues suggest the move is not a dream.

  1. Cobb’s children at the end are older and wearing different clothes.
  2. The only times Cobb is depicted with a wedding ring in the real world is in flashback scenes. He has no band when passing through Customs and Immigration at the airport.
  • Is there any reason to assume that this earnest academic has any special insight into the filmmaking process? It looks like he's just presenting his guesses to an audience. – Valorum Oct 25 at 21:08
  • @Valorum Johnson’s line of work or background is irrelevant. Even if his conclusion is incorrect, he showed his work in the linked slide deck, presentation, and book — yet you dismiss all of this effort as mere “guesses” without providing refutation. That’s curious because your answer’s points about Cobb’s children and father-in-law agree with only two out of many that Johnson and his collaborators made. If you’d read the slides or watched the video, you would have seen discussion on whether the author’s intent has any ultimate bearing. In short, your comment is not constructive. – Greg Bacon Oct 26 at 14:55
  • So what you're saying is that he has no connection to the makers of the film and has merely taken what he's seen on screen (and maybe read the script) and expanded his thoughts and musings into a book and that this means that he's some sort of authority on the subject? And while I have some vague sympathy for people who think that the author is dead, I happen to think that that's just soft thinking to allow critics to pretend that their views are as important as the person who made the thing – Valorum Oct 26 at 15:54
3

If an object was to spin at a constant speed eternally, it would be very consistent. The real world has gravity, friction, etc that wears down the energy in a spinning object bringing it to a halt eventually.

A dream however bypasses certain rules posed by classic physics. This is what lets the totem spin on for ever. Notice how constant the spinning top looks in Mal's safe in Limbo.

In the last scene, look out for this slight wobble that is shown on the spinning top (before cutting to credits). A wobble, in a spinning object, happens when there is a change in speed (rpm). Change in speed indicates that the top is slowing down. Slowing down, means real world.

  • Hmm, non believers of physics I see. – John Dec 21 '14 at 8:01
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    I noticed the wobble as well. While I understand and agree with your logic, I don't know if the writers or Mr Nolan remember any physics they took. – Verdan Aug 15 '18 at 18:05
  • @Verdan :) haha. I would hope that given it's Nolan, his writers would work with people from the field of science .. – John Aug 16 '18 at 5:40
2

I think the ambiguity is even more complex.

Obviously he's either in a dream or in the real world. The extra ambiguity comes in to play when trying to figure out which dream he might be in. The obvious one is that he never left limbo with Saito, and he just created his happy ending. The less obvious is that he did return to the "real" world, the one in which his wife killed herself, but that that she was right and it too was a dream.

1

It doesn't matter whether

the top is still spinning;

Cobb accepts this scenario as reality because his children turn around. Whether or not he is in real-reality or dream-reality, he embraces it because he feels real emotions, the catharsis he has been searching for.

This is likely a commentary on how experiences that are not "real" (e.g., dreams, or--surprise!--movies) can elicit real emotions. If you suspend your disbelief and allow yourself to be drawn into a movie, even though it is not real your feelings will be real; and at the end, you too may experience catharsis.

-4

I don't think it was ambiguous. It reasonably seems everything wound up back in real life--at least in the same plane as in the beginning (after the double-wakeup). Still I was pleased and entertained about the untoppled spinning totem since it seemed fitting. Kind of like in that killer bat movie when at the end after defeat the mother bat arises out of the dirt only to get run over by an incidental jeep as sort of a statement from Hollywood saying "yeah, we know this movie was lame, don't worry there's not gonna be a part 2."

Not that Inception was lame or anything like that. I though is was very good, and would look forward to a sequel.

protected by Community Sep 24 '18 at 8:05

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