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Five Opinions on the Ending of “Inception”

It's the most talked-about movie of the year. Heck, it might end up being one of the most talked-about movies of all time. Either way, Inception has won over the box office and the minds of moviegoers everywhere. But although the sentiments are largely positive, there's one thing that hardly anyone agrees on: the ending. 

Everyone at PAM has seen the film (some of us more than once), so we each thought we'd offer our own perspective. Some of us have concrete ideas of what really happened. Some of us offer our insight and interpretation. Some of us have a lot to say and for others it's cut and dry. But the most important question is what do you think? Leave your comments below! Anyway, spoilers ahead.

Like, literally, spoilers right here. To make sure we're all on the same page, the ending and the question it poses is as follows: Cobb (DiCaprio) finishes his job and as such, Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes his calls and insures that Cobb will pass through customs when he arrives in the United States where his father (Michael Caine) waits with his two children that he hasn't seen in a long time because there's a warrant for his arrest seeing as the authorities believe he killed his wife. Before greeting his children and living happily ever after, Cobb takes out his totem (the spinning top) and spins it. The top, if it falls over naturally, indicates that he is in reality and not a dream. Cobb leaves to greet his children, not waiting to see what happens and the camera focuses on the top. It keeps spinning, starts to falter but keeps spinning and then the camera cuts out before we can see if it eventually falls, thus suggesting the possibility that Cobb is still in a dream.

On to our thoughts:

Julian thought: If one notices, the top wobbles a little bit at the end of the film. It never at any one point wobbled while in the dream world. It would just stay in continuous motion. Plus, Cobb was never able to see the faces of his children in his dreams. At the end of the film, he sees their faces as he goes to embrace them. While it could easily be viewed as a dream, seeing the faces of his children proves that the ending takes place in reality.

Kieran thought: I personally think that Cobb was stuck in Limbo and there are a number of reasons for why I believe this. I will admit I do enjoy a dark ending, even though I did want Cobb to get back to his family. Mal represented all of Cobb’s grief and guilt and the manifestation of Cobb’s subconscious self-sabotage. One of the big themes of the film is that Cobb needed to face up to his issues instead of burying them. But Cobb never does truly faces his problems and it's Ariadne who has to kill Mal for him. Cobb does not appear to go through all the "kicks" to get back to the real world and considering the nature of the dream world, Mal would not be truly dead. The nature of the film is that if you are unaware you are in a dream you would not be able to control the reality, and your mind would just based everything on what you know i.e. people and everyday science.

Simon thought: Like the movie itself, my interpretation of Christopher Nolan’s Inception continues to shift and morph with every new thought that consumes my mind. Dreams persuade an intensely enigmatic experience: one while in them, another when contemplating them. To be frank, and yes, perhaps I am taking the easy way out, I am of two camps about the purposely ambiguous finale of this summer's thinking-man's blockbuster.

It’s a Dream. Who is to argue that the ending is not a dream when it is the subconscious that consumes the entire narrative?  Surprisingly in contrast with the utilitarian acts that preceded it, the ending has an unfocused, purely dreamlike aura that (it would seem) purposely calls attention to itself. Similarly, the finale of Nolan’s film is perhaps too neat, especially for a movie that lays complexities upon conundrums. Cobb receives his freedom; he is reunited with his children; his re-entry to America is flawless. Cobb’s constant psychological and real-world struggles display a deeply stark contrast to the final act, highlighting Nolan’s trickery further yet. Lastly, from a technical sense, Cobb’s rules for the layers of dreams suggest that a person confined to “limbo” for the equivalent of decades would succumb to dementia when finally freed. However Saito awakes calm, not characteristic of a man in his situation. Am I serving food for thought forking out blasphemy for those on the other side of the argument?

It’s Real. It’s time to get technical, and forgive any desperate grabs at reason throughout this segment. The most obvious of the arguments in favor of the finale to this to rewarding cinematic experience being firmly rooted in reality is the fact that (even though it may be suggested) we never see Cobb’s top cease twirling; from all we have been told a sure-fire indication of reality. In Nolan’s fetching yet rewarding ending, we finally witness Cobb’s beloved children. In Cobb’s dreams he is unable to envision his children’s faces, yet with the final scene they finally crane their necks and give our protagonist an emotional reward.  If he was dreaming, his subconscious would have continued to suppress the happiest memory he had.

To conclude this headache-inducing discussion, a subtle but important scene finds Cobb in the real world. Upon Cobb’s and Saito’s meeting in limbo, they reunite to an unknown result. The key segment arises when Saito awakens on the airplane and grasps for his gun that no longer exists at his side; a weapon that he had been holding in the stated “dream.” Even low-key revelations expose hidden undercurrents in Inception and are what makes the film such a marvel. With Cobb’s top twirling on camera to an irresolute end and the ambiguity of the resolution between Cobb and Saito, Nolan’s film is clearly meant to conform to the opinions of all viewers; that being the simple minded and the intellectual. In fact the simplest but ironically most complex explanation is that the entire film is a dream, which glosses over any discrepancies in the “rules” that Cobb breaks or bends during his heist and adds let another layer to this decidedly indescribable summer film.

Dinah thought: We all know what it’s like to root for the good guy. Usually this isn’t a problem; Hollywood is quick to provide most films with a sanitized ending that ensures everyone is okay by the closing credits. Inception doesn’t quite offer this -- not quite. Nolan’s ending is all too perfect, too contrived. But based upon two viewings, I’m of the school that believes Cobb is in reality when he sees his kids at the end of the movie.

The most convincing evidence is the proud and surprised looks from Arthur and Ariadne when he wakes up on the plane from limbo. Cobb then stares intensely at Saito, waiting for him to also arrive (likely from a gunshot wound to the head after killing Cobb). Moreover, the age of Cobb’s children in the final scene has changed. The girl is clearly taller and is wearing a dress with white sleeves- her dress was previously all pink. Most importantly, the spinning top, which Cobb used to judge reality, never wobbled without falling over.

When we see the top in limbo, both spinning upon aged Saito’s table and in the private safe of Mal, the top is suspended at a perfectly upright angle. Nolan takes the time to zoom in intently upon the wobbling top before cutting to black. His sterile finale has a non dream-like beginning, middle, and end. The winking glances at Cobb in the airport, an extra long stare from the security guard, and the similar outfits of Cobb’s cherubic children were merely a red herring meant to send audiences into deep discussion and sell additional tickets for repeat viewings.

Steven thought: The answer to all these conundrums is always “it doesn’t matter.” The question becomes about “why” it does not matter. Naturally that was what I challenged myself to answer after walking out of Inception. To point the question more, why doesn’t it matter if Cobb was dreaming or it was all reality? My thought is that he’s happy either way; he got what he wanted. By virtue of him leaving the scene and seeing his children before ever checking to see if the top would fall proves that it did not matter to him either, so we should get over it.

Think back to the scenes with Cobb and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) in his subconscious world that they created to live together to spend a lifetime in dream time what would only be a short time in reality. Cobb had to perform inception on Mal to make her want to kill herself in the dream world so they could both live in reality together (and be young again since they grew old in the dream). This was because Cobb wanted to stop living a lie, or whatever the reason, his ultimate desire would not be satisfied by the dream world. After his mistake led to Mal’s death, going back to live with her in his subconscious mind like “she” had been begging of him to do was not what he wanted or he could’ve done it, no problem. Instead, his ultimate desire rested in seeing his children’s faces again. Defeating her (aka actually defeating his subconscious desire to be with her again) was his realization of what was more important. So even if being reunited with his kids was a dream, he finally had achieved his one true goal.

I think what Nolan wants us to see is that even if we are all dreaming right now — each and every one of us actually dreaming this very second — that our happiness is not ultimately contingent on our knowledge of our world being fake or real. The only way we can truly live is to discover what it is we want or need most and strive to achieve it. The imaginary isn’t necessarily any more fulfilling than reality. Our desire to be in one or the other is only a reflection of where we perceive our happiness being.

It seems right and logical to believe that Cobb discovered his children were most important because they were what was real and Mal was gone and he needed to get over it, but by casting some doubt over whether what we thought was real was even real, Nolan reinforces his theme. That, I believe, is him asking us to see happiness as being about our individual perception and as being free of our human fixation over needing to know if something is indeed real or imaginary. Brilliantly, he captures a microcosm of that fixation by exposing it in this last shot of a spinning top because there we are, frustrated and wanting to know whether it was real or all just a dream when the ending to Cobb’s story is peaceful either way. It's Nolan calling out to us, begging us to stop waiting to see if the top will fall and just find that which will bring our happiness. 


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