I have been asked what my take on Inception’s infamous twist ending is. I know I’m a few months late, but here goes:
The entire film is about the difference between dreams and “reality”, and the dangers that come from mixing the two up. But the conflict between our perceptions and the truth is a theme that Nolan’s tackled in… well, all his previous films. So I’m going on my knowledge of them to somewhat bolster my opinion on this one.
In Memento, Leonard Shelby discovers that (maybe) everything that he has held onto as the few shards of truth that he can shape his life around are in reality false. He finds out that he’s been living a lie and that even his last little comfort – John G. raped and killed my wife, I can find him and kill him – is based on nothing. But he willfully chooses to let himself forget this earth-shattering knowledge, and go on living his twisted but purposeful life. This results in the death of at least two (probably) innocent men, but he makes the choice because having a reality in which to live is so much more preferable to the alternative.
The Prestige, which is a film about deception and tricks, similarly echoes its material. The first time I watched it, I felt so cheated. But it’s blatantly addressed in the film’s finale – Anglier explains that he was willing to live his entire life around illusions because of the looks on the audiences’ faces when they thought that they’d seen something extraordinary. The fact that the tricks were, in fact, just tricks didn’t ultimately matter.
I could go on and find similar instances of this sort of thing in Insomnia and the Batman films. (The ending of The Dark Knight particularly comes to mind.) This balance, that in Nolan’s films the whole mirrors and echoes the sum of the parts, is part of what I adore about his filmmaking. It adds another layer of satisfaction and something to mull over long after the credits have rolled.
But what does this mean for Inception? This is my position: The top doesn’t fall, and the final scene is a dream. It took me two viewings to come to this conclusion, but I’m sticking with it.
First of all, the obvious – His kids look identical to his memories of them. They are wearing the same clothes, they are outside in the same positions that they were in the flashback scene in which he doesn’t say goodbye to them. We are to assume that some time has past since he fled the country, so wouldn’t they have grown considerably older? Or at least changed their outfits? I missed a lot of details in Inception the first time I saw it, but this is something that struck me even the first time I saw that scene.
Because the scene does not so much parallell his memory but rather provide an alternate and happier ending for it, the whole thing feels uncomfortably like mere wish fulfillment. Cobb is not wearing his wedding ring, but I think this just shows that he’s achieved his “catharsis” and has finally let go of Mal and moved on for good. This letting go could also be the reason he can finally reunite with his children and see their faces, if only in his mind… and the psychological explanation seems somehow more likely than the rather fuzzy phone call that Saito makes and the almost dreamlike way that the custom agent clears him… (“Mr Cobb! …Welcome home.” No customs agent or airport employee has ever greeted me in such a fashion.)
Both Cobb and Robert Fischer achieve their healing and reconcile with their past and their individual emotional issues while in the dream world. We are to assume that Robert’s catharsis was real since it’s going to so drastically affect his decisions and how he lives his life from hereon out. This is the case even though the entire scenario with his father was fabricated by the dream team. The information is fake, but the healing is real. Why should the same not be true for Cobb? Believing that the movie’s final scene is in fact another dream wouldn’t necessarily be the pessimistic, cynical interpretation. It would add another layer of bitter irony to the whole movie if his reuniting with Philippa and James was just another illusion of the mind. But in the end, would it matter? For Cobb, at the very least, it seems as though we’re to believe it would not.
Renee Descartes stated that even if he were to believe that the life he lived was all an elaborate hoax or all some twisted dream, he would continue living his life as if it were real simply for the sake of convenience. Unless he knew beyond a doubt that his life were fake, he’d have to assume that it wasn’t so he could maintain the semblance of a functional existence. In the film, Mal knows in her mind for certain that she is in a dream. That is the idea that Cobb fatally planted in her mind. Because there is no doubt, that is why she’s driven to kill herself to “escape” into what she expects will be the real world. But we have no such certainty. That’s the twist at the end – that there may or may not actually be a twist. Cobb sets his top spinning but he doesn’t look at it. Whether or not the top falls, he’s re-united with his children and has achieved his catharsis.
However, unlike the Cartesian view of man, we don’t live in isolated bubbles. We aren’t autonomous. Our choices and decisions effect so many other people, whatever the psychological results are for ourselves personally. Cobb has real children. If he is in a dream when he reunites with them, then back in the outward world there are two kids who are going to grow up wondering why they can’t see their daddy again. If Cobb is choosing to live down in limbo so he can feel at peace and pretend to be back with his children, regardless of the truth, then it seems to cast his character in an even more selfish light…
Cobb’s character is not one painted in black-and-white moral terms. (When does Nolan ever paint things in black-and-white moral terms? He’s the man behind the Batman films, after all…) We are supposed to think of him as slightly selfish, and the fact that his character is a thief who structures his life and career around highly illegal behavior only furthers that impression. The fact that the individual is not the only one who is affected by their decisions has been discussed multiple times in the film: Mal is so desperate to escape what she thinks is a dream so that she can get back to her children. Of course, in doing so, she unwittingly abandons her real children, but that is part of the tragedy. Also relevant is the scene where Ariadne confronts him for hiding the truth about his issues from the rest of the team, as they will already have to suffer the effects of them. And after they’ve all descended into Fischer’s subconscious and are still on the first dream level, there’s the angry and horrified realization of the other characters that Cobb has placed them in a grave position of danger, one that they may or may not ever be able to escape from. The film is told from Cobb’s perspective, and as an audience his journey is the one we are supposed to relate to and empathize with. But he’s not a hero.
But even if Cobb is deluded at the end of the film, Cobb doesn’t choose to fool himself. (As far as we can tell… it doesn’t seem too unlikely that he might, if given the opportunity, pretend to be re-united with his kids in limbo rather than never be reunited with them in the outside world.) In the narrative, Cobb’s only big decision and turning point is when he decides to stop living in the past, and to let go of Mal and move on, putting the torturous guilt behind him. This seems to be the exact opposite of Leonard Shelby’s situation. Cobb may be wrapped up in himself, but he isn’t intentionally trying to hurt people if it means that he can feel better. He’s just trying to make himself feel better.
The more I think back on the ending act of the film, the more vague it seems… on the surface, it appears that it could go both ways. But is it really that evenly balanced? Although there are obviously two interpretations that can be argued for, I don’t think that both are equally potentially true. Christopher Nolan is a highly logical filmmaker and he doesn’t really seem like the type to advocate bivalence. We are very intentionally never shown what happens after Old Cobb and Old Saito meet in limbo. We assume that they use the gun to kill themselves so that they can wake up on the airplane. But we are never shown. This seems like an intentional omission. Perhaps it is merely Nolan bolstering the punch of the doubt-and-confusion-laden final twist, but I think he’s hinting at which interpretation we are to choose. Whatever the top does after the scene cuts to credits, he believes that he’s in reality. Because he is so convinced, it’s all the more tragic if we know that he’s wrong. I really think that the only interpretation that fully ties the film together thematically and adds a further complexity to the story is the one in which the top doesn’t fall.
Besides (and maybe I should have stated this earlier)… people never add “Or IS it????” to the end of their statements if it actually is. If Cobb were really united with his kids and all his issues resolved, then it would be a very happy, sweet, Hollywood ending. If there isn’t a possibility that this too isn’t real, then why would Nolan even bother to end with a tormenting twist and make us choose? It seems to be a very ambiguous ending to an unambiguous movie, but the director always gives us the puzzle pieces we need to complete the picture, and this might just be an instance where he’s actually letting us do the work.
The characters in the film are forced to make the distinction between what is real and what is not. It is very fitting that at the end, the audience too is faced with this dilemma. Mal’s story shows the dangers of doubting reality. It would balance things out perfectly if Cobb’s story were to show the danger of accepting dreams as truth.
It took me two viewings of the film to come to such a decided conclusion. The first time I wasn’t completely decided (although I was tilting in this direction). But watching it again and being able to pick up on details and thematic nuances, plus watching Memento over the summer, have convinced me utterly. I’m aware that Sir Michael Caine has revealed the “real” interpretation, but not even he could persuade me otherwise.