In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Inception, we will explain the film’s ending.
- Dom Cobb – Leonardo CiCaprio
- Mal Cobb – Marion Cotillard
- Arthur – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
- Ariadne – Elliot Page
- Mr. Saito – Ken Watanabe
- Eames – Tom Hardy
- Yusuf – Dileep Rao
- Robert Michael Fischer – Cillian Murphy
- Professor Stephen Miles – Michael Caine
- Writer – Christopher Nolan
- Director – Christopher Nolan
The end of Inception explained
During the dream heist, Cobb has to go to the lowest realm of mental Limbo. For three reasons. First, to confront his subconscious projection of his deceased wife, Mal. Second, to retrieve Robert Fischer. Third, to retrieve Saito. Ariadne helps him with one and two. Then Cobb’s on his own for three. The scene where he confronts Saito brings us full circle to the opening moments of the film. The two share a brief conversation where they manage to awaken each other to the nature of their reality and wake up from the dream. This ties up everything regarding the dream heist.
The characters all wake up aboard a 747 that’s minutes away from landing in Los Angeles. Cobb and his team are relieved. Robert Fischer is contemplative. Saito makes a call. He had promised to clear Cobb’s name as a suspect in his wife’s death. Cobb had spent years outside of the U.S. for fear of being arrested. So when the plane lands in Los Angeles and he is in customs, it’s a moment of truth. Did Saito pull off the impossible? Yes. Cobb’s allowed in. He meets with his father, and the two go to his old home. There, Cobb finally reunites with his children. Before he goes to them, he spins the top, his totem. The camera then goes from Cobb’s family reunion to the top of the table, still spinning. It focuses on the top. The top spins. And spins. And cut to black.
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, first. The top falls. Cobb’s not in a dream. He’s not stuck in Limbo. The end of Inception is in reality. We know this for a few reasons.
First, Inception made a point of Cobb seeing his kids in dreams but never seeing their faces. They’d get up and run away. Or something would demand his attention. This happens several times. Which is a very dream-like experience. Because he can’t see his kids in reality, his subconscious manifests that in the denial of the facial visual. When Cobb first arrives home, his kids are out in the yard, heads facing away as they had in the dreams. Except this time they look up. Their faces are clear as day. No denial. No running away.
Second, Michael Caine was at the Film4 Summit and told the audience that Nolan told him that every scene Caine was in was reality.
Lastly. Cobb always wore his wedding ring in dreams. He never had it on in reality. This is consistent throughout Inception. It makes sense. In reality, externally, he’s trying to move on from Mal’s passing. But internally, he’s still hung up on his marriage. That’s why “Mal” keeps appearing in the dream-shares. The wedding ring is part of that. Just one of those things his mind creates. So there’s never a time he has the ring on in reality. And never a time he has it off in the dream. Even when saving Saito, after he’s let go of Mal, he still has the ring on in Limbo. But when he wakes up on the plane and goes back to his kids: no wedding ring.
So why does the camera linger on the top? Why does Nolan even plant the idea in the audience’s head that Cobb might still be dreaming? The short answer is: it’s just to show that sometimes life can feel like a dream. The more complicated answer:
Inception is essentially a complicated example of therapy. Specifically, it demonstrates how working through internal issues can have a positive result on your external life. Cobb has to confront the multitude of repressed emotions he’s carried around since his wife’s passing. And Robert Fischer, the focus of the heist, is dealing with issues after his father’s death. Cobb has felt responsible for what happened to Mal. While Fischer struggled with feeling like a disappointment and the lingering pain of never having his father’s approval.
So the climax of the heist involves both characters, Cobb and Fischer, each reaching the tipping point for their woes. Fischer has this encounter with his father on his father’s death bed. The father, too weak to speak, says “I was disa… I was disa…” and Fischer attempts to finish the sentence. “I know. You were disappointed I couldn’t be you.” That’s the belief Fischer has carried around for years. It’s the feeling that defines him. That haunts him. Especially now that his dad has passed. But the dream version of his dad rejects that statement. He says, “No. No, no, no. I was disappointed that you tried.”
That is a paradigm shift for Fischer. He had spent his life trying to be like his father. And failed. Yet here he awakens to the idea that all he ever had to be was himself. The cherry on the sundae is that inside his father’s safe is a pinwheel Fischer had made as a kid. This silly thing. It being in the safe shows how much the father cherished it. And thus how much the father cherished Fischer. That’s closure. When we see Fischer awaken from the dream, he looks at peace.
Cobb goes through a similar experience with Mal. The argument he has with her in Limbo is actually an argument he’s having with his own subconscious. It’s not Mal who blames him. Mal’s just the representation of Cobb’s own self-loathing. By pleading with her, he’s pleading with himself. By forgiving her, he’s forgiving himself. By letting her go, he’s letting go of that part of him that hasn’t been able to move on.
As dramatic as Inception makes these journeys out to be, they’re very normal. We’ve all gone through similar processes in life. Whether it’s getting over the end of a relationship, or letting go of a career, or accepting becoming a parent, or forgiving yourself for a stupid decision. We work through these emotions in conversations with others, out loud with ourselves, quietly in our own heads, in daydreams, and, yes, even in dreams. For example, after my mom passed away, I was the executor of her estate. I was only 25. My dad had passed away a few years earlier. Only child. It all fell on me. For months, I had recurring dreams where something was chasing me. I’d run away but would forget how to run. My legs were heavy. My feet would stick to the ground. I moved in slow motion. And I could feel whatever it was getting closer. I kid you not, one time it was velociraptors. But once the estate closed and I had the house up for sale and had a new place in a new state, I had a dream where I could fly. Took off. Soared around like Superman. Speeding around. Lifting, diving, weaving between trees and stuff. It was such an amazing feeling.
That flying dream wasn’t some random occurrence. I had it because it reflected my reality. Dreams often do that. Likewise, life can, sometimes, feel like a dream. That’s why we have the phrase “a dream come true”. Cobb spent years dreaming about returning to his kids. When it finally happens, he’s skeptical. He wonders if he’s dreaming. So he spins the top. But, really, it doesn’t matter to him. If he’s in reality, he’s with his kids. If he’s dreaming, he is, finally, with his kids. Either way, he’s happy.
But I think Nolan makes it pretty clear this is reality. And the shot on the top is just supposed to suggest the idea that dreams and reality sometimes overlap. Sometimes we really can’t tell. And hopefully that’s something we’ve all experienced. Even if it’s brief. Like when you share that first kiss with someone you’ve had a crush on. Or when you graduate from school. Or if you’ve always wanted to live in a specific city and finally move there and that feeling when you step into the apartment or house for the first time and have that overwhelming sense of this journey is really happening. That’s what the spinning top conveys. That there are these moments in reality that feel like a dream. And we have no idea how long that feeling will last. That the top is already starting to wobble. So enjoy it while you can.
What are your thoughts?
Is there more to the ending that you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for Inception? Leave your thoughts below and we’ll consider adding them.
Write a response