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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception - The Spinning Top - What Really Happened At The End Of The Movie? (Spoiler Alert)

Spoiler Alert!  If you haven't seen Inception and don't want to know about the ending, don't read this article until after you have seen the movie.

As I talked about in my earlier post, the movie Inception (Inception Art of the Dream), and particularly the ending, is meant to leave you thinking and questioning the nature of reality.

Is Cobb still dreaming and are his team and family (and maybe Saito) all projections?  Or is the job completed and is everyone back in reality and everything is happily ever after?  Will the spinning top keep spinning or was it about to fall over just before Nolan cut to black?  Part of the genius of the movie is that we will never know for sure (absent a sequel).  However, the top does start to wobble and it is never shown doing that in the dream world.  And, while the top wobbled, the kids were dressed the same (or very similarly) and in the same positions in the yard as when Cobb sees them in his dreams.  What does this mean?

After two viewings I can tell you that from the moment that Cobb and Saito (seem to) wake up from limbo, Nolan very purposefully shifts the film into an ambiguous state that leaves it somewhat open to the viewer’s perception and interpretation of that perception – two big themes of the movie, coincidentally enough.

From the moment Cobb and Saito wake, there is no more dialogue between the characters and few shots or images that would concretely explain or prove one interpretation.

We are left wondering will the top wobble and stop or keep spinning.  Most people have agreed that if the top begins to wobble, it will soon fall. But is this true? Remember, the top was invented by Cobb (actually Mol) as a way to ID reality.  So couldn't Cobb (or Mol) have set it up to where:
  • When Cobb gets to a dream that he desires for his future, the top in his dream falls, signaling to Cobb that's its OK to stay.
  • Maybe the "Inception" refers to Cobb (or Mol) planting the idea in his own mind, that its a logical preference to live in a dream. Even when he "knows" its only a dream. Remember it was Mol's top. Suppose she "Incepted" the idea into Cobb that the top in his dreams falls.
  • Why do we simply accept the idea that in a dream the top will always continue to spin?  Why couldn't we dream that the top stops spinning?  Was the idea that the top keeps spinning in a dream an "Inception" planted by Cobb or Mol?
There are a few pieces of “evidence” that we can certainly address:

  1. Was Saito truly powerful enough to make one phone call and end Cobb’s problems or was that just Cobb in limbo projecting his subconscious wish to go home? You can argue logistics all you want, but if it’s said that Saito is a powerful and wealthy man (he bought a whole airline on a whim), then there’s reason enough to infer that he could bend the legal system for Cobb. Rich powerful people bend laws all the time.
  2. Is there something unusual about the immigration agent? If he’s staring at Cobb, is it because his job is to look people over and scrutinize them? Would you want immigration letting people through without face-to-face scrutiny?  But remember in a dream, you start to draw the attention of the projections of the "dreamer."  Not much of an answer here.
  3. Did Cobb’s father (Michael Caine) arrange to meet him at the airport or is he there because he’s Cobb’s projection? There is a phone on the plane, so Cobb could have easily arranged for pickup. This was also an intricate plan they were hatching, so arranging for airport pickup would probably be on the to-do list.
  4. In early dream scenes Cobb is wearing a wedding band that doesn’t appear in the “real world” scenes or the end scenes in the airport – does that mean the ending is “reality?” Of all the "clues" discussed, details like that are certainly the best evidence that there is a real world and that Cobb does live in it at times – such as when he isn’t wearing a wedding band.
  5. At the end, Cobb’s kids seem to be the same age and are seemingly wearing the same clothes as they were in his memory of them – is it “proof” he’s still dreaming? At the end of the film Cobb’s kids are wearing similar outfits to the ones he remembers, but their shoes are different. As for their ages: if you check IMDB, there are actually two set of actors credited with playing Cobb’s kids. The daughter, Phillipa, is credited as being both 3 and 5 years old, while the son, James, is credited as being both 20 months and 3 years old. This suggests that while it might be subtle, there is a difference between the kids in Cobb’s memories and the kids Cobb comes home to. That would suggest the homecoming is in fact “reality.” But feel free to debate that.
Ultimately the important question is not “Is Cobb still dreaming?”  The point Nolan makes at the end is Cobb no longer cares if the top falls over or not and that the character of Cobb goes from being a guy who is obsessed with “knowing what’s real” to ultimately being a person who stops questioning and accepts what makes him truly happy as what’s real.

The only thing he knows for certain, the only thing that is real is his love for his kids. Dream or no dream, the love he has for his kids is a reality. And that was good enough for him, at that moment, he no longer cared if the top fell over or not. Cobb walks away from spinning top; hugs his kids; and, is finally happy.


  1. I hadn't even tought about the idea that the top keeps spinning in a dream. You are right!!! we could of course dream it stops. It has to be an Incepted idea. Bravo!!

  2. I think it is all Mol's dream. It was her top.

  3. This movie is so fantastic. I can't wait to see it again. Finally, a movie that is challenging.


  4. The IMDB's clue is quite interesting (two pair of actors from different ages for the characters of the children).
    Hard to believe that Saito could achieve so many things in so scarce time and without checking if Fisher was going to ruin his father's company or not. He couldn't tell that.

  5. I do believe that this is Mol's dream - not Cobb's. he is interacting with HER projections. The question at the end for me wasn't whether or not he was dreaming, it was who was incepting whom and I think the real twist is that Cobb isn't the one performing inception - he's just a victim having it performed on him.

  6. At the end when the characters on the airplane seem to be waking from the dream, Fischer
    's reaction to those who were in his dream is puzzling. For all he had been through in the dream you'd think he'd remember more the faces of those who were in his head.I know Cobb earlier pointed out we don't remember much from dreams, but wouldn't Fisher remember something from a ten hour dream. Most people remember something from a vivid dream.

  7. A dream within a dream within a movie within a movie. The ending of the first movie(Fisher's story) was within a dream...the successful planting of the pinwheel-father-really-loves-son theme. The ending of the main movie...Cobb's return to his children was in reality...Hollywood movie reality. (DreamWorks?) If Cobb were still dreaming he would have included his wife in this reunion with the children. Or would he? Very clever movie.

  8. @carol walsh, if you dreamt about someone you didnt know all too well, would you tell them you had a dream about them? im sure fisher was a bit taken aback by the dream he just woke up from, he might have recognized the people in the cabin as the same people he saw in his dream, but he probably brushed it aside.

  9. Cobb wouldn't settle for the dream version of Mal, whom he loved as much as his kids, because he learned that version was too one-dimensional, not the real woman he'd loved. He could've had her and the kids if he'd been willing to stay at that level of dreaming (the chemist could've put him there without all the trouble of the heist for Saito). And he wouldn't gratify himself by living in a dream while knowing that his kids were living in the "real" world. We know he was living for his kids, so getting back to them in reality was more important to him than anything. If he'd given up on reality, he never would've spun the top--he'd have thrown it away.

  10. Thanks for a really interesting analysis. Great thoughts.

  11. I'm sorry, but there are things you're overthinking, mate.

  12. Great movie. Great conspiracy's too. I think they are just conspiracy's though, I really think it is just as simple as he is in reality, Saito is a very powerful man, the spinning top would have dropped, Mol is dead, the other guys get there pay package (whatever it may be), they all go there separate ways, and Cobb reunites with his kids. Hollywood Happy Ending

  13. @luis you can take it as over thinking as you want, however this is Christopher Nolan we are talking about here. the way he creates films has a great way of making you think and not trusting everything at face value, if you look at memento and the prestige, they are exactly the same, keep you guessing until even after the film. that's what makes his films so encapsulating and gripping.

  14. woow, I also recently saw the movie, I was hooked, and eventually I was also thinking about the Totten turning the end, I ask, will be even dreaming about but you ?......... I think the final resolution of the best, he assumes as fact what really makes him happy. I also sometimes wonder what is the reality, if anything I'm dreaming about and blah blah, but then I think the only reality of this street is what you feel, affects good analizis Sean.

  15. What a wonderful analysis.Personally I think the two sets of child actors, the wobble that was not at all present in the dream, the wedding band absent from all 'reality' scenes and the subtle change in the children's clothes at the close of the film all point to a Hollywood happy ever after. All evidence to suggest otherwise was ambiguous; it "seemed" as if the children were the same etc. And Nolan's lack of dialogue between the central characters and extra dramatic music are more likely placed there to encourage this sort of discussion than to actually indicate the 'un-real' ending.

  16. "It's like a taco inside of a taco inside of a taco bell inside of a kfc inside of a mall inside of a dream"?

  17. That is a very funny comment about the taco metaphor.

  18. I think every moment of the film was a dream except from the point when they wake in the first class cabin in LA.

    The faces he briefly saw in first class cabin before he fell asleep entered his brain enough to be used as players in the elaborate dream he had while sleeping on his flight.

    After they all woke there was no interaction at all that revealed any real connection to a reality of the dream state. The smiles and normal glances at baggage claim were nothing more than human curiosity about those he just dreamt about and flew on a long flight with.

    Other real people from his real life, like his kids and grandfather made appearances in his dream just as people from our real lives do all of the time.

    Landing and seeing his his father and then his kids were just his appreciation of his real life and being home after his trip. He had just had a complex & dark dream. So the reality would be a pleasant experience. The details of the dreams were already leaving his mind.

    The love he shows for his kids when he gets home is the same love any good father feels when he sees his beautiful children after a long trip.

    The final spin of the top was nothing. It may have been as simple as a good luck charm he travels with.

    It was a highly inventive film. I loved the movie. ST

  19. i think that there is no real ending. as in, no defined ending. the writers did the spinning top at the end with the knowledge that they did not know what the ending is. they threw that twist in with suff like this website being the desired reaction from the audience. this may simply be stating the obvious, but that in itself is my view on the ending. i dont take sides on what the ending might be. i simply understand the different paths they made for us to take and i am content with that.

  20. Funny. It doesn't matter whether the top falls or keep spinning. The power of this movie is asking all of us the ultimate question: are we in a dream or reality? Is reality actually a dream or limbo? Is 'dying by suicide means going to hell' an Inception, just to keep us trapped in our world? Even, is logic itself an Inception? If they give you a car and build a highway in front of you, what choice of direction do you have? Can you fly? If time and space can be layered, why can't logic be the same? Just a few rules we have to follow (which is entirely breakable? As suggested in the movie)
    Look at our fucking blue planet in the solar system, it's a design. It's so peaceful that a cup of water doesn't spill on a giant ball like the Earth? So quiet that we can always hear a whisper? Gravity? Common, 'Deception is too obvious'. Read some karma literature, life is a looping trap. Oops, said too much...keep dreaming guys, a slap on the face like this won't wake you up any way, you are too deeply doped.
    Look at this: After 50 years, Cobb and Mal lied on the tracks as a young couple, waiting for a train. That, is smart. You can't argue with a dream. When you wake up, what appeared perfectly logical in a dream, can actually be absurd, right? So what's the point of discussion here again? Dreamers dismissed. If you do have a question, question life itself, instead of a dream.
    When Inception 2 comes out, I hope it won't disappoint me like Matrix 2&3 did. Inception 1 gave me a kick.
    Do you guys hear music?
    (a passerby, I won't come back to this page)

  21. The fact that is that based on the evidence of his children wearing the same clothes, them being the same age, and the top still spinning, we can definitely infer that Cobbis in a dream. The thing I wanna know is WHY is he in a dream? The answer lies within the first 3 minutes, and the last 5 minutes of the movie. The conversation with Saito, something happened, I just don't know what. Because Cobb was most definitely in reality throughout most of the movie.

  22. I think he was stills dreaming and that he is going to wakeup IN A GAY BAR..... GAY BAR!!!

  23. i'm so confused! i know it does not really matter but i would loveto have a definite answer. this movie was also fun to watch and gave me some stuff to think about. i do not think it is mol's dream, that i do not believe.

  24. It seems to me that Cobb could have used the top to prove to his wife that they were living in reality. She would never have to die to try it out!

  25. Anonymous said...
    I think he was stills dreaming and that he is going to wakeup IN A GAY BAR..... GAY BAR!!!
    March 24, 2011 12:04 PM

    So are you saying LEO is gay? Lame comment.

  26. I think that Cobb gets home. Besides that's just the ending I want. He went thru so much trouble, I jut want him to succeed. :D

  27. it can't be mols dream because in reality she is dead and a dead person cant dream

  28. But is she dead?? Did the fall from the rooftop kick her back to reality?

  29. Considering the possibility of the ENTIRE movie as a dream is pointless because it indicates that anything is possible in the reality, which hasn't been glimpsed in the movie since its all supposed to be a dream. Now, that's just anarchy.

    Also the "Mal incepted Cobb" Cobb just makes her a sadist, no evidence of which can be found in the movie.

    The possibility that Cobb had a dream involving random people he saw on his flight appeals to me because it is a simple, yet rarely-posed argument.

    But no, it has to be complicated right? IT MUST BE!!! There has to be something more! HOW CAN IT BE THAT SIMPLE?

    Congratulations, you've been incepted with Inception.

  30. It appears as if Cobb's final interaction with his children gives the subtle answer, the entire film, in all dream states, he never saw their faces, even when Mol calls out to them in their sub-councious world, he turns away, after making a point earlier in the movie about regretting not calling out to them, so he could remember faces. For them to finally turn to face him in the final scene this seems to be confirmation enough for Cobb that this is in fact, reality, walking away from the spinning top, just as he had from extractions, and the dream world entirely.