Inception: Anticlimactic or Satisfyingly Open-Ended?
In 2010’s Inception, Christopher Nolan tells a mind-bending science fiction story about the difficulty in discerning a dream from reality. The movie’s ending was one of Nolan’s most impactful endings – which is saying something, considering this filmmaker’s reputation – leaving audiences thinking, “What? How dare he end it there!” Even for moviegoers who could keep up with Inception‘s somewhat confusing plot, the ending is intentionally vague and open-ended. For many viewers, this is a point in the movie’s favor because it keeps us thinking about the movie long after it’s over. However, some viewers may consider this ending anticlimactic, frustrating, or disappointing. An analysis of this ending, as so many viewers have done so many times, may determine how anticlimactic it really was and may even reveal an answer to this open-ended question.
What Happened Here?
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a master thief who uses science fiction technology to steal information from the target’s subconscious mind. When a powerful businessman offers to clear Cobb’s criminal record and allow him to return home to his children, Cobb agrees to attempt an unprecedented heist: planting an idea deep in someone’s mind (a process called inception), convincing the target to do something but tricking him into thinking it was his idea.
The movie’s ending revolves around one of the central tensions of the plot. Cobb’s technology allows him to share a dream with his team and the target, accessing the subject’s subconscious mind while they sleep. But there is a constant danger of the technology being used against Cobb, trapping him in a dream without him realizing it. To ward off this danger, Cobb uses “totems,” objects that follow certain rules in dreams as opposed to reality. One such totem is a top that never falls over once it starts spinning in the dream. If the top does topple, Cobb knows he is awake and can act freely.
After the inception job is complete, Cobb returns home to find his father (Michael Caine) watching his children. As a final check, Cobb starts the top spinning on a table. He is distracted from seeing if it topples by his joyous reunion with his kids. The camera stays on the top, but before the audience can see if it falls or not… the screen goes black, and the credits roll. Viewers are left wondering: is Cobb still dreaming? Or did he get his happy ending after all?
This ambiguity may steal the happiness normally associated with a happy ending. Viewers might feel cheated, demanding a resolution, and form a negative opinion of the movie as a whole because of this. It is an understandable position. Any experience, no matter how positive, can be ruined by an unsatisfactory ending, as the ending is one of the things most likely to stick in a person’s memory.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
Most movies are made with the “lowest common denominator” in mind – appealing to the widest audience possible by trying to keep things simple – in an attempt to sell as many tickets and copies of the movie as possible. Christopher Nolan movies like Inception, however, tend to break that mold. As Vulture journalist Rob Stimpson explained, movies like this “aren’t supposed to be universally loved, nor completely understood, at least initially. But they have been discussed and dissected by viewers for hours, days, afterwards, and that in itself proves that a piece of art is having the desired effect.”
The intention of almost any piece of art is to evoke emotion. Anger and frustration at not getting a satisfying conclusion are emotional responses. If Nolan was expecting some people to be frustrated by Inception‘s ending, then he did a good job.
Another one of Nolan’s goals was, of course, to make money. The ambiguous ending prompted many viewers to buy another ticket to see the movie again in theaters, possibly many times. It later prompted audience members to buy copies of the movie on DVD or Internet streaming services, so they could continue to re-watch and analyze the ending.
Inception was the fourth highest-grossing film released in 2010, beating several movies designed to appeal to audiences based on the “lowest common denominator” formula: a Twilight movie, Iron Man 2, and animated classics like Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon. The ambiguous ending is no doubt one of the things that brought in so much box-office proceeds: over $836 million dollars, more than five times the film’s reported budget. Nolan clearly achieved his financial goal.
In defying the “lowest common denominator” trend, Nolan assumes his audience is intelligent enough to follow along with his vague sci-fi explanations of the movie’s plot. The ending, too, assumes a certain intelligence. “The audience is required to work,” Stimpson points out in his article, “and not every member of a cinema audience is happy to do so.” Viewers who criticize the ending for being anticlimactic may, in part, be expressing their frustration that a piece of entertainment is making them think. Viewers who like thinking, though, appreciate an opportunity like this.
Does It Even Matter?
As can be expected, Christopher Nolan has been frequently interrogated by audiences who would prefer a resolution to Inception‘s open ending. In a 2015 speech to the graduating class of Princeton, Nolan stated, “[Cobb] was off with his kids; he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement.”
The thing that keeps Cobb from seeing his children in reality is an event that Cobb feels responsible for: the death of his wife and the children’s mother. After the events of the movie, Cobb has conquered his guilt. That character development really happened, despite the fact it occurred while he was in a dream. Cobb is now willing to return home and see his children, regardless of whether he is legally allowed to or not.
The fact that Cobb does not wait to watch the top in the final scene suggests it doesn’t matter to him. And if it doesn’t matter to the movie’s protagonist, perhaps it shouldn’t matter to the audience. “Perhaps,” Nolan suggested, “all levels of reality are valid,” including dreams.
Arguably, the most important part of the film’s resolution is not Cobb overcoming the external obstacle of being legally forbidden to see his children again. The important part is Cobb overcoming the internal obstacle that was stopping him. That is the part audiences can most easily relate to: sometimes, the biggest thing holding people back from accomplishing their goals is their own unwillingness to do it.
Still Not Satisfied?
All that being said, if there is a chance of finding an answer to this ambiguous ending, film analysts will find it. As Stimpson wrote in his Vulture article, “for some, being a part of a movie, being able to contribute a part of yourself to a completed vision of a film is a liberating experience.” Another one of Nolan’s possible goals for the movie was empowering audiences to search for evidence and form theories.
One thing many viewers find on closer inspection is an important fact about the top: it was not originally meant to be Cobb’s totem. It was his wife’s, and he only started using it after she died. Based on this, there is no requirement that the top should defy physics in dreams. Cobb’s subconscious mind is not necessarily holding the top upright while it spins, so it could fall, even if he is dreaming.
However, it is entirely plausible that Cobb has adopted the top as one of his totems in his wife’s memory, convincing himself that the top will follow his wife’s rules in dreams. He is seen using the top multiple times during the movie, strongly implying that he expects it to act as a “reality test.” Unfortunately, understanding this does not prove one way or the other if the final scene is a dream.
However, this does lead audiences to another point: if the top is not Cobb’s totem, he must have a totem of his own. He instructs everyone on his team to get a totem to help them avoid getting hopelessly lost in dreams; presumably, he would have followed his own advice even before Mal’s death.
Many viewers have theorized that Cobb’s wedding ring is his totem. In scenes that are assumed to take place in reality, Cobb does not wear a wedding ring. In dreams, he wears it. Presumably, this is part of Cobb keeping his wife’s memory alive. When he is dreaming, he likes to pretend he is still married and not a widower, so his subconscious creates a wedding ring for him. Careful analysis of the final scene has revealed that Cobb is not wearing a ring, which suggests he is not dreaming.
This theory has multiple potential issues. For one, it is unlikely that Cobb would have made his wedding ring his totem when he first started using the dream technology. At that time, his wife was alive, so he would have worn his ring when he was awake. If he could make the wedding ring his totem after his wife’s death, there is no reason he could not do the same for the top.
More importantly, if Cobb’s wedding ring was his totem, there would be no reason for the top. All he would need to do to check reality is look at his hands: ring? Dream. No ring? Reality. Again, the number of times Cobb seems to be using the top as a reality test implies that he has adopted it as his totem.
Meanwhile, the wedding ring acts like a totem for the audience. The movie never directly states that Cobb only wears the ring when he is dreaming; that is inferred by watching the movie very carefully. It is possible Nolan left this clue for viewers to find to satisfy their desire for an answer.
Another point worth mentioning is the Occam’s Razor approach: most movies have happy endings, so why not assume the same of Inception? The genre and Nolan’s filmography do not give reason to assume this movie ends unhappily – it is not a horror movie made by Alfred Hitchcock, for example. Assuming, for now, an equal chance of the ending being real or imagined, an optimistic worldview increases the chance that it is real.
The Ultimate Reality Check
The most convincing piece of evidence comes from Sir Michael Caine, who plays Cobb’s father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles. While speaking at a film festival in 2018, Caine confessed that he had been confused when he first read Inception‘s script. He asked Christopher Nolan about it, and Nolan kindly cleared something up for him: “[Nolan] said, ‘Well, when you’re in the scene, it’s reality.'”
At first glance, this looks like a director/writer helping an actor understand a scene and his character. Caine knew he would never be playing a projection of Cobb’s subconscious, so he would never need to do anything strange. For example, in the movie, mental projections sometimes act overly suspicious of the main characters as the subject’s mind starts to detect intruders. Projections from Cobb’s mind in particular frequently attempt to sabotage him during dream sequences. It was useful for Caine to know he was always playing a “real person.”
But this insight has implications reaching far beyond Caine’s acting. In a scene in the movie’s first act, Cobb meets with Miles about one of the members of his heist crew. During the conversation, Miles says, “Come back to reality, Dom.”
Sir Michael Caine has a reputation for playing wise mentor characters who ground Christopher Nolan movies in reality. In Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, for example, Caine plays Alfred Pennyworth, the butler who is always there to remind Batman of his “real life” as Bruce Wayne. Alfred pulls Bruce back to reality, just as Professor Miles invites Cobb to stop living in dreams and return to the way things were, as much as that’s possible. Caine’s characters are the ultimate reality check. Thus, Nolan saying, “when you’re in the scene, it’s reality” is very true and very important.
Professor Miles represents Cobb’s one remaining link to his old life. The only other reasonable link is his children, who he is forbidden from seeing. Considering he expects to be arrested as soon as he returns to America, it seems like an awfully big risk for Cobb to make contact with Miles. He does it because Miles is the reality check for when he’s awake.
And then Professor Miles appears in the final scene, confirming for the audience that (if Nolan is to be believed) the ending is reality. Of course, even if it was a dream, it was a happy ending for Cobb, and that is what really matters.
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