‘Inception’ Ending Explained: Life Is But a Dream. Well, Life Is Cobb’s Dream.

     June 12, 2020

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It has been 10 good, long years since I exited an opening night showing of Christopher Nolan‘s dream heist pic Inception. From then until now, I have been haunted by Inception‘s confounding, debate-worthy final shot. It’s a shot which has ignited many a debate, left many of us taking shaky drags on a metaphorical cigarette as we pore over every frame for answers, and left us endlessly rewinding into the long night as we grasp onto every preceding moment hoping for some grand revelation. Inception‘s ending has many explainers since its release in July 2010, but has this ending ever been definitively explained? While I don’t think a definitive answer is possible (and I think that’s partially the point), I think it’s about time you buckle up and listen to the Inception ending explainer I cling to after 10 years spent working through it and shaping it in my lizard brain.

The Ending We Know

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Image via Warner Bros.

Let’s start with fact. In a movie as heady and twisty and esoteric as Inception, we simply must begin with the stone-cold facts. For me, Inception‘s final act begins with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Eames (Tom Hardy), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Saito (Ken Watanabe), and Fisher (Cillian Murphy) making it to the third level of the multi-level dream constructed by their chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), to ensure enough time to pull off the inception-possible result of Fisher breaking up his father’s business empire for Saito’s personal gain. Fisher, aided by Eames, is so close to completing the mission when the unconscious projection of Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), emerges from somewhere (a ceiling panel? an air duct? actual thin air, given the elevation of the mountain setting? Who knows!) and shoots Fisher. Attempts to revive Fisher fail and Ariadne, the architect of this dream world, convinces Cobb to take her down into limbo — a.k.a. unconstructed dream space existing within untouched subconscious — to retrieve Fisher, whose consciousness would remained trapped there thanks to the drugs keeping him in this dream heist.

A journey into limbo features a harrowing, emotional confrontation between Cobb and Mal as “they” sort out “their” issues. (I use quotes since, as the movie has made plain in previous scenes, Mal is a projection of Cobb’s mind, so really, Cobb is having a last-minute therapy sesh with himself.) Ariadne successfully retrieves Fisher, Cobb stays behind in limbo to retrieve Saito, whose wounds also plunged him to limb but I really don’t have time to tell you about that in full, and the team gets off the 10-hour flight from Australia to Los Angeles. Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles (Michael Caine), meets him at baggage claim, a thing made possible by Saito using some likely shady backchannels to clear any arrest warrants which previously kept Cobb from returning to L.A. Miles and Cobb arrive at home, where Cobb can finally see the faces of his children and hug them. Before he does, though, he is compelled to spin his totem, a top once used by Mal, to see if this is all real. The top is still spinning as Cobb hugs his children and the camera cuts to black.

Cobb’s Totem Is Not the Key

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Image via Warner Bros.

Here is where we all collectively freaked out back in 2010. Was Cobb actually in the real world? Or was this some dream trickery, as indicated by his special totem not abiding the laws of gravity? So much time and effort has been poured into trying to argue why the top actually topples, even if we don’t see it. Among the most recent theories is one which argues Cobb’s real totem is his wedding ring, not the top, and elsewhere, the fact he is wearing it in the final shot (versus not wearing it in what we believe to be dreams), is definite proof he’s in the real world. Meanwhile, Nolan, ever the enigma, couldn’t give a flip about explaining the ending means or answering whether the top tips over.

Ultimately, I think the top, the ring, and any talk of totems is a massive misdirect when trying to unpack the ending. The real question the Inception ending wants us to answer is not “Did the top fall over?” but rather, “Do I trust Cobb to show me his reality?” Inception look like a team effort but, at its heart, this is Cobb’s journey. Because of this, Inception is also rife with hints about Cobb, his trustworthiness, and his mental stability as he grapples with the loss of his wife and trying to outrun the law. There are big hints throughout the move which have me ready to believe that what Cobb is seeing and believing to be real at the end of Inception is not reality, but merely the result of both a final break from actual reality and him forgiving himself for subjecting Mal to lies which left her permanently changed.

Pay Close Attention

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Image via Warner Bros.

Two early exchanges between Saito, Cobb, and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hold part of the root of the argument which says belief in Cobb is essential to understanding the ending. In the opening dream heist, Cobb tells Saito at dinner that the most resilient parasite is an idea. “Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate,” the mastermind thief explains. Approximately 15 minutes later in Inception‘s first act, Arthur repeats the spirit of Cobb’s earlier sentiment, arguing the impossibility of planting an idea in someone’s head because “the subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea.”

And now, as a viewer, all I can think about are these two statements. For the rest of Inception‘s two-hour runtime, I will be thinking about tracing the genesis of the ideas the movie wants to plan in my mind and I will be cautious because those ideas can take hold like a virus. The other part of the foundation for Cobb’s reliability as ending key are two basic rules in Cobb’s line of work: Dreams always start in the middle of the action. (Forget the prologue in limbo; didn’t this movie’s story start in the middle of an actual dream taking place in Cobb’s mind?) and you mustn’t touch another man’s totem. (Hm, weird how Cobb’s two totems, one of them in theory, are the top and his wedding ring, both taken from/symbolically gifted by Mal.)

To Trust Cobb or Not to Trust Cobb

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Image via Warner Bros.

Inception wants you to question everything about the nature of what you’re seeing onscreen; it’s part of the fun. Through it all, we see this story play out with Cobb’s personal backstory anchoring it, turning us into his sympathizers and hoping he can break free of his demons. But time and time again, Cobb proves himself to untrustworthy, either to his team, to us, or both. Consider the Cobb knows about the risk of dropping into limbo while on any of the dream levels, a key factoid Cobb doesn’t tell his team until the first level. Or, how about the time Cobb decides the team will pull off the “Mr. Charles” gambit on the second level? Reason to find Cobb way more sus than he lets on is illustrated perfectly in the following exchange between Arthur and Ariadne:

Ariadne: “Who or what is Mr. Charles?”

Arthur: “It’s a gambit designed to turn Fisher against his own subconscious.”

Ariadne: “And why don’t you approve?”

Arthur: “Because it involves telling the mark that he’s dreaming, which involves attracting a lot of attention to us.”

Ariadne: “Didn’t Cobb say never to do that?”

Arthur: “Mm. So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.”

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Image via Warner Bros.

The real kicker is this: Cobb only tells Ariadne a portion of the story about his and Mal’s time in limbo. We don’t learn about the infectious idea Cobb planted in Mal’s mind in order to coax her back into reality — “Your world is not real” — until the third act during Cobb and Ariadne’s return to limbo. After a movie spent wondering what’s going on with Cobb and whether he’s gonna crack, fully risking the mission as his own fractured subconscious risks flooding the dream levels, the most viral idea of them all is revealed. Now, after all of this, as Inception winds down all I can think about is whether or not the world I see onscreen is real. You’re thinking it too, aren’t you?

Cobb’s Life Is But a Dream

By the time Cobb gets home from LAX and goes to hug his children, it is implied he is free of any burdens of his past. His is not wanted for murder, he has let go of the angry shade of his wife which keeps barging into his consciousness, and he can hug his kids. But, wait, when Cobb sees his kids for the first time in multiple years, they appear not to have aged from his memories. Strange. And that top keeps spinning long after he walks away from it. Also strange. With these two final curiosities to ponder and a whole-ass movie’s worth of doubt about Cobb’s reliability as a narrator coming before it, the only thing left to ponder is if the world Cobb is seeing, his home, is real.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Cobb spends the movie processing, unpacking, revisiting, and trying to figure out how to break free of his traumas. Cobb seeing his children’s faces at home is not the result of release from legal pursuit, but rather the result of him allowing himself to see them after letting go of Mal. It is very possible, in this new dream (and I do believe the ending is based in a dream, not reality) Cobb is going to have to process his absence from his children and work through the guilt of his actions rippling into their lives.

Dreams feel real. To varying degrees, they operate by the laws of nature which govern our world while also possessing something of a surreal quality. Dreams are a time for us to process our world, our thoughts, our feelings, the day we just witnessed, and so one. Dreams are a sacred space which we cannot hope to hold onto after we wake. We can spend precious time unpacking the meaning of dreams, pondering the messages they hold for us. Those messages and answers, whatever they seem to be, come from within us. We process our own minds and our world. Inception is, simply put, Cobb’s dream.

Inception is now available to watch on Netflix. Get even more Christopher Nolan-related updates here.

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