‘Inception’: the ending of Christopher Nolan’s movie explained
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'Inception': the ending of Christopher Nolan's movie explained

As well as a plethora of new releases on its books, Netflix is also chock-full of classic cinema, including perhaps one of the best movies of the 21st Century, Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Love him, or loathe him, the British filmmaker Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors of the modern industry at capturing the spectacle of the silver screen. Matched only by the likes of Denis Villeneuve and James Cameron, Nolan’s movies have the ability to break new narrative and technological boundaries, with his 2010 masterpiece Inception being the jewel in his filmography, perfectly embodying his essence as an innovative creative. 

Enriched with genuinely interesting ideas relating to the barriers of the subconscious and perceived reality, the director forces the viewer to become the locksmith of Inception’s truth, constantly shifting between reality and the dreamscape to create an ambiguous puzzle. The enigma itself follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief trained to infiltrate other people’s dreams to take secrets from their subconscious. 

But, in Nolan’s complex action-drama hybrid, he’s instead asked not to steal a thought, but to plant one, with the mission asking him to go deep into the dreamscape to lay a new seed of memory. However, the lines as to what’s real and what’s fake become blurred as he goes deeper into the psychological layers of the dream world. 

Though don’t let the magician pull the wool over your eyes, the key motivation for Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the lead character in Nolan’s film, is his incessant desire to be reunited with his family. His client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), has the ability to clear the criminal charges against him if he is successful, allowing him to reunite with his wife and children after several long years. 

No matter how much misery and mayhem may precede the climax of a Christopher Nolan epic, they often conclude with a familial reconnection of melodramatic proportions, giving reason to the madness. Inception is no different, too, with Cobb finally returning to his family at the end (or does he?). 

Is the totem still spinning at the end of Inception?

The widely-debated issue of ‘is Cobb still dreaming or not?’ has become the pinnacle of movie-related discussion ever since the release of the movie over a decade ago, and despite so much time having passed, there is still no definitive answer. Still, to understand Nolan’s climax, you need to understand Cobb’s totem, an object each ‘extractor’ uses to test whether they are in reality or still in another person’s dream. At the film’s end, Cobb twirls his totem, a small, black spinning top and walks away to his wife and family, with Nolan’s film cutting to black shortly before we see the device’s fate. 

So, the question is, is Cobb still in a dream? 

To get a grasp of the answer, we need to go back to the key to Inception’s puzzle; the totem. The most obvious thing to mention is that the spinning top stumbles just before the film cuts to black, suggesting that the totem will fall and that Cobb is indeed in the real world. Though with this considered, the totem spins for a notably long time, and there is no proof that it ever stopped at all. 

But, this isn’t the only debate either, with many claiming that the totem itself doesn’t even belong to Cobb, but to his wife instead, after all the spinning top is his wife’s, and according to the protagonist at the start of the movie, every totem should be unique to its owner. If Cobb’s totem wasn’t even his in the first place, how can the audience be sure that the spinning top is even his proof of whether he’s living in a dream or not?

Although there are countless theories online, one of the most popular suggests that Cobb’s wedding ring is actually his totem, with the protagonist only wearing this when he’s in his dream. Significantly, Cobb is also not wearing his ring in the final scene of the movie. So, where exactly does this leave us?

What does the ending of Inception mean?

Truthfully, no one has ever disclosed the meaning of the film’s ending, a fact that has stoked the fires of internet debate ever since 2010. Is Cobb still in a dream, or is he in reality? The answer depends on your outlook on the world. 

Lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio recently went on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2020 only to reveal that he had “no idea” what the ending means, whilst Nolan remains forever tight-lipped about the conclusion. Speaking in an interview with Wired, the director stated: “I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a true interpretation”, so don’t expect an answer from him anytime soon. 

Though, from our point of view, the complex answer to the question of ‘what does the ending of Inception mean?’ is fairly simple. In fact, the more we search for particular clues, the more we get away from Nolan’s intentions. As he told Entertainment Weekly during a separate interview: “The real point of the scene… is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top… He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing”. 

For Cobb, he could not accept a reality where he did not ‘win’ and was triumphant in seeing his family again. Walking away from the spinning top at the end of the film showed that he no longer cared about the outcome. Real or fake, he’s happy with his reality.

It’s an iconic ending from Christopher Nolan’s greatest-ever movie, and one we would one day be intrigued to know the definitive answer to. But truthfully, a black-and-white answer to Nolan’s complex enigma would be an injustice.