Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
Ah, Inception. Perhaps the most Christopher Nolan-iest movie of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The 2010 tale of dream-sharing espionage is chock full of perfect shots, killer practical effects, and an antihero haunted by a dead wife. It’s been a decade since Inception was released, and one of the main talking points remains the ambiguous ending. Nolan is the sort of “mic-drop moment” filmmaker who loves nothing more than going out with a bang. He’s knocked plenty of endings out of the park over the years, but somewhat ironically none of his other endings to date come close to matching the cultural clout of a top innocuously spinning on a dining room table.
But before we break things down, let’s do a quick recap of everything that happens leading up to the final shot that launched a thousand Reddit posts.
The man of the hour is Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an architect by training who works as an “extractor,” a thief who goes into people’s dreams to steal their secrets. All Cobb wants to do is to go home to his children. Unfortunately, he’s stuck on the lam because his wife and collaborator, Mal (Marion Cotillard), died under suspicious circumstances that left him the prime suspect.
A new hope emerges in the form of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese titan of industry. He wants Cobb to infiltrate the mind of his dying competitor’s heir, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and he promises to use his billionaire superpowers to get the thief home to his children scot-free if he pulls off the job. But there’s just one thing: Saito doesn’t want to steal Fischer’s secrets. He wants to plant an idea into his head, specifically the idea that the younger man should dissolve his father’s business empire. While oft theorized, idea-planting, or (cue dramatic title drop moment) “inception,” is generally regarded as practically impossible, Cobb assembles a dream team to give it a shot.
Along with his right-hand point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb hires a forger (Tom Hardy in a breakout performance), a chemist (Dileep Rao), and a hotshot architect-in-training, Ariadne (Ellen Page), to design the maze-like dream levels. Complications ensue because that’s how drama works. There are dreams within dreams within dreams and a quick jaunt down to “Limbo,” but with plenty of quick thinking and ingenuity, things end up working out in the nick of time. Saito makes some calls and Cobb gets to go home to his kids. The end.
Only there’s one thing I forgot to mention. A key practice in the dream-sharing profession is using a “totem,” a small privately held object you keep on your person that can be used to make sure you’re not in someone else’s dream. Cobb is often shown using Mal’s old totem, a top that never stops spinning in dreams. After he finally makes it home, he sets the top spinning on the kitchen table before rushing over to give his kids a long-overdue hug, and when the film cuts to black seconds later, the damn top is still spinning, tossing a large dose of uncertainty into what would overwise be a cut-and-dry Hollywood ending. Does it fall?! Is it real?!
Before getting to the spinning top question, we need to address that the internet’s favorite Inception query also arguably misses the real point of the final scene. The crux of the ending is that Cobb doesn’t stick around to watch the top spin because he does not actually care if it falls or not. He’s home and reunited with his children, exactly where he wants to be, and he’s not about to go anywhere, no matter what the totem has to say about the situation.
That said, I recognize the likelihood that you clicked on this article not because you wanted a breakdown of what the final scene indicates about the protagonist’s emotional journey, but because you want an answer to a very specific question: does the damn top fall???? Cobb may not care about the answer, but you certainly do.
So here’s your answer: yes it does. Technically this is an educated guess but it’s also an educated guess made with about 99 percent certainty. It’s kind of like Schrodinger’s cat. You can’t technically know for sure that the cat is dead — even though it’s stuck in a box with a fatal dose of poison — until you open it. But also, it’s definitely dead. The same basic logic applies here. You don’t see the top fall, but in the context of various information established over the course of the film, you can conclude with considerable confidence that that sucker is about to tire itself out and tip right over.
There are four important reasons why you can be confident that Nolan’s big dream heist ends planted firmly in reality.
The first reason is that the spinning top isn’t Cobb’s totem. As he mentions in the film, it’s Mal’s, and unless Arthur’s big speech to Ariadne about the purpose of totems and proper totem etiquette earlier in the film is all stuff and nonsense, their functionality is not transitive. You can’t co-opt someone else’s totem, even if they’re your spouse. There’s a popular Reddit-spawned theory that Cobb’s totem is really his wedding ring, as he is repeatedly spotted wearing it in dreams but not in reality, because, as he admits, “In my dreams we’re still together.” It’s a pretty clever theory and a definite contender, even if there isn’t quite enough evidence to label it as definitively true.
Whatever his personal totem may be, the important thing is that losing a grip on reality has never really been Cobb’s issue. There are times he would definitely like to forget what’s real and just, say, live in Limbo with faux-Mal, but he can’t forget or forgive himself for the role he unwittingly played in leading her towards a path of self-destruction. He brings chaos to the Fischer dream not because he can’t remember what’s real, but because he is so driven to distraction over his guilt to a point where he can’t keep it from influencing his subconscious, just like how whatever you’re most stressed over in waking life has an uncanny way of popping up in dreams.
Mal’s spinning top does indeed serve as a “reality check” of sorts for Cobb, but it’s not about making sure he’s not dreaming so much as having a constant reminder of his culpability in setting off the chain of events that has left him a widower on the run from the law, unable to see his children. The key takeaway from the final shot is that while the camera is watching the top, Cobb isn’t, because he has reunited with his children, reached some degree of peace with himself over Mal’s death, and is ready to move on with his life. Prior to this moment, his punishment for himself was making sure he felt the full weight of his cross to bear every single second of every single day. He’s a Chris Nolan protagonist. They’re metal like that.
The second reason is that no, James and Phillipa are not actually wearing the same outfits they are in Cobb’s dreams. An observation that often leads people to suspect the final scene might be a dream is one that his kids appear to be wearing the same outfits they have on when they show up in Cobb’s imagination. However, if you compare the dream kids playing in the backyard shot and the coda reunion kids playing in the backyard shot, you’ll find that they’re both wearing different, albeit incredibly similar, clothes. Phillipa’s in a salmon-colored dress both times, but the reunion dress has spaghetti straps and she’s wearing a white t-shirt underneath it. James has a plaid shirt on once again, and even with a similar color palette to boot, but the pattern features thin, dark purplish stripes clearly missing from the shirt seen earlier. There’s no question that the similarities are intentional and meant to give viewers pause, but the truth is in the details.
The third reason is that the top wobbles. Nolan can’t help himself but be that much of a tease and have the top wobble slightly just before the smash cut to black. The thing is, though, that when the top is shown spinning infinitely in a dream, it never wobbles at all.
The fourth reason is that Nolan actually told Michael Caine the ending is reality. Introducing a screening of Inception last summer, the actor shared that when he first read the script, he too was a little befuddled about which parts were dreams and which parts were reality. When he expressed his confusion, Nolan told him, “When you’re in the scene, it’s reality.” As Caine plays Cobb’s father-in-law, who had (along with his wife) been taking care of James and Phillipa for the time being, he is in the final scene. Ergo, it’s reality.
So there you have it. The (in)famously ambiguous ending isn’t really all that ambiguous at all. Now if you really want to have your mind bent by a movie about dream sharing, go watch Paprika.