The Ending of Inception

Inception is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of the year. On most of the critics’ lists it’s at least mentioned somewhere in the top ten or as an honorable mention. It’s that rare type of film: a thinking-man’s blockbuster. Who knew that things like discussions about the subconscious and explosions would go so well together?

But beyond the pyrotechnics and dreams-within-a-dream and the staggeringly high body count (it’s somehow rated PG, meaning that the MPAA decided that people could discern that the deaths happening in the film weren’t actually happening, a feat that the audience can’t achieve by themselves unless a movie explicitly tells them “this isn’t reality” – but enough of my grumblings) the lasting impression the film made on movie-goers was: what the hell happened at the end?

Leo ponders whether to shoot himself or play spin the totem again.

[Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie, I will be discussing the ending. No false advertising here.]

The funny thing about this question is that it’s the least interesting discussion topic you can have about the movie. Instead of wondering about the is-it-or-isn’t-it-going-to-fall totem, we could be talking about how the entire film is just one big disguised metaphor for filmmaking, the level of detail Christopher Nolan and his team spent on little things like the film’s score, or how Juno didn’t seem to be that much of wunderkind architect (I mean, it took her three tries it make a puzzle…on paper). But alas, the most interesting thing for people to discuss is the question of the ending: is Cobb in reality, or is he still dreaming?

The first time I saw the film I had a few different theories (like pretty much everyone else did). The main one was that I thought the never-ending spinning totem wasn’t a sign that Cobb was still dreaming but an after-effect of Saito/Saito’s projection handling the totem while in limbo. Rather than designating reality from the dream world, the totem was in effect broken after being touched by another being (that was one of the first of many rules…don’t let someone else touch your totem or else they know the weight and then it defeats the whole purpose of the thing). So there was that.

But having now seen the film a second time and having read a telling article in Wired where Christopher Nolan skirts around definitively explaining the ending but leaves another clue, that is, “that the most important emotional thing is that Cobb’s not looking at [the totem],”  I’m pretty sure that it’s time to end this discussion and put it to rest.

Cobb’s not looking at the totem. This is the key take-away from the ending. The spinning totem matters the most to Cobb, and yet, he doesn’t even care about it. This little object is supposed to tell him whether or not what he is experiencing is real. But he’s doesn’t spin it at the end to check the validity of his reality because he doesn’t stop to check it. He spins it, and then walks away towards his children. He’s leaving the totem behind; he doesn’t need it anymore. He’s accepting a new life. A real one.

The ending of Inception is just a MacGuffin that leads the discussion after the film but distracts and misleads the audience from the real purpose of the movie. Take a quick look at the driving motive behind the film: Cobb wants to get back to America and be with his children and he will do anything to accomplish that (including being a glorified bank robber, except of ideas and secrets instead of cash and diamonds). And at the end, he’s finally accomplished what he set out to do from the beginning of the film. Though Inception takes place in a world of dreams, it’s not really interested in examining them (see the movie Waking Life, arguably the best movie about dreams, for that). It’s just a new setting for a familiar story: that of the man who will do anything for his family.

What has to be realized is that the ending is the same whether or not the totem falls or keeps spinning forever: Cobb doesn’t look. He’s done dreaming. Because he’s achieved his dream. It’s the rest of us sitting in the audience who can’t understand that and urge Cobb to look. If he doesn’t confirm that he’s in reality, how are we to know? But Cobb doesn’t care what you or I think, he hardly cares about the characters he works with in the film, and he recklessly endangers their lives (through his projection of Mal) in order to achieve his goal of seeing his children again. It could be reality. It could be a dream. But finally, for once, it doesn’t matter. Cobb has kids and that’s all he needs. The movie’s over.

I hope that finally puts the ending of Inception to rest. I don’t want to see any more message boards with viewers counting the seconds it takes for the totem to topple, or elaborate theories about how Mal’s ghost haunts Limbo and somehow transmorphified into Saito for the thirty-five seconds that he’s in Cobb’s presence and used some black magic to keep him dreaming forever. Or that Adriane feels sympathy for Cobb that she makes a make-believe dream world for him and traps him there. That’s not what this movie’s about.

Let’s talk about the real question of Inception: what does Saito gain from their covert operation? Of course, he explains his motives by wanting to keep the business arena “fair” because the Fischer company is becoming too big for him to compete with. But that doesn’t ring entirely true. I mean, he’s not exactly the most benevolent man (he does dispatch of the first Architect fairly ruthlessly) and wanting to keep things “fair” doesn’t seem to be part of the man’s character. He’s the type to say “life isn’t fair” while throwing a homeless man into oncoming traffic and using a $100 bill to light his cigar. But I digress.

Back to that damn spinning top I guess.

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