Okay, so let’s talk Inception and let’s talk about the Inception ending and let’s talk spoilers. Yes, SPOILERS, this post is a SPOILER!
Obviously, if you haven’t seen the movie yet you aren’t going to want to engage in this conversation, but considering it’s been such a long while since we had a movie to discuss I felt it was only best to open a forum. Especially considering there is quite a bit to talk about outside of whether or not you liked the film, which we all want to know as well…
Outside of liking the film, I think the biggest question here is whether or not you believe the movie ended with Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) dreaming or in reality? The great thing about this one question is it leads you to question everything else about the movie in order to come up with your answer.
After seeing the movie twice and putting all my thoughts down in digital ink I have come to a personal conclusion, which I will detail shortly. First, I have put together a list of seven things I think can be used to spin your final decision one way or another. Some aren’t as important as others, but a collection of two or three may cause you to doubt your ultimate determination. Let’s dive in…
1) The children (of which I can’t find a single frame of online) at the end of the movie are in virtually the same position on the lawn as they were in Dom’s visions. They also seem to be wearing the same clothes.
2) The ages of the children are also noteworthy. Not only do they appear not to have aged from the last time Dom saw them, but there’s a moment when he’s on the phone with them and Phillipa sounds much older than she appears in these visions and at the end of the film. Of course, there is never a moment we’re told how much time has passed since Dom had to leave them, but this creates a seed of doubt (or should I say a seed of “inception”).
3) Where’s grandma and how did Miles (Michael Caine) know to pick Dom up at the airport? Sure, there are things we can chalk up to simply having happened and the director didn’t show us, but considering this is a movie where the audience is left to evaluate every turn in the plotline these are two things that aid the “Is it real or just a dream?” question. We hear grandma on the phone when Dom calls, but she’s not there when he arrives at the house and on his way to seeing the children Miles just walks past him and out of frame, which is when Nolan zooms in on the spinning top.
4) The chase in Mombasa and Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) timing. Here’s a scenario that seems directly out of a dream – an impossible chase, a tight squeeze and an improbable rescue.
5) Saito’s interruption of Dom as he tries to spin the top in the bathroom. This was the one thing I kept going back to in my discussions about the movie and trying to convince others it was a dream. Dom never gets a chance to confirm he’s in reality as the top falls to the floor and never tries again after that. Are we in a dream or reality at this moment? We assume reality, but based on the rules set up by Nolan we don’t know for sure.
6) Can you adopt someone else’s totem? The importance of totems is made quite clear and it’s also clear your totem should be kept to yourself and not shared. This makes me question Dom’s use of Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) throughout the entire movie. Saito spins it while the two are in shared limbo and it just keeps on spinning while falling elsewhere, but it’s not his totem. Can he get a false read from it? Or is it simply a matter of understanding a totem’s dream space design that gives the user an accurate read? This theory also opens the door to the final spin of the top… Does it spin forever? Does it fall? Does it matter?
7) Ariadne’s (Ellen Page) immediate acceptance of shared dreaming can be looked at one of three ways – 1) a plot device you don’t get too upset about; 2) a plot hole meaning she accepts it quickly to save time; or 3) another example proving this is all a dream and the dreamer simply overlooks exposition and projects onto people the qualities necessary for the dream to continue.
Now, the portion of the movie that will most likely have everyone arguing one way or another comes just before the very end. The jump to level four where Mal has kidnapped Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and Dom and Ariadne follow. Let me see if I can coherently describe my take on this and tell me if you agree, disagree or have a different interpretation altogether…
First off, there are a few things to consider I find particularly important. The first thing is that limbo is not a “place” but a state of mind. The second is to always realize our group of dream thieves is heavily sedated and all sharing the same state of mind and can follow each other through it. These two things, in my opinion, are key to figuring out the final sequence of the film…
To begin, Fischer “dies” in level three when shot by Mal therefore sending him into the limbo of this shared dreaming experience. At this point we learn Mal (which represents Dom’s guilty subconscious) has kidnapped Fischer (the dream world equivalent of his subconscious) and she can be followed/found in the limbo Dom and Mal constructed. This explains why Ariadne and Dom can then enter Dom’s subconscious, which is where Mal and Fischer’s kidnapped subconscious now reside. After all, it was Dom’s subconscious projection that killed Fischer.
Next, Dom confronts his guilt as suggested by Ariadne throughout the movie. His guilty conscience (Mal) weakens and allows Ariadne to get Fischer. The weather begins shifting as the dream world begins to collapse. Ariadne throws Fischer from the window allowing him to kick back up to level three at the same time Eames (Tom Hardy) uses the defibrillator. Ariadne then follows with a leap kicking herself back up to level three with Eames and now Fischer, who rides the kick up to a level where he wasn’t already dead.
From here the kicks all happen simultaneously – the van hitting the water, the elevator drop and explosion and the destruction of the fortress. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne, Eames and Fischer all ride this kick back up and join Yusef (Dileep Rao) whose dream is level one. They then sit on the shore and wait for the sedation to wear off so they can wake up back on the plane.
Meanwhile, Saito dies in level three and was sent to limbo. Dom dies in level one by drowning in the sinking van, which is when he joins Saito in the shared limbo and explains why Saito has aged and Dom has not. This also explains why the shared limbo is populated with Saito’s memories when Dom arrives.
When they meet they aren’t quite sure what to make of the situation, but the memory of a shared real experience causes them to remember and realize they are dreaming and is why they “take a leap of faith.” Saito shoots and kills Dom sending him back to reality and then shoots himself. The two wake on the plane, Saito makes a phone call and the movie goes on from there…
As for my take on all this, based on the progression of the movie it insinuates Dom is in reality when he wakes on the plane. However, everything that happens after they land in Los Angeles implies it’s a dream. This sounds confusing but it actually works given all the information we know…
Dom tells Ariadne the only way he can dream is to use the dream machine. This is when we watch the elevator sequence and we see the memories Dom has locked away in his subconscious. Later in the film Ariadne tells him he needs to confront his guilt and relieve himself of it, something he does in the fourth level when we learn the extent of his guilt. This would imply Dom has reached a new level of consciousness and he is now free to dream once again without torment.
This tells me when Dom and Saito awake from limbo it is in fact reality, and Saito then makes a call clearing Dom’s name. From here what we see is a dream. Dom can now dream again without the dream machine and he’s dreaming of seeing his kids once again with the last memory of them he has. Perhaps it happens on the plane or is simply a dream his mind goes back to now and again, but it is a dream.
NOW, WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?
There are, of course, several different ways to interpret this whole thing. Some believe Saito is manipulating the whole thing. Some believe Mal was actually right and Dom needs to kill himself in order to join reality. The movie is all about what you choose to believe is real and what is a dream. As Yusef says at one point when Ariadne asks, “Who would want to stay in a dream that long?” He answers, “Depends on the dream.” This could easily relate to everything that happens considering it all works out for Dom in the end.
With the final shot of the movie Christopher Nolan has attempted his own measure of inception. The question is whether or not the seed he planted was strong enough to convince you the movie was one thing or another. Do you realize it’s an idea he planted? Are you convinced it’s a dream? Are you jumping from the balcony with Mal, or sticking with Dom in whatever reality it is he’s chosen to believe?