You just watched Inception, more specifically, you just watched the ending of Inception, maybe not for the first time. Naturally, you’re gonna have some questions. Wait, what? That top started to fall right? Why were his kids wearing the same outfits? Could that have really been a dream? Don’t worry, we’ll parse through all the Inception theories, and by the end of this, get the Inception ending explained.
Everything we know about the ending
We are not here to judge Inception or rank Christopher Nolan's films, we’re here for one reason only — to figure out what the Inception ending means. Now, to do that, we must first clarify what it is we KNOW.
Note: this post assumes you’ve already seen Inception, but if you need a recap on what happened at the end of Inception you can read the Inception screenplay, or watch the following video.
Alright, so we know:
- Cobb (aka Dicaprio) never successfully performs a spinning test thingy after the 33-minute mark in the film
- Cobb completes his mission, enabling him to fly to the United States and be with his kids
- Cobb’s children are wearing basically the exact same outfits we see numerous times in his dreams
- We don’t see Mal (Marion Cotillard) again after limbo
- Cobb isn’t wearing his wedding ring in the airport
- The top starts to wobble, we hear it wobble, but we don’t see it fall
- The final spin of the top takes 50 seconds, whereas his other attempts take about 20
Okay, we know all that, those are facts, now the hard part: what does the ending of Inception mean?
Inception Theories: Reality
Is the end of Inception reality?
Let’s first look at the reality argument — in other words, everything we see at the end of Inception is actually happening. Cobb gets back to his kids and they live happily ever after.
A theory, but, is the end of Inception reality? Let’s look at the evidence.
Here’s my ranking, in order of importance:
1. The top wobbles
This is indisputable. Visually and audibly, the top begins to wobble. Watch it again if you need proof.
2. Michael Caine's character
Christopher Nolan told Michael Caine that his character only appears in “the real parts.”
This one is interesting. Michael Caine was so confused by the script, he asked Christopher Nolan “When is it the dream and when is it reality?" Nolan responded by saying “Well, when you're in the scene it's reality.”
Here's Caine's recollection of that exchange.
It seems like he’s kind of playing with the crowd… but it also doesn’t sound like he’s lying. The plot thickens!
3. The wedding ring
Throughout Inception, Cobb's wedding ring only appears in dream sequences. Again, there is no ring in the final scenes.
When asked, Nolan kind of hints that it’s real (we’ll get to this later), but he could also just be stoking the fire of debate.
5. Where's Mal?
For the entire movie, Cobb and his team are evading Mal and various henchmen. It’s not like they would just take these last few scenes off.
6. The Children
The clothing the children are wearing is actually slightly different in the final scene than in his memories. In fact, the children are played by different actors altogether.
The children in the “reality” photo are noticeably older, their hair less messy. Also, notice the white undershirt on the daughter.
7. Cobb knows how he got there
Earlier in the film, Cobb states “you never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always end up in the middle of what’s going on.” But, he knows how he got home: he flew on the plane.
8. What’s the point?
If this isn’t real, you can theorize the whole movie might’ve been a dream and is thus pointless.
9. Not Nolan’s Style
Studying Nolan’s style and filmmaking techniques, the protagonist normally comes out on top. This doesn't prove anything but it does lend more weight towards the more optimistic "reality" Inception ending.
So, is the end of Inception reality? Based on this evidence, I’d say you have a pretty compelling argument.
Inception Theories: It’s a Dream
Was the end of Inception a dream?
But the argument isn’t nearly as one-sided as you might think, we need to hear all the Inception theories before coming to a judgment.
It’s time to explore the ultimate question — was the end of Inception a dream? Is Cobb just another unreliable narrator who never really gets back to his children?
What’s the evidence?
1. The top doesn’t actually fall
Spin Time — Now there is a lot to unpack within this, but the biggest piece of evidence is what I’ll call “spin time.” Inception features three separate full spins of the top.
- Spin #1 occurs at 15:47 in a hotel after the opening mission and lasts 21 seconds.
- Spin #2 occurs at 33:54 after the dream training with Ariadne and lasts 18 seconds.
- Spin# 3 occurs at 2:20:03 and lasts a whole 49 seconds before cutting to black. I mean, I know Nolan wants to build suspense but... that’s a long time.
We’ve imported the Inception screenplay into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software for another look at Nolan’s true intentions. Here’s what it says:
“The top is STILL SPINNING.”
Now, in fairness, a screenplay can change quite a bit on set and in the editing room. What we see on screen should be valued more… but still, that’s definite ammo for the dreamers. Especially with those ALL CAPS.
2. The spinning top is Mal’s totem
The top does not really belong to Cobb, it belongs to Mal, and Mal is the movie's chief antagonist!
Remember when Arthur says, “something that you can have all the time that no one else knows… only I know the balance and weight of this particular loaded die, that way when you look at your totem you know beyond a doubt you’re not in someone else's dream.”
So if this spinning top was originally Mal’s, it feels pretty likely she would’ve corrupted it. That's like the biggest red flag you could have!?
3. Lack of spin tests
Cobb never successfully performs a spin test after the 33-minute mark. He tries to 44 minutes in and watch what happens:
And we don’t see another “reality” based spin test till the very end of the movie… Whoa.
This implies that Saito might know Cobb's totem and thus had the ability to corrupt it. Also, since Cobb didn’t complete the spin test, everything from this point on could be a dream.
We earlier had stated there were no bad guys at the end of the story, but what if Saito was a bad guy? His task to confuse Cobb into believing his dream is reality, aka, using inception.
4. The Children
Even though they're slightly different, the clothes, the setting, and their positioning is basically the exact same as his dream. That would be a pretty massive coincidence.
And to explain the different actors, Cobb hasn't seen his kids in years... makes sense they need older actors.
5. It is Inception’s style
Generally, the movie is pretty confusing and extremely high-concept. If any movie is gonna be “all a dream,” it is Inception.
That’s four really good pieces of evidence, and two admitted stretches. So, what now? The realists have a good argument, too. Perhaps to solve the puzzle, instead of looking at the literal, we need to look deeply at the Inception ending meaning, at the subtext.
Inception Ending Meaning
Here's what Nolan says
To really settle this we need to stop speculating and go straight to the source. We need to hear the Inception ending explained by its director, Christopher Nolan. When you listen to Nolan discussing his process, it's immediately clear that he takes his work seriously. In other words, chances are good Nolan knows exactly how Inception ends, but what does he have to say about it?
Here’s what Nolan has to say about all the Inception theories:
“I choose to believe that Cobb gets back to his kids because I have young kids… The most important emotional thing about the top spinning at the end is that Cobb is not looking at it. He doesn't care.”
Notice his language “I choose to believe.” Not exactly convincing, and definitely ambiguous.
Nolan has been asked about the Inception ending many times, and his answer always follows the point above, that the purpose isn’t whether it’s real or not. This suggests that the Inception ending meaning is that Cobb no longer cares.
Now, this is a bit contradictory because when Mal pleas with Cobb to stay in limbo he says “I can’t stay with her because she doesn’t exist.” I suppose the difference here is that Mal is definitely a dream. Cobb knows this and would never be able to forget it.
With his kids there's an uncertainty, an ignorance is bliss sentiment. Also, Cobb’s personal journey isn’t complete till the end of the film. Wow, this really might be a never ending discussion.
Unfortunately for us, directors, especially Nolan, often don’t let audiences off the hook, they thrive on ambiguity and controversy.
Inception Ending Explained
Inception ending dream or reality?
Okay, we’ve heard from both sides, and we’ve heard from Nolan himself. To recap:
- The realists hold their hat on the wobbly top, Michael Caine’s testimony, the ring, the slight differences to the kids
- The dreamers cite the screenplay, the similarities to the children, the lack of a proper spin test, and that every spin test we see could be unreliable
- Nolan wants it to be subjective but leans toward real
So, what happened at the end of Inception? I subjectively say that Inception is not a dream, it is reality. Cobb is reunited with his kids.
After all, I mean that top basically falls, right?
Best Christopher Nolan movies
Now that you’re an expert on Inception, why stop there? There’s more mystery and controversy throughout Christopher Nolan’s filmography. See where Inception ranks in our Top 10, try to unravel The Prestige, Memento, Interstellar. The world of Nolan awaits.