(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
I have it figured it out. I know what happens. I understand everything from totems to the gallons of hair gel and I’m here to say that I really don’t think Inception is very confusing.
At least after a second viewing.
After several months of leaving my blog in Internet limbo (the reference was too easy), I have decided to return to posting with the only film in wide release theaters worth discussing; and of course there is plenty of discussion surrounding the latest mind melter from visionary writer/director Christopher Nolan. However, the purpose here is not to offer an opinion on the elements of which the film is composed, like cinematography, acting, directing, writing, score, and editing, but I wish to return to the infinite reality of the blogosphere with my interpretation of what actually happens in the film's plot.
I know what Inception means.
A cross-genre film that will soon hold its place in the annals of sci-fi film history alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Matrix, Inception is a beautifully photographed, complexly scripted, and hauntingly acted masterpiece from one of modern cinemas most visionary artists. I fully believe that once Inception gets some years behind it, critics and audiences will find it a definitive work from Nolan that really did change something about filmmaking.
The end of Inception has undoubtedly filled water cooler discussion and sci-fi chat rooms with hours of debate. The last frame will go down in film history as one of the silver screen’s most gut wrenching cliffhangers.
Nolan and crew did something right.
The film’s end proves its most poignant and climactic moment as the question we ask ourselves the entire movie (Is this all a dream or not?) is answered…except it isn’t.
As Cobb spins his totem (once belonging to Marion, a point which could prove especially important) one last time we all know what’s coming, but it doesn’t lessen the size of the crater the film’s final frame leaves in our imaginations.
Does the totem stop spinning?
If the answer is yes then Cobb’s reality is true and he has finally made it home safely to his very real children with their very real grandfather in their very real LA home.
If the answer is no then Cobb’s reality is contained within a dream and his children, their home, and Miles, are all projections of the real individuals themselves, still somewhere in reality, waiting for Cobb to wake up.
But what if it doesn’t matter?
Cobb accepted reality. He allowed himself to see his children’s faces. He didn’t wait to see if the totem was going to topple over...so why should we?
Some will always say that the top began to look and sound like it was wobbling over, and the movie ended just moments before we saw it happen, so it must be reality.
Some will say that Nolan only showed his audience what he wanted them to see and we can only assume that the top continues to spin, so it must be a dream. The truth is that trying to answer that question only gets you one level deep. We must infer something deeper.
The only thing that actually matters is Cobb’s acceptance of that state as reality. If what was truly driving the plot forward and sideways and backwards and deeper was Cobb’s emotional journey, which I believe it was, then this answer can and does satisfy the viewer. Cobb accepts that reality, whether it was true or not, and so should we. After all, we’ve invested in this grimacing extractor’s journey the whole way through and we should trust him until the very end.
The problem is that both arguments regarding the ending are correct and ultimately both arguments can be supported with evidence from the film.
If you want to believe that the totem topples over and true reality finally belongs to Cobb, the argument certainly exists. We see Cobb’s totem topple over only twice during the film, once in his hotel room after he escapes attempting to extract information from Saito and once in the warehouse after giving Ariadne her first lesson in dream sharing. Once Nolan establishes the rule that an individual’s totem will always topple over if they are in reality, it can’t be broken. It may be a nearly silly plot device but it's also basic screenwriting. There is no question that reality is seen from at least the moment we see Cobb’s totem topple over in his hotel room to his visiting of the chemist in Mumbai.
If you want to believe the totem spins infinitely on in the film’s last moment you can point to Cobb’s trip to Mumbai as your evidence. To test the chemist’s sedation potency Cobb allows himself to be put into a dream state in the chemist’s underground operation where individuals “come to be woken up.” After Cobb is awoken from this voluntary test, he rushes to the bathroom where he promptly sees Marion’s image in the mirror. Unsure if he is still dreaming, Cobb attempts to spin his totem but it slips on the wet sink and Saito walks in on him before he can spin the totem again. This is the third and final time we see Cobb spin the totem, the result of which is never seen. If Cobb is indeed still dreaming at the end of the film, in reality he remains asleep on a bed under the chemist’s office.
I think this apparent contradiction is no mistake, and Nolan is probably having a good laugh.
Does the answer lie in what the chemist’s Indian assistant says about those who choose to go into that dream state voluntarily “because it has become their reality...who are you to say otherwise”? Maybe.
Does the answer lie in the tiny detail that Cobb now uses Marion’s totem? Does the usage of another’s totem by someone else negate the rule that an individual’s totem is theirs and theirs alone? Maybe.
Does the answer lie in the children’s apparent lack of significant aging or their mirrored appearance in all of Cobb’s visions of them, even at the end? Maybe.
But even these questions could both be answered yes or no and your interpretation of the ending would have no significant foothold against the other.
Answer these questions for yourself. Argue with your fanboy friends or the teenage girls who just wanted to stare at a tortured Leo for the film’s bulky two and a half hours. Go and read someone else’s blog.
But I’m right. And whether or not the totem topples does not matter.
As Cobb’s totem spins so do our minds and the sharpness of Inception is its ability to do just that, spin the mind of its audience in directions unknown, infinitely on or toppling over as we ultimately throw our hands up and accept the end of the film just as Cobb accepts his reality, without question.