Want to know what the ending to Inception means? I have the answer.

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So the big question: when Cobb finally gets back to his kids, is it reality or a dream?

The top spinning at the end is the Schrodinger’s cat paradox. Without seeing it fall, but having evidence it might, we are left with the fact that Cobb’s world is simultaneously a dream and reality. More importantly, Cobb’s action to walk away without confirming the top’s fall is the true point. The confirmation of reality doesn’t matter. Just as Fisher is told a lie in the dream (that dad loved him and wanted him to be his own man), we learn that a well meaning delusion is much more valuable than a bleak reality and neither is more real than the other. Fisher’s new life based on his father’s approbation will lead to some very real consequences, even if those consequences are limited to Fisher rectifying his relationship with his father. He is no longer trapped by a perception of what his father wanted. No longer trapped by the perception he disappointed his father and thus must work to (though he never really could) live up to the dead man’s standards.

Cobb had a commitment to the real world when Mal was alive, which is why he tricked her to snap her back into the real world. But once Cobb has his catharsis with Mal in limbo, he realizes that even objective reality isn’t necessarily the most important thing. Remember, early in the film, Cobb spin the totem in “reality”, such as it is, and leans a gun against his head. He’s planning to shoot his brains out if the top doesn’t stop spinning. That is how paranoid and obsessive he is. What he doesn’t yet know is it doesn’t matter.

Cobb’s guilt over his wife plagued him whether he was in a dream or in reality. It’s that guilt that truly kept him from his kids, not the charges. Many other writers have noted there was a bunch of ways Cobb could have got back to his children, even convincing grandma to bring them to Europe. He could have found other ways, but the fact was he couldn’t face his kids, not even in a dream, due to his guilt. In the end, in absolving himself of the guilt, Cobb realizes it’s rectifying your inner reality, not the outer one, which is most important. With this movie we get bogged down by questions of what is and what isn’t concrete reality and that is all beside the point. It’s only the reality of one’s own mind that matters. The reality you believe to be is the only reality that exists. And that’s why he walks away from the spinning top at the end. Cobb knows full well totems aren’t reliable, he used one to trick Mal. He could easily create a dream concept of a totem that can fall. In the end he chooses his kids (i.e. he chooses to move on) over the certainty of the totem. Wherever he is, his inner turmoil is over, and that’s the most reality he can hope for. By letting the haunting memory of his wife go, he has become truly “awake,” whether he is in a dream or not.

Just saw Inception last night, but my theory is fully half-baked.

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32 Responses to Want to know what the ending to Inception means? I have the answer.

  1. eveningstar2 says:

    It’s a good theory! Definitely an even-handed one. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the open ended theory essentially being a question of the proverbial glass being half full/empty, but really, it seems more reasonable that the ending, as you said, suggests that it could be both and the duality between illusion and reality doesn’t even matter.

    Now that you mentioned it, I had totally forgotten about the scene in which Cobb specifically puts a gun to his own head as he watches the top. The disintegration of his obsession and paranoia is so central to the film’s conclusion that I can’t believe I missed it.

    Good post.

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  3. reenster24 says:

    well id like to point out that it can’t be both at the same time. either the dream would become his reality like it did with his wife or hes just back in the real reality. the fact of the matter is that (in my opinion) cobb simply doesn’t care which world he is in (dream or the real world) he just believes that he successfully re-united himself with his kids. there is no way of him being in a cross of dream world and the real world that just doesn’t make sense. Also if you noticed in the dreams he wore a wedding ring and in reality he did not. at the end of the film he was not wearing a wedding ring. and in the dream world the top he spins never even hints at stopping while in the end scene you can here and see it wobble. you make a valid argument but i feel that all you do is try to smooth over the whole debate of the ending by saying it doesn’t matter and that solves nothing

  4. reenster24 says:

    i personally think that he ends up in the real world

    • Urwrong100% says:

      The top wobbling at the end is insignifigant. If you recall Arthur didn’t let Ariadne (Architect) touch his loaded dice. The point is the top was originally Mals and it would be unreliable to Cobb since he wasn’t the only person who knew its weight,properties,etc.

      • Matt says:

        What you are forgetting is that if someone else *does* know the properties of the totem, then they could knowingly alter them in the dream, however, Mal was dead, and her ‘dream image’ had no control over the totem, it wasn’t even Mal it was merely Cobs subconscious.

        Basically, Cob was the only *living* person to know the totems qualities, therefore the only person.

  5. cogamble says:


    But you and I agree. You say he doesn’t care if he is in a dream or not anymore, which from his psychological perspective means he is in both. The entire movie is about perception and Cobb’s final act is to say, “it doesn’t matter, there is no difference.” Philosophically, he is in both, and that what I meant by starting with the famous philosophical examples of Schrodinger’s cat.

    But I also agree that empirically he is in reality and, for reasons not just exclusive to the wedding ring issue you bring up. I’ll be posting that analysis shortly.

  6. Vladimir Dz says:

    1 st Theory: Taking into account that this movie is about “Inception” we can see that this movie isn’t about creating an idea in the mind of his wife, nor the millionaire that was to split his company. Instead, it was about him planting an idea in his own mind. That’s what the whole movie was about, he incepted his own subconsciousness; giving himself removing the guilt, thus reason to be happy. The power of a subconscious mind. Christopher Reeves also does this in an old movie where he within his mind travels back in time. so its all in his head.

    2 nd theory: I want to say its reality that he got his kids back, because in a dream you don’t remember how you got where u are; not so with this ending. They showed him flying on the plane, getting off the plane, being picked up by his dad, and walking into the home. This means its real. 🙂

    My theories…

  7. Interesting says:

    I’m usually not one to over analyze movies and such, but I like your argument. Plus, towards the end of that post, I totally had Leo’s voice in my head reading that.

  8. Steven S says:

    The ultimate trick to Inception is that the ending causes us to think. That ending plants one idea or another in whoever watches it. It achieves Inception.
    F***ing brilliant.

  9. For me, the telling part is the fact that he wakes up on the place, gets off, sees his father, and goes to the house, thus he knows how he got there, so he is in the real world. The idea that in dreams you don’t know how you got there accompanied by those scenes explains that he is truly in the real world. Plus, if it were a dream he would not have seen his childrens’ faces.

    • Matt says:

      This isn’t true, Cob refuses to look at his children because he is afraid of believing that they are real, and being stuck in the dream. At the end of the film however, Cob is free of his guilt, and believes himself to be awake, therefore embraces his children.

  10. Heather says:

    Love it! This is what a good movie should do – get the tops spinning. I kept wondering if he invented the Ariadne character to help get himself out of the looping staircase of guilt.

  11. ibleedbloo says:

    Cobb planning to shoot his brains out was a way for him to get back to reality. If the top didn’t stop (hey, that rhymes) his death would wake him from his dream. His goal all along was to return to his children in reality. Though it would have been possible for him to have a life with his children within his dream, he knew that he could not duplicate their perfections and imperfections (etc., etc…same stuff he told his wife in limbo) within his dream state.

    All that being said, my theory is Cobb is still dreaming in Mombasa. We see Cobb wake up from a dream when he is testing Yusuf’s potions, but we never see his totem spin. He is interrupted by Saito in the restroom and we don’t see it spin again until the end…and we never see it fall.

  12. Jon says:

    I disagree but offer a counter-theory(half-baked as well), Every single moment and aspect of Inception is a dream. The film makes this clear, and it never holds back the truth from audiences. Some find this idea of a ‘dream plot’ to be narratively repugnant, since they think that a movie where everything is a dream is a movie without stakes, a movie where the audience is wasting their time. Except that this is exactly what Nolan is arguing against. The film is a metaphor for the way that Nolan as a director works, and what he’s ultimately saying is that the catharsis found in a dream is as real as the catharsis found in a movie is as real as the catharsis found in life. Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director. I believe that Inception is a dream to the point where even the dream-sharing stuff is a dream. Dom Cobb isn’t an extractor. He can’t go into other people’s dreams. He isn’t on the run from the Cobol Corporation. At one point he tells himself this, through the voice of Mal, who is a projection of his own subconscious. She asks him how real he thinks his world is, where he’s being chased across the globe by faceless corporate goons. She asks him that in a scene that we all know is a dream, but Inception lets us in on this elsewhere. Michael Caine’s character implores Cobb to return to reality, to wake up. During the chase in Mombasa, Cobb tries to escape down an alleyway, and the two buildings between which he’s running begin closing in on him – a classic anxiety dream moment. When he finally pulls himself free he finds Ken Watanabe’s character waiting for him, against all logic. Except dream logic. Also Nolan has stated before when describing the movie, he compared it to Felini’s 8 1/2 which is an autobiographical film on Felini’s style of film making, and the only real comparison one can really make between the two. Thats how I read it. Let it marinate for a second

  13. cogamble says:

    @ Jon. In the end, I think people’s reaction to whether it is all a dream or not is very telling of that person. People who believe it’s all a dream are perhaps rationalist, those who believe the only reality is the inside of one’s mind. People who think the ending is reality are empiricists, those who believe our experiences shape out reality. In true confoundedly philosophical contractoryness (yep, made up a word) my thinking strattles the line between both theories, thus the Schrodinger’s cat analogy.

  14. Michael says:

    this is the best and only interpretation of Inception i like and will allow. Inception should not be open to interpretation, i think it is an extremely straight forward movie. Those who don’t like the movie, have missed the point, that this is an action movie. good job, kudos. Now i have something to send people who either don’t understand, or try to over explain inception.

  15. dagandhi says:

    I agree with this theory. Since the moment i saw the movie I was racking my brains out about whether or not the ending was reality or his own perception of reality and I forgot to look at the totem and realize that it really doesn’t matter which is reality, but whether his reality is a happy one and that is what really matters.

  16. Miguel Poree says:

    The perfect film we have noticed in many years! This just one will keep with you extended after its through. For that teen dorks that stated they did not fully grasp it, go see twilight yet again! Much better yet still, place down the cell phones and in fact pay attention!

  17. Monachus says:

    Mr. Cobb was the target of an extraction. The goal of the extraction was to find out how to execute Inception, the Holy Grail of this community of dream hackers. The one performing the extraction was Saito, who as the (dream-world) sponsor of the Inception and the CEO of some megacorporation had no reason to be on any of the missions at any time. He had no training and was a tagalong that everyone readily accepted.

    In the early explanation of an extraction Cobb explains that if you create an environment, the subject will populate it with his subconscious, which Cobb did with the recurrence of Mal and his kids. No one else projected their unconscious thoughts, and there was never an explanation of why a participant could embed their content if they weren’t the architect or the subject of the extraction. Second is that if in this environment you put a vault or safe, he will put his secrets there. A vault doesn’t have to be a physical structure – we put our precious belongings into a safe because we _trust_ it.

    After the first mission fails (in which Saito is a target and also says that it’s an audition, executing his own “Mr. Charles” by showing Cobb that he knows it’s a dream and drawing attention to that fact), Cobb is targeted for execution by the very corporation he failed, a corporation whose assassins behave identical to the subconscious constructs who defend Fisher later on. In the helicopter scene, Saito provides Cobb with a way a) out from under the gun of the corporation he failed and b) a way back to his children. Cobb _trusts_ Saito and thus establishes Saito as his vault and gives him his secrets, including the method of Inception.

    If the dreamer begins to think that he might be dreaming, the projections in the dream start to look for the intruder. Whenever Cobb saw the kids or Mal, there was a concern that the dream might collapse, but at no time was it clear _whose_ dream it was. You always see the projections looking at the camera, but through whose eyes are we viewing? Perhaps Cobb was starting to think that he himself might be dreaming?

    If he truly incepted Mal and she leapt from the hotel ledge, then there may have been a record or even a suspicion that it had happened. With the skill set of the team with whom he worked, it’s not out of the question that they would go after his mind to get that information, especially if he didn’t want to part with it.

    What about the totem? If you are already in a dream when you create the totem, the totem will only tell you if you are in a deeper level than where it was created. It is already flawed in the level in which it was created. This overlaps with the postings about how the totem doesn’t matter, and I agree. It doesn’t matter. It’s a red herring – he was already dreaming when he chose it, or else he stole it from Mal and it was never his totem to begin with. With either of these thoughts, one can conclude that the totem (another trusted object) was only used to demonstrate to Cobb that he was _not_ dreaming, when in actuality he was.

    I’ve only just returned from seeing it the first time. I’ll see it again in a week and trace some of the dialogue correlation to see if there are overlaps.

    • JesseSpots says:

      Monachus, your thoughts are good ones. Especially your observations about the totem. Everywhere on the internet people are debating whether it falls or not, but like the original poster says: it doesn’t matter.

      Who the extractor is bothers me. I have 3 suspects myself but there’s not enough evidence in the film to pinpoint more than conspirator.

      I have an original theory of my own. It’s quite intriguing. Email me sometime Monachus. We have similar views and I need to brainstorm this theory.


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  19. JeromeB says:

    All the topic makes me remember about Total Recall from Paul Verhoeven. Is Schwarzzeneger dreaming?
    In Inception case, i like this point of view, in fact does it really matters?
    About people arguying that in a dream you don’t know how you arrive in the scene: Remember that the movie is starting in the middle of a story. We don’t know how Cobb arrives on the beach and we know nothing about the extraction he is supposed to do.
    Same for wedding ring: if all the movie is a dream, If Cobb wear it or not does not matter even.


  20. masalacurry says:

    Could it be true that Saito did an inception on Cobb and his team in the beginning and made them help him?

  21. Matt says:

    Saito performing Inception is ridiculous, if that is the plot Nolan had intended he would have made it clearer. The fact is, you can come up with so many different plots in this film based on subtle clues and moments but let’s face it, the story and plot are right there in front of you.

  22. Mark Combs says:

    I was about to agree with the theory that Cobb wakes up in the real world, but after watching the final 10 minutes for about the 15th time I stumbled across a pretty large inconsistency. When the final “kick” is made that penetrates all the various dream levels we see everyone waking up on the first dream level as the van hit the water. The plan was a kick that would wake everyone up simultaneously – why do we see them waking up in the first dream level versus waking up on the plane. Unless the plan was to wake up on the first level and have Fisher become aware of the idea that had been incepted – and then wake up again on the plane. But this was never discussed, the plan was discussed was a kick that would penetrate all three dream worlds and make everyone wake up on the plane – this is the only thing I can’t resolve.

  23. aidyreviews says:

    Absolutely agree. Inception is just one of those films people will always try to figure out. Great assessment.

  24. Anchit says:

    I guess some movies are made to make you keep on trying to figure out the real ending.

    My take is, there is a possibility that Cobb’s first inception was not on Mal but accidentally on himself. He planted the idea in his mind that he had planted the idea in Mal’s mind and that Mal had gone crazy and died. But in reality she was actually trying get him out.

  25. Drehart74 says:

    So……I hear all of the theories on whether Cobb made it out of limbo or not. But no one is speaking on a real important fact from the movie…which is the reason he ended up in limbo, I believe….what kick got him out of limbo??? As you see towards the end when the van was totally submerged in water, they left him and Saito in the van to drown. What “kick” got him (them) out of limbo??????

  26. Shit says:

    But if he is dreaming, he will someday have to wake up, he would die in the real world if he would dream more than a few days. this movie is fucked up, I loved it.

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