By titling this post “Inception Ending” it goes without saying we’re about to embark into Spoiler territory, but since I said it anyway, if you are a non-Inception watcher, put your earmuffs on.
Now then, the brilliant final shot of Christopher Nolan’s movie leaves us with the top spinning, though with a slight wobble. Then darkness. It’s up to you to decide how the thing ends. This leads us toward two conclusions:
1) The top falls, Cobb made it to reality, has reunited with his kids against all odds and gets the happy ending.
2) The top never falls, Cobb never escaped Limbo and has created a happy ending fantasy in which he is reunited with his kids.
I’m here to tell you the top falls, and to explain let’s observe something about each dream within Inception. Of course, I’m talking about all the scenes in which Nolan made it clear we are in a dream (as opposed to the theory that the entire movie is a dream, there is no such thing as dream sharing and Cobb is actually just an overweight insurance salesman who fell asleep on the bus. I casual dismiss this theory because I don’t believe Nolan would make a movie in which nothing happened as to say, “It was all just a dream. BOO!”). Now if you look at every “dream” you’ll notice they are populated by only two types of people: the dreamers and the projections. Now think back to the Saito mind heist. When Arthur is awoken from Nash’s (the first architect) dream, he disappears. Dreamers don’t stay in the picture once they have awoken. In the end, when Cobb is walking through the airport, Nolan’s camera ponderously pours over each face of Cobb’s team, almost as if to say “and you were there, and you were there and you too” (a nod to another movie about a dreamer awakening). We know Cobb’s team got out because we saw them get their kicks (so to speak). In no other part of the movie does Nolan allow people the dreamers know into the dreams unless they are dreaming as well. The exception here is, of course, Mal but she represents Cobb himself, or at least his subconscious trying to pull him down to Limbo where he can live without the guilt of his wife’s death. If a dreamer could just conjure up the people he knew, why would Cobb need a team? He could create dream versions of Arthur and the rest. The answer is you can’t, not by the rules set up in Nolan’s shared dreaming universe.
A lot of people get hung up on this fact. Real dreams are chaotic and non-linear, but Nolan’s shared dreams have structure, rules and order. The truth is, though it talks a lot about dreams, Inception isn’t really about dreams at all. Not the ones you and I experience at least. It might have alleviated confusion if Nolan left the word “dream” out of the movie and just called shared dreaming what it really is: invading other people’s mind. But then Nolan would have had to call the movie Mind Hackerz, and that’s just stupid.
Still not convinced? How about this, if Cobb is in Limbo, living out the fantasy of his happy ending, why isn’t Mal there? After all, Limbo is a place where, if you succumb to it, allows limitless delusion. It doesn’t really matter how he justifies her return, maybe her suicide was itself a dream, maybe she bounced or maybe he doesn’t justify it at all. Point is, if he has dreamt up his ultimate happy ending, then Mal would most certainly be there.
Other quick thoughts:
It’s been pointed out that Cobb wears his wedding ring in all the dreams, but never wears it in reality (kind of a cold move, but okay). In the final scene Cobb is not wearing the ring.
If he was in Limbo, and the totem is designed to never drop while in a dream state, why would it wobble at all?
Now, I’ve already written about how the purpose of Nolan’s ending is to leave the viewer in doubt (an anti-conclusion that imparts a message of its own), but as you can see, by observing the rules and structure created for dream sharing, he has left us breadcrumbs to find the ultimate truth.