The final seconds of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Academy Award winning film, Inception, are perhaps its most powerful. A small totem designed to help distinguish the dream world from reality spins on the table. If natural entropy causes it to fall, then real world physics are at play, but if it continues rotating endlessly, then dream rules apply. But when the cut to credits leaves the fate of the spinning top unresolved, the question remains: did Cobb return to his family, or is he still living in his subconscious?
With Inception now streaming on Netflix for audiences new and old, the prevailing fan theories have resurfaced, some with more merit than others. The important thing to remember, of course, is that it shouldn’t matter what the answer is. The fact that Leonard DiCaprio’s character walked away from the totem before seeing it fall means he no longer cares if he’s dreaming; he accepts whatever reality allows him to be with his children again.
Cobb Goes Through Customs: He’s Not Dreaming
Narrative considerations aside, viewers do care what’s real and what’s not, and the controversy has therefore survived years of healthy debate. Fans argue, for example, that the dream state doesn’t bother showing its inhabitants how they reached their destination, so why would Cobb be shown going through customs rather than just appearing at home unless he was in the real world where such things matter?
It’s a fine point, but it’s important to remember that Cobb must resolve his fear of arrest by the authorities. The fact that Saito could make one simple phone call and eliminate a murder charge already stretches credibility for us in the audience; Cobb himself must be very skeptical, indeed. Of course those who think Cobb was dreaming the whole time would argue that he was never in danger at all, and his persecution complex was merely dream paranoia as Mal suggested.
Mal’s Totem Means Cobb Can Never Know: He’s Dreaming
Many others question the validity of the totem in the first place. It was Mal’s spinner after all, and not Cobb’s. And there is much ado about handling someone else’s chosen item. However, a touch alone doesn’t corrupt a totem in the Inception rulebook; it merely compromises its secretly known properties. Being dead, Mal no longer needed the tiny top, and Cobb’s use of it is perfectly valid as long as only he and his dead wife know how it should react.
That being said, Saito did handle the totem, once as a young man when he was Cobb’s target and once as an old man in Limbo. As a result, it seems obvious that Cobb should select a new item regardless of its efficacy. And besides that, the top stood as a potent symbol of his unwillingness to let go of the memory of Mal even if he actually had another totem altogether.
Cobb Doesn’t Have His Wedding Ring: He’s Not Dreaming
Some Inception fans have in fact pointed to Cobb’s wedding ring as the true totem. He wears it only in the dream world and never when he is awake. However, the role of a totem is to tell its user if they are in someone else’s dream where the item would presumably be incorrectly rendered. This would necessitate the wearing of the ring, perhaps weighted on one side, in both realities. Otherwise an enemy architect would just leave the wedding ring out of the design altogether.
The ring does suffice as a signal to the viewer, however, as to whether Cobb is dreaming or awake if they choose to consider it a narrative choice rather than a strategic one. In this sense, it’s very telling that Cobb’s ring finger is obscured in the final scene. Ambiguity must reign in the end.
Ariadne and Miles are Manipulating Cobb: He’s Dreaming
One could go much deeper and suggest that these rules don’t matter if Cobb is dreaming the whole time. For example, consider the zealousness of Elliot Page’s Ariadne. As an architect who eagerly plumbs the depths of Cobb’s psyche, her overtime concerns about the boss could be ascribed to Ariadne’s secret role as his inceptor, sent to wake the long-dreaming, guilt-ridden man from his prison. In fact, fans point to her professor and Cobb’s father-in-law, played by Michael Caine, as her potential recruiter in such an endeavor.
A 2018 interview with Caine that resurfaced in recent years has provided grist for the Inception theory mill. The actor claimed that Nolan told him that when his character was in the scene, it took place in the real world, and Caine therefore concluded that, “if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not in it, it’s a dream.” However, it seems more likely that Nolan was simply clarifying that Caine need not see his role as being ambiguous. For example, Caine’s line, “Come back to reality, Dom,” could be seen as a message from the waking world, even if the scene itself takes place in Cobb’s dream.
There certainly were parallels between Cobb’s catharsis with Mal and that of Cillian Murphy’s Fischer, their mark who’s been targeted for inception. Through his estranged relationship to his father, Fischer mirrors some elements of Cobb’s own strained relationship with Caine’s professor. That could suggest that Ariadne planted the idea of this whole story in Cobb’s mind to extract him from his dream state. But this fan theory seems mainly rooted in a thematic tie-in, which does not prove Cobb’s been in a dream the whole time. From a narrative standpoint, rescuing someone from their guilt need not have anything to do with which reality they’re living in.
Nolan has often suggested in his comments about Inception over the years that our reality is subjective, dream or no dream. It’s a personal choice for Cobb: take the proverbial leap of faith by letting go of his guilt over the death of Mal or “become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone,” as he and Saito discuss. He need not be dreaming to choose the reality in which he lives. Likewise, Inception viewers should make their own choice about which reality they see in this classic film and embrace it as the only one that matters.