Yes, the infamous never-ending spinning top. Does it fall over, who knows? We’re here to solve the mystery that has made everyone question the film over the past decade. Now there are two major theories out there about the ending of Inception, so we’re going to take you through both of them. But after that, I’m going to give you my “theory” and the answer I’ve been giving since I first saw it on the big screen.
If you’re unlike me, it’s probably been a while since you’ve seen the film. While I throw it on at least once a year, I’m going to do my best to sum the film up to this part. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of misfits are thieves that enter people’s subconscious to steal information. He is asked to implant someone else’s idea into someone’s mind. If he succeeds, he will have his criminal record cleared. Every time they go under, Cobb is constantly haunted by his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). Mal is the first person he planted an idea to and it severely backfired. He gaslights his wife and convinces her that even in real life, they’re still dreaming. This led to Mal committing suicide, and Cobb took the fall for her death. Which, fair, she did die because of him. Instead of dealing with the consequences, he went on the run and left his children behind with Mal’s father, Professor Stephen Miles, played by the outstanding Michael Caine. If Cobb gets cleared of his charges, he can return home and reunite with his children.
After three different layers, evil Mal and many other obstacles, they can implant the idea into Robert (Cillian Murphy). They arrive on US soil, Ken Watanabe’s Mr. Saito makes the call, and we wait in anticipation to see if Cobb is a free man or is forced to go to jail. As he clears customs, he looks and acknowledges the rest of his team and returns home. Once he arrives, he spins his spinning top and his children show up — very reminiscent of a memory he returns to throughout the film. They turn, and we see his face, so Cobb goes to embrace them. The camera pans and stays on the top that is still spinning. And then cut to black, roll credits. Cue the entire audience screaming back at the screen, “wait what?”
Inception Theory #1: What Is His Totem?
Throughout the film, we’re told that everyone’s totem is unique to that person and that nobody else is allowed to touch it, or it defeats the purpose. What they don’t tell you, is if you’re allowed to take someone’s totem after they’ve died, since they’re not able to use it. The spinning top doesn’t belong to Dom, it belonged to Mal. So take a page out of another Nolan film, he’s using misdirection and making you look at one object when you should be looking at what he’s doing with his hands. Or rather, what he’s wearing (or not wearing) on them. Every time Dom is dreaming, he’s still wearing his wedding ring which is his true totem. In his dreams, she’s still always around, lurking — so he keeps his ring on, but he has long since stopped wearing his ring when he’s awake. When you watch the finale (which is just beautifully scored by Zimmer, a total side tangent but “Time” is beautiful), and begin paying attention to his hands after he wakes up on the plane, you’ll see he’s no longer wearing a ring. He’s truly awake and landed in America, and is safe to be with his kids again.
Inception Theory #2: The Cast
In the neverending credits sequence, the children are played by two different sets of actors. There is a credited actor for Phillipa at three years, and another for five years. As well as for James, there’s an actor for 20 months and three years. As it’s been two years since Mal has died, this would ring true that the children are two years older. Three out of the four are played by children from the same family. Or, at least have the same last name: Geare. So this proves to say that again, he is awake and safe back at home. It’s worth mentioning that Michael Caine also had an interview in which he stated that he was told by Nolan that whenever he’s in a scene, Dom is awake. So, I mean, that settles the big debate. It’s always been right there in front of us, and we didn’t even notice.
While the film’s ending is still up for debate, my response has always been the same. It doesn’t matter if he’s still sleeping or if he’s awake. The point of the film is Dom trying to deal with his grief. Mal torments him because he hasn’t moved on. He won’t allow himself to look at his children’s faces even in his dreams because he thinks about all the pain he causes. By letting himself walk away from the fake totem and embrace his children, he’s walking away and letting himself be free of the pain that has kept him stuck. Dom can still grieve Mal, but moving forward, he’ll be able to eventually go to sleep and visit her in peace.
I recently rewatched Interstellar, and Inception lives rent-free in my mind. There’s the aspect that everyone has picked up on that Dom is a film director. The rest of his team make up the rest of the people found on a film set. Tom Hardy’s Eames are the actors, JGL is the producer, Elliot Page is a production designer. At the end of the film, Dom returns to his children after working on a film for so long that they’ve aged. Inception and Interstellar are both love letters to his children. Inception is him apologising to them for being away for so long, but while he is away, he dreams of them, hoping to be accepted and not punished for being gone for so long. Afraid that he’ll return and he won’t recognise them, or they won’t recognise him. But they always do. In Interstellar, he’s telling them that they’re the future and he’ll go through a wormhole and deal with the space-time continuum if it means to help them save the future.
So next time you watch Inception, listen to those slow piano keys at the end of “Time” and know that Nolan and Dom are slowly returning home, to be greeted by their children.
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