Christopher Nolan explains Inception’s cryptic ending, says ‘reality matters’

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan has tried to explain the ending of Inception multiple times. Do you still feel confused?
Leonardo DiCaprio with his totem in Inception.
Leonardo DiCaprio with his totem in Inception.
Updated on Apr 16, 2020 03:15 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By HT Correspondent

It’s movie lovers’ favourite puzzle that never got solved. The ending of Christopher Nolan’s sci fi masterpiece Inception is still among the most confusing and most discussed in the world of cinema. An exceptional film by all measures, its end, however, is still the one thing that made the biggest impression.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, who entered people’s minds by synthesising dreams, the film also included Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon Levitt as member of his expert team. They would enter their subjects’ dreams to either extract information or plant the seeds of a new idea in their mind. To achieve this, they would often travel between multiple levels of dreams, risking being left behind in a limbo forever.

To keep themselves calibrated between the real world and the dreams, each would carry a totem. Cobb’s totem was a spinning top which, when spun, would eventually come to rest in the real world but keep spinning endlessly in the dream world. At the end of the film, when the heist proved to be a success and Cobb is finally reunited with his kids, he spins the top one last time. But before we could see if the top rests or keeps spinning, the screen fades to black.


Fans have, for years, wanted to know if Cobb did finally meet his family or was he forever trapped in the limbo. Desperate ones even tried to find clues in the fact the kids’ outfits never change from the beginning of the film to the end, meaning Cobb is merely imagining his family. But there is no end to speculation about the end unless we hear it explained by the horse’s mouth itself--Christopher Nolan.

In an interview with Esquire magazine, Michael Caine, who played Cobb’s mentor and father-in-law, said Nolan had explained the film to him. “When I got the script of Inception, I was a bit puzzled by it, and I said to (Chris), ‘I don’t understand where the dream is’. I said, ‘When is it the dream and when is it reality?’


“He said, ‘Well, when you’re in the scene it’s reality.’ So, get that – if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not in it, it’s a dream,” he added. Now because Caine did feature in the final scene featuring Cobb and his kids, it means the scene was reality and not a dream.

But if you want Nolan’s own explanation of the scenes, things get bit more vague. In 2015, Nolan tried to explain it during a lecture on “reality and dreams” to the graduating class at Princeton University in New Jersey. Here is what he said:

“In the great tradition of these speeches, generally someone says something along the lines of ‘Chase your dreams,’ but I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t believe that. I want you to chase your reality.

“I feel that over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense….I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with - they are subsets of reality.”

The totem.
The totem.

“The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black.

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“I skip out of the back of the theatre before people catch me, and there’s a very, very strong reaction from the audience: usually a bit of a groan. The point is, objectively, it matters to the audience in absolute terms: even though when I’m watching, it’s fiction, a sort of virtual reality. But the question of whether that’s a dream or whether it’s real is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”

The crux? If you remember, even Cobb himself doesn’t stop to check if the top keeps spinning or not. He rushes to hug his kids, leaving the totem behind. In that moment, he no longer cares if his world is real or not. Why should it matter when he is finally with his kids? Maybe our ideas of what is real and what is fake should not be so definitive after all.

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Saturday, October 16, 2021