The end of INCEPTION: What does it mean?!?!

2 08 2010


It’s been far and away THE runaway blockbuster hit of the summer.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.  There’s a lot that could be said about the movie; but I found one particular part to be extremely revelatory.  So…


Don’t look below the picture unless you want to be spoiled.Ok, here are the facts:

At the end of the movie, we see Cobb (played by the kid who played “Luke” on Growing Pains) wake up from the dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream).  He and his team have (it seems) successfully planted an idea into the brain of the (now reformed) Scarecrow (from Batman Begins).  Then the fake Ra’s Al Ghul (also from Batman Begins) makes good on his promise to get Cobb back into the country, and back home to his kids.

Final scene of the movie: Cobb makes it home (escorted by Alfred, from – you guessed it – Batman Begins).  He pulls out his little top and spins it: if it falls, he’s in reality; if it spins forever, he’s still in a dream.  The audience waits with bated breath to see what will happen – but Cobb does not.  He sees his kids – for the first time in who knows how many months – and he’s off to greet them.  The camera shifts back to the top spinning on the table.  And just before we have enough time to know if the top is going to spin forever or fall over — the screen cuts to black!

Discussion about this scene has gone wild: Everywhere, people are dissecting the hints that could reveal to us whether Cobb is “actually” in a dream world or the real world.

But I would argue that all of this is beside the point.  The real truth about the ending is that it’s ambiguous.  Christopher Nolan (the director) was very careful not to put into his movie any evidence that would sway the argument too much to one side or the other.

I tell you that the true meaning behind the ending is what it tells us about ourselves.  I saw the movie the second night it was out.  When the screen cut to black at the very end, the whole audience GASPED.  I talked with a friend who saw it on opening night and the audience’s response was the same.

Click picture for sound effects

I suggest to you that the true genius of Inception’s ending is contained within that collective gasp: It’s an instinctive, emotional response from those who see the movie, and that response tells us something about ourselves: That no matter how much our culture tells us that truth doesn’t matter, something inside of us still says that it does.  Our heads may buy into the idea that truth doesn’t matter, that one truth is as good as another.  But in the end, our hearts will betray our longing for something real.

At the end, Cobb decides that he doesn’t care anymore if he’s in reality or a dream: He leaves his totem behind and runs to his kids.  But THE AUDIENCE ISN’T WITH HIM.  The audience is back at the table, saying, “Wait!  What about the top!?!?”

If you go to see the movie, and you hear – as I did – a collective gasp when the screen cuts to black, know that you are surrounded by people who, whatever they may say about truth, long in their heart of hearts for an ending to their story that is not merely happy, but also true.

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8 responses

2 08 2010

Dude, soooooo true. I love the interpretation of the audience response. Our instincts and longings betray our professed relativist worldview.

2 08 2010

Mmmmm. Love it. We went during the second week I think, and yeah, big collective gasp. You see that top wobble and you’re just willing it to fall over!

2 08 2010
7 08 2010

Well said. I think that was what bothered me the most too – it is not a truly happy ending if it is not TRUE.

20 02 2011

Cobb actually said that it wouldn’t topple (not that it wouldn’t fall) surely even a wobble is a topple???

20 02 2011
Tim Courtois

I don’t know about that… I’d say a wobble is a wobble, not a topple. 🙂

13 05 2011

It’s Bated breath, not Baited breath. Baited breath means stinky and makes no sense; bated breath is the term from Shakespeare and means shallow breathing–holding your breath (bated is short for abated). Not a big deal, but it’s nice to save the language where possible..

13 05 2011
Tim Courtois

Thanks! Language matters; correction made.

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