Year 2010: Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, is released. The sci-fi thriller fascinated cinema fans just as much as it confused them. As if the rest of the plot wasn’t complex enough, the last scene hinted at a huge twist that could turn the plot on its head. You know what I’m talking about, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, finally arrives back home after successfully carrying out his job. There he spins his top for one last time, but immediately leaves to see his children while the top is still spinning. When it seems that it’s about to topple, the ending credits roll causing a huge debate about whether Cobb is still in a dream or is indeed in reality. Although Christopher Nolan stated that the significance of the last scene is that Cobb doesn’t stay to check if the top topples because he has finally reached the reality he chose, the debate still lingers. Well the truth is that Cobb is most certainly in reality and here’s why:
1. The wedding ring
If you pay close attention to Cobb’s left hand throughout the entire movie you will notice that every time he enters a dream he is wearing his wedding ring, but when he wakes up and is back in reality he doesn’t. Probably this is because Mal exists in his dreams and so he is still married to her. After he wakes up in the aeroplane, he doesn’t wear his ring. This can be noticed both in the airport when he is handing his papers and in the last scene when he’s with his children. This means that he either is in reality at the end or he is in a dream in all the other scenes he appears to be in reality. In other words, if Cobb isn’t in reality at the end, then the whole film is a dream.
2. The spinning top
Although we never see the top falling, it is pretty clear that its spinning is quite ‘real’. Instead of the perfect spinning observed in the dream world, the top in the last scene is unsteady and even wobbles just a second before the ending credits roll. The whole point of the top as a totem is that Cobb could manipulate it to spin forever while he was in the dream world. This means that the wobbling itself is a proof of reality.
3. Christopher Nolan’s direction
Christopher Nolan is a director who likes to give away small hints for his audience. He did it again in Memento and The Prestige, although I’m not gonna comment on these movies so as not to spoil anything. The point is, they also contain confusing parts which can be explained by small details in some scenes. Now the only way Cobb is not in reality at the end of the film is the entire movie being a dream. In such a case, not only would it be impossible to prove either theory, but it would make Nolan’s small hints useless. One could argue that it would make the whole plot useless. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that such a plot would contradict Nolan’s style and direction.
4. The children’s age
For all those who believed that at the end Cobb is still dreaming, I understand that you may have not been convinced by the first three points because you still have an ace up your sleeve: the children at the end are the same as the children before Cobb left. This is definitely the no.1 argument for the dream theory. The children at the end are exactly the same with the same clothes whereas if Cobb was in reality the children would be older. Well, this is actually wrong. The children are not the same, they are indeed older in the last scene and this can be seen in the credits.
There are two different pairs of children in the screenplay. The pair Cobb sees in his dreams is 3-year-old Philippa and 20-month-old James whereas at the end, the children are older by two years (the time Cobb spent outside the US) and are played by different actors. Even their clothes are slightly different (Philippa wears a white shirt inside her dress and James wears shoes instead of sandals).
So, it is pretty clear that Nolan intended for Cobb to be in reality by the film’s end. Anyway Cobb could have stayed in limbo where he could have both his wife and his children if he wanted. You can still argue of course that the film is fantasy and rules mean nothing at all, but if so I can’t do anything about it. In any case the point of the film is that reality is subjective and that we have to chase the reality we believe in. As Christopher Nolan himself put it in a speech in Princeton University:
“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.”
Update (September 19, 2018):
It’s been over a year since I wrote this article. Since then, there was a quite illuminating comment by actor Michael Caine regarding the debate discussed above. Caine, who played Cobb’s father in law in the film, stated that whenever his character appears in the script it is in reality. Since he appears in the final scene, the film ends in reality and the Cobb family lived happily ever after. More details here: