Was it just a dream? Or did it all really happen? Had he finally made it home?
These questions haunt us at the end of Inception. The main character Cobb appears to have made it home, but ominously, the top he left spinning on the table doesn’t appear to fall over. We learn earlier in the film that when the characters are doing the business of either extraction or inception, they use the little top (which they call a talisman) in order to know, when things get disorienting, whether they are awake or somewhere in the dream world.
In a way, the characters look to that spinning top to help them keep their balance when they feel like they might be losing it. We see this vividly in a scene where Cobb gets so flustered he can barely stand up straight and rushes to the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face and try to spin the top to see if it falls over or not.
Interestingly, by the end of the movie, Cobb no longer looks to the spinning top once he has made it home. He spins the top and walks away, unconcerned whether it keeps spinning or not. This ambiguity perplexes viewers. Does it mean he doesn’t care whether he’s dreaming anymore? Or does it mean that he doesn’t need his bearings anymore now that he’s made it home?
I think it’s the latter reason, and that as movie-goers, we’ve actually been deceived into thinking the top matters to Cobb.
For starters, there is never any conclusive proof in the film itself that the top won’t fall over in the dream world. It certainly will fall over if you’re awake. The lie that Cobb plants in his wife’s mind that eventually leads to her death seems to hinge on the top continually spinning. But if the spinning top not falling over in the dreamworld is a lie itself, then Cobb, by the middle of the film has succumbed to the self deception that the top really matters.
What I would argue is that if you feel like the ending is dependent on whether or no the top falls over, then you my friend, were incepted yourself. Christopher Nolan has said in interviews that the most important thing about the ending is that Cobb walks away. The redemption for Cobb in the movie is, on the one hand, from the bondage of looking at the spinning top to know what reality is. On the other hand, it is his escape from limbo and from the guilt and shame that had been haunting him over his wife’s death. Both of these are fully overcome in the ending.
You could argue that perhaps he really doesn’t make it home but just decides to embrace the dream world so that it becomes reality and his waking life are his dreams. However, in the dreams Cobb constructed himself, he could never see his kids faces. Through a memory darkly he saw them, yet at the end, he (and we) finally see their faces. I was m struck by the resonances this has with our own Christian journey, as we look through a glass darkly looking forward to one day seeing Christ face to face.
In that light, if after the movie is over, you the viewer fixate on the top as if that determines the ending, I think you’ve fallen into the same trap that Cobb just escaped. The cinematography does push you in that direction, but maybe that was Nolan’s goal.
Maybe Inception itself was an attempt at inception…