In what’s become statistically the most popular post on this blog, I suggested that Inception, the film, was a type of inception itself. Or, more memorably (and SEO-friendly) there is inception within Inception. One of the commenters there brought up the idea of the movie itself film being a dream, which I like. But I also think my interpretation of the ending is more accurate (it’s not a dream and the spinning top is a red herring). Perhaps on one level, you could construe the film to be entirely a dream, but I think that level would be metaphorical and not literal. This of courses raises the question of whether there are levels of meaning, and of course, the answer is yes. Much like the dreamscape in the movie, there are basically four levels of interpretation. And what better way to illustrate the levels than moving up the ladder of medieval interpretations in the Quadriga. I’m playing on these loosely, so bear with me.
First, there is the literal sense of the movie. The plot is essentially a dramatic heist. The protagonist has an inner conflict (the psychological spine of the story) that plays out in the physical story-line. The dreams within dreams makes things more interesting, but basically we have a guy who had a girl and screwed things up royally. Now he needs to gain emotional closure as well be exonerated from charges of murder so he can be reunited with his children. He is given the opportunity to deal with the latter by performing said heist alongside his team, and in the process is able to also deal with the former issue. Whether or not the end is a dream depends on how much weight you give the totems, but you could also factor in the wedding ring Cobb wears only in dreams and note that he isn’t wearing it in the final scene. You could also note that the father-in-law (Michael Caine) is only in reality, and he’s there at the end. So, on the literal level, we don’t need the top to determine the end, but let’s keep moving further up and further in.
Second, there is the tropological, or more simply, moral sense of the movie. It’s really hard to miss this since the line is repeated several times, but the “message” of the movie in terms of an action item for you the viewer is “Don’t end up an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” This is essentially Cobb’s existential dilemma. Saito invites him to overcome it and take a leap of faith, and later Cobb will return the favor to Saito in limbo. Cobb can live on racked with guilt about inadvertently causing his wife’s death and end up an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone (since he would never see his kids again). Or, he can deal with his guilt (atone for it maybe?) and move on with live and so become “young again” in a sense. Being reunited with his kids at the end of the movie strongly suggests that the final scene isn’t a dream since up until this point he has only been able to see the memory of kids dimly, but at the end they behold each other face to face. By dealing with his issues, he is rewarded with closure and children. Here again, no top is necessary.
Third, on an allegorical level, you could look at the entire film as a dream that you the viewer participate in. In that sense, the dream is over once the credits roll since at that point you “wake up” and get back to reality. The movie itself is a kind of metaphor for film-making and each of the characters play a production role. You can think who might stand for what on your own, but the point is on this level, the whole movie is a dream and so given what we see in the first two levels above (literal and moral) Cobb escapes the dreamworld, but his whole storyline is itself within our dreamworld. Watching a movie with a whole bunch of people inside a theater is a kind of shared dreaming, so in a way, the film Inception is a kind of extended metaphor for how movies work. Especially when it comes to planting philosophical ideas in unsuspecting viewer’s minds. One of those ideas, as I argued elsewhere, is that the top at the end of the movie has something to do with whether or not Cobb is still dreaming. It doesn’t, but we have one more level to get to in order to see why.
Lastly, on an anagogical level, or spiritual level, we can see that the movie functions much like Plato’s cave analogy and raises the question of whether there might be a higher order of reality (The Matrix did this as well, as have some other films like Vanilla Sky). I think this is why people get caught up trying to analyze whether the end of the movie constitutes a dream or reality. The question at the end of the movie is “have we reached ultimate reality or do we need to keep going?” On the one hand, no, you haven’t reached ultimate reality because that’s the reality we the viewers inhabit. You don’t get to ultimate reality until the movie ends and you get on with your life (and don’t end up an old man filled with regret). But it does push us to ponder whether or not reality as we perceive it outside the movie world is in fact ultimate reality, or whether we are still looking at the shadows in Plato’s cave failing to really see face to face in the light of day. In that sense, once again the top really doesn’t matter since the questions it raises for us to ponder are still there whether the movie ends with Cobb still dreaming or fully awake.
But, the real reason about why the top doesn’t matter, and what I’ve been keeping from you this entire time is this: the top isn’t Cobb’s totem in the first place. It’s his wife’s. Cobb’s totem is the other object he’s holding in the above picture: his gun. Though I’ve taken the “gun as totem” idea from an essay in Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to Die For, I’d encourage you to rewatch the movie for yourself and notice the subtle role that guns in general play and keep track of Cobb’s in particular
You’ll recall he has it in the opening scene of the movie when he falls into limbo (which is actually at the end of the storyline of the movie). However, he leaves it behind on the airplane after they land in Los Angeles (he got it on in the first place because remember, Saito bought out the airline). So by the time he gets to the house, he has left his personal totem behind on the airplane. By spinning the top on the table in his house and walking away (which Christopher Nolan said is the most important part of the end). He is symbolically demonstrating he has successfully let go and is not holding onto the memory of his wife. He has decided to embrace ultimate reality, and so in that sense he has moved from the world of shadows in the cave to stand fully in the light. He’s taken the existential leap of faith offered to him in the initial plot point and there’s no looking back.
And that is really why the spinning top no longer matters.