Inception. Five years after seeing the 2010 Nolan mega-hit in theaters, I still asked myself whether or not the top stopped spinning. For a long time, I couldn’t accept the fact that one of the most ingeniously crafted movies of all time would end so ambiguously. There had to be something else there, some other hint to what is really going on at the end.
After some time, however, I grew complacent and rested on logic. Having seen the movie dozens of times, I saw little that pointed towards Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) still being in a dream at the end. Moreover, the top is clearly wobbling, and, generally, tops, like dreams, do not regain stability after they start to collapse.
And, for the past couple years, that is how I have watched Inception, under the assumption that that damn top does fall down and it is reality in the end. However, to say I was fully satisfied watching it this way would not be entirely truthful. It did allow me to just enjoy Inception for what it was—an incredible cinematic experience through dreams with an all-star cast, an outstanding score, and one of the coolest, most well-thought, and original plots ever. Still, basing my conclusions on the ending of such an intellectually stimulating movie on a slight wobble of a top didn’t seem right.
Leaving the ending up to the viewer is a neat trick for certain movies, but not for this viewer and this movie. I needed closure and in my most recent (and possibly 50th) viewing of Inception I finally found it.
So here it is: the truth behind the ending of Inception. Are you ready to have your mind blown? Do yourself a favor and blast this track from Hans Zimmer’s score while you read the rest of this article:
The truth is: it doesn’t matter if the top is falling, spinning, or flying before the ending credits flash on the screen. I don’t mean that in a philosophical “it doesn’t matter if it’s reality or not, as long as Cobb believes it is” way; I mean it in the sense that the top spinning has nothing to do with whether it is a dream or not.
Essentially, Nolan threw some colossal, spinning misdirection at the audience with the top. All movie, the audience fixates on the spinning top as the indicator of whether something is a dream or not, when in reality, it is not the top at all that indicates dream vs. reality because it is not Cobb’s totem, it is Mal’s totem.
The top being Mal’s and not Cobb’s is a fact that for some reason the audience seems to disregard and one that I did for around the first 49 times seeing the movie; however, it proves to be vitally important to the plot. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells Ariadne (Ellen Page) that he can’t let her touch his totem because that would “defeat the purpose”. In essence, his totem only works for him and would be ineffective at distinguishing between dream and reality for anyone else. Thus, Mal’s spinning top for Cobb is just that—a spinning top, with no special reality distinguishing powers.
Whether or not Cobb knows his totem is useless is another issue entirely that could go either way, but we won’t focus on that here. The bigger problem in realizing that the spinning top is about as useless to Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception as a floating door is to Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic is that it leaves the viewer with no obvious way to keep track of dreams and reality.
Yet, in the midst of one of the more romantic lines in the movie, Cobb gives a hint as to what the real totem is. When Ariadne asks him why it’s so important to dream, he replies: “because, in my dreams we are together”. What seems like a line dedicated to showing Cobb’s undying love for his dead wife actually is a hint at how to tell if something is dream.
If Mal is there, it is a dream. Still, this does not solve the totem dilemma. Totem’s must be small, easy to handle, and unique to the specific person. Mal fits none of these requirements. So she is not the totem, but something about them being “together” must be. Now, what is something that is small, easy to handle, unique to a specific person, and signifying of love/togetherness?
A wedding ring.
Cobb’s totem, whether he knows it or not, is his wedding ring. In his dreams they’re still together; in his dreams, he is still wearing his wedding ring.
This hidden, but incredibly important piece of the plot changes the way you watch Inception. Instead of following the spinning misdirection that is the top, you fixate on Leo’s left index finger. And without fail, in the dream scenes, he is wearing the ring while in reality, he is not.
Most importantly, in the final scene, though his hand is only clearly visible in a couple instances (such as when he hands over his passport) it is clear that he is not wearing any sort of ring. And with that, there is the answer to the five-year question that one movie planted in my brain.
Yet, even in the bliss of knowing for sure how the movie ends, I realize it is not just about finding the answer to the Inception question, but it is knowing that a movie could make me and so many others wonder for so long. That I would watch it over and over again searching for a better understanding or the key to the ending. And that in the midst of all my searching, I would one day find the secret, hidden in plain sight all along.
No other movie has created such a mystery for me and in no other movie have I found something so earth-shattering after around 50 times watching it. And that is because few movies are as ingenious as Inception and few other directors besides Christopher Nolan could or would successfully hide the key to the ending of his masterpiece to only — maybe — be discovered years later.