The Riddle of Inception

Considering that Inception has been on DVD for months now, I’m a little surprised that my “Inception in 30 seconds” video generated the brief but lively discussion it did, but I guess that’s partly a tribute to the staying power of the film and the questions it raises.

One reader asked what I meant by citing “a riddle in the final scene that no one has yet explained to my satisfaction.” I’ve read lots of interpretations of the film and the meaning of the final scene, but none of them explains all the data in a way that satisfies me. I don’t insist on a definitive or final answer—it’s okay with me that the movie should be ambiguous—but at least I’d like a possible explanation that actually squares with what we know, or even the most important bits of what we know.

Note: Climactic spoilers ahoy! Only read this post if you’ve seen the film or don’t mind knowing exactly how it ends!

On an initial, obvious level, of course, the first question that occurs to everyone about the climactic shot is “Does the top fall or not?” That is, is Cobb really home with his children? Or has he been somehow trapped in a dreamworld?

Obviously, we’d all like to believe that the top falls and that Cobb has found his way home to reality. However, the movie itself warns us that “positive emotion trumps negative emotion … we all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis”—and that this principle can be used to trick us, as Cobb tricked Fischer with an illusory catharsis, an unreal reconciliation with his father. Is Nolan playing the same trick on us that Cobb played on Fischer? Are we, the audience, willing to accept Cobb’s final catharsis just because we want it to be real? (Nolan is certainly ruthless enough to twist the knife like this. See Memento and The Prestige.)

Analyzing the final scene, a number of observers have noted that after setting the top spinning, Cobb turns away from it to embrace his children. In other words, what the top ultimately does isn’t paramount in Cobb’s mind—he isn’t looking at it. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has confirmed this insight as a key to the scene:

The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”

So, is the point of the last scene that Cobb has given up on the question of reality or illusion? That he’s just happy to be with his kids in whatever reality or unreality he may find himself? This interpretation has been advanced and defended by a number of astute observers—but one key problem prevents me from embracing it.

Throughout the movie, we’ve watched Cobb struggle with the mental phantom of his late wife Mal—a struggle that has crippled him psychologically. It’s prevented him from designing dreamworlds. It’s endangered gigs and even lives, including his own. Within the dreamworld, Cobb is seen wearing a wedding ring—a token of the extent to which Mal still lives in his mind and he can’t let her go. At a crucial moment in the third act, Cobb is actually unable to shoot the phantom-Mal to prevent her from shooting the real Fischer.

But then, in a climactic emotional breakthrough, Cobb finally, definitively breaks with shadow-Mal. Here is his rationale, speaking first to Ariadne and then to Mal:

I can’t stay with her anymore because she doesn’t exist … I wish, more than anything. But I can’t imagine you, with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do ... but I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.

This ringing affirmation of reality, this decisive rejection of even the most attractive and longed-for illusion, is the definitive resolution of Cobb’s central inner conflict. Can it really be that Cobb immediately turns from this to abandon the question of reality in order to embrace whatever version of his children may be available to him wherever he finds himself in the end?

Is the reality of his children less important to Cobb than the reality of his wife? Can he imagine them in all their complexity, all their perfection and imperfection? Will they be “good enough”? Does he no longer care whether his real children will continue to grow up without their daddy? If not, why not? What has happened in between rejecting the shadow-Mal and embracing the ambiguous children?

I guess the climactic riddle for me could be put this way: Where is Cobb in his own mind? Specifically, (a) where does he think he is, (b) why, and (c) why is he satisfied with this? What exactly has he “left behind”? Concern with reality vs. illusion? Or doubts about what is real and what isn’t? Is the point that he’s made a leap of faith and accepts his world as reality because he loves his children, just as he asked Mal to do?

Going beyond that, I’d like a satisfying theory about where he actually is, what exactly happened, and how much of the rest of the movie—if any—is reality. Not a definitive answer—just a satisfying theory. These are questions that I think any convincing interpretation of the film must address.

Other parameters of the question worth noting:

  1. Some viewers have claimed that Cobb’s children seem not to have aged and are dressed the same way that they are in his memories. This is apparently untrue; It seems the filmmakers actually used different, slightly older children for the final scene, and that they are slightly differently dressed. The differences, though minor, are deliberate—though what if anything they prove is open to debate.
  2. The more salient point that sticks in my craw was first articulated for me by Suz after we watched the movie on DVD. It is this: In the last scene, Cobb walks into the house and sees the kids through the slider in the back yard, just as he did all that time ago, exactly where and how he left them—the same view of them we’ve seen him revisit countless times ever since.
  3. That’s not reality. In any verisimilitudinous depiction of reality, the kids would have met him, say, at the airport, or in the front yard, or in the kitchen—anywhere but where and how he’s dreamed of seeing them for all this time. This conspicuous repetition of Cobb’s pervasive dream-imagery stands out to me way more than how big the kids are or what they’re wearing.

    Now, it could be that this is simply a conceit in Nolan’s art. It could be that diegetic reality is artificial or contrived in this way without therefore ceasing to represent reality. (We don’t really have dream-sharing technology either.)

    Yet we see the dreamworld image of those hunched-over kids so many times that it’s hard to ignore the obvious recurrence here. What’s more, Mal herself—the shadow-Mal of Cobb’s own devising—has previously tempted Cobb with just this scenario: “Our children are here—and you’d like to see their faces again, wouldn’t you, Dom?” Nolan explicitly establishes that seeing those hunched-over children in the back yard turn their faces to Cobb is exactly what his own subconscious most wants. When the denouement actually gives him exactly this experience, I don’t see how I can accept that as reality.

  4. Cobb makes a big deal about nobody ever being allowed to touch one’s totem, to know its weight or feel. Yet in the opening scene—the flash-forward to Cobb and aged Saito in limbo—we see Saito handle Cobb’s totem, the top. That can’t be a coincidence. Can it? Is the point that Saito is now in a position to double-cross Cobb, to leave him stranded in a dream-world with a phantom totem just like his real one?
  5. Or is the top misdirection? Is it Cobb’s totem at all? It was Mal’s totem, right? When did it become Cobb’s? Could Cobb’s totem be something else?

  6. What about the wedding ring? It would be comforting to read the absence of the ring in the final scene would indicate the reality of that scene. Yet it could also be that the ring is gone in his mind because he’s finally let Mal go.

My gut feeling is that the final scene, at least, doesn’t take place in the real world. Still, I want to know where Cobb thinks he is, and why, and why this satisfies him.

It could be, of course, that there is no satisfying interpretation—that Nolan deliberately or accidentally created a conundrum for which no interpretation, even whatever Nolan himself thinks is really going on (assuming he has such a thought), really avails. I hope not, but I don’t really know.

Your thoughts?