FEATURE ARTICLE – Spinning Tops and Unicorns: The Ending of Inception

By Marty Mulrooney


I finally went to see Christopher Nolan’s Inception last night and it blew my mind. I thought it was phenomenal: a big budget science fiction film that deftly manages to grip the minds of a mainstream audience. It is a big film with even bigger ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio is fast becoming one of the finest actors of our generation. Following Shutter Island, it is hard to argue against the fact that he has dominated the silver screen in 2010, mixing natural charisma with genuine humanity. Yet after Inception finished, I knew the one thing on people’s minds and lips as they left the cinema would undoubtedly be the ending… (Warning: Spoilers!)


I think I found a way home. And this last job, that’s how I get there.

Dom Cobb

People who have seen Inception will know that it is all about dreams. Where things get even more complicated is the idea put forth of dreams within dreams. Thankfully, Nolan and DiCaprio manage to convey these ideas with minimal convolution, instead making it all seem like a natural part of the narrative. Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) only has one desire left in life: to be reunited with his children. It is this driving force that compels Cobb to delve deeper and deeper into the world of dreams. It is also the reason we follow him.

Science fiction fans will most likely recall the now legendary Blade Runner debate. For years, fans argued whether Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard was human. A Director’s Cut soon followed and Ridley Scott eventually caved in to massive fan pressure and confirmed that Deckard was actually a replicant. Much like Inception, this idea all boiled down to a dream: Deckard dreams of a unicorn in Blade Runner. When he finds an origami figure at the end of the film, he realises that this dream was implanted.

However, I do rather wish that Mr Scott had kept quiet. I like ambiguity. I know some people need closure, concrete ideas, definitive explanations. But is life ever really like that? I like the idea of those elevator doors closing on Deckard and Rachael and, much like them, we don’t have a damn clue what will happen next. Which is why the spinning top in the final scene of Inception is one of the greatest endings I have ever seen.

This spinning top is explained to us as a ‘totem’, allowing the owner to check whether they are in a dream or not. Cobb is quick to explain that the totem must be unique to the user, as only they will know its true weight, mannerisms and real world logic. Otherwise the user can be tricked and manipulated. In the spinning top’s case, if it doesn’t topple, the world is a dream. Which is what makes it all the more thought provoking when you stop and realise that this is actually his wife’s totem, at least originally, and not his. As Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quips at one point, Cobb doesn’t exactly follow his own rules. But is there more to Inception than initially meets the eye?


Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange.

Dom Cobb

Definitely. What an amazing feat for a film to be able to make the audience’s conviction falter alongside Cobb’s as a projection of his wife in limbo begs him (and us) to realise that she was right all along: this isn’t reality and he is still dreaming every time he wakes up from a job. The faceless government men chasing him in the real world are actually subconscious projections trying to eject him from the dream world. Cobb defies this explanation. He knows his wife and the woman before him will never be enough. She is a mere shade; he can never accurately imagine all her perfections and imperfections. His wife is dead, he says. They grew old together and had their time. So she plunges a knife into his chest.

Yet what Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) says in this scene stuck with me, as if I too had been incepted. When Cobb is being chased earlier on, there is a moment where it feels as if the walls between two buildings are closing in and trapping him, a common dreamlike quality. Yet, as much as internet bloggers and film buffs may argue that moments such as these define the reality shown in the film as a dream still very far detached from the real world, I have to disagree. The walls do not move in: they merely get closer together at one end. Mal doesn’t magically appear at the building across from the Cobb’s hotel suite when she kills herself: she rents it so Dom can’t stop her from jumping. Nolan is giving you that feeling of doubt that Dom and Mal felt whilst in limbo: what is real? And does the answer matter if you are with the people you love?


Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places.

Dom Cobb

Adding to this, Nolan purposefully makes the scenes set both in reality and within dreams share the same visual style: there is nothing here to separate fact from fiction. Even as physics are bent and buildings rise from  the dust, there is a grounded realism to the proceedings that makes us forget about the world as an illusion and focus instead on the characters as the only truth.

Many viewers have pointed out that during the scenes set in the real world Cobb doesn’t wear his wedding ring. This makes sense, as at night when he sneaks into his subconscious to visit his dead wife, he does wear the ring. In the world of the dream they are still together. At first I thought Marion Cotillard as Mal was the one weak aspect of the acting, but I was completely wrong. She is detached and one dimensional because that’s the way Cobb paints her: a woman driven insane, who he desperately loved despite her delusions. As for the wedding ring? It is missing from Cobb’s finger in the final scene.

I don’t have the definitive answers and what’s more, I don’t care for them either. Inception isn’t about answers. It isn’t even really about questions. Perhaps Cobb doesn’t speak to the other team members when they land at the airport because it would look too suspicious. Or perhaps they are merely projections and he is still trapped in limbo. Is this why his children have not aged? Perhaps he hasn’t been away as long as he thinks, his job simply making it seem like a lifetime due to the infinitesimal nature of time within dreams. Yet they are dressed nearly the exact same way he remembers, causing doubt. A small idea. Like a parasite.

Ariadne (Ellen Page) tries to leave the team early on, but is soon drawn back by the allure of ‘pure creation’. The fact that Christopher Nolan has left enough space for us to expand on the narrative ourselves, arguing over a million different little things, is testament to a film that tells a whole story by only telling half of it. The viewer is the architect. When Cobb’s projection of his dead wife asks him how the children are, he responds by saying “I can’t imagine.” Yet at the end, he finally sees their faces and the spinning top is forgotten. It doesn’t matter if this is reality or not anymore, or whether the totem topples or carries on forever. Yet I am sure I saw it falter before the cut to black. For Cobb’s sake, I truly hope it falls.

What did you think about the ending of Inception? AMO would love to hear your thoughts!

All images © 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Alternative Musings, Film

17 responses to “FEATURE ARTICLE – Spinning Tops and Unicorns: The Ending of Inception

  1. I absolutely loved the film, and could feel myself tensing up as I was willing the spinning top to fall over. Genuinely one of the best films I’ve seen, and the zero-gravity hotel scene took my breath away. I’ve never really favoured Leo DiCaprio for some bizzare reason, but I just felt nothing but remorse for him when you find out everything to do with his wife. Superb film, need to go and dig out The Prestige now, feel like having a bit of a Nolan binge!

  2. Balz

    I’m actually addicted to this movie right now and cannot come off it still. I saw it like 3 days ago and still the movie haunts me… in my dreams too… As far as the ending is concerned, the totem though seems to topple slightly, I cannot fully agree to the fact that Cobb is out of limbo… I really dont understand why in the first place Cobb is not able to be with his children? How come he got separated from them when he desperately wants to reach his home? There are infinite no. of questions in my mind but lets get the basics right first? Any help would be appreciated much! ;-)..

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Hey, thanks for commenting Balz. I am guessing English is not your first language so this may be why you missed some parts of the film. He cannot be with his children because, after his wife killed herself, it looked like he had murdered her. She had herself declared sane beforehand as well so he had no defense!

      • Not sure if I imagined it, but he didn’t want to see his children’s faces whilst dreaming because then he would have no reason to wake up. Can’t remember if it was mentioned in the film or something I thought of, but maybe it also gives credence to Cobb being awake at the end, but then again maybe his sub-concious has given in and let him see them whilst dreaming. Crikey, what an incredible film.

  3. This has to be the best review of the movie so far. Not only do I agree with pretty much all of what you said, it certainly helps explain some of the finer thoughts I myself have been trying to explain since I saw the film last Friday.
    I have always been a fan of Nolan’s and even with the much hyped Dark Knight, felt he was beyond all of the Hollywood drab. His writing style attunes to the reality because life isnt always as we want, and putting in those touches of reality make you think about it much more and enjoy the far fetched parts even more.

    I was certainly not wowed to the point where I got back in line, I do want to see it again, but I have been kept thinking about the many points in the story and film that really make you think. This in turn, makes me smile. Nothing better than a movie actually making you feel, think, and be entertained, all in an afternoon in the local movie theater.

  4. Adam

    Great review! What you said that rung most true with me is that no matter what someone thinks the storyline is, the film makes sense. As of right now I’m leaning towards the whole story being a dream. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that this movie will need multiple viewings for me to draw any definitive conclusions. Another mark of a brilliant film!

  5. susbielle

    This is a very simple explanation. And if we follow Ockham’s razor, the simpler explanation should prevail. The whole movie is a dream.

    DoCaprio’s character is a man whose wife suicided. He hasn’t told his kids yet, and cannot face them as he feels guilty about it. His father in law (Caine) takes care of them. He is haunted by the wife’s death and wished there were a form of psychotherapy so he could return to a more normal life.

    He is on a business trip and flies back home. In the plane, he falls asleep (maybe after watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?), and … starts dreaming. The whole movie is his dream.

    All the passengers around him are assigned a role in the dream, including his father in law. Except Ariadne who is the exact equivalent of DiCaprio in Titanic, an angel that disappears at the end. The dream/movie is an introspection job into the deepest layers of his mind to get rid of the guilt feeling. And it works!

    When the plane lands, he wakes up and stares at his neighbors who do not acknowledge him as they don’t know him. He returns home and for the first time, he can face his kids. He is healed.

    If you thought the film was real, it means you also can’t tell the difference between dream and reality, and Christopher Nolan has succeeded his Inception in millions of minds around the globe.
    JF Susbielle (jf@paris.com)

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Nice theory… but it isn’t the simplest explanation. It would be a pretty huge cop out to wave away every last mystery within the film as a mere dream!

      Furthermore, when Cobb wakes up on the plane, he does so at the exact same time as Saito, who then looks at him and gets his phone to make a call, as they originally agreed. That would be some coincidence!

      “Occam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor is the principle that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). The popular interpretation of this principle is that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. However, this is often confused, as the ‘simple’ “is really referring to the theory with the fewest new assumptions.”

      This theory you put forward has far too many new assumptions! Cobb is a regular business man?! The people on the plane are all strangers?! (Much more likely they don’t speak to avoid suspicion). Ariadne is an angel?! I am not saying it isn’t all very well thought out, but there is little in the actual film to determine any of this. By trying to offer a simpler explanation, you have actually made it infinately more complex and unfounded. It did make for an enjoyable read though so thank you!

  6. Marty Mulrooney

    Just saw the film again and I would implore many other viewers to do the same: the film definately becomes clearer upon second viewing.

    For example, I am now fairly confident in my own mind that at the end Cobb woke up: each team member, although not directly speaking to him, either gives him a nod or a look to suggest recognition and relief.

    The children also look older and slightly different at the end: I feel many of us just roughly estimate that they look the same because we never really saw them long enough prior to the ending to solidify them in our minds anyway.

    I think the cut to black with the spinning top is Nolan’s unique way of incepting the audience: to question what makes reality so real in the first place.

  7. There’s an interview knocking around with the guy who played the chemist (not found it myself) and in it he says you can supposedly hear the spinning top fall down as the credits roll. Not that you would be able to hear it in the cinema of course, what with the collective ‘WTF!?’ you hear as the film ends.

    • Marty Mulrooney

      His name is Dileep Rao! He is quoted as saying:

      “To me, there’s really only two paths: Either it’s a wobbling top, which it does sound like at the end, and it’s real; or the whole thing, regardless of totems, moments, girls, children, people, machines, the whole thing — it’s all some dream. And that’s more philosophy. I think the film does this wonderful exploration of the entire idea to the nth degree. It feels so full. Because of that, there’s so many weird bits that seem to warp our sense of the real and unreal.”

      You can read the full interview here: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2010/07/inceptions_dileep_rao_answers.html

  8. Jill Miclean

    I’ve seen this movie twice now and after the first viewing, it really bugged me that the kids were wearing the same outfits in the scenes where they are playing in the yard and also in the very last scene where Dom comes home and they turn to him so he sees their face. You would think that they would not be wearing the same outfits the last time he saw them and upon their reunion weeks/months later. Plus the lighting is the same. Is this a clue that the whole movie is a dream? Any one else notice this?

    • Marty Mulrooney

      I think this was done intentionally by director Christopher Nolan. It may be a stylistic choice, meant to emphasise a point, rather than a genuine clue that the ending is a dream. Also, the children are actually dressed slightly different, although I do agree that upon first glance it looks like they are wearing the exact same outfits.

      Cobb’s ultimate dream throughout the film was to see his children. Perhaps the times he saw them with their backs turned in his dreams/memories were in fact premonitions of the moment when they are finally reunited? Regardless, I think the ending was purposely directed in this manner to encourage discussion, speculation and make the viewer question reality themselves, much like Cobb had done throughout.

  9. Pingback: Extracting from Inception (2010) « Space Teeth

  10. maghoxfr

    My interpretation is that an inception has been done to Cobb as well. When Cobb ask Miles if he has someone as good as him he replies, “I have someone better”. So my take is that Ariadne was “hired” by Miles to bring Cobb back home. He could get home legally by doing the inception Saito hired him for and he would get home spiritually by being incepted himself. That’s why Miles is waiting on the airport, that’s why they all look so happy, specially Ariadne, when he comes back.

  11. kristi

    I heard the totem change pitch as soon as the movie ended. My husband and I argued on the way home because he didn’t hear it and thought it could still be spinning. I think it depends on what you focus on, the visual or the auditory. I definitely heard it slow down as it does right before it topples.

  12. I’m a little late to the party, but these are my thoughts on the plot.

    Ultimately, Mal is right. She left the dream and Cobb is still trapped. Inception is about Mal trying to rescue him despite himself.


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