Christopher Nolan on the 'correct answer' to the Inception ending
Inception, the 2010 sci-fi thriller by Christopher Nolan, is widely regarded as one of the most original and mind-bending films of the 21st century. The film follows a team of corporate spies who use a device that allows them to enter and manipulate the dreams of others, in order to perform a complex heist that involves planting an idea in the mind of a wealthy businessman.
The film is full of twists and turns, but none more so than its ambiguous ending, which has sparked endless debates and theories among fans and critics alike. The final scene shows the protagonist, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning to his home and reuniting with his children, after completing his mission and clearing his name. He spins a metal top, which he uses as a totem to determine whether he is in a dream or reality. If the top keeps spinning, he is in a dream; if it falls, he is awake. However, before we can see the outcome of the spin, the screen cuts to black, leaving us in suspense.
What does this mean? Is Cobb still dreaming, or has he finally returned to reality? Does it even matter? These are some of the questions that have haunted viewers for over a decade, and that Nolan himself has been asked countless times. In a recent tweet, the director revealed his own perspective on the meaning of the ending, and what he intended to convey with it.
Christopher Nolan on the 'correct answer' to the #Inception ending
"The point of the shot is Leo's character doesn’t care"
"He’s moved on and is with his kids, the ambiguity is not an emotional ambiguity"
According to Nolan, the ending is not meant to be a puzzle that has a definitive solution, but rather a reflection of Cobb's emotional journey and his acceptance of his own reality. He explained that Cobb's character arc is about overcoming his guilt and grief over the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who became trapped in a dream world and committed suicide. Cobb blamed himself for her death, as he had planted the idea in her mind that their reality was not real, in order to escape from their shared dream.
Throughout the film, Cobb is haunted by Mal's memory and projection in his dreams, which prevents him from achieving his goal and returning to his children. He also struggles with the notion of reality, as he constantly questions whether he is awake or dreaming. He relies on his totem to verify his state of consciousness, but he also admits that he sometimes forgets which one is his own.
By the end of the film, however, Cobb has managed to confront and let go of Mal's projection, and to complete his inception on Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the target of his heist. He also receives a phone call from Miles (Michael Caine), his father-in-law and mentor, who tells him that he has arranged for him to clear his criminal charges and come back home. Cobb then boards a plane with his team members and arrives at Los Angeles airport, where he is greeted by Miles.
As he walks through customs, he spins his top one last time, but instead of waiting for it to stop or continue spinning, he walks away from it and follows Miles to his house. There, he sees his children playing in the backyard, and runs towards them. They turn around and embrace him, as he smiles with joy. The camera then cuts back to the top, which seems to wobble slightly before fading out.
Nolan's tweet suggests that this scene is not meant to be a cliffhanger or a trick, but rather a resolution for Cobb's character. He does not care anymore whether he is in a dream or reality, because he has chosen to be with his children and move on from his past. He has found peace and happiness in his own subjective reality, regardless of its objective validity. The ambiguity of the ending is not an emotional ambiguity for him; it is only for us, the audience.
Nolan has previously expressed similar views on the ending of Inception in various interviews and speeches. In 2015, he gave a commencement address at Princeton University, where he said:
"The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."
He also added:
"The question of whether that’s a dream or whether it’s real is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters."
Nolan also revealed that he often skipped out of the back of the theater during screenings of Inception, to avoid having to answer questions about the ending. He said that he enjoyed hearing the reactions of the audience, which ranged from gasps and groans to frustrations and applause. He said that he wanted to create a film that would provoke discussion and interpretation, and that he was pleased with the result.
"In terms of sitting with a crowd and experiencing the end of the film, ‘Inception’ was a very unique type of ending. If I would sneak into the back of the theater when it was playing, and watch people watch it, I would see them go through this range of emotions: gasps, groans, frustrations, and then this incredible applause at the end."
In another interview with WIRED in 2011, Nolan said that he personally chose to believe that Cobb got back to his kids, because he had young kids himself. He also said that he deliberately left some clues and hints in the film that could support different interpretations of the ending, such as the sound of the top falling in the credits, or the fact that Cobb's children are wearing different clothes and are slightly older in the final scene. He said that he wanted to leave some room for ambiguity and mystery, and to let the audience decide for themselves what they wanted to believe.
"I’ve been asked the question more times than I’ve ever been asked any other question about any other film I’ve made. That’s definitely the question. It keeps coming back to that. What’s funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer it. There can’t be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake … It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it’s not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me — it always felt like the appropriate ‘kick’ to me … 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."
Nolan's tweet, therefore, is not a new revelation, but rather a confirmation of his consistent stance on the ending of Inception. He has always maintained that the ending is not about whether Cobb is dreaming or not, but rather about whether he cares or not. He has also always encouraged viewers to form their own opinions and interpretations, and to enjoy the film as a stimulating and engaging experience.
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