As the song "Dream Within a Dream," from the soundtrack of Inception, plays on my iPod I can't help but feel like I have only scratched the surface of my understanding of the film. For those of you who have seen Inception, I've had the pleasure of seeing it twice, you know that the film is a complicated web that bends the ideas of what is and isn't reality. If you haven't seen the film yet I would ask that you stop reading this and immediately go see the film as I am going to systematically break-down the film to provide insight and understanding into what I find the most compelling about the film, the ending.
SPOILERS! If you do not want to know the ending and plot points of INCEPTION do not read ahead!
At the end of the film, audiences are left with the image of Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) totem spinning on the table. Will it or won't it topple over? I think the answer is quite clear, he is dreaming, and will after time become the accepted ending to the film. However, after multiple viewings of the film and some intense discussions I have come to understand that there are two very clear possible endings for the film.
Both endings do not rely on whether or not the totem topples over at the end but actually harkens back to a scene much earlier in the film. The scene in question is the scene in the chemist's basement. This is the scene that changes the film and begins to bring everything afterwards into question.
Why this scene you might ask?
At first glance this scene seems just like any other, Cobb is trying to recruit his new chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to become part of their team. Yusuf then offers to take Cobb into his basement to see how he has been using his sedation chemicals to offer unperturbed, deep dreaming for his customers. In the basement lie 12 people enjoying a shared dreaming experience from which they cannot be awaken for several hours. It is explained that after using these machines for a prolonged period of time to dream, they are the only way they can dream anymore. Yusuf asks Cobb, "Can you still dream?"
Cobb is intrigued but wants a test. They put him under and he begins dreaming. He dreams of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the time they spent together in limbo, unconstructed dreamspace. Then we see Cobb "wake up" from his dream reality and run to the bathroom to wash his face, the memories are too much for him. He looks in the mirror and for the briefest of time (it might even be a few frames of film) we can see Mal behind a curtain. Is this a projection of his mind still awakening from the dream or is he in a dream?
Cobb gets out his totem and goes to spin it but in his state he drops it on the floor. Then Saito (Ken Watanabe) interrupts him and asks him if he is alright. The important thing here is that he never tests at this point that he is in reality or not. From this point forward we cannot be sure the film is a dream or not. This is also the last time he spins the top before attempting inception.
This is a deliberate decision by the director and writer. It is a decision that makes the rest of the film even more interesting.
So the two different realities of the film split from this scene forward. I'm going to call them r1 and r2 theories. In r1, Cobb actually wakes up from Yusuf's basement and if he had spun the top it would have fallen. In r2, Cobb never woke up and the rest of the movie occurs with him in a dream state in Yusuf's basement undergoing a heavy sedative so that he isn't' to awake for a long time.
In r1 the movie plays out exactly as it is shown leading to the final scene where Cobb reunites with his children, free of his guilt and crimes, the top is spinning and eventually will topple. This is a perfectly acceptable ending to the film, but one that I don't quite accept. Here is why:
1. Can one person really make a single phone-call and change Cobb's entire record? Doesn't this seem like something from a dream?
2. Cobb's children haven't aged a day since he last saw them. Not to mention they are wearing the same clothing and are in the same exact position with the same exact lighting. If this doesn't seem like something from a dream what does? Are we to believe that Cobb moved to Europe and established himself as the best extractor in the business in a matter of days? They do establish in the film that Cobb had never used the dream-machines for extraction prior to Mal's forcing of him to run from the country.
3. The way the film is shot is much slower and the camera floats in a way we haven't seen up to this point. It even utilizes a slow-motion (which we have seen up to this point) that is subtler than we have seen before. This creates a dream-like feeling to the film-making.
I am sure there are a few more reasons that I don't find the idea of the ending of the film as reality an acceptable ending but for now let's just take those. I think the way the children are portrayed should be more than enough to doubt reality.
Now onto the r2 theory. Here is exactly what I think happens in this version of the film:
Everything is going normally, as much as it can in this movie, until Cobb decides he needs a new chemist. So he is taken to Yusuf's place where he learns about a powerful sedative. In order to see the effects of said sedative, Cobb is put into a dream world. In this dream world he dreams of Mal and their time in limbo.
Cobb convinces himself that he is awake but needs to test it in the bathroom. However he drops the totem and never checks the top. He doesn't realize that he is currently in a dream. As he is the dreamer, the dream forms around his thoughts and desires.
As we are told, Cobb is the best at what he does and so he does exactly that. Subconsciously, Cobb creates a story and sequence whereby he can come to terms with his guilt over Mal's death and see his kids again. The movie continues on according to his terms, whether he knows it or not, and he is able to successfully pull off inception. However, the real inception is the one he is unaware of. He has implemented an idea in his own mind, an idea that he needs to come to terms with his own guilt.
He pulls off the inception and returns to what he believes is reality, but is actually still in the first level of his dream. He is allowed to go home, which he does and he spins the top and joins his kids. The top keeps spinning.
I know many will dismiss this ending as dumb and as rendering the content of the film as inconsequential. I would argue the opposite. The movie is about Cobb coming to terms with his own guilt and allowing himself to move on. This is exactly what occurs regardless of whether the totem falls or not. The real moment is between Cobb and his kids, no matter the reality. The same way a movie can movie you to tears or empower you, no matter if it is just a work of fiction. The result is the same, you feel something.
Personally, I think this is the more interesting and moving ending. Here is a man so destroyed by his guilt that he can only escape it by creating his own dream world where he can get what he wants, whether he realizes it or not.
However, all of these theories rely on believing that we can trust the totem in the first place. The totem was Mal's after-all and possibly cannot be trusted. There are many things that might suggest that the film was all a dream, many of which are dissected in this amazing article about Inception.
NEVER WAKE UP: THE MEANING AND SECRET OF INCEPTION
This article also discusses how the film is also a metaphor for Christopher Nolan's feelings about filmmaking. It couldn't be more on the spot and I recommend that you all check it out. You will never see the film the same way again, whether you agree with the author or not. All one has to do is look at the similarity between Nolan and DiCaprio to notice that there is something else going on in the movie entirely.