One question has been consistently danced around since Christopher Nolan’s Inception hit cinemas 10 years ago: is the top still spinning? One of the greatest movie mysteries of the last decade, Inception’s final moment has left viewers in continuous debate. Nolan sure isn’t one to give a straightforward answer, so we’ve continued to pore over every frame for clues as we rewind, pause, and rewatch into the night in search of a revelation. Perhaps a definitive answer doesn’t exist – perhaps that’s the point. But all the fun lies in finding meaning for ourselves.
A simple recap of the Inception ending – and, obvious warning, spoilers are to follow. Finally reunited with his children, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) tosses his spinning top to check if he’s in a dream or reality – if it spins, he’s still in a dream; if it falls, he’s back in reality. The movie cuts to credits before we ever get our answer.
So, what is Cobb’s totem telling us? Is it all a dream? Does reality even matter? To celebrate the movie turning 10, we look back at what the team behind the movie had to say about the Inception ending.
Christopher Nolan: the answer doesn’t matter
The writer and director is arguably the definitive authority on Inception, so it’s unsurprising that he’s fielded the question frequently. During a speech (opens in new tab) made to a graduating Princeton University class in 2015, Nolan made some elegant and though-provoking connections to the movie. "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 anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid.”
It was certainly a deliberate decision to make the ending near-unanswerable, because to Nolan, it doesn’t matter if Cobb is dreaming or not. He continued: “I skip out of the back of the theatre before people catch me, and there’s a very, very strong reaction from the audience: usually a bit of a groan. The point is, objectively, it matters to the audience in absolute terms: even though when I’m watching, it’s fiction, a sort of virtual reality. But 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."
Positioning the question to instead explore why it matters rather than the answer itself seems something only Nolan could do, and it’s a smart approach. Everyone has their interpretation and it’s surely comforting to know you’re neither right nor wrong. Though, in an earlier interview with WIRED (opens in new tab) in 2011, the director said, “I choose to believe that Cobb gets back to his kids, because I have young kids. People who have kids definitely read it differently than those who don't.” He concluded that “the audience brings a lot to it.”
Leonardo DiCaprio: “What happened? I have no idea”
Dom Cobb himself, Leonardo DiCaprio, has admitted that he simply has no idea what the mysterious ending means. "What happened? I have no idea," the actor told Marc Maron on his podcast, titled WTF With Marc Maron (opens in new tab). "Sometimes you're just focused on your character, man." He continued. "I actually do get involved, but when it came to Chris Nolan and his mind and how that was all pieced together, everyone was trying to constantly piece that puzzle together. "
At least it’s not just the audience that is left befuddled by Nolan’s ways. The director is known for his layered and intelligent storytelling, often to the point where it’s just plain confusing. Though the rule of the totem is something made crystal clear so seeing the spinning top wobble but never fall leaves the debate raging on.
Michael Caine: “If I’m in it, it’s reality”
A longtime collaborator of Nolan’s, Michael Caine portrays Cobb’s mentor Miles in the movie. On BBC Radio’s The Chris Moyles (opens in new tab) show back in 2010, Caine gave his definitive answer: “If I’m there it’s real, because I’m never in the dream. I’m the guy who invented the dream.” Though the actor also admitted he was confused by the script and found it hard to understand where different parts took place. There's a chance Nolan gave his good friend an easy answer, because as the director himself alluded to, it was never intended to be so simple.
At the end of the day, when a story is handed to an audience, there is no longer a ‘right’ way to interpret it. For years to come, there is no doubt that viewers will find different meanings within Inception, different layers within dreams within dreams. If there was only one way to see things, where would the fun be in that? And we’re certain Nolan would agree. Inception topped our list of the best movies of the decade. Check out what else made the cut (opens in new tab).