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Attempting to Extract the Secrets of "Inception"

Ciara Anne likes watching films and talking about them, but she tries not to do both at once.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dominic Cobb in Inception

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dominic Cobb in Inception

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has just turned 10. I re-watched it last weekend and fell in love with it all over again. Here's a quick recap for those who have seen Inception but can't remember all the details. If you haven't seen Inception, please don't read on as there are lots of spoilers ahead.

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a spy who can enter his mark's dreams to ransack their minds for information. This is called extraction. The plot concerns Cobb's attempts to plant an idea instead of stealing one, which is referred to as inception.

Cobb undertakes this dangerous and potentially impossible mission in the hopes that completing it will enable him to see his children again. The end of the film shows Cobb being reunited with his children. And audiences have been speculating about whether this was real or an illusion ever since. Or, as Queen so eloquently phrased it: "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"

Dominic Cobb attempts an extraction in Inception

Dominic Cobb attempts an extraction in Inception

Searching for Evidence

Exiting the cinema back in 2010, I suspected the final scene was a dream. Cobb’s son and daughter seemed more or less the same as in the earlier memories. But desperately wanting the happy ending to be real, I told myself it was.

Watching it 10 years later on Netflix, it was possible to skip forward and back between scenes to compare how the children are represented. At the end, they do look slightly older. They appear to have grown taller and the boy, James, walks rather than toddles.

But they're dressed in almost identical outfits to the ones they wear when they appear in various dreams. James wears sandals in all the earlier scenes but he has white trainers on when Cobb lifts him up at the end.

Cobb's children at the end of Inception

Cobb's children at the end of Inception

Clues in Clothing

Philippa, Cobb's daughter, wears black shoes and her dress has red sleeves every time we see her except at the end. When she embraces Cobb, the sleeves of her dress are white, and her shoes are a much paler shade.

The pattern on James' shirt and the colour and shape of Philippa's dress never alters. Nor does the colour of James' shorts, though they look longer at the start. The children play in the same part of the garden when Cobb returns home as when he first shows them to Ariadne in a dream.

From this, it's reasonable to conclude that these children are constructed from Cobb's memories and the ending is an illusion. But this doesn't mean that Cobb didn't actually wake up as the plane is landing and walk through the airport in the scenes preceding this.

Cobb's children in an earlier dream sequence

Cobb's children in an earlier dream sequence

Truth and Totems

Here’s my optimistic theory: after he is collected at the airport, Cobb falls asleep in the car on the way to see his kids. He dreams about his children because he’s excited about finally being able to see them in person.

This theory isn't perfect either. Earlier on, Cobb tells Ariadne that he’s no longer able to dream naturally. But what if confronting the part of his psyche that Mal represents, and finally letting her go, solved this problem?

There is an argument that proposes Cobb is awake in the final scene by suggesting his wedding ring is his totem, not the spinner. This is based on Cobb previously only wearing this ring at times when we know he is dreaming.

Perhaps Cobb is without a ring in that final scene because Mal has finally gone, and not because he is awake. The ring could have been projected by the same part of Cobb’s subconscious that clung to her memory and kept her alive.

A ring-less Cobb examines his spinning top totem in Inception

A ring-less Cobb examines his spinning top totem in Inception

Has the Dream Become the Reality?

Many fans have proposed that the events of the entire film exist only in a dream, which is entirely possible. Mal certainly thinks so. Both Mal and Cobb's father, Miles, plead with him to return to reality. Mombasa is maze-like and similar to a dream architect's creation; the mysterious men chasing Cobb could be projections.

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It could be that, as the elderly man in Mombasa says, “the dream has become the reality.” But by focusing on what is real or imagined, or demanding a happy ending for Cobb, the viewer might be missing the point.

We see Cobb spin his totem several times to confirm if his world is genuine. Each time he does this, he waits for it to topple - with one exception. In the final scene, Cobb spins the totem, but doesn’t wait to see what happens to it. He no longer cares if this is real or imaginary. Seeing his children is all that matters.

At this point, the audience cares more than Cobb does about whether or not this is a delusion. Though a fantasy might not satisfy the viewer, it is real enough for Cobb. And, to quote the wise man in Mombasa again, who are we “to say otherwise?”

Dream addicts in a Mombasa dreaming den in Inception

Dream addicts in a Mombasa dreaming den in Inception

The Real Inception

The enigmatic and ambiguous ending is one of the reasons Inception remains just as powerful 10 years on. By making it impossible to extract all its secrets, this film implants a puzzle that we’ll be eternally attempting to solve. And that is an incredible inception.

P.S. Is anyone else unable to see the word ‘inception’ without hearing it in Alan Partridge’s voice?

A landscape created by a dream architect in Inception

A landscape created by a dream architect in Inception

The Original Trailer for Inception

© 2020 Ciara Anne


Ciara Anne (author) from Ireland on July 31, 2020:

That's interesting! I knew it wobbled but I never listened out for the sound of it waning. Will have to watch out for that next time. If you put closed captions on at the every end, the little boy tells Cobb that the children were building a house on a cliff, which sounds like something from a dream. But kids can say strange things! I think everyone takes something from the film as proof of it being real or not, but it's never going to be something that is agreed with unanimously. For me, the children's clothes and how Nolan constantly shows them in a similar position and outfits in the dream (which I feel are deliberate clues) would suggest that it's a dream at the end, despite other clues to the contrary. But no-one can say definitively either way (except Nolan) and I think that's what's so powerful about the film and why it's a classic. People will be debating about the ending forever and that's one of the (many) things that's so brilliant about this movie!

Noel Penaflor from California on July 31, 2020:

As the credits go black, you can her the spinning begin to wane.

Ciara Anne (author) from Ireland on July 29, 2020:

Yeah he's said in interviews that Christopher Nolan told him the scenes he was in were real, but ... maybe Michael Caine was dreaming? :-)

Noel Penaflor from California on July 29, 2020:

Michael Caine said in interviews the ending is real...

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