CAUTION! This post will spoil the film, so if you haven't seen it, please don't read below this line! If you're looking for a review of the film without spoilers, please read our Inception review instead!
Christopher Nolan's Inception is clearly a high point in the director's career. His first film following The Dark Knight has managed to captivate audiences just as much as a large franchise movie, yet it's a completely original work.
But why? What's all the fuss about? Not only is it a well-made film with a stellar cast, but it features something that most Hollywood movies either ignore or diminish the importance of these days- intelligence. It manages to engage the audience while delivering its chases, crashes and explosions, and leaves its viewers with a satisfying, yet ambiguous ending, designed to spark debate over what really happened.
So, what did happen to Dom Cobb? How did he get out of limbo, or is he still there? Did the top stop spinning at the end, or will it keep going to infinity? These are key reasons why the film will endure the test of time, and why it's box office numbers will probably remain strong.
I invite you, dear reader, to come discuss the possibilities with me in the comments section below, and hit the jump if you're curious to read my own explanation!
Here's my take: You can look at it a few ways.
First, I'll be clear in stating my opinion that Dom's top didn't stop spinning at the very end of the film. I've heard some people say that it falls right before the cut to black, but it doesn't. This is a brilliant editing choice that takes advantage of a happy accident. Right before the film cuts to the end credits, the top is seen faltering, but recovers and keeps spinning. It most certainly doesn't stop spinning, and leaves open the possibility that it will either stop spinning soon, or never stop spinning.
However, if you keep track of how Dom spins the top in previous segments of "reality", you'll notice that it falls over relatively quickly, much faster than we see it spin for at the end of the film. This leads us to conclude that, because it's been spinning for a much longer time at the end of the film, that it won't stop anytime soon.
So, this means that we leave Cobb in a dream. But how?
Well, in my opinion, there are two ways to look at that. The first is, he never escaped limbo and died, entering what could be considered "heaven." He's still physically on the plane, but brain dead, left in a coma, and eventually deceased. This would make sense, since we never actually see him or Saito leave limbo.
But then there's the theory that the entire film could have been a big con to get Cobb to let go of his past guilt, which would mean that none of the film is real, and it's all been played out inside Dom's head the entire time. This would make sense because none of the other characters are nearly as well developed as Cobb, suggesting that maybe none of them are real, and the entire journey that Cobb endures could have been for his benefit, not Saito's.
Think about it in terms of Cobb's history, and how his mind affects the upper levels of the dreams in the climax. How could the train and Mal be infiltrating other people's dreams if they weren't in Cobb's head? Cobb states that the projections within a dreamer's mind are embodiments of their subconscious, so maybe that's a hint that all of Cobb's team are part of his mind trying to get him to let go of Mal, and Mal and all of the projections out to kill him and his team are the part of his subconscious fighting the urge to let go.
If you'll notice, Cobb's subconscious is the only one that can affect other dreamers' dreams. None of the other team members bring anything but their own consciousness and special skills. To me, this means that they ARE part of the subconscious, perhaps the intellectual side fighting the emotional side.
So, if that's the case, then the inception would be in order for Dom to release his guilt about allowing Mal to commit suicide and going on the run, keeping him away from his children... or it could mean that the whole idea of going on the run was a fabricated trick of his mind- even Mal tells him in a flashback that the idea of corporations sending hit men after him is ludicrous.
What's that you say? What about the top? It stopped spinning before in what Dom thought of as "reality", so how can it have done that if he was in a dream the whole time? Wouldn't it have kept spinning to infinity?
Well, no. Cobb says that the concept of a totem was Mal's idea. Since we don't know when the idea was conceived, it's very possible that it is a flawed concept. The idea is that it's like pinching yourself to wake up, but as we saw in the flashbacks to Dom's dark past, Mal's totem didn't keep her from believing that she was dreaming, and that was when it stopped spinning. So, maybe it's possible for the dream to be so real that your totem lies to you. But then, wouldn't that make the ending even more ambiguous? Well, yes, and that's the fun of it!
The more I delve into the layers of the film, the more evidence I find for this theory. It also makes the movie better, as small gripes with the acting and lack of peripheral character development can be explained as purposeful, not just an oversight. Inception is much like an onion, with many many layers to explore, and many many discussions to elucidate the details. Much like David Fincher's Fight Club, it deserves multiple viewings to fully understand all of the subtleties that lay within it.
But what did you think? What are your interpretations? Feel free to share them below! Maybe I missed something you didn't...