I originally saw Inception in theaters and was impressed by its intricate and imaginative visual look and layers of narrative. Leonardo DiCaprio was kind of stiff and boring, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy made up for him. The dreams were more like virtual reality constructs than what actually goes on in people’s minds while they sleep, but they were still involving, so I was fine with it. And it was original science fiction! Not a sequel, or based on a book, cartoon or video game! Oh rare and precious thing! In short, I recommend it. So much for the quick overview, and on to the spoiler-filled commentary on what everyone wanted to talk about after seeing the film: the ending.Since the film came out, there has been lots of online discussion of the ambiguous ending, and what, if anything, the director intended the audience to take away from it (or puzzle out about it). My initial impression was that the top was going to continue spinning indefinitely, thus proving that the whole movie has been a dream. Other elements of the film support this theory: the oddly unexplained nature of the dream-invasion technology, the surreal quality of the movie’s final scenes after Cobb has supposedly woken up, the movie’s score, which as my buddy Bill Simmon pointed out bears an uncanny resemblance to a slowed-down version of “Non, je ne regrette rien” (the song that plays over the end credits), and most intriguingly, the fact that Ariadne, the character who is introduced to Cobb in the course of the movie, is named for the woman who helped Theseus escape from the minotaur’s labyrinth, leading me to wonder if she is the one who is actually performing an “inception” on Cobb to allow him to escape from the continuing nightmare of his wife’s death and his separation from his children.
But others think the ending is left intentionally ambiguous. Maybe the top will stop spinning, or maybe it won’t; Nolan refuses to clarify it one way or the other. Is he making a statement on the craft of movie-making itself? On the interaction of the artist and the audience, and the way we willingly open our minds to manipulation for three hours in a darkened theater? Personally, I think this reading is too allegorical to be interesting. Some analyses go to the length of mapping each character in the movie to a role in a movie production. Nolan himself says there’s something to this theory, but I sure hope he intended to convey more depth than could be revealed with the use of a secret decoder ring.
To me, what’s most important about the ending is that Cobb himself doesn’t care whether the top continues spinning or not. Once he sees his children’s faces, he abandons the top on the table, no longer concerned about what is real or unreal, waking life or dream. In this way, it really reminds me of another Nolan film, Memento, which ends with the main character making a similar decision to abandon consensus reality (and any pretense of morality) in favor of a comforting individual fantasy. Nolan’s films are chock full of obsessed men who are caught in loops—time loops, cycles of violence, endless deaths and resurrections—and have no ability or particular desire to escape the grim repetition of trauma and loss. The resulting aura of despair makes them hard going for me as a viewer. Inception is a step up from his previous work in that Cobb truly wants to escape his nightmare, and seems to have done so at the end of the film. Even if I doubt that his escape is “real” outside of his own mind, at least there is some sense of relief and hope. And that makes it the first of Nolan’s films that I’d actually like to see again.