Inception Ending Explained: Why It Doesn't Matter If The Spinning Top Falls

When I first saw "Inception" in theatres in 2010, the 2-hour-and-28-minute dreamscape felt like it was five minutes long. It was so engaging, layered, and nuanced that I found it extremely difficult to not give myself over to its story completely. Before I knew it, I was glancing at the time (shut up, we all do it) and nearly two hours had already gone by. That had never happened to me in a movie before, despite loving and living and breathing so many incredible films prior to this one. There was, clearly, something special about the Christopher Nolan epic. And as if it couldn't get more singular, the movie's ending adds an extra layer of philosophical thought to its already thought-provoking themes. 

"Inception" follows Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb, an "extractor" and corporate spy who works with his right hand man and fellow extractor, Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt). The pair use experimental military technology to infiltrate their targets' subconscious and extract pertinent information through a shared dream space. Their new mission begins when Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, comes along looking for help breaking up a competitor's empire. As payment, he offers to clear Cobb's name in America (where he is a wanted man), which in turn would allow Cobb to return home to his children. All he has to do is successfully complete the job and get his team (including Saito) in and out of the dream in one piece. 

How Inception Ends

Naturally, we're all waiting with bated breath as "Inception" pushes full-force into its finale, through all the high-octane action and death-defying stunts. Cobb and his team are able to successfully perform inception on their mark: Cillian Murphy's Robert Fischer, the son of a dying corporate behemoth and the heir to the family business. After Cobb's team deals with Fischer in the dream, he comes out thinking that his father wanted him to be his own man and build something for himself, rather than simply inheriting the company. When Fischer wakes up he believes that this idea came from his own mind, but which in fact took many hours of hard work and near-death experiences for Cobb's team to implement — all in service of removing Saito's main competitor. It's a pretty trippy process and the film does an excellent job of immersing the audience in how the plan is executed.

After their success (and after being rescued from limbo, the deepest and most dangerous level of dreaming), Saito clears up Cobb's legal issues with a simple phone call, which allows the extractor to pass through customs unscathed. Even he can't believe it. Finally, we end up at Cobb's home, where his children have been waiting years for him to return. In his own dreams, he would see his kids often, but he would never be able to see their faces; it became a tell-tale sign for the frequent dreamer that he was still under sedation. Furthermore, all dreamers in Cobb's line of work carry an item called a totem — a weighted object that has a fault or imperfection that can be identified when the dreamer needs confirmation that they are awake and out of the dream world. For Cobb it's a spinning top that, when in a dream, never ceases spinning.

When Cobb calls to his children in the film's final scene, they turn to him and we finally see their faces, seemingly breaking the spell of the dreams the extractor found himself in time and time again whilst waiting for this moment. However, as the camera pans back, we see that Cobb's totem has been spinning on the kitchen table, left forgotten as he joins his children in their garden. The camera lingers hard on the object as it spins and spins, and even seems to falter momentarily here and there. But before we can see whether or not it falls, "Inception" cuts to black and the credits roll.

Is Cobb Still Dreaming?

We don't know, and we'll never know. It's agony, in and of itself, but that's actually the important crux of the conclusion of "Inception." There are, of course, two schools of thought with this ending: that the top does indeed fall after the film ends, or that it doesn't. Either it's a dream or it's not — which, ultimately, seems pretty black and white. However, by ending the film without a clear answer either way, Christopher Nolan challenges the audience to think beyond those two obvious readings. 

In fact, Nolan seems to tell us that the answer doesn't actually matter. Whether or not the top stopped spinning, it's inconsequential. Cobb was able to see his children's faces, he was able to join them in the garden — something he had not been able to do waking or dreaming for many, many years. He achieved that goal and did what he set out to do, and that is (arguably) more important than the human curiosity of whether or not the top actually stops spinning. You and I, the audience, care because we are left hanging. It's human nature to want a finite ending and to have the puzzle pieces correctly assembled so that our brains feel satiated. Getting a concrete answer to the ending of "Inception" would be akin to watching one of those YouTube compilations of the most satisfying videos of all time. It has the same effect for us, because we're not intimately tied to Cobb's emotional stakes. We can imagine it, but it's not the same as being in it. If we were in his shoes, we'd likely also abandon the top, completely indifferent to its spinning or lack thereof.

Nolan himself subscribes to this theory, as told to Princeton University's 2015 graduating class:

"[Cobb] didn't really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid ... 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."

There you have it, from the filmmaker himself: we don't know, and we'll never know. In that acknowledgment lies both the beauty and the pain of the final moments of "Inception" — but we have the power to change our outlook on it, much like Cobb does. Do we live in the agony of the not knowing? Or do we embrace what we have for what it is and treasure it? It's up to you, but the answer, even in dreams, will set you free.