Inception was one of the most popular films to come from 2010, which makes sense given the overwhelmingly popular cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Paige, Tom Hardy and director Christopher Nolan fresh off his Batman trilogy success. The film’s fame is also helped with the unique and infamously complicated plotline involving entering the dreams of those they wish to steal from. Throw in the fact that Leo’s character, Dom, is banned from the United States because of a framed murder and you have a storyline that resonates with a variety of audiences.
But despite all these fame-inducing components, one of the standout moments from the film is the ambiguous film ending thrown in unexpectedly by Nolan. Throughout the film, characters use “totems” or various items that help them identify when they’re in a dream or not. Dom’s totem is a spinning top that never falls whenever he is a dream state. At the end of the film, the last shot lingers on the spinning top and as it seemingly begins to falter, the screen cuts to black and we never get to see whether or not it actually falls. This obviously drove audiences mad as they began to debate whether or not Dom was actually able to return to his children in the end of the film or if it was all actually a dream.
I was recently in a film class where we discussed this film as a whole, and the conversation naturally gravitated to this particular moment due to it’s controversial nature. The classroom was split with each person giving out his or her own opinions on if it was a dream at the end or not.
But for me, whether or not Dom is in a dream state at the end isn’t the point of the spinning top as the final shot. Nolan definitely wanted to put this ending in because he thought that it would cause controversy, something that he loves to include in his films over his career. But enticing this argument is not the primary job of this shot.
Throughout the film, Dom is plagued with the inability to realize when he is in a dream and when he is in the real world since he has been in so many different dream states and broken some unspoken rules about creation in dreams. There are scenes when he is drenched in cold sweats desperately reaching for his totem to remind himself of where he actually is. This paranoia haunts his character for the entirety of the film.
This last shot of the totem spinning is intended to display Dom’s closure within himself rather than let the audience know if what is happening is real. Immediately after spinning the top, he walks away from it and doesn’t bother to make sure it falls before moving on to see his children. This disregard for the outcome of the totem shows that Dom doesn’t care whether or not he is in a dream at that given time. All he cares about is that he is finally happy and at peace with himself and his life, whether it be in a dream or in reality. The paranoia that tormented him throughout the film has been dispelled and he can finally get along with his life and start to defy the demons of his past.
I don’t doubt that Nolan intended to create controversy, but this ensuing discussion amongst audience members only distracts from the real meaning by the ending of film. While it appears to have surface-level ambiguity, it actually delves much deeper than that.