Ten years later, I’m still upset about ‘Inception’: an open letter to Christopher Nolan

January 10, 2020

I will admit it: I’m not the biggest movie buff. I estimate that I step into a movie theater about once a year. But “Inception” is a film that I love to watch every few years, to get confused all over again. And as you can clearly tell from the headline of this article, the movie was written and directed by none other than Christopher Nolan, arguably one of the best movie directors that ever lived, but I have no opinions on this (talk to Arts Editor Jonah Koslofsky, if you want to fight about whatever an “auteur” is).

Dreams are confusing. Most people forget them after they wake up in the morning, or just remember the tail end of what was happening right before they wake up. But did you know that you can actually have multiple dreams throughout the night, depending on your sleep cycle? And if you’re one of the lucky few, you might have the opportunity to have the elusive lucid dream, or perhaps you’re a chronic lucid dreamer like me. Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon where you know or are aware that you’re dreaming while in a dream. This gives the dreamer the ability to control certain parts of their dreams, which is super cool! 

For those who have never seen “Inception,” the film revolves around shared lucid dreams. Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the leader of a team of individuals that utilize military technology to create shared dreams that they use to extract information on a subconscious level. This team of individuals comes to help Cobb design dreams and keep people asleep, among other things. Each member of the team has a specific task; for example, there is an architect that creates the landscape of the dream and a chemist that has drugs to keep people sedated while they’re dreaming. 

Within this technology, there is the ability to go deeper into dreams, creating dreams within dreams. The further down an individual goes, the harder it is for them to get out. A few hours in the real world may seem like decades in the dream world. And the further you go down, the slower time moves. At the lowest level, if a person dies within the dream, they move to limbo, a potentially endless dream state where an individual may age and forget that they are in a dream in the first place. 

Prior to the start of the movie, Cobb and his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), spent decades in limbo building an imaginary world for themselves. But spending too much time in a dream can alter your perception of reality, making it difficult to distinguish between what is a dream and what is reality. So when going into dreams, each member of the team has a specific momento to help them know if they are in the real world or a dream world. For Cobb, it is a spinning top that belonged to Mal. If he’s in reality, the top will eventually stop spinning. If he’s in a dream, it will spin forever. 

The main story line of the film is a job that Cobb is tasked with: implanting an idea into someone else’s brain. And the price for the successful “inception” is the ability to return home to the United States and see his children. For the entirety of the movie besides the final scene, we only see the backs of the children because he hasn’t seen them in so long that he doesn’t know what they look like anymore. But I also think that it is because he only sees them while he’s dreaming. 

Cobb and his team succeeded. After getting off the plane and returning home, Cobb spins his top one last time, but runs off to his children before the top stops, or doesn’t stop spinning. The final seconds of the movie zoom in on the top and cuts to black, so as viewers we never know if the top actually stops spinning or continues to spin.

After my most recent viewing of the film and a brief conversation with my dad, I found out that people have been arguing about the ending of the movie for a decade to no avail. In my opinion, Cobb is in reality and not in the dream state for two reasons. First, Cobb’s children turn around so he’s able to see their faces, which he was never able to do in the dreams. Second, right before the scene cuts to black, we see the top start to wobble slightly. Whenever he was in the dream state, the top was constantly spinning, without any signs of stopping.

However, while researching for this article, I found that apparently in the actual script of the film, it says “Behind [Cobb], on the table, the spinning top is STILL SPINNING,” according to an article by CinemaBlend. So, theoretically, according to the script, Cobb is still in a dream at the end of the movie. However, neither the cast members nor the audience knows if the top continues to spin or stops. 

Contrary to this, Michael Caine, who plays Cobb’s father-in-law in the film, was also confused by the script when he first received it and was told by Nolan that whenever Caine was in the film, they were in reality, according to an article by The National. So then he is in reality… right?

I honestly think that Nolan purposely did this to not only confuse Caine, but to further confuse the audience. The ambiguity of the ending of the film is what makes it so interesting and keeps me coming back. I have the hope that maybe after a few years, I’ve gained some insight or gotten smarter to help me once and for all figure out if the ending is in reality or if the whole movie is just a dream. 

I completely understand the appeal of cliffhanger endings. Bring the audience to a climax right at the end of the movie and leave the rest up to interpretation. I get it, I appreciate it. But the difference with other movies and books is they have a sequel that explains the cliffhanger! I don’t think there is even a remote chance that Christopher Nolan will make another “Inception” film, so we will never truly know what the ending is supposed to mean, it is all up to our interpretation. 

But I am a person that hates loose ends. I like to have all my eggs in a row and have finished a complete thought. However, Nolan has left me with one egg that will never be in my neat row. Just the sheer fact that the final shot leaves the viewer with so much freedom to interpret the ending is good cinematically, but it pains me internally because I just want to know how it ends. 

So please Christopher Nolan, set us all free and give us the “kick.” Is the whole movie just a dream or is Cobb really free from his past? 

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