Answer to the ending of “Inception”


A good chunk of us who have just seen Inception have started debating over whether Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb is still stuck in the dream world.  The film’s final shot is his totem spinning on the table and before we see if it topples (a sign of being in the real world), it cuts to black.

Throughout the film we regularly see flashes of Cobb’s children as he remembers them right before he goes on the run.  His young daughter appears in a light red dress and his son in some plaid shirt.  Now, if we are to apply the A Beautiful Mind theorem, we might be able to deduce whether Cobb is awake or dreaming.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash is able to discern between illusion and reality by recognizing the ageless nature of his illusions.  As he ages, the characters he hallucinates stay the same age, which therefore proves to himself that he’s just imagining these characters.

Now, we can’t exactly apply the same logic to Inception because we don’t know exactly how long Cobb has been exiled from the U.S.  From the way he talks to his children on the phone in the film and his discussion with Miles (Michael Caine) about his occupation shift, it could be up to a year or two. (I’m assuming he’s been a dream thief for a while; Cobb comments that there aren’t a lot of legitimate jobs for a man running from the law, and it seems that establishing oneself as a dream thief would take some time).  Since we don’t know the exact length of time between his wife’s suicide and the time of the film’s events, we can’t determine if his children should have aged more when he sees them at the end of the film.

However.  When he comes home and goes to his children, they are wearing the exact same clothes as those in his memory. Before he leaves the country, he sees his children in red and plaid, playing outside in the grass.  When he comes home, they are outside, playing in the grass, in the same clothes.  If Cobb has been gone for any length of time, the children would look different in some way, if not in age, then at least in clothing.  The fact that Nolan had the children wearing different clothes in a separate memory (the one where he sees his kids and Mal on the beach) could be a clue that if Cobb were experiencing something new, the kids would have been wearing clothes not connected to his memories.

So there you have it.  The A Beautiful Mind theorem and what I believe to be the true ending of the film: Cobb’s still stuck in his subconsciousness.


15 responses to “Answer to the ending of “Inception”

  1. Rem,

    I agree with the clothing idea, it holds ground. A few things trouble me though. If he truly spent countless years with Mal in the deepest level of their subconscious, altering their reality and they saw fit, I would think that he would grow accustomed to mentally trying to manipulate his environment. It seems logical that over the years he would attempt to do so in his present reality. If we assume that he would at least try, than either he is living in reality and cannot manipulate, or he is manipulating the environment in ways that are not conscious or fantastical enough to reveal the alteration.
    Also, if the spinning top is the only way he can reveal to himself that he is in a dream state, wouldn’t he have attempted to spin it and see if it never stopped prior to the reconnection with his children? I don’t remember if he actually spins it earlier in the film in his reality.

    These comments aside, the children theory seems very sound, what with the same age and clothing and all.

    • He does spin the top several times both inside the dream and reality. As to trying to alter his world, I don’t think he would try to alter it. If he believes he isn’t dreaming then why would he try. There would be no reason to make the attempt. When he first exited the dream-scape I’m sure he did, but experiences since then would have broken the habit, I think. Eventually, however, he would come back to the still-spinning top and realize what was going on. That may be where a sequal they’re already whispering about could pick up.

  2. Thank you. I had this argument with my roommate last night.

  3. The Filmsmith

    The more I sit on it, the more I want him to be in the real world. Considering what Cobb has been through, he’s earned his ticket home.

    • I was watching the clothes on the children pretty closely in the final scene (and I’d have to watch it again to be sure) but I believe that while they were wearing colors and patterns simliar to those from his memory, that his daughter’s dress was a different style… more like a jumper with a white teeshirt underneath of it. Also, the children’s hair was different in the final scene, most notably his son’s which was longer than in memories prior.
      Further, the credits list two separate ages (and diffrent actors) for the children:
      Claire Geare … Phillipa (3 years)
      Magnus Nolan … James (20 months)
      Taylor Geare … Phillipa (5 years)
      Johnathan Geare … James (3 years)
      which strikes me as pretty solid proof that he’s back in the real world.

      • The Filmsmith

        When I re-watched it a second time I was deliberately staying focused on the clothing from his initial memory and that at the end, and they are the same.

        Also, the two separate ages probably apply to the memory of Mal and his kids on the beach, not necessarily his kids in his memory and that of the end.

  4. They’re not wearing the same clothes. For instance look at the first scene when he wakes up at the beach and compare it with the last scene. And the kids ARE older. Also you can see they have a different hairstyle. And the thing that really reveals it, is the fact that he gets to see their faces.

  5. Jeffrey Kurland, costume designer of Inception confirms that the children’s clothes in the final scene is different to the children’s clothing throughout the film.

  6. There’s something to confuse you… the grandpa (Miles) is wearing the same jacket and shirt at the airport that he wore in Paris. Devastating! I wanted Cobb to get back, I really did…

  7. Verdict: Real World
    Reasoning: Follow the wedding ring…

  8. Here’s the source:
    The movie’s own costume designer said the children’s clothes were different. I checked, and indeed they were. Subtly but definitely. Just watch closely.

  9. The last time Cobb spun the top before the end scene he spins it on the sink and then gets surprised by his friend coming in the door and he knocks it over with his hand. Everything could have been a dream from that moment until the end.

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