The movie’s main character is named Dom Cobb, a man skillfully trained to steal ideas and secrets out of your subconscious mind termed in the movie as “extraction”, this happens in a dream state. His skill has made him famous in the world of corporate espionage but has also cost him everything he loves – his wife and children.He is unable to return to the United States under suspicion of killing his wife Mal, who still haunts his subconscious.He is hired by a company called “Cobol engineering” to steal a secret from the mind of Saito. He is caught but is given a chance at redemption when he is offered a seemingly impossible task, to preform Inception. Inception is planting a simple but powerful idea into a subject’s subconscious mind that will go on to define him. Cobb agrees to Saito’s inception plan as a way to return to his home country and reunite with his children He goes on to assemble a team to accompany him in this job. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But, no amount of careful planning can prepare them for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.
1. Main characters
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the protagonist of Inception. A professional dream extractor, spy, who uses military-grade technology to infiltrate people’s dreams and retrieve their secrets. Cobb is trained in dream-sharing technology by Stephen Miles.
Mal Cobb (Marion Cotillard) – Cobb’s dead wife who still haunts his subconscious. Cobb and Mal had two children together (James and Philippa). She acquired an interest in dream-sharing under the tutelage of her father. Mal spends fifty years in limbo with Cobb, and grows to prefer the world of dreams to the world of reality.
Stephen Miles (Michael Caine) – a college professor who lives in Paris, and is Cobb’s father-in-law. Miles is also Cobb’s mentor, the first person to introduce Cobb and Mal to dream-sharing technology.
Arthur(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – Cobb’s resourceful partner and second-in-command: a “producer” of sorts who plans, organizes, and researches all his missions. Arthur plays many roles, at times giving Cobb advice, providing background information, scouting locations, counseling Ariadne, and administering “kicks.” Arthur opposes Saito’s inception plan and advises Cobb to turn it down, but Cobb ignores him. Cobb later scolds Arthur when his research fails to turn up the fact that Robert Fischer has militarized his subconscious.
Ariadne (Ellen Page) – a promising graduate student in architecture whom Stephen Miles recommends to Dom Cobb as a builder of dreamscapes — complex, maze-like environments that help ward off projections. She helps Dom and his team try to execute their most ambitious operation yet: to perform inception in a three-tiered dream. Although Ariadne is initially disturbed by the content of Cobb’s dreams, she is lured back into the scheme by the limitless and awe-inspiring architectural possibilities of dreams.
Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) – the billionaire scion of his father’s powerful energy company, also Saito’s primary business rival. The failing health of Robert’s father Maurice ignites a power struggle between Robert and his uncle Peter over who will control the company. Although Robert is desperate for his father’s approval and committed to leading the company forward, Saito wants Cobb and his team to “incept” the idea in Robert to instead break up his father’s empire.
Peter Brownning (Tom Berenger) – Robert Fischer’s godfather and Maurice Fisher’s (Robert’s father) longtime legal counsel. To Robert he is more of a surrogate father than a godfather, with Robert even going so far as to call him “Uncle Peter”.
Eames (Tom Hardy) – a British forger whom Dom recruits in Mombasa to join the team in their efforts to pull off Saito’s inception plan. Eames gives Cobb and the rest of the team crucial advice about how to perform inception, telling them that the idea must be exceedingly simple, and seem self-generated. As a skilled forger, Eames is easily able to take the form of other people in dreams. Eames is also described as a “fence”—someone who buys stolen goods and resells them for profit.
Saito (Ket Watanable) – a wealthy Japanese businessman who is the target of Cobb and Arthur’s first dream infiltration. Saito explains to Cobb that the operation is in fact an “audition” for a plan of Saito’s own, which involves “incepting” an idea in the mind of his business rival, Robert Fischer. Saito and Cobb form an uneasy alliance so that Cobb can reunite with his children in the United States, in exchange for helping Saito secure his empire.
Yusuf (Dileep Rao) – a Kenyan chemist whom Cobb recruits in Mombasa. Yusuf is able to produce a sedative that induces the kind of deep sleep necessary for inception. Yusuf shows Cobb a small group of permanent dream-sharers in his basement, who prefer the world of dreams over the world of reality. Although Yusuf’s sedative induces a sound sleep, the sleeping person remains sensitive to the “kick” that brings one out of a dream.
If you take the first letters of the main characters’ names, Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur, Mal and Saito, they spell out “DREAMS”. If you add Peter, Ariadne and Yusuf, the whole make “DREAMSPAY”, which is what they do for a mind thief. Which goes on to tell us, how much time Christopher Nolan dedicates to minor details.
2. Plot and Scene analysis and symbolism
Inception opens out with Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score. This music is a super slowed-down version of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”. This is a song they use in the film as the musical countdown to synchronize the “kicks”. The time dilation of each successful dream level stretches out the song’s tempo, which Zimmer reflects in his orchestration. Nolan chose this song specifically because it’s lyrics explore the effect of memories on the psyche, and how destructive not letting go of painful heartbreak can have on one’s subconscious. In the original French the lyric “… I regret neither the good things done to me nor the bad things…”, is “…Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait ni le mal..”, the last word “mal” translates to some version of “bad” in several different languages, and of course it is the name of Marion Cotillard’s villain character, a painful memory who aims to literally destroy the antagonist’s subconscious. Ironically before “Inception” Marion Cotillard played Edith Piaf in the movie “La vie en Rose” singing this song in particular, one of the many coincidences in this movie.
Inception is itself designed to feel like a dream with Nolan casting dreams and the dream-building process as an extended metaphor for films and the filmmaking process. There is actually neurological evidence that the brain activity when you’re watching a movie is very similar to that when you’re sleeping. In both cases the Visual Cortex is highly active, and the prefrontal cortex which deals with logic, analysis and self awareness is inactive. So we see a ton of crazy, illogical things but we don’t question it. Writers like Walter Merch have explored how our love of film comes for our natural acclamation from our dreaming process. And to prove this Inception is structured like one of the dreams in the film, Nolan actually timed the whole film at exactly 2h 28min a dilated synchronization with the timing of Edith’s song which is exactly 2min 28sec.
The first scene we see in the movie is a scene of our main character Dom Cobb being washed ashore on an island and waves are constantly crashing in his face. The crashing wave imagery reflects psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s description of water as a symbol of the subconscious. Water by nature deconstructs things, yet it also connects to other water in a vast shared network, the way our subconscious is a collective ocean of ideas. Water crashes in on Cobb many times in this movie to represent his collapsing mental state.
Cobb sees these children who turn away from him and we later in the movie learn that these are projections of his children, haunting his dreams, now they begin to turn but Cobb doesn’t see their faces, partly because he can’t remember what they looked like, but also as we’ll see later, he fears that looking at their faces In these dreams will trap him in this unreal place forever because he would never want to leave.
Cobb gets taken in to meet an elderly Saito who finds Cobb’s top. This is a totem that Cobb uses to determine his reality, if the top spins forever he’s in a dream, if it falls over he’s in reality. But we also learn that this particular top wasn’t his totem originally, it belonged to his wife Mal. Cobb carries it to represent his guilt over Mal and his guilt for how he used this object to infect her mind.
We cut from Saito as an old man to Cobb, and then back to Saito from Cobb’s point of view but now Saito is decades younger. This transition seamlessly jumps back in time without any clunky earlier title. Using reverse shots to put us inside Cobb’s point of view as he suddenly remembers this earlier dream with Saito. It’s subtle, disorienting the way dreams transition from moment to moment.
So now Cobb asks: “What is the most resilient parasite” – “an idea. Resilient. Highly contagious”. In this scene Cobb and Arthur are trying to offer Saito to teach him how do defend itself, because in the dream state our conscious defenses are lowered so it makes our thoughts vulnerable to theft-extraction. Ironically that’s what they are trying to achieve – to steal information from his mind. In our mind the brain automatically puts our secret information in a kind of “safe” which can be located in the dream. Saito refuses the offer and departs by saying “Enjoy your evening gentlemen”.
Cobb is wearing a wedding ring in this scene, and we only ever see him wearing that dream in his dreams and his flashbacks where Mal is still with him, but never in reality where she’s dead. So it’s possible that Cobb’s wedding ring is actually his original totem.
We can notice that DiCaprio as a younger Cobb is really a visual doppelganger for Christopher Nolan himself, probably not a coincidence. If Inception the film is a story about a dream builder trying to get back to his kids, comparing this to the filmmaking process suggests Nolan sees Cobb as a version of himself. A homesick director losing himself, in and out of dream worlds that he creates. Film after film of extracting riches from audiences until he finds one last job to artfully incept meaning into his audience’s minds that will allow him to see his children again. Its worth pointing out that the younger version of Cobb’s son is played by Magnus Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s own son.
This scene cuts to another scene in a hotel room. In that scene we realize that the first scene is actually a dream within a dream and all of them are asleep. Then it cuts back to the dream. This is the first time we see Cobb’s wife Mal. She destroys the mission and Saito finds out that they are dreaming and they are here to steal confidential information. Cobb manages to steal most of it but the most important details are left out. The dream is collapsing.
When something happens in the upper level, it affects the physics of the lower level. We’re back at the hotel room and they try to force the information by threatening Saito’s life, Cobb throws him on the floor’s carpet face down. At this point Saito realizes that this too is a dream, because he knows the exact material of the carpet it’s supposed to be made of wool, not polyester. They fail and abort their mission and we cut to reality, a scene that takes place inside a train cabin.
Cobb departs saying “ I don’t like trains” which serves as foreshadowing towards the way he and Mal killed themselves to escape limbo. So later Cobb spins the top and lifts the gun ready to shoot himself if it keeps spinning, showing his fragile mental state and struggled reality, but in this scene Cobb is not wearing his wedding ring since in reality his wife is dead. Which suggest that we are not in a dream, we’re back to reality. He gets a call from his children, asking him when is he coming back home to the US, which he can not do because of a criminal charge suggesting that he should be in jail for the murder of his wife.
He leaves the hotel room and goes to depart in a helicopter waiting for him and Arthur, but when the door opens they see Saito, their co-worker sold them out. He offers them a job. Saito asks Cobb and Arthur about inception. “if you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, why can’t you plant one there instead?” Arthur says is impossible, saying, “Here’s me planting an idea in your head. if I tell you to not think about elephants, what are you thinking about?” To witch Saito replies “Elephants”, then again Arthur says“right but it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you. The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake” to witch Cobb replies “that’s not true”. They leave the plane and Saito offers to clear Cobb’s criminal charges so he can return to his kids. Saying “Do you want to take a leap of faith, or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”. So they later exchange these exact words in limbo to remember this arrangement, but right now this sentence jumps out to Cobb because it echoes Mal right before her suicide. Maybe Cobb sees this coincidence as more evidence that this reality could still be a dream, but either way he takes this leap of faith with Saito to wake himself up from this nightmare, which began when he couldn’t take a leap of faith with Mal.
Cobb and Arthur depart for Paris, France where they meet with his father-in-law – Miles, an architecture professor who tells him “Come back to reality Dom”. He hints at the thematic lesson that the hero must learn. Cobb still believes this reality is controlled by external factors, but the truth is, our reality is something we choose.
Miles introduces Cobb to a new architect named Ariadne. In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a Cretan princess who helped the prince Theseus navigate her father Minos’s labyrinth and kill the Minotaur. In Inception, Ariadne helps Cobb navigate the labyrinthine environments of constructed dream-worlds in order to perform inception and evade projections like Mal. The film allegorically re-stages the Greek myth by showing how Ariadne helps Cobb (Theseus) navigate Robert Fischer’s maze-like dream and defeat Mal (the Minotaur). Cobb tests Ariadne by telling her to design the maze on the spot, she succeeds ultimately by ignoring the graph paper grid thinking literally out of the box designing this circular maze which is actually a similar layout to King Minos’s labyrinth in lots of artwork. In various Greek myths the maze represents the journey to one’s own enlightenment and to navigate the maze, to confront your darkness. According to psychologist Marie-Louise von Frantz mazes are symbols of the subconscious mind with the winding paths and dead ends reflecting our wandering thoughts.
The next scene begins in a bar where Cobb explains to Ariadne how dream sharing works with the cycle of creation versus perception and how they get in between that process visualized with a line, extending this filmmaking metaphor, the line is like a movie screen, a literal projection of a simulated reality for the mind to perceive.
They say we use a fraction of our brain’s full potential. Now that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep our mind can do almost anything. Imagine you’re designing a building. You consciously create each aspect. But sometimes it feels like it’s almost creating itself, if you know what I mean. Genuine inspiration right? Now, in a dream our mind continuously does this. We create and perceive our world simultaneously. And our mind does this so well that we don’t even know it’s happening.
And Cobb underlines this point by saying : “You never really remember the beginning of the dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on?” similarly, film scenes begin right in the middle of action. Ariadne’s awareness shatters the dream and things start to explode around them, debris flying everywhere. She sees this in slow-motion because she is still in the dream and now it explodes to the speed of reality above which is slower from her point of view.
Above Arthur explains “it’s why the military developed dream sharing, it was a training program used for soldiers to shoot, stab and strangle each other and then wake up”.
They go back and Ariadne folds pairs on top of itself creating impossible architecture inspired by MC Escher who Ariadne also references by using Escher’s droste effect to create a bridge.
Here Cobb explains that the architect (Ariadne) creates the world of the dream, and the people populating it are projections of his subconscious. That means you can literally talk to the subject’s subconscious, that’s one of the ways they extract information. But all of the projections are looking at her. This happens because she is changing the physics of the dream, and that means that the subject’s subconscious feels that someone else is creating this world. The more you change things the quicker the projections start to converge on you, so they attack like white blood cells fighting an infection.
She creates a bridge which she crosses every day to go to college. Cobb tells her that she should never recreate places from your memory, always imagine new places, because that’s the way that you can lose sense of whether you’re in reality or in a dream. It’s at this point where Mal (Cobb’s projection of his dead wife) attacks and kills Ariadne, resulting in her waking up from the dream.
Arthur shows Ariadne his totem a loaded die which always lands on the number 5, similarly Arthur is the fifth member of the team in terms of how deep they all go, like Yusuf is the outermost dreamer at number 6, Arthur at 5 and so on, and when the hotel rolls Arthur tumbles like this loaded die does but he always keeps his center of gravity.
In the next scene Cobb goes to Mombasa to look for a forger. The whole totem/character parallel also applies to Eames. His totem is his poker chip he always flips around his fingers, which flaw is that “Mombasa” is misspelled with two “ss” characterizing Eames as a risk-taker and a mimic, and he bets on unlucky number 13 because he thrives under chaos. In the filmmaking metaphor Eames is the actor of the group, the big ego, but also the one with the sharpest understanding of human psychology. Its Eames who unpacks Fisher’s complex daddy issues, the way great actors can invigorate and find the truth if otherwise hallow scenes, and use props to great effect.
Meanwhile another MC Escher reference comes up with the Penrose stairs, an example of a paradox that Arthur uses to teach Ariadne how to use impossible architecture to create closed loops, and he actually uses this exact design later in his dream level, it’s one of the movie’s best callbacks.
The team then recruits their chemist Yusuf (he is the Arabic form of Joseph who was a dream interpreter from the book of Genesis). Completing this filmmaking team metaphor, Yusuf is the technician like the director of photography, a lightning director, the effects artist, the one who applies science to produce the most vivid imagery and the widest bandwidth within which the rest of the team operates. Yusuf shows them how his custom-made sedative is used in the sleep chamber. Saito asks “they come here every day to sleep?”, to which Yusuf’s helper replies “No, they come, to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise sir?” This man is invoking the existential crisis at the heart of this film.
3. What is reality?.
Saito briefs them on the subject, Robert Fisher. Saito wants them to go inside his mind and incept an idea for Robert to break up his father’s Empire because Saito’s company is the only one standing in between him and total energy dominance. They would become a new superpower. They ask him how is Robert’s relationship with his father and he says that it’s rumored to be quite complicated. They need find out what that is in order to continue the mission, it’s here that we see Browning, Fisher Senior’s right hand man, Fisher Junior’s godfather. They go to follow him to see his mannerisms because Eames is the one who’s going to impersonate him in the first level of the dream state.
During this scene we see Robert for the first time, in his father’s room, Browning enters and wants to speak with him regarding the final will and testament. He accidentally trips over a picture, his son has put next to his bed. It’s a picture of Maurice (his father) and him as a child blowing on a small paper pinwheel, a picture very deer to Robert – Eames notices this. Browning says to Robert “Must be a cherished memory of his” to which Robert replies “I put it beside his bed. He hasn’t even noticed. He calls Browning “Uncle Peter” which means he has a very close relationship with him, even though he is his godfather.”
After this they’re planning how to perform the Inception. It has to be the simplest form which they will do in three layers (three dreams within dreams). On the first layer, Eames will impersonate Browning (Uncle Peter), and suggest concepts to his conscious mind, and when they go a level deeper his own projection of Browning should feed right back to him, so he gives himself the idea.
“I will split up my father’s empire.” – this is an idea that Robert himself would choose to reject, so they need to plant it deep inside his subconscious. “ the subconscious is motivated by emotion, right? Not reason. We need to find a way to translate this into an emotional concept. – How do you translate business strategy into emotion?”
After finding out that his relationship with his father is stressed and complicated, they need to do this in a positive way because positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time, so they need him to have a positive emotional reaction to all of this. Eames suggests:
My father accepts that I want to create for myself, not follow in his footsteps.
So on the top level, they will open up his relationship with his father and say:
I will not follow in my father’s footsteps.
The next level down, they feed him:
I will create something for myself.
And on the third level:
my father doesn’t want me to be him.
Three layers down dreams will collapse with the slightest disturbance, so they will be heavily sedated for sleep enough to create three layers of dreaming. The compound they will use to share the dream creates a very clear connection between dreamers whilst accelerating brain function, in other words they will have more time on each level. Brain function in the dream will be about 20 times normal, so when they enter dream within the dream the effect is compounded. That’s a week, first level down, six months the second level down, and 10 years the third level down.
They have to find a “kick”, a feeling of falling you get that jolts you awake. They won’t be able to just feel “the kick” when sedated , but the sedative leaves inner-ear function unimpaired, so however deep the sleep the sleeper will always feel falling. They have to synchronize a “kick” that can penetrate all three levels. They use a musical countdown to synchronize all the “kicks”, they do this with the song I mentioned in the beginning.
The only thing the team needs now is a way to get in the same room with him for 10 hours, they find out that he makes a trip from Sydney to Los Angeles every two weeks, he flies private. But they make an “unexpected maintenance” to his plane so he has to use a public plane. For this they have to buy out the entire cabin and the first-class flight attendant. Saito tells them he bought the airline, so they have the 10 hours they need.
Next scene Ariadne sneaks into one of Cobb’s late night dream sessions then he tells her that he could only dream by revisiting memories, a thing he told her never to do – never recreate memories. Here we see Mal’s first bedroom, their first house together, the beach with the family, the train yard, the house where they had kids and their anniversary’s hotel suite, where she died. All of these locations show up later in the movie, when Cobb takes Ariadne through limbo-unconstructed dream space, which was later constructed from his and Mal’s memories with all their favorite locations put in a row. So now Cobb has reconstructed his limbo in a column that he revisits every night, where he tries to keep Mal trapped, to keep her “alive”- in a way. These locations are moments he regrets in life. We will come back to these moments later.
They just got word that Maurice Fisher died and they start with their mission on Tuesday. So the go on the plane in the same cabin as him, they sedate him and themselves and they go to the first level of the dream. They’re in car, but unexpected shooting takes place, and a train appears on the street out of nowhere. So after the shootout, Saito gets hit and they realize a major communication error, Arthur didn’t report that Fisher’s (the subject) subconscious would be militarized, and Cobb didn’t report that their heavy sedation would drop them into limbo if they die in the dream, it won’t wake them up like normal.
Eames transforms into Browning (Uncle Peter) using an actor’s vanity mirror, and one by one the reflections change into Browning every time the camera cuts back to him. Eames reflecting little pieces of Browning’s nature, but not enough until he screams do we objectively see him in Browning form, because that scream is heard by Fisher, who recognizes it as his “uncle”, and thus, from here forward we see him in character.
Cobb tells Ariadne about limbo with flashbacks showing him with Mal using sand castles that they collapse into the background, they crumble as well. We learn they’ve spent something like 50 years down there together. But to get Mal to leave this world Cobb broke into her safe, where she left her totem (the top – motionless), he decided to spin her top totem, incepting the idea “this world isn’t real” in her mind. Which worked in the short-term to get her out of limbo, but it also worked too well that ended up defining he, that she would now question every reality that she was in, thinking death was the only way out, until she eventually killed herself, framing Cobb for her murder in the process, so he would be tempted to jump with her.
They pressure Fisher for a random 6 digits safe combination, and he immediately just speaks out 528-491, totally random number that they use as the code for the final level’s safe. They use it in the sub narrative, a seemingly all too important detail that really only serves to drive the hero Fisher into this sub narrative to his deeper realization.
In the second level they reinforced this number for Fisher like a “phone number” on a napkin and the hotel room numbers, so that in level three when he opens the safe with this code he feels like he unlocked a puzzle. Feeling a self accomplishment that was actually all manufactured to drive him through his emotional catharsis.
So down in level two Eames poses as a blond woman to flirt with Fisher (giving him the napkin with the number), as Cobb runs the Mr. Charles gambit turning him against his own subconscious, he freezes up when he hears the glass breaking, he sees his kids playing nearby. The glass break is the same sound from him stepping on the glass back in the suite and it represents Mal breaking into his operation just as she did the the train on level one. So on the first two levels Mal’s interference takes the form of tragic memories for Cobb setting her up to make one final catastrophic interference in person on the third level.
After leading Fisher to believe uncle Peter was working against him, they established a “secret” about his father that Fisher is naturally desperate to know, so they say they’re going into uncle Peter’s dream but in reality it’s Eames’s dream, the snow fortress. Up above in level one Yusuf’s crazy driving sets up some really fun physics for Arthur to tumble around in down on level two. Arthur is left alone to thanklessly wrestle with problem after problem and when Yusuf drives off the cliff early and missed the first “kick”, Arthur has to quickly and ingeniously apply Newtonian physics to kick them all without gravity tying them together in an elevator.
They hear the “kick” on level three, so now they only have 20 minutes left so they have to use the shortcuts that were created. Ariadne sharing Eames’s shortcut to the hospital (the safe) allows Cobb and thus Mal to know it so Fisher gets shot and drops into limbo along with Saito, because he died by the shot on level one.
Cobb and Ariadne dropped down into limbo to retrieve them. Now limbo is designed to resemble a massive glacier made up of stacked modernist architecture with chunks of it breaking off into the sea, like icebergs.
Cobb finds Mal in their old house and they have one of the most important exchanges of the film.
And then Mal delivers the ultimate theme of Inception “You don’t believe in one reality anymore, so choose”. Nolan is suggesting that the human mind cannot rely on external objectivity to determine our realities, but we can choose what world we want to live in. Truth doesn’t come from the walls around you, it comes from a loved one in your arms. Inception itself is an illusory magic trick, we think it’s about Fisher’s catharsis with his father but that catharsis is just manufactured both Cobb, confronting his guilt that has taken the form of Mal. That’s the true catharsis of Inception.
At this point we are shown that Cobb is responsible for incepting Mal’s mind. She had hidden her totem locked away in a safe in the house she grew up in. He found it and he did one simple thing. He took the top made it spin, and left it in the safe like that. That one simple move made Mal think:
This world isn’t real Death is the only escape.
Mal accuses him for infecting her mind and starts crying:
You remember when you asked me to marry you? You said that you dreamt that we’d grow old together.
But we did. We did but you don’t remember.
He faces his guilt, finally letting her go, because her ghost is merely his pathetic shade of his true soulmate. For his guilt, Cobb sentences himself to what could be another lifetime in limbo. It’s not stated how long Cobb and Saito spent in limbo.
Ariadne “kicks” Fisher back into the hospital level and he plays right into the constructed catharsis with his father that Eames set up for him, using the photo, the pinwheel, his daddy issues, the word “disappointed”, things that he learner on the first dream level when he was impersonating uncle Peter, so that Fisher would synthesize a new truth. “I know you’re disappointed I couldn’t be you”, but this time the father replies “No, no, no, I was disappointed that you tried.” He types in the random 6 digits he said earlier to find the pinwheel inside the safe, to which he starts crying, and realizing:
DAD SECRETLY LOVED ME+WANTS ME TO BE BETTER=DISSOLVE THE EMPIRE.
So they ride the kicks up, and then Cobb washes up on the beach, full circle the film’s prologue, which now in this moment to us feels like a forgotten dream that’s somewhat familiar, just as it did for Cob and Saito, who repeat their promises to each other and just like the sudden dream-like edit before, it happens again and Cobb wakes up. But this awakening is the true awakening. And Inception for Cobb who was once defined by his fear of the uncertainty of his reality and now defined by control over the reality that he chooses to live in.
The last closing shot is famous because, Cobb comes home, he spins the top in disbelief but then he finally lets himself look at his children’s faces and he embraces them.
The camera focuses on the top which continues to spin and Nolan cuts the scene without showing if the top stops or not.
It’s a deliberately ambiguous ending, a tease meant to leave us in doubt. But if you look for the minor details there is evidence that Cobb’s world is indeed real now , the top does wobble a bit, Cobb is not wearing his wedding ring. The final shot of the top is another misdirect by Nolan leading our eye to a distraction while allowing the deeper catharsis that he incepted in our minds to settle. The secret truth about this moment is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top, he only cares about his children. And if you follow his attention, and pay attention to the reality that Cobb has chosen, his son James says something amazing when Cobb asks them what they were up to. “We’re building a house on a cliff“ (a house on a cliff just like the house in limbo). So here you think it doesn’t make sense for Cobb to have woken up straight from limbo, to the plane. And for a man wanted for murder to miraculously make it through security just through a phone call Saito made, so Cobb could still be dreaming and Mal was right , this movie had bizarre dream-like elements. But the truth is that we ourselves determine our reality.