July 2020 was the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Inception, and the movie generated so many discussions and theories that I doubt anything I say will be new. But it’s one of my favorite films, and upon watching it for the zillionth time this week, a few things came to mind.
The previous time I watched Inception, last year, I put the sound on my little desktop speakers. This time, I put it in my headphones. I’d forgotten how awesome this film originally sounded in the theater when I first saw it with my sister ten years ago. The score by Hans Zimmer is integral to the movie. Like Zimmer did for the more recent Nolan film Dunkirk, he often overlaps multiple scenes with a single piece of music that establishes a thematic unity across the scenes, tying everything together emotionally through sound.
The final scenes of the movie are unified by Zimmer’s piece called Time, the song that begins when Mr. Cobb apparently wakes up on the plane. The song continues until the very last second of the film. Over the years, I’ve come to feel this song is inextricably linked to those scenes. It begins sparsely and quietly. It’s gloomy and melancholy, but it adds layers and a swelling orchestral treatment that sounds to me like triumphant sadness. It doesn’t sound like a happy ending, but neither does it sound like total defeat.
It’s an odd emotional combination, but it makes complete sense for the film’s ending. Why? Because that’s exactly what happens to Cobb. The triumph is that Cobb at last is reunited with his children he loves so much. The sadness is that those are clearly not Cobb’s real children, and he has not returned to reality to be with them. He’s still dreaming about them and has given up on returning to reality so he can experience the happiness of being with them in the dream world. As a writer of fiction, I can relate to that a little too much.
When I first saw the film in the theater, I loved the ambiguous ending. I felt like the film was leaving it up to me to decide whether Cobb was still dreaming or had truly achieved his desire in the real world. But, after repeated viewings, I no longer sense any ambiguity at all. The entire ending is clearly a dream.
Here’s why. First, the kids are in the States, and Cobb is greeted at the airport in the States by the Michael Caine character, Miles. But we know that Miles was in Paris, France the last time we met him. Why is he in the States? Answer: He isn’t. Second, the kids appear exactly as they did in all the times Cobb saw them in dreams—the same poses, the same clothes—only this time, he sees their faces. But if Cobb were in reality, wouldn’t the kids have on different clothes and be older than he remembers them? Third, Cobb asks the kids what they are doing, and they tell him they are building a house on a cliff. Building is something associated in the film with building worlds inside dreams, and the film shows us Saito’s house on a cliff in the previous scene. These aren’t real kids in a yard. They are only dream children.
The music tells us this is both a sad and a happy moment. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting everything you ever hoped for, yet failing to get it at all, because it’s an illusion. Cobb has both abandoned his struggle to truly reunite with his real kids and escaped the fate of becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” Cobb achieves wish fulfillment, but it’s just a dream, not the real thing.
While I no longer feel the ending is at all ambivalent, it does leave me with two questions. First, how much of the film is a dream? Others have speculated that the entire film is a layered dream, and the scenes in Mombasa support that theory, most notably in the way the walls of the city become impossibly narrow passages Cobb must squeeze through only to emerge at a too-coincidental rescue by Saito.
Second, what happens after the film’s ending? Since Cobb is still dreaming, his top will continue spinning after the final frame. But what happens when he returns to the room with the table where he left the top, then finds it is still spinning because he is dreaming? I don’t want to see an Inception II sequel, but I like to imagine the possibilities of what comes next. Will Cobb find the top spinning and lock it away in a safe to preserve the dream’s “reality” like his wife Mal did when they were trapped together in limbo? Or will Cobb see it spinning and decide to wake himself up to pursue fulfilling his desires in reality?
Perhaps the final scene with Saito as an old man in the house on the cliff provides the answer. Saito’s final physical act on camera is reaching for a pistol. But we never see what he does with it. Maybe he put it to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself in the dream to awake in the real world, leaving Cobb to face the decision to return the same way or simply sink into the fantasy fulfillment of the dream. Given Cobb’s established penchant for self-deception, always pretending that he has things “under control” when he clearly doesn’t, it seems likely that he chose the path of fantasy fulfillment within the dream. But I think that when Cobb finds that still-spinning top on the table, he will need to make a choice about either maintaining the easy lie or returning to the difficult truth.
That choice will define his life from then on. Who knows? Maybe Saito really can do what he promised and reunite Cobb with his real children. Maybe he can’t.
So, do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?
Maybe you have a third choice.