Christopher Nolan Explains Inception Ending: Here’s the Correct Answer

Thirteen years later and Christopher Nolan is still being hounded with questions about the ending of “Inception,” his acclaimed 2010 action thriller about a group of criminals who pull off a dream heist. The ending is notorious. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb has completed his task and returns home to his children, but the film lingers on his spinning totem top as it begins to wobble. Cut to black. If the top spins indefinitely, Cobb is still dreaming. If it falls, Cobb is awake in the real world.

Moviegoers have spent over a decade debating whether or not Cobb is awake or dreaming at the end of “Inception,” but Nolan recently said on the “Happy Sad Confused” podcast that such debates are missing the ending’s real takeaway: Cobb doesn’t care.

“I went through a phase where I was asked that a lot,” Nolan said when the topic of the “Inception” ending came up. “I think it was [producer] Emma Thomas who pointed out the correct answer, which is Leo’s character…the point of the shot is the character doesn’t care at that point. It’s not a question I comfortably answer.”

“There is a nihilistic view of that ending, right? But also, he’s moved on and is with his kids,” Nolan added to Wired earlier this month. “The ambiguity is not an emotional ambiguity. It’s an intellectual one for the audience.”

Whether or not Cobb’s top keeps spinning or falls on the table has no effect on the emotional conclusion of “Inception,” which for Nolan is where the heart of the story is. Cobb has made it home to his kids. The character’s emotional journey is complete, thus he doesn’t even care to check if his top spins or falls.

Other “Inception” cast members have weighed in on the debate over the years. Michael Caine once famously shared: “When I got the script of ‘Inception,’ I was a bit puzzled by it. And I said to [Nolan], ‘I don’t understand where the dream is.’ I said, ‘When is it the dream and when is it reality?’ He said, ‘Well, when you’re in the scene, it’s reality.’ So get that — if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not in it, it’s a dream.”

Since Caine’s character appears in the film’s final scene, the actor always thought that meant Cobb was in the real world and his top would fall on the table. In a recent interview with Insider, Nolan said watching the ending of “Inception” with fans is a memory that has stayed with him.

“In terms of sitting with a crowd and experiencing the end of the film, ‘Inception’ was a very unique type of ending,” Nolan said. “If I would sneak into the back of the theater when it was playing, and we would get to the end, there would be a tremendous sort of gasp, groans, frustrations — it was an incredible mixture and I would feel very much like I need to get out of here before anybody notices I’m there.”

“So that was a pretty remarkable ending to sit through with audiences over the years,” he added.

Nolan’s latest directorial effort, “Oppenheimer,” is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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