Inception: The Ending Doesn’t Matter
Inception: The Ending Doesn’t Matter
Ever since "Inception" was released, people have proposed theories about the ending, trying to find evidence as to whether the main character is back in reality or still in a dream. There are a lot of these theories in geek culture, and most enhance the film in some way. The problem with the theories about the ending to "Inception" is that they distract from the point of the ending.
Recently, Cracked.com ran an article promoting the “Wedding Ring Theory” about the ending of the movie “Inception,” which suggests that the main character, Don Cobb, used his wedding ring as a totem rather than the infamous top, with whether the wedding ring being on or off determining if he was in a dream or reality, respectively. This theory is one of a long string of theories that sprouted up shortly after the film’s release attempting to determine an absolute conclusion to the story from the film’s ambiguous ending. Other theories have suggested that Cobb is still in a dream because his children look the same as they did in his dream (even though they don’t) or are wearing the same clothes as they were in the dream (even though they weren’t).
There is a great deal of this sort of theorizing about fictional franchises in geek culture, and I myself have taken part in some of it. I am partial to the theory that James Bond is a code name used by multiple MI6 agents over the decades, because it explains why the timeline continues to move forward in the James Bond universe and why the different bonds have different personalities. I’m also impressed by, if not completely sold on, the theory that all of Pixar’s movies exist in a single universe, simply because I think it’s a neat idea. I feel that this type of theorizing is at worst harmless and at best a way of adding to the fiction, further immersing a person in a story. Where this becomes a problem is when people start making theories that undermine the point a piece of fiction is trying to make, which brings us back to “Inception.”
Now, I don’t feel that these theories about the ending should be dismissed with the hand wave statement, “It doesn’t matter.” None of this stuff matters. It ultimately doesn’t matter if I’m consciously aware that James Bond changes faces and moves forward in time because he is a character played by multiple actors over several decades, or that Pixar’s self-references are fourth-wall-breaking allusions to their other movies for the sake of self-reference. Hell, none of this ultimately matters because it’s all fiction. Ultimately, you don’t matter either, nor does your job or anything you do in life, since it will all one day be turned to dust, consumed in the fire of a dying sun, and forgotten in the heat death of the universe. It’s all a matter of how we are experiencing the world around us. The problem with the theorizing about the “truth” in the ending of “Inception” isn’t that it doesn’t matter, it’s that such theorizing obfuscates the fact that the point of the ending is that this search for truth is an unfulfilling way to live life.
For those not familiar, “Inception” is about Don Cobb, a criminal who specializes in stealing ideas from people’s dreams through a process called extraction. Cobb and his team are hired to perform an inception operation, planting an idea in someone’s mind. In exchange, their employer will use his influence to clear the charge Cobb faces in the US for the murder of his wife, which she framed him for when she killed herself, allowing him to return to his children. In the movie, a dreamer can only be woken from the dream when someone outside the dream causes them to fall over, or they kill themselves inside the dream. With this knowledge, Mal decides to kill herself in order to get back to “reality.” Mal tries to force Cobb to join her by setting up her suicide so that if he doesn’t join her, it will look as though he killed her. Cobb refuses, and is forced to flee the country to avoid incarceration.
It is well known that “Inception” uses dreams and the process of the dream as metaphors for Christopher Nolan’s process of, and opinions on, filmmaking. The dreams are the stories crafted through film. Architects, like Cobb, who design the scenarios the dreamers will be placed in, are the filmmakers, and the extractors who go into the dreamer’s mind are the characters in the story. The dreamer is the audience, and the dreamer’s subconscious turning on the extractors is analogous to the audience losing their immersion in a story. The fact that the extractors using real settings and warping reality accelerates the subconscious turning on them is a metaphor for Christopher Nolan’s opinion that attempting to accurately portray real events on screen and over-reliance on special effects breaks the audience’s immersion.
Of course, as Freud tells us, sometimes a train is just a train.
If we extend this logic further, the movie also offers an opinion on the effects movies can have on people. Before beginning the heist, when Cobb is gathering his team together, he recruits a man who specializes in extraction technology and sedatives. While talking to this man, he is brought to a room filled with people who come to that room every day to dream. As the man who runs the business says, “The dream has become their reality.” This is analogous to the way people can become dependent upon cinema, allowing their lives to be ruled by fiction.
Cobb’s wife, Mal, though she did not spend her last days dreaming, is another example of someone whose life has become dominated by fiction. When she and Cobb go into the Limbo level, the heart of the mind, where they can build their own world and tell their own story, she becomes completely enamored with that world. She convinces herself that it is real, and that she can stay there. Cobb says that he performed inception upon her by implanting in her the idea that her world wasn’t real, which carried into her life in the real world, and caused her to plot her suicide.
While the den of dreamers is meant to represent those who live their lives wrapped entirely in fiction, Mal seems to represent the desire to bring fictional narrative to reality. People are inherently able to process narrative. Stories have been part of our society for so long that from a very young age, we are able to understand stories and the process behind a story. One of the consequences of this propensity towards narrative story telling is the tendency to want to assign narratives to life. We search in our own world for protagonists, enemies, and structure. We want to have clear goals in a world without them.
The largest group of people living in fiction are those who spend all of their time playing MMOs. There are inherent goals in these games, and a clear understanding of the outcomes of choices: If you kill seventeen blobs, you get a new set of boots. And, most likely, as a result of killing those blobs, you’re a hero. And it may be that idea that draws us to narrative more than anything else; that embedded in the story structure is the promise of catharsis, the satisfying ending to the conflict we have witnessed. It is the element that we crave because we cannot truly find it in our own lives. We seek to have an endpoint to struggles that will often last our entire lives. So many people give up on diets because they don’t see themselves improving quickly. So many people abandon projects because they are struggling, and see no immediate finish. We lack structured goals, we lack conditions of success, and the ending we are presented is so unsatisfying to us that we work our entire lives to avoid or ignore it, with some trying to push past it to remove endings all together. Because we lack this catharsis, many find their lives unsatisfying. Mal likely found her life unsatisfying. She had a world that was all her own, that she had complete control over, and she was taken from it, brought back after what was to her decades into a world without control, or clear choices, or catharsis. Yet because she’d lived so long in a world with these things, she wasn’t able to accept her world without them, and convinced herself that this couldn’t be real, that this was just a setback in her journey, another layer of the dream, and that she would be happy in the world above.
We want endings to our conflict, but we fear the ending to our story. We fear the idea that we cannot know what lies beyond, or worse, that there is nothing beyond. We build narratives to reassure ourselves of our place in the world, and that there is some catharsis awaiting us. Cults have formed on the idea that the real world, the perfect world, is waiting above us, and that to reach it one must only kill oneself. And the problem that plagues us, all of us, is that we can never be sure. We never know if our choices will bring us what we want. We never know if our lives will turn out the way we want. We never know if there is something beyond this world, or even if this world is real or not. And that ambiguity doesn’t fit with our narrative-driven mindset. It has driven people throughout human history to develop stories to assure themselves of their place in life. This can manifest through something as massive as a religion, or as simple as trying to discern the “truth” in the intentionally ambiguous ending to a movie.
The ending to “Inception” isn’t something with a concrete answer. The theories about the ending attempting to figure out the truth are harmless, but they miss the point that it tries to make. In the ending to “Inception,” Cobb escapes Limbo, his employer makes a call, they return to the US, and Cobb goes home. When Cobb goes home, he spins his top, which will tell him if he is in a dream by continuing to spin endlessly. He then goes outside to see his kids, and the camera returns to the top, which is still spinning, but wobbling slightly, before the film cuts to black. People speculate about what is being indicated in those last few minutes, but what they miss is the contrast being drawn between Mal and Cobb. Mal became obsessed with the truth to her world, with the idea that she was still in a dream. But when Cobb spins the top, he doesn’t wait to see if it falls. He abandons it and goes out to see his kids. It doesn’t matter to him whether the world is real or not. What matters is that he has his family back. I don’t think that a film necessarily has one clear message, but in my interpretation, the meaning in the ending of “Inception” is this:
“There are some things in this world that we don’t have a complete understanding of, and probably never will, but don’t let that bother you too much. There are far more important things to focus on.”
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