In my last post, I looked at fan theories that covered different aspects of a story, but various theories could be created just to answer one question. While Inception is the kind of movie that might leave you completely confused, it all comes down to one question by the end. The movie itself requires you to pay attention to every little detail, and the last few minutes alone are enough to make everyone debate such an ambiguous ending. Even though the plot is complex enough to enjoy the film without much speculation, some fan theories can leave you with a new perspective and even more questions. These theories in particular were created to determine if the movie ended in reality or a dream.
Believability: There’s a 50/50 chance when it comes to this theory because there is enough evidence to support both sides. One reason to believe Cobbs returned to reality is that the spinning top started to fumble as the movie ended, and you can hear it fall over before the credits start rolling.
His children also supported the film ending in reality since they appeared older than the image Cobb replayed in his dreams. Furthermore, the dynamics of dreaming can determine if Cobb returned to reality. Early in the film, we learned that a dream always took place in the middle of things, so it was impossible to retrace one’s steps and figure out how they got from one place to another. Cobb woke up on the plane once he escaped Limbo, so he returned to a location where he could remember the motions he went through to get to that location. This theory appears to be the most desirable because it offers closure and a happy ending to an already complicated film.
Believability: The spinning top used to be Mal’s totem, so Cobb must have used a different totem before he started using hers. He also explained how his totem worked to different characters, which goes against the purpose of carrying an object only you’re familiar with. The ring, however, was a tiny detail few notice throughout the movie, and it only appeared in dreams. Because the ring appeared more likely to fulfill the purpose of a totem, its absence at the end of the movie could prove Cobb returned to reality. Still, Cobb consistently used the spinning top in the movie, and he had a gun in hand ready to kill himself in case he was in a dream. If his ring really was his totem, wouldn’t that be enough confirmation? The ring could also be a projection of his subconscious in the same way his wife only appeared in dreams. The movie never goes over whether or not a totem could be something nonexistent in reality, but everyone seemed very adamant about keeping a physical totem at hand.
If however, the ring was his totem, it would not only prove that the movie ended in reality, but it would also symbolize his ability to let go of the guilt that fueled the projection of his wife. Cobb went through the most character development throughout the movie since Mal was constantly tempting him to stay with her in the dream world. Once he realized that the Mal in his dreams was only a weak projection of the real person his wife was, he was able to escape the lure of the dream and stay rooted in reality. This achievement would be even more significant by his ability to let go of the wedding ring.
Theory: The top didn’t fall over.
Believability: As I mentioned before, the chances are 50/50. Both Cobb and Saito missed the kick that was necessary to wake them up from each dream layer, so they would have at best went up to the third level of dreaming. If they had tried to kill themselves to eventually return to reality, they might have simply returned to Limbo since the sedative was still in effect. Saito also got a hold of Cobb’s totem, so it was clear that at least one person was aware of how it worked. Once someone else is aware of how your totem works, you cannot be sure if you are in their dream or in reality.
Cobb was probably aware of all of these factors, which is why he used the spinning top once he returned home. But he didn’t stick around to see if he had successfully returned to reality. Does this mean he chose to leave dreaming behind and enjoy what was really in front of him? Or did he choose to live in ignorant bliss? If this theory is true, Cobb would still be happy by the end of the movie, but he would eventually have to return reality and potentially lose his mind.
Theory: Mal had actually returned to reality, so she spent the whole movie trying to bring Cobb back to reality.
Believability: If Mal and Cobb killed themselves to escape Limbo, they only would have reached the third level of dreaming. When Mal killed herself, at that point she could have either gone up a level of dreaming or go back to limbo if they were still under a sedative. Either way, Cobb could have easily been stuck in the dream world, and if Mal managed to escape, she would have been trying to get him back to reality. The layout of the movie is consistent with dreaming since one scene transitions into another without showing how the characters got to each location. The way Cobb is constantly chased in reality is also consistent with the way the projections get violent with dreamers. Even the way the wall got narrower as he tried to escape is reminiscent to a dream.
The only flaw with this theory is that Mal never appeared in Cobb’s reality. If it were all a dream, couldn’t she just have appeared and proved it was a dream? Maybe Cobb’s subconscious was so defensive and in denial that the projections would have immediately started attacking her before she could even reach him. In the same way Eames pretended to be Fischer’s uncle in the second layer of dreaming, Mal could have possibly been hiding her father’s identity. He did ask Cobb to return to reality, so that can have a deeper meaning than Cobb imagined. If this theory is true, then there’s really no point to the plot. The entire movie is a dream, and Cobb has reached a point of no return. Mal is no longer a villain but a hero who failed to bring her love back to reality.
If you want learn about this film and the theories it comes with, there’s an entire website dedicated to speculating the ending. The Inception Wiki is also a great source to help you figure this movie out. Now, you can at least rewatch the movie with these theories in mind and reach your own conclusion. If, however, you want to keep looking for a new way to watch memorable stories, keep an eye out for my post on Star Wars Fan Theories!