Quick Answer: Six years after its premiere, fans of Inception are still asking the same question: Was Dom Cobb dreaming? The answer to that question depends on what Dom's totem is. If his totem is his wedding ring, then he is not dreaming. But if it is the spinning top, the answer is less clear. The camera focuses in on the spinning top, then, as it begins to wobble, cuts away before we see if it topples over. Whether he is dreaming or not, the ending brings Dom the happiness he sought throughout the film, providing Dom, if not the audience, with a sense of closure.
Six years after Christopher Nolan's mind-bending Inception (2010), viewers are still scratching their heads. The film's complex plot has incited a number of questions, the most common one regarding the film's ambiguous ending. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan admitted, "I’ve been asked the question more times than I’ve ever been asked any other question about any other film I’ve made." And yet, the question still remains: Did the top stop spinning or what? Was Cobb in a dream or reality throughout the film? Nolan still hasn't come close to revealing the answer. "What's funny to me," he added, "is that people really do expect me to answer it." While Nolan may not want to stray from his film's intentional ambiguity, that doesn't mean we're not allowed to parse the conclusion.
Inception centers around the idea of accessing someone's mind, of delving into one's subconscious via one's dreams and extracting information. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the most skilled extractor in the world, is hired by a businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to perform a new variation on the extraction process, called "inception." Instead of taking out information, the theory behind inception is to enter one's subconscious and plant an idea there. As we learn, this is a near-impossible task. In order for the idea to take, the intruder has to plant it in such a subtle way that the subject believes it was his or her own idea. In typical Nolan fashion, layers of complexity continue to take shape. It turns out that dreams can have multiple levels. There is a dream within a dream, and then a dream within a dream within a dream. Dom and his team are tasked with infiltrating three levels of these intricate dreams-within-dreams.
The multilevel storytelling becomes confusing, both for audiences and for Dom. It's difficult to keep track of what is a dream and what is reality. This confusion comes to a head at the film's final cliffhanger, plunging viewers into uncertainty.
The final scene of Inception
The ending is rendered so perplexing because of an object known as a totem. As the intruders enter a dream, they must carry with them a totem, an object that differs depending on whether you're in reality or in a dream. For example, Arthur's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) totem is a loaded die. The idea is that one side is heavier than the others, so when rolled, it will always land on that side. If it doesn't, he knows he's dreaming. Ariadne's (Ellen Page) totem is a slightly hollowed out bishop. If the weight is different, she is dreaming. The totem allows the intruders to be definitively aware of what is real and what is not. Dom's totem, the top, does not topple over when he is in a dream; it just continues to spin. So at the end of the film, when he is finally reunited with his children, he spins the top on the table. The camera focuses in on it, then, as it begins to wobble, cuts away before we see if it topples over. This begs the question: is Dom dreaming? But before we can get to that, there is another question to consider: is the top really his totem?
Though there are countless theories as to what Dom's true totem is, the most likely candidate is his wedding ring. Throughout the film, he can be seen wearing it whenever he is in a dream, but when he is in the real world, he does not wear it.
Dom Seen In a Dream With His Wedding Ring
Dom Wakes Up Without His Wedding Ring
Although the alternating presence and absence of the ring piqued the curiosity of Inception theorists, the ring cannot be Dom's totem. A totem is a physical object that you can have in both worlds, it being the way one can distinguish between reality and dreams. Because Dom does not wear his ring in the real world, it can't be his totem. The top, meanwhile, exists in both realms. Dom repeatedly spins the top in reality, holding his breath all the while.
Dom Waits to See if the Spinning Top Falls
At one point in the film, Dom holds a gun to his head, prepared to kill himself if the top does not stop spinning, as killing yourself in a dream wakes you up. When it topples over, his relief is visible. This action does not make sense unless it is truly his totem.
Now, this doesn't mean that the wedding ring was never his totem. It's possible that it once was, when his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), was still alive. Her totem was the spinning top; we know this for certain. Once she died, it's likely that Dom took it as his own. It is most likely a mixture of guilt and sentiment that made him do this, but it could also have to do with their time in limbo. He snuck into her childhood house when they were lost in limbo and touched the spinning top, her totem at the time. You are not supposed to touch another's totem, as it defeats the purpose of the object's uniquely individual nature. Did it pass to him when he did this? Is this part of the reason Mal lost a grip on reality?
If the spinning top was no longer Dom's totem at the end of the movie, would it matter if it toppled over or not? There's no clear answer. However, if it was still his, we can't say for sure if he was dreaming. In choosing such an ambiguous ending, Nolan seems to be more interested in Dom's internal struggle than the dream-reality dichotomy. Throughout the film, Dom tries to come to grips with his wife's death, the nature of reality, and where he truly belongs. At the end of the film, Dom is reunited with his children; he is finally happy.
While Nolan has refrained from commenting on the "correct" explanation of the film's final scene, he has discussed Inception's overall message. In his 2015 commencement address at Princeton, he said, "I feel that, over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense... I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with, they are subsets of reality… The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."
Ultimately, it is Dom finally achieving happiness and closure that's important. He doesn't wait to see if the top stops spinning, suggesting that he doesn't really care anymore. He just wants to be with his children, and now that he can be, that's all that matters.
Dom Returns Home Without His Wedding Ring
That said, the top did look like it was beginning to lose momentum, which leads us to believe he was awake and in the real world. Moreover, even if the wedding ring was his totem by the end of the movie, we know for sure that he wasn't dreaming. When he gets off the airplane and into the airport, you can see his ringless hand when he gives over his passport, indicating that he is in reality. In any case, whether or not Dom is dreaming, the film concludes with him being happy and fulfilled. And isn't that what counts?