End of “Inception” Ambiguity

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Christopher Nolan’s excellent film “Inception” or you’ve been held captive in your Austrian neighbour’s basement since 2010, I advise you see it before you read this post. I say this because it really is worth seeing in spite of my grievance about the ending – not the ending itself, but rather the popular response to the supposed ambiguity of the final shot.


Okay, you’ve seen it then? Pretty good, eh? Here we go…

The point: The evidence provided within the film shows that it ends in a dream.

The rant that goes with it:

The title of this post can be read in two ways, both of which apply. The alleged ambiguous ending of “Inception”, in which the spinning top falters but the editor cuts to credits before we get to see whether it topples (therefore Leonardo is experiencing reality) or it corrects itself and spins indefinitely (therefore Leonardo is still deep in his own dream world), continues to be debated by the viewers (and even the actors!).

This is a pet peeve of mine because this film has been out, and on DVD, for well over a year and yet I continue to hear debate over this “mystery” and where solutions are presented, they are either wrong or right for the wrong reasons and any math teacher will tell you that “right for the wrong reason” = “failure” because the same assumptions that worked for you today will ultimately lead to wrong answers if you continue to apply similar assumptions or logic to new situations. I say that in this case, the answer is clear (yet surprisingly I haven’t yet encountered my theory anywhere else*) and that everything you need to determine Mr. DiCaprio’s fate can be found within the film itself without any internal inconsistencies.

*Disclaimer – As I post this in January 2012, it is quite possible that by now there are many versions of the following arguments out there on the interwebs, but I swear they did not exist when I saw this film for the second time, while it was still in theaters, to double-check my observations from the first viewing in 2010. If you’ve already heard all this before then I am sure those other people got all their ideas while eavesdropping on me in the theater. I don’t care if they’ve never been to Qatar…

The first thing you have to do is forget about the spinning top. Whether it is faltering or not is irrelevant. It might fall or it might not – this is why the filmmakers included this shot: as a logical distraction that provides no useful information, like a magician’s attractive assistant distracting the audience from seeing him (the magician, not the assistant) cramming a rabbit in to his hat before magically pulling it from the hattey-nothingness. There are no clues here. “I’m pretty sure it was/wasn’t going to topple” does not mean “it was/wasn’t going to topple”. Moving on…

The answer to this riddle is provided by the appearance and behavior of Leo’s estranged children.

Throughout the film, we are treated to his memories of them as being in their toddler years – perhaps 2 and 4 years old – and wearing a pink dress and a plaid shirt respectively. Although the script never explicitly states how long it has been since he has seen them, in the film’s present-day we do hear them on the other end of a phone conversation and their voices they appear to be those of children who are at least a couple years older: maybe 3 and 6 years old. From this we can induce that the children have aged significantly since he last saw them and as such he has been away from home for just as long.

Regardless, in the last scene with the spinning top, Leo hears his children playing and runs out to see them without waiting to see what the top has to tell him. Perhaps we do not see the fate of the top because Leo doesn’t want to know and the filmmakers want us to experience the scene as Leo does. Again, this is a distraction so we will ignore this.

The relevant part of this scene is the image of the children. They are seen playing in the same spot where he last remembered them, at the same ages and wearing the same clothes. If this were reality, these kids would probably be at school or somewhere else that day, twice their previous bio-mass and the clothes Leo remembered would be in a bin at St Vincent DiCaprio.

True, this is not the only explanation. There are always others:

Alternate Hypothesis 1: “Leo`s dead wife (played by that idiot actress who STILL thinks 9/11 was an inside job) messed around on him”

Perhaps the children could be Leo’s neighbours’ kids, who look just like Leo’s kids used to because unbeknownst to Leo, the next door neighbour was their actual father and a few years later, that neighbour sired new kids with his own wife that not-so-coincidentally look just like their half-brother & sister. The similarity of the clothes is explained by the fact that both families live in the same neighbourhood and therefore both donate and shop at the same St Vincent DiCaprio. This conjecture allows for the possibility that Leo is indeed in the waking world, but alas, as much as your typical conspiracy “theorist” would readily accept this explanation, Ockham’s Razor quickly cuts it away when held up against the hypothesis that isn’t stupid.

Alternate Hypothesis 2: “The filmmakers screwed up when they hired the child voice actors”

There is another apparently* more reasonable explanation: The filmmakers made a mistake when they hired the child voice actors and that they simply didn’t think to use younger actors. This allows for the possibility that Leo had only been away for a couple of months, the children had not grown at all. Sure, there is still the issue of them happening to be wearing the exact same COMBINATION of pants, shirts and shoes as they were a few months ago, but keep in mind that they have been watched over by their grandmother and we all know that old people are daft enough to overlook something as basic as ever changing their clothes or even remembering that they had gone out to play weeks before and were never seen again. So, we accept that condition as well.

The problem with this hypothesis is that we can only asses evidence on its own merit and we cannot assume that the filmmakers made a mistake. Even if they did, the reality of the film is the film itself and not the intent. Such conjectures are “unfalsifiable”, teetering dangerously on phenomenology and anyone who tries to undermine a theory by invoking phenomenology can go f**k themselves.

I say “apparently” here* because the official film credits do not support this conjecture. If you go to the IMDb, you will see that the credits include mention of TWO SETS of children playing the same two people:

  • Phillipa Cobb @ 3 years = Claire Geare
  • James Cobb @ 20 months = Magnus Nolan      (the director’s son)
  • Phillipa @ 5 years = Taylor Geare
  • James @ 3 years = Johnathan Geare

These credits, with specific mention of the children’s ages, confirm the aging of the children as intentional and not an error, falsifying the alt hypothesis #2. Did they make this change after production in order to save face? Perhaps, but again – so long as there are no internal inconsistencies (none here, okay) – the film stands on its own merits and not per some external rationalization. It is what it is.

CONCLUSION: As that dog from “UP” might say through his voice-box as he quickly looks into the distance: “Spinning top!”, the film itself contains all the information we need to confirm that it does indeed end with Leo “living the dream”…

…but it doesn’t matter because even if it takes him 50 years to figure this out, in ”the film’s reality” he will wake up in 10 minutes anyway, so the worst that will actually happen to him is that he might be a little late for work that day.

Comments are welcome and encouraged.  However, before you post, please read my Moderation Policy, which I’ve adopted to control Spam.  Basically, if you link to another website AND you do NOT refer to some specific detail about my post or another commenter’s post, your comment will be trashed before it appears, even if you are kind enough to say only, “I like your blog”.  Sorry ’bout that, but the spam-bots have wrecked it for all of us.

The Oxford Comma, Redundant, and Offensive

…Oops, I mean – ”The Oxford Comma: Redundant and Offensive”

The point: The Oxford (or Serial) Comma is an unnecessary device in that it is ugly and serves no purpose that is not already served by other, better and established means. Regardless, it is proliferating the interwebs via cute cartoons & t-shirt campaigns and as such, it has become the invasive species of grammar – to be killed accordingly.

The rant that goes with it:

If you already know what an Oxford Comma is and you don`t care to read me whining about it, please just skip to the definitions near the end of this post* and then read on from there.

Even the OXFORD Dictionary itself has drunk the kool-aid of this device by including the following definition…

Serial Comma (also Oxford Comma) : a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect).

…but, as they say, just because one CAN do a thing doesn’t mean that one MUST do that thing.

The concept of the “Oxford Comma” was recently popularized by a 2-panel cartoon in which the first panel depicts four people: JFK, Stalin and two strippers (note that I chose the structure and format of my description very carefully, a strategy that will be made apparent by the end of this post) with a caption that says – and it pains me to write it this way - “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin”.

Oxford Comma cartoon panel 1
The second panel depicts only two people: JFK and Stalin – both of whom are dressed as strippers. The caption for this panel says, “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin”.

Oxford Comma cartoon panel 2
First of all, the cartoon in question gained its notoriety not because it exposed some supposed internal conflicts within the rules of written English, but because many people took offence to the reputations of one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled leaders of the 20th century (which is which is up to you) having been trivialized by the comic representation of them in fishnets and high-heels. This reaction from a small (minded) group of people resulted in some web censorship and a friend of mine leaving Facebook in protest of that censorship. However, as pathetic as the reaction to the images was and as vile as web censorship is, my specific grievance with this cartoon is not the social fallout, but rather its baseless allegations that the rules of punctuation are flawed in such a way.

The Oxford Comma is a pet peeve of mine. I daresay that I am somewhat of an authority on this issue if only because my company has deemed me to be an authority; I teach a management course on technical writing, the focus of which is on sentence structure for specifications, corporate letters and legal documents (that being said, if any of you Grammar Nazis find any errors in punctuation in this post, do please KINDLY point them out so that I can correct them…and then piss off). Before you say, “hey, that’s (I wrote the course that says my own theory is correct) Begging the Question (circular logic)!” or, “you have a hopeless case of the Dunning-Kruger effect (too incompetent to recognize one’s own incompetence)”, please note that I’ve developped this course from very reliable sources (including credit to Joseph Coyle) to which the content remains faithful. Regardless, I have well-enough established my position in the last part of this post without it. In other words, my conclusions are based on sound premises and logic and not on delusions of grandeur.

The problem that the cartoon attempts to resolve with its beloved comma is this: The intended meaning of a sentence can be misunderstood if we follow the rules of punctuation to the letter (ha!), therefore as the purpose of language is to communicate, we must sometimes break the rules (or in this case, create a “legitimate” exception) in order to ensure clarity. As much as I fully support this concept of language evolution and developping new rules when necessary or when they are NOT aesthetically displeasing, in this particular case the cartoonist’s ignorance of the actual meaning of punctuation marks and the lack of critical thinking amongst the readers has led to propagation – catalyzed by the aforementioned controversy, not to mention “legitimizing” it by naming it after a revered institution in order to feed off of its reputation – of the FALSE conjecture (few things irritate me more than a meme founded on false pretenses) that one MUST place a comma before an “and” in order to make clear that all of the objects of the sentence are distinct as opposed to all of the objects after the first being details of the first.

One of the first steps that a critical thinker takes towards addressing a suspect issue is to determine whether or not there is actually a problem to begin with. For example, the “Bell Witch” is a popular American myth made seemingly legitimate by claims that US President Andrew Jackson saw it, however this “proof” was falsified by research that showed AJ was nowhere near that part of the US when the incident supposedly took place. Not to mention that saying it is true because a president saw it is nothing more than an Argument form Authority anyway. But, I digress…

*Therefore, the first (and IMHO – the last) question we must ask about this supposed justification for the Oxford Comma is whether or not there was a problem to begin with. According to the actual rules/meanings/use of punctuation, there is no problem with the sentence sans-Oxford in the JFK/Stalin example because one need not (SHALL not!) conclude that JFK and/or Stalin were strippers. I will demonstrate this starting with a couple of definitions. For love of irony, I referenced the same online OXFORD Dictionary from which I took the definition of Oxford Comma shown above in this post:

Comma: a punctuation mark (,) indicating a pause between parts of a sentence or separating items in a list.

Colon: a punctuation mark (:) used to precede a list of items, a quotation, or an expansion or explanation.

As you can see from these two OD definitions, in context with “lists”, the purpose of a comma is to separate items WITHIN the list of objects, whereas a colon is used to PRECEDE that list of objects. As such, one cannot infer that items following the first object & comma describe (or are, to use the language in the definition, an “explanation” of) the object before the first comma because…

  1. the first comma can ONLY infer that the two      objects either side are PARTS of a list and
  2. the punctuation toolbox already contains a      legitimate device for following the object of the sentence with its      explanation: a colon (see how I just did that. pretty neat, eh?).

An apt caption for the second panel of the JFK/Stalin/stripper cartoon depicting the leaders AS strippers would have been: “We invited the strippers: JFK and Stalin” and the caption that read, “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” was therefore suitable to infer that the pair of leaders hooked-up WITH strippers. The Oxford Comma, on the other hand, should be persona non grata at this party.

Comments are welcome and encouraged.  However, before you post, please read my Moderation Policy, which I’ve adopted to control Spam.  Basically, if you link to another website AND you do NOT refer to some specific detail about my post or another commenter’s post, your comment will be trashed before it appears, even if you are kind enough to say only, “I like your blog”.  Sorry ’bout that, but the spam-bots have wrecked it for all of us.