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.

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