Wonder of the World

8 Most Popular Inception Theories (& Whether They Really Work)


Summary

  • The ending of Inception is open-ended, leaving viewers to decide for themselves whether Cobb is still dreaming or not.
  • One theory suggests that Miles orchestrated the inception heist to help Cobb heal from his guilt and trauma.
  • Another theory proposes that the entire movie takes place inside a dream that Cobb is having on a plane ride.

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The mind-bending blockbuster Inception has a unique formula that generates countless theories, inspiring frequent debates, discussions, and critical analyses of its complex plot. Christopher Nolan already had a tendency to deliver a few surprising twists with his earlier works, but his original 2020 sci-fi movie gave way to an entirely different level of theorization. The truth of what happens in Inception‘s ending has been hotly debated in the years since its release, and the movie’s massive impact on pop culture means the discussions about what actually happens in the film have not diminished.

With an ending that’s left up to the viewer’s interpretation, discovering fresh angles and new perspectives has become an essential part of Inception‘s viewing experience, with half the fun being determining whether a theory works. Inception is the kind of film that inspires a new thought with every view, uncovering missing puzzle pieces that get viewers one step closer to finally understanding the mind-boggling plot of Christopher Nolan’s movie. It is through these repeat viewings and further analysis of a thrilling yet enlightening story that more Inception theories have been created, with each stirring debate about whether they work.

Related: Why Cobb Can’t Go Home In Inception

8 Cobb Is Still Dreaming At The End Of Inception

The top never stopped spinning

Inception’s climax launched arguments after famously ending on an open-ended note. Just before the movie ends, the camera focuses on Cobb’s spinning top as he’s shown in the background playing with his children. The top spins continuously, insinuating that Cobb is still dreaming. However, mere moments before audiences can walk away with a satisfying ending, the top begins to sway, and before it can be confirmed or denied, the film cuts to the credits. Whether Cobb is still dreaming in the film’s finale is never confirmed on-screen, leaving space to argue both sides of the totem.

Throughout Inception, totems are used as a clear indication of someone’s conscious state. Since their characteristics change in and out of the dream world, totems are an easy way to confirm if someone is still dreaming. Although the top sways subtly, it never comes to a full stop on screen. As the saying goes, anything that doesn’t happen on-screen is merely here-say. Since Inception lore states that Cobb’s top only spins in the dream world, and there’s no confirmation that the top actually falls, this is one theory that is truly left for each viewer to decide which side of the argument they agree with.

7 Cobb Is The Actual Target Of The Inception Heist

The true inception was orchestrated by Miles

A popular theory suggests that the Inception heist in the film is staged to look like Fischer’s, but the real target was Cobb the entire time. As a way to help Cobb heal past the trauma of his deceased wife, Miles allegedly orchestrates a heist to remove the guilt from Cobb’s mind. A key piece of support for this theory comes from the quote, “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regrets, waiting to die alone?” These words appear three times throughout the film and connect to Cobb’s inner conflict. The quote keeps being repeated to Cobb because they’re meant to be memorized, much like an idea.

The entire point of Inception’s elaborate mental heists is to plant an idea in a person’s mind. Someone wanted Cobb to reflect on whether growing old and continuing to suffer from loneliness and guilt was the path he wanted to go down. In that way, it makes sense that Miles would not want to see Cobb suffer in this way. Seeing how stricken by grief Cobb is after his wife’s death, Miles could hire Ariadne to help extract this from Cobb’s mind. Ariadne is shown infiltrating the core of Cobb’s guilt and pain, including being the one who convinces him to confront Mal and become guilt-free.

6 All Of Inception Takes Place Inside The Plane

Cobb was dreaming about the other passengers

The old “dream within a dream” plot is a twist that’s been overused for centuries throughout Hollywood, and one popular theory implies that Inception is no different. Evidence suggests that when Cobb wakes up on the plane at the end of Inception, this scene is the only moment of reality in the movie and that the entire thing was just a dream Cobb was having during a routine plane ride back home to his family. Cobb isn’t a dream thief, there are no dream-sharing machines, and the people in his dreams are just random strangers he met during his plane ride.

This theory plays on Cobb’s confused reaction when he wakes up on the plane and the minimal interactions he has with the remaining passengers. Apart from subtle smiles and nods, nothing in the scene indicates that Cobb and the other passengers have any kind of relationship. Inception ends with the crew going their separate ways, without so much as a wave goodbye. Since all the viewer sees is Cobb getting off the plane and reuniting with his kids, this suggests that the whole movie was just one man’s dream during a first-class flight. The involvement of the passengers is merely a mental projection of Cobb’s immediate surroundings.

5 Cobb Is The One Trapped In The Dream World, Not His Wife

Mal did go back to the real world

The idea of Mal being trapped in the dream world is an angle that’s supported by the film’s POV since it’s told from Cobb’s perspective. However, evidence suggests that Mal actually makes it out of the dream world, and it’s Cobb who still needs to be rescued. In Inception, after allegedly waking up, Mal is still convinced that the couple is still trapped in a dream. If she was right, then by taking her own life, she actually freed herself, leaving Cobb behind.

Throughout the movie, Cobb is often suspended in a state of delusion and is visibly obsessed with escaping into the dream world. Even though Cobb explicitly knows the dangers of treading too deep for too long, it doesn’t stop him from delving deeper into his subconscious and the subconscious of others. Maybe Mal realized that living a fake life inside of someone’s mind isn’t the life she wants, so she frees herself. This would make her appearances throughout the film an attempt to rescue Cobb from the deepest corners of his subconscious mind. It’s an intriguing reading of the movie that paints Mal in a new heroic light.

4 Cobb’s Wedding Ring Is His True Totem

The top was Mal’s

In Inception, totems play a major role in the film’s concepts of dreams and reality. The mere possession of a totem is a powerful enough tool to ground wielders back to reality. One theory suggests that although Cobb uses the top as a totem throughout the film, his actual totem is his wedding ring. Inception explains that totems are supposed to be exclusive to their wielder and that having someone else touch the totem comes with serious consequences. If this is true, Cobb’s use of the totem was doomed from the start, since the top originally belonged to Mal.

Since the top was initially used by his wife, it’s an unreliable tool for Cobb. His use of the top is just to throw people off of his trail, a testament to his fragile mental state. Cobb’s wedding ring is clearly his true totem since it can be seen on his finger in every one of Inception’s elaborate dream sequences. This theory suggests that Cobb wears his wedding ring in the dream world as a symbol of his undying love for his wife since she’s dead, and the only time he gets to see her is in his dreams. If this theory is true, though, it puts the reality of Inception‘s entire story into question.

Each Inception character represents a portion of making a movie

One accurate theory suggests that Inception isn’t the deep paradoxical film that it’s known to be, and is instead Christopher Nolan’s clever love letter to the film industry. During the interview with EW, Nolan said the roles of the Inception crew were inspired by the roles used in filmmaking. Since he needed to come up with a creative-based team, Nolan drew inspiration from a formula he was already familiar with. In Nolan’s vision, Cobb is the director, Arthur is the producer, Ariadne is the production designer, Eames is the actor, Saito is the studio, and Fischer is the audience.

Cobb’s tendency to orchestrate ideas and assemble crews for his grand schemes is reflective of a director’s role in filmmaking. Ariadne’s talent for creating imaginative worlds is similar to the role of a production designer, who plays a crucial role in visual design. Considering that the crew’s role is to infiltrate the mind of Fischer and plant ideas, it makes a lot of sense that Fischer would embody the role of the audience since a movie’s job is to inspire and stimulate the minds of its viewers. This metatheory does not change Inception‘s story or character, but it does give audiences a new way to think about it.

2 Inception’s Ending Doesn’t Matter

Nolan left an open ending that can’t be deciphered.

Sometimes, with movies as complex as Inception, it’s easy to get hung up on minor details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. In this case, it’s helpful to take a step back and try to see the big picture. With all the loose ends and open-ended plots that occur in the film, it’s not impossible to think that the movie was executed this way by design. Maybe Christopher Nolan left the ending open-ended on purpose because whether Cobb was dreaming doesn’t matter.

This deeper meaning renders whether Cobb was in a dream or not irrelevant. What’s more important is that he doesn’t care. Cobb walking away from the spinning top to play with his kids was him finally surrendering and making a conscious decision to commit to whatever path he was on. This in itself is a powerful move that reflects the tremendous emotional growth of Cobb’s character. If this theory is true, the point of the ending wasn’t to provide clarity for the viewer but to grant Cobb internal peace. As for whether it works, Nolan shared his support for this theory during an interview with Wired.

1 Cobb Never Woke Up From His Dream In Mombasa

He never gets to use his totem after waking up

The ending to Inception is so exhilarating that it makes it easy to overlook subtle details and clues that can help solve the mystery of its infamous ending. One theory suggests that subtle clues and details about the crew’s escape in the final heist hint at Cobb still being trapped in the dream world and never awakening from his dream in Mombasa. During the mind-warping final sequence, Ariadne and Arthur are shown being kicked back up to levels that look familiar. However, Cobb’s reality is visibly different. Instead of returning to the rest of the crew, Cobb gets trapped in limbo with Saito.

Although the film indicates that Saito and Cobb shoot themselves to escape Limbo, this is never actually shown on screen. Immediately after the déjà vu moment with Saito, Cobb wakes up on a plane and takes part in a series of events that seem too good to be true. The fact that no proof was ever provided of Cobb’s return from limbo and Cobb’s totem never stops sinning on screen, the evidence is there that Cobb never wakes up from his dream in Mombasa and is still trapped in a dream.

Sources: EW, Wired

  • Inception

    Release Date:
    2010-07-16

    Director:
    Christopher Nolan

    Cast:
    Tom Hardy, Elliot Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Leonardo DiCaprio

    Rating:
    PG-13

    Runtime:
    148 minutes

    Main Genre:
    Action

    Genres:
    Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Action

    Writers:
    Christopher Nolan

    Summary:
    A thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a C.E.O.

    Budget:
    $160 million

    Studio(s):
    Warner Bros. Pictures

    Distributor(s):
    Warner Bros. Pictures

    Franchise(s):
    Inception
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