The moment we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. Christopher Nolan has sort of kind of explained the ending to Inception, except not really.
Speaking at Princeton University’s commencement, Nolan used Inception as a foil to explain to the audience of graduates that they should be able to distinguish between reality and dreams, and be sure to chase the right thing.
“[Cobbs] didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black. … The point is, objectively, it matters to the audience in absolute terms: even though when I’m watching, it’s fiction, a sort of virtual reality. But the question of whether that’s a dream or whether it’s real is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”
If you’re reading that, and going “huh?” You’re not alone.
So, let’s try and unpack this a little bit, shall we? First he says it doesn’t matter because whatever reality Cobb is in is enough for him…. but then he says, it’s not real… but the most important to us as an audience is reality. Okay… huh?
I’m being unfair. If it wasn’t for the rest of the speech about chasing reality instead of dreams, I would suggest that Nolan is trying to explain the ending as an exercise in hermeneutics, which means he is trying to analyze the ending in the context of the text itself, the audience watching it, and of the writer. Essentially, what I think he’s saying (and let’s be fair, I don’t think any of us know) is that in the text itself, reality doesn’t matter because Cobb is happy to be with his children whether or not its a dream (and I’ll try to refrain from commenting that this doesn’t make sense because Cobb is obsessed with having his real children throughout the whole movie). As the writer, Nolan wants you to question reality, so that is the ending: questioning whether or not it’s real. And the audience’s need to know what is real or not at the end actually says more about our need to know what is real or not, more than what the movie actually says about it.
(By the way, if you ever try to write a paper using a hermeneutical framework, you’re professor will write pissy notes all over your essay about how it doesn’t have a conclusion. And I think it’s safe to say that my professor’s red pen would have had a field day with this.)
Truthfully, while I know it has nothing to do with Nolan’s graduation speech, I’m going to say we should all have figured out it’s a reality by now. Firstly, the spinning top isn’t Cobb’s totem, so it’s not reliable. Instead, you’ll notice his wedding ring is present depending on whether or not he’s in a dream. You’ll also note that when you look at his kids at the end of the film, they are several years older, their clothes are different, and their hair is longer.
So, I guess the question is, are we still on this?
Maybe that’s the point of the speech. Even five years later, we’re still questioning what happened, and that’s probably what we ought to be doing in life. Don’t be Cobb, and not look at the top because the reality you have is so perfect you don’t want to know it’s fake. Be the audience, and constantly question, even five years later when the facts are in, what reality is.