Is Dom Cobb awake at the end of Inception?

WARNING - extensive SPOILERS - do not read unless you have seen the film (or do not intend to)

Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception, plays a lot of games with viewer's perceptions. Much of the action takes place in a dream world, where dream espionage expert Dom Cobb (Leonardo De Caprio ("Catch me if you can", "The Departed")) steals ideas and secrets from the subconscious minds of his targets or plants them (inception). This is done either by invading their dreams, or trapping them in the dreams of his accomplices. Which means that the film has license to be, well, kind of unrealistic, even more so than the ordinary movie. As De Caprio says in the movie - dreams only seem strange when you wake up from them. So get ready for, strange stuff. Jump cuts between locations. Weapons appearing from nowhere. Characters entering from who knows where.

However, how to tell the difference, in the words of the Wachowski Brothers' Morpheus, "between the dream world and the real world"? Because jump cuts, weapons appearing at key moments (say from a concealment in a pocket), characters arriving late to save the day (perhaps they have been hiding in the closet!) - none of these are exactly unheard of in the movie canon. Of course, twisting the streets of Paris upon themselves to make a sky comprised of more streets is a first, but for much of the movie we are intended to believe we are in the "real" or awake, world - and no such obvious contradictions to reality are shown. But once you leave the theater, doubts start to creep in about whether Cobb is the capable strategist and corporate espionager that he claims, or is simply living in a dream for the whole time. He could be a futuristic operative or he could be, in the style of Kazuo Ishiguro's Christopher Banks ("When we were Orphans") just an unreliable narrator, or possibly a nutcase trapped in his own subconscious.

Suggestions of this are established gradually, but build rapidly in the last few scenes. Cobb's wife (Marillon Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), whom he remembers committing suicide in the awake world (because she believed she was still dreaming, and by dying could wake up), is trapped in dreaming limbo (a level below the "level 3" of dreaming where the film's James Bond style snowbound finale (or at least, one of them) takes place). When Cobb comes to her close to the end of the film, to rescue his cohort Saito (Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai")) and his target Fischer (Cillian Murphy ("Red Eye", "28 Days Later")) from Limbo, she begs him to stay - asking him how realistic is his "real world" where he is constantly on the run from shadowy corporate forces. The viewer has to admit that she has a point. And in the final shot of the movie, Cobb himself spins his spinning top "totem", a kind of dream tester. In the real world, the spin will decay and the top will fall over - in the dream world it will continue to spin forever. Clearly, Cobb is alert to the risk of a false wakening - however, he is distracted by the appearance of his childrens' faces, his most sought after wish, since the children have only been seen from behind in the previous dream sequences. The camera cuts back to the top, it wobbles, but then continues to spin for a second. Then the film cuts (or very quickly fades) to black. The top might be about to fall, or not.

There would seem to be three main possibilities.

  1. Cobb is awake when planning the operation against Fischer, and successfully wakes up at the end.
  2. Cobb is awake while planning the Fischer inception, but does not succeed in escaping the dream at the end of the movie.
  3. The planning is a dream, and Cobb is not awake at the end (the whole movie is Cobb's (or someone's) dream).
A fourth possibility, that the planning is a dream, but the wakening at the end is real, introduces too many issues (such as - how the heck did they all get on the plane?). I think possibility 2 is also out, since I reckon that there is actually more evidence that the mid sections (planning) are dreamed than that the final scene is dreamed. I think the question comes down not to, is Dom awake at the end but to, is he awake at all? Let us survey the evidence for the planning scenes being dreams, and survey the evidence for the final scene being a dream.

Evidence for the planning scenes being a dream
Scene which may be evidence for dreamAnalysisEvidence against dream
The phone call to the children from Cobb's apartmentVery troubling. These three year old (?) kids seem to be talking much older and asking questions in a mature, self-questioning way (as if Cobb was questioning himself) The general evidence against dream is the complexity of the scenario, the number of characters, and the low level of unreality in most of these mid movie scenes
The Marrakesh market pursuitThe number of pursuers appearing from nowhere, and the strange struggle through the restricted exit to the square (where Saito picks Cobb up in his car) whereupon the pursuers disappear - this scene just looks too similar to the later dream sequences Nolan has stated that he was influenced by the Bond movies. While this scene could be viewed as a dream sequence, it's no less real than many a scene in early James Bond or even the more recent "Knight and Day"
What the heck is Cobb doing with his wife's totem? And why does Ariadne show him her chess piece totem?You're not supposed to share the details right? might be nothing. The totems thing confused me a bit. However, giving Dom her totem clearly did not work out so well for his wife
Cuts throughout, such as the journey to meet Miles (Michael Caine) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) in Paris. Cobb just appears there. It's a movie. Movies don't follow time minute by minute (even "24" skipped enough time for commercial breaks) but skip unimportant periods to keep the narrative going
Evidence for the final scenes being a dream
Item which may be evidence for dreamAnalysisEvidence against dream
In limbo, Saito looks at or picks up the gun, but they wake before he shoots Cobb or himselfDoes this mean they are still in (a different dream of) Limbo?At this stage we are supposed to be in Limbo. Dying doesn't work as a way of escaping from Limbo, and it's not clear what does. Getting shot or shooting Dom may make no difference. On the other hand thinking about the gun may be just what Saito needs
Michael Caine is there at the endHe got back from Paris awfully quick, didn't he?Could have caught a flight home while Cobb and his buds were preparing the Inception
The spinning top keeps spinningWe do not see it stop, but we do not get enough time to know for sureIt wobbles.
It all just looks too perfect at the end It's a movie. Remember Nash Bridges' apartment - on a cop's salary?! Maybe that was a dream too? Also, it's not perfect, because Dom's wife is not there. And it's not imperfect enough (no buildings falling into the sea, streets in the sky etc) to unambiguously show it is a dream.


There is no answer. I believe that Nolan intended viewers to question whether Cobb is truly awake at the end of the film, and that Nolan will never tell us whether Cobb "is awake" or is not. In other words, the movie is specifically designed to leave doubt as to whether the events are real. So you take your own viewpoint - YMMV, etcetera, ad infinitum. However, writers often grow fond of their characters and don't like to torture them needlessly/pointlessly. So I believe that Nolan's underlying belief is in option 1 above. And I agree. Besides, if it's all a dream - how are we going to get a sequel? In fact, the opening scenes of any sequel will give the strongest evidence for or against the dream scenario. For this reason, in exactly the same way as there is no "Memento 2", Nolan may eschew a sequel altogether, although the temptation to do one will be far bigger in this case (Memento only grossed ca. $25m (Source: boxofficemojo).

Incidentally, I'm not going to call Christopher Nolan a genius and, as AO Scott of the New York Times says, a decision on whether a film is a "masterpiece" should be after much more discussion and time than this. But I will say that I liked it. A lot.

John Briginshaw