At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, Christopher Nolan was asked "the question" yet again. The question that he's danced around ever since 2010's release of Inception debuted its infamous ending: is the top still spinning?
While Nolan probably is tired of us asking about Inception, and will pretty much never give the public the full answer it wants, we'd like to attempt to answer on his behalf. Using the film itself, as well as the text of the shooting script, we're going to try and give a definitive answer to the long-standing question about whether the whole movie is a dream or not. Prepare to go deeper, as we delve into the secrets of Inception.
Obviously, this feature will reveal plenty of spoilers regarding Inception, so stop reading now if you haven't yet seen the film.
Here's What The Script Actually Says
The top, in Inception, represents Leonardo DiCaprio's totem -- the object he uses to tell if he's still in a dream state, or back in reality. Basically, if the top keeps spinning, Leo's character is still dreaming. If it falls, he is awake.
Reading Christopher Nolan's shooting script for Inception is enlightening in the respect that there's a ton of dialogue that didn't make it into the final cut of the film. That includes the scene that is most referenced by fans who believe the entire film is all a dream: the encounter between DiCaprio's Cobb and Michael Caine's Professor Miles.
Pages 25-28 in the Inception shooting script (which you can purchase here) feature the scene in question, which finds Cobb looking for a new architect, in hopes of designing a dream that his subconscious can't sabotage. This leads him to his mentor and ex-father in law, the Professor (Caine), who pleas for Cobb to abandon this work and "come back to reality."
Preceding this conversation is Cobb's insistence that his one last job would "free him" from the guilt and criminal charges surrounding his wife's suicide, which has messed with his subconscious to the point where he sees his deceased wife (aptly named Mal) sabotaging any dream he creates. Professor Miles, on the other hand, feels that dragging student Ariadne (Ellen Page) into the dream world that he's trying to create would be akin to her "following [him] into fantasy."
Now, taken at face value, Cobb's "freedom" seems to mean freedom from the factors that prevent him from ever going home again. But looking at some of the key lines of dialogue shared by Saito (Ken Watanabe) and Mal (Marion Cotillard) -- particularly the "leap of faith" both characters tell Cobb to take -- and the recurring mention of an "old man, filled with regret" would have us believe a different story. It's my conclusion that Professor Miles sees Cobb as a dreamer who refuses to wake up, much like the men in the underground parlor during an earlier scene shared with Yusef (Dileep Rao), the chemist. Scenes like these distract from the storyline we all perceive Inception to be about, though. The way the film is set up, Inception is a story about a man trying to get home to his children.
In truth, the underlying message as we interpret it of the scenes mentioned above is that Cobb is actually still dreaming, and in the end, his dreams are his new home. The job that Ken Watanabe's Saito hires him for is a gigantic exercise in catharsis for his addled mind, using his work and his skills to build himself an ideal reality. By the end of the Saito job, Cobb's dream reality has exorcised his marital issues in a sense that he does find his way home at the end of the film. The twist is that this "home" is in his mind, neatly wrapped up in a beautifully shot and edited package, similar to the way he's envisioned his children throughout the film.
What does Nolan's shooting script say, with regard to the spinning top? Essentially, what you see on the screen. The actual stage direction, taken right from Nolan's script, says, "Behind [Cobb], on the table, the spinning top is STILL SPINNING." Which is what we see in the film.
But taken with all of the analysis of conversations between Cobb, Saito, Mal and the professor, we believe that the top is, in fact, still spinning at the end of Inception because it's all a dream. The information trimmed from the aforementioned pivotal scenes would have helped audience draw the conclusion that Cobb is, in fact, dreaming -- with the world reaching out to him to come back to reality. Does the movie, itself, back this point up?