Christopher Nolan Says ‘Right Answer’ at End of ‘Inception’, Recalls Sneaking Into Theaters and Hearing ‘Gasps, Moans, Frustrations’

Thirteen years later, Christopher Nolan is still plagued with questions about the ending of “Inception,” his acclaimed 2010 action thriller about a group of criminals who pull off a dream heist. The end is notorious. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb has completed his task and is returning home with his children, but the film lingers on his spinning totem as he begins to wobble. Cut to black. If the top spins forever, Cobb is still dreaming. If he falls, Cobb is awakened in the real world.

Moviegoers have spent more than a decade wondering if Cobb was awake or dreaming when ‘Inception’ ended, but Nolan recently said on the “Happy Sad Confused” podcast that such debates miss the real conclusion of the ending: Cobb doesn’t care.

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“I went through a phase where I was asked that a lot,” Nolan said when the topic of the “Inception” ending came up. “I think it was [producer] Emma Thomas pointing out the correct answer, which is Leo’s character… the point of the shot is that the character doesn’t care at the time. It’s not a question I’m comfortable answering.

“There’s a nihilistic view of this ending, isn’t there? But also, he’s moved on and is with his kids,” Nolan added to Wired earlier this month. “Ambiguity is not emotional ambiguity. It is an intellectual question for the public.

Whether or not Cobb’s spinning top continues to spin or fall to the table has no effect on the emotional conclusion of “Inception,” which for Nolan is the heart of the story. Cobb returned home with his children. The character’s emotional journey is over, so he doesn’t even bother to check whether his spinning top is spinning or falling.

Other members of the “Inception” cast have weighed in on the debate over the years. Michael Caine once said, “When I got the script for ‘Inception’, I was a little puzzled. And I said to [Nolan], ‘I don’t understand where the dream is.’ I said, ‘When is it the dream and when is it the reality?’ He said, “Well, when you’re in the scene, it’s reality.” So get this – if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not there, it’s a dream.

Ever since Caine’s character appears in the film’s final scene, the actor always assumed that meant Cobb was in the real world and his top would fall on the table. In a recent interview with Insider, Nolan said watching the ending of “Inception” with fans is a memory he stuck with.

“As far as sitting down with a crowd and experiencing the end of the movie, ‘Inception’ was a very unique type of ending,” Nolan said. “If I sneaked into the back of the theater while he was playing, and we got to the end, there would be a huge kind of gasp, moan, frustration – it was an incredible mix and I would really feel like I need to get out of here before anyone notices I’m here.”

“So it was a pretty standout ending to sit with audiences over the years,” he added.

Nolan’s latest directorial effort, “Oppenheimer,” is now in theaters nationwide.

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