Originally Posted by Taco John
Loved the movie... probably one of my new all time favorites (which puts two movies from one season in my top ten, this one and Toy Story 3 which I thought to be excellent).
In any case, this movie has plagued me like none I can ever remember. The Matrix got me excited, but there was no ambiguity to it (I still love the concept, even if the execution of that concept fell flat - by the way, if you haven't seen the "Animatrix," I highly recommend it. It opens up the story a bit and really shows you the world that the Wacho Brothers created).
So at the end of Incpetion, everything appears hunky dory. Saito wakes up, makes the call, Cobb goes home to his kids. And then in what will surely be one of the most talked about endings in the history of cinema happens and Nolan leaves the audience to wonder if the spinning top falls, which would signal that he is, indeed, in the real world (and thus this ending is not a dream).
I don't know whether my theoretical interpretation is correct or not, but after seeing the movie twice now, I have a pretty strong theory about the ending, and what better place to share it than on Facebook.
Before I get too far into it, I wanted to note a few observations that I think are worth noting.
1. The spinning top is NOT Cobb's (Leo's) totem. That is Mal's (Cobb's wife's) totem. Cobb is using it, apparently, for sentimental reasons. This was her closest possession, and ultimately a personal symbol of his guilt that he carried around after her death. It's my opinion that Cobbs's personal totem is his wedding ring. On the second viewing, I noticed a scene at the beginning when Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) were trying to steal Saito's secrets, that the light glinted on his ring at a particular moment. I made a mental note to pay attention to the ring because I thought it might be a hint (or it might be nothing). What I found is that when Cobb is in "reality," he does not wear the ring, however when he is in the dream world, he has it on. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to clearly see at the end of the film whether or not he had his ring on when he spun the top for the final time.
2. What I didn't understand/appreciate the first time viewing the movie is that Michael Caine's character(Miles) is Mal's (Cobb's wife's) father. This seems very odd to me. I wish I understood more about what has gone on between him and Cobb. Apparently, he buys the story about Mal killing herself, and is still willing to associate with Cobb despite the tragic death of his daughter. This is a little troubling to me because it's never explored at all in the film. What I can surmise is that he's a brilliant (apparently) psycologist who travels back and forth from his class room in France (Mal had a French accent), to his wife and grandchildren (Leo's kids) in America. He apparently was part of the invention of the dream device which the military used for training soldiers - and apparently trained Mal and Leo on its use. I'm not sure if this means much at all, except that he might have a motive to try and break into Leo's "safe" to discover the "real truth" about his daughter's death. The movie suggests that Miles bought Cobb's story about her death, and moved on with life. I'm not so sure though. The only thing that I can say for certain is that he had a motive to want to break into Cobb's "safe," and that he Adrianne was his student, who was in place to do as much - and maybe even plant inception into Leo (remember that she's the one that shot Mal in the end, and explained it as "improvising").
Ok. So now it's time to drop the bomb.
I don't want to say that my theory is absolutely right. I don't even know if I believe it myself. So I'll say it like this: there is a definite possibility that Leo's perfect ending was too good to be true - that he is in fact trapped in a deeper state of limbo.
To explain my theory, I have to revisit the "rules" of the shared dream state. You'll remember that the reason that they couldn't wake up from the dream state when they died during "the Fisher operation" was because they were under heavy sedation that was designed to allow them to go at least three levels deep. Thus, if they were killed in a dream, they were sent to limbo UNLESS they were killed at the time of "the kick" at which time the inner ear function would jolt them out of the dream and up a level. Also remember that when they went to limbo, "the architect" was whoever had spent the most time creating the world there, and thus the limbo that was experienced was the world that Leo and Mal had created together. Leo explained something to the tune of we had gone so deep that we stood there on "the shores of our subsconsious" and created a world there. This is significant because when they go to limbo after Fischer is shot by Mal, they wake up on the shore. Also remember that Leo is found by Saito's men waking up on the shore with a gun tucked in his back (an event which happened after Mal was killed in what I would call "Limbo #1"). Now hold that thought -
It's important to remember that Nolan took great pains to show Adrianne moving all the way up from limbo, and up through each kick until she found herself on level one, submerged in the van that had just gone off the bridge. It's also important to remember that when she throws Fischer Jr. (the rich kid) and herself off the building to die, it was during the kick, thus she moves "upwards" rather than downwards, despite the sedative. They also showed that when they reached level 1, they were underwater and that they didn't want to die by drowning there - the had scuba tanks in the van to suck oxygen out of before they finally escaped the van (thus, it was important that they didn't die there). And VERY importantly they showed Cobb's presumably dead and drowned body in the van as Arthur looked it it, shrugged, and escaped the watery grave. Cobb had died on level one. He missed the kick upwards. He was already in limbo, however - "Limbo #1," the world that he and Mal had created together. But the next time we see Cobb, he is waking up on the shores of Saito's subconsious - and at this point I must remind that Cobb wasn't the only one who died in that van. Saito had died on level 3 (going to Limbo #1), and then on level 1 (which I believe sent him to what I will call "Limbo Level 2.")
So as I said, the next time we see Cobb, he is waking up on the shores of Saito's subsconsious. He and Saito had missed the kick, and were still heavily sedated. Saito had apparently reached this limbo level well before Cobb had because he had aged significantly, and he had created an empire for himself. He was "a lonely old man, waiting to die alone."
And this is where the ambiguity really comes in. The question is about whether the sedation is still in effect or not. What we've seen is that when someone dies under the sedation, they go deeper into the dream and lose track of what is real and what isn't. But when someone dies during the kick, they are taken upwards and out of the dream (thanks to the inner ear function causing dream instability). There is just as much reason to believe that when Saito (presumably) kills Leo and turns the gun on himself at the end (or simply kills Leo, we can't definitely say whether or not he turned the gun on himself), that instead of moving upwards and out of the dream, that instead Leo is taken to an even further state of limbo, a perfect ending that his subsconsious has created for him. And in this "Limbo Level 3," it might not even matter at all if the top falls because the power that made the top spin infinitely was Mal, and Mal is dead. And if this is the case, there is no way for Leo to know if this is real or he is dreaming. And the fact that after he spun the top at the end, he didn't stop to see how it reacted suggests that he doesn't care.