So, yes, spoilers will follow.

As a movie about dreams where the dreamer frequently doesn’t know he’s asleep, Inception naturally lends itself to paranoia. That Christopher Nolan’s final shot says “Hey, maybe this isn’t what you think it is” demands that we reexamine the whole thing until internet forums everywhere are awash with theories about what’s going on that range from the reasonable to the “spinning the cat over the head by its tail” insane.

There are, as far as I’m aware, four major theories about the ending:

1) DiCaprio isn’t dreaming, he’s back in reality, and he’s finally reunited with his kids.

2) DiCaprio never escaped the nested dreamworlds; the rest of the movie’s to be taken at face value, but the reunion is a dream.

3) Mal was right, DiCaprio’s been stuck in a dream the whole time, none of this is reality.

4) The whole movie’s a dream and WHARGHLBLARGGLLL pet theory with no real supporting evidence whatsoever.

Just going with my gut, I think 1) is correct. It’s the most satisfying narrative conclusion. 2) is also an all right way to end Inception, but unless Nolan is doing something much crazier and less interesting than normal, 3) or 4) are just off the wall. I believe he deliberately plants seeds to mislead us that way, but that’s part of the point; for these characters, it’s very, very hard to know what’s real and what’s a dream, and Nolan wants his audience to feel the same way.

Speaking of–the final shot of the spinning top.

Here’s my take: it’s spinning, spinning, spinning–OH SHIT THIS IS A DREAM! OH NO! OH–wait, it’s wobbling! This is real! Yay, he’s back with his–

Cut to black before it falls down.

The top wobbles. We are back in reality. But it took a long, long time to do so, and it cut away before it conclusively fell. We’re supposed to feel that this is real, probably.. but, like DiCaprio, we can’t ever be sure.

I’ve read a lot of arguments that his kids are the same age, wearing the same clothes, doing the same things as from his memories, etc., meaning it is a dream after all. But we don’t know they’re the same age–we don’t see their faces until the very end, and the credits list two sets of kids, the second of which is about 18 months older. I’ve read that the clothes are actually different–very similar, which I’m sure was no accident on Nolan’s part, but different. DiCaprio is not walking back into the exact moment that’s haunted him this whole time, the moment he left his children and went on the run.

One more piece of evidence: he’s not wearing a wedding ring in that last scene. In all his dreams, he wears his ring. In reality, it’s gone.

I’ve still only seen it once, and I can’t say with absolute certainty this is the correct take. But, again, I think that’s how Nolan wants us to feel about Inception. The evidence fits that it’s real, but he’s planted just enough false leads to keep us unsure.

UPDATE: So according to the man in charge of costumes, DiCaprio’s kids were wearing different clothes at the end of the movie. What does this mean? Well, it weakens any arguments for theories that he is conclusively still within a dream. But it doesn’t destroy them. It makes a lot of sense, to me, that DiCaprio’s subconscious would alter his kids’ appearance to allow himself to continue believing he’s been reunited with them. The mind protects itself.

But the gymnastics needed to execute these arguments just got a little tougher. At the same time, there’s still no way to prove he’s back in the 100%, no-doubt-real world. Inception remains crafted to deny comprehensive proof for either conclusion. That the kids’ clothes change does nothing but cement that ambiguity as the only real answer.

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