Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi drama Inception is set in a world in which advanced technology enables users to share their dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a skilled thief, with the ability to extract his targets’ secrets by infiltrating their subconscious. Fearing recrimination from his employers after failing his last job and currently on the run, Cobb accepts an assignment from the mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe) – inception. Rather than steal an idea from his subject’s mind, he must now plant one.
Cobb’s new job is to convince businessman Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up his late father’s empire, rather than consolidate it. This will help Saito, Robert’s major competitor, to finally conquer the market. Suspected of having killed his wife, Cobb can never return back home to his children in the US where he faces jail time. Saito, however, is powerful enough that he can make Cobb’s criminal record vanish, a prospect that appears enticing enough to the desperate thief that he accepts the risky job.
Cobb and his team travel layers deep into Fischer’s subconscious and deceive him into believing that his father, cold and aloof in real life, actually cares about him deeply. Fischer, believing that his father would have wanted him to be his own man and create his own empire, resolves to break up the company and start afresh. Cobb, a man with a fractured relationship with his children, has repaired the fractured relationship between Fischer and his father, if only for his own gain.
The film reveals that Cobb was responsible for his wife’s death. Years ago, he broke into her subconscious and planted the seed of that idea that convinced her to kill herself, not having any way of knowing what the outcome would be. Now, in Limbo, a vast space of raw subconscious, they meet again and she reminds him of his unfulfilled promise to her – that they would grow old together. She begs him to stay. Cobb, torn between his wife in the dream world and his children back home in the real world, eventually realises that this is just a pale imitation of the woman he loved, her complexity flattened out, his memory of her curdled by loss. He chooses to leave.
At home, Cobb takes out his totem – a spinning top that lets him know whether he’s dreaming or awake. If he’s dreaming, the top will spin infinitely. If this is reality, the top will eventually stop. He gives the top a spin and then moves away to reunite with his children in the backyard. The camera, however, stays fixed on the spinning totem on the table inside. It wobbles briefly, then the frame cuts to black. Is Cobb dreaming? Is he awake? Does it even matter? Cobb’s no longer frazzled, incessantly checking his totem, worrying about losing his grip on reality. He’s finally exactly where he wants to be. His gaze is solely on his children. He finally sees what matters. Whether or not the top spins on is irrelevant. In leaving us with a nagging unanswered question, however, Nolan has successfully performed inception on the audience, planting a seed of doubt into our minds, leaving us to forever puzzle it over.