In case that didn't tip you off OH DEAR GOD THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS POST THE HUMANITEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
I have seen three options postulated in the after-movie discussions. There are the obvious two: either Dom (Dicaprio) woke up all the way and is finally back with his kids in real life ("the top fell eventually" theory), or he never came back up from Limbo after Ariadne left him down there and the whole sequence of him going to rejoin his kids is his own fantasy ("the top stayed spinning" theory). After I got home and went online, I saw a third theory: that Dom never woke up from his first time in Limbo with Mal, and everything in the movie was a dream.
Proponents of the third "all a dream" theory point out that a lot of the "waking world" sequences did seem a little far-fetched and unreal--particularly the way the Kobal engineering goons in Mombasa seemed to pursue Dom much like the projections of a subconscious mind (something that Dom's projection of Mal points out). However, I find this theory to be both improbable and narratively unsatisfying. Dom was not present for every sequence in the movie: Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) teaching Ariadne (Ellen Page), for example, or Yusuf and Arthur's solo time in their dream-worlds fighting off multiple attackers. And while he had knowledge of those events, we actually saw them as an audience, which would imply that Dom had to have seen them, too. From a narrative standpoint, yes, logically the whole thing could have been a dream, but then what would have been the point of making the movie at all? And what would have been the point of watching it, if all the characters in it are just projections and the whole plot merely the whim of a trapped mind? Like I said, unsatisfying.
So I think it comes down to whether the top stayed up or fell down after the screen went dark. The whole point of the movie was to question reality, so obviously Nolan wrote it to be open-ended, giving hints in either direction. Let's take a look:
The top fell down theory
- The top wobbled a bit at the end. Usually when it spun in a dream, it stayed perfectly still, spinning in place forever.
- We saw the kids' faces at the end, something that we pointedly never saw in the dreams.
- "Ariadne" comes from Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Minos and helped Theseus kill the minotaur and escape from the labyrinthe, a highly symbolic role given her relationship with Dom.
The top stayed spinning theory
- We did not actually SEE the top fall down, and Dom didn't stick around to watch, either, despite being visibly nervous about how familiar everything felt.
- And anyway, Dom's totem is spectacularly unreliable. First of all, it was Mal's totem to begin with, and second, he showed it and explained how it worked to multiple people. I realize that was to exposit how the thing worked and why he kept spinning it all the time, but seriously, now.
- The kids were in the exact same position that we always saw them out the back deck, wearing the same clothes and appearing not to have aged. It was never mentioned how long Dom had been away from them, but in the real world when he spoke to them on the phone from Japan, they sounded older.
- Why was Miles waiting for Dom in LAX? Wasn't he just in Paris? Admittedly Dom could have called to tell Miles about the possibility of his homecoming, but still. Seemed kind of convenient.
If you have other items of evidence to add to the list, comment below.
One last thing, just one: has there ever been a Christopher Nolan film in which a woman wasn't fridged (i.e. killed off in order to give the main male hero a reason to angst)? Think about it. Batman Begins: the mother dies. The Dark Knight: the girlfriend dies. Memento: the wife dies. The Prestige: the wife dies, THEN the girlfriend dies. Insomnia: teenaged serial killing victim dies. And now Inception: the wife dies, four(?) times.
STOP MAKING ME FEEL ICKY FOR LIKING YOUR MOVIES, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN!