For fans of the film “Inception,” director Christopher Nolan isn’t quite done incepting you yet. The visionary filmmaker acknowledged the hotly debated ending of his film in a commencement speech at Princeton University on Monday, but the ending won’t come without bending your mind a little bit.
We shouldn’t have to warn you, but spoiler alerts up ahead for a movie that came out five years ago.
The ending scene shows Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb, presumably out of a dream (but maybe not) and going to see his children at last. The final scene is of his spinning-top totem. If it stays up, he’s still dreaming — if it falls, he’s finally living in reality. Just as the totem looks like it starts to wobble, the screen cuts to black.
Here’s what Nolan thinks about living your reality versus living your dreams:
“In the great tradition of these speeches, generally someone says something along the lines of ‘Chase your dreams,’ but I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t believe that. I want you to chase your reality.
“I feel that over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense.
[…] I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with — they are subsets of reality.”
Then Nolan draws on his reality-versus-dream film “Inception”:
“The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black.
“I skip out of the back of the theater before people catch me, and there’s a very, very strong reaction from the audience: usually a bit of a groan. The point is, objectively, it matters to the audience in absolute terms: even though when I’m watching, it’s fiction, a sort of virtual reality. But the question of whether that’s a dream or whether it’s real is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”
Nolan is saying that whatever reality you perceive as the real one, that’s the one that matters most. Whether it’s real or a dream is irrelevant — you ultimately have a choice in choosing what you see and how you live. Only you can really make your dreams a reality.
So the beauty about the ending of “Inception” is that it ended in the way you wanted it to — you don’t have to see the ending to believe it.
Nolan then touched on using this skill of creating our own reality to change the world and spread new ideas to solve the biggest problems we all face today.
“Look at fundamentals — how can we change things, move the ball on this and progress? I don’t have to tell you how to do it. I just have to tell you it’s your problem now. It’s very important that people are really affected by what you do. I think you have limitless potential.”
To end, Nolan touched on another one of his great films, “Batman Begins,” referring to a scene that shows Bruce Wayne having left Princeton University.
“The most important thing about Bruce Wayne — yes, he attended Princeton, but he didn’t graduate. So as of tomorrow, you are all already better than Batman.”
Of course, Nolan is most likely lying to the graduates because in reality, no one is better than Batman.
You can read more of Nolan’s Princeton commencement speech here.