Love him or hate him, director Christopher Nolan certainly inspires debate—his films have a tendency to be dissected and pored over, with fans passionately arguing competing theories that claim to conclusively “explain” his films. I’m not sure what Nolan thinks about this kind of theorizing, but the films themselves seem to encourage it: since at least Memento, each of his movies has been built as a sort of puzzle-box, with intricate plot structures and complex worlds governed by arcane sets of “rules” (short-term memory that resets every several minutes, dream-levels in which time elapses differently). More than any other filmmaker currently working, Nolan’s films generate not interpretations, reactions, or meanings, but totalizing theories that claim to be conclusively “true”—at the expense of all others.
I’ve no idea what kind of intricate theories Interstellar will inspire, but to date, Nolan’s most-debated film is probably Inception. And his most-debated shot—in that film and in his entire body of work—is probably the last one:
Bit of background for the uninitiated. (And if that describes you, shouldn’t you just watch the movie instead of reading this? Come on.) Inception is about a band of thieves who hack into people’s dreams to steal their thoughts—or, in the heist that provides the plot of the film, plant thoughts in their minds. Dom, the leader of the group, is a dream-traveller who’s developed a handy way of determining whether he’s in a dream or real life: his “totem,” a small top, will topple in real life, but spin forever if he’s in a dream.
And thus the mystery of the final shot: if the top wobbles and falls, Dom is in real life, and if it keeps spinning, he’s still in a dream. Does it fall or doesn’t it? Is Dom still dreaming or is he awake? Endless debates have centered around these questions.
Lost in these either/or debates (which I find to be pretty dull, see also: The Sopranos) is what I’ve always found to be a far more interesting possibility: that this final shot functions less in the world of the story than it does on the meta-level of the film itself—the shared dream-world created by Nolan and his filmmaking crew and occupied, for a time, by the audience, a dream world that comes to an abrupt end with the cut to credits that immediately follows the wobbling of the top.
In other words, I don’t think that is Dom’s totem. I think it’s ours.
Of course, that’s not to say that other interpretations of that scene are wrong—that kind of I’m-right-you’re-wrong theorizing is precisely the kind of thinking that shuts down the ambiguous space in which two interpretations can coexist and be right at the same time. The question of whether Dom is dreaming or not is one about which we can debate, and about which things can reliably be said and verified—and this final shot is an important piece of evidence that could push us one way or another. It’s that—and Nolan’s wink to the audience.
Consider the way in which Nolan deliberately crowds out other perspectives from this scene. All the actors are faced away from the camera, moving slightly out of focus as the camera pans to literally cut them from the frame. It’s just us and the filmmaker. Dom scarcely cares if it’s a dream or not; we’re the ones staring at the top, wondering if we’re in a dream or in reality. And at the moment that the top begins to wobble, the scene cuts to black—the precise moment when our dream (the film) gives way to real life (the lights in the theater coming up).
Nolan wouldn’t exactly be unique in making an analogue between dreams and art—Shakespeare quite often referenced dreaming as something akin to what he attempted to do in the theater, most notably in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Puck’s epilogue to the audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…
I’m not saying you have to view this final shot of Inception as Nolan’s filmic version of Puck’s epilogue. But it certainly makes things a lot more fun if you at least view it as a possible subtext to the shot. Nolan’s films tend to be so heavy, so ponderous, the fan fervor surrounding them so deadly serious, that it lightens things up a bit to imagine a bit of a wink in this most-debated of scenes. To imagine that what Nolan’s essentially saying to us is: “Chill out, okay? It’s all made-up, a dream world I created for you to live in for a little while. And you’re about to wake up.”