Listen, Jena; I am going to get around to actually reviewing movies, but I’m still seeing chatter and debates about the ending of Inception, and apparently the film’s actors are still being asked about it, so I’d like to briefly explain why I believe the ending is not a cliffhanger, but an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Cobb’s journey.
(This has nothing to do with his wedding ring, the age of his children in various scenes, or half-hints embedded in lines from never filmed scenes in the script.)
Obviously, spoilers follow. If you’ve not seen this movie, please go away and watch it. Then come back. Okay?
When Cobb gets home in America after the heist, he immediately spins his totem, the top, his only way of testing whether or not he is in a dream. While it spins, he glances up and sees the faces of his children, whom Miles has called in from the garden. Cobb embraces his children and leaves the top where it spins, never confirming to himself or to the audience if this last scene is a dream. The vital question here, the climax of our hero’s journey is not whether or not he’s dreaming; the question is: Why doesn’t he watch the totem?
Earlier in the film the shade of Cobb’s wife says to him: “you keep telling me what you know. What do you believe?” Cobb later says to her that he can’t believe she’s more than a dream, because he can’t imagine her “with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection.”
But at the end, when he sees the faces of his children, he turns away from what he knows (evidence, the spinning totem) and embraces what he believes (that these are his children).
So Inception’s ending is not a cliffhanger. The screen goes black before the totem falls or spins on because Cobb’s journey is over. The answer to the question “was he dreaming?” is simply: “it doesn’t matter.”
What is unimportant to the protagonist is rendered unimportant to the story. Cobb’s journey has always been to find a way home, and when he does, and chooses to believe it, he abandons his totem and takes up his children, or their shades.