Watching Inception I kept thinking "It better not end with Was It All A Dream? It better not end with Was It All A Dream?" And of course it ended with Was It All A Dream? This was pretty much unnecessary because the point of the film is the difficulty of telling reality from dream (interesting only for college freshmen or terminal stoners) and in fact one character even remarks that the entire story feels more like a dream creation, pointing out the action-film chases and the evil corporation though she could easily have added the barely there characters, the lack of backstory, the thin settings or for that matter a character named Ariadne who designs mazes. This latter approach is far more fruitful - the relationship or really parallels of genre construction to dream logic. But then the film that most people seem to think Inception is was actually made last year with far more smarts and texture and resonance and confusion (and with one single audacious edit that outdoes the entirity of Inception) - Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control.
(And somewhere I have to add, so it might as well be here, that Philip Dick also made the same kind of what-is-reality stories that Inception is clearly descends from. The major exception is that there was a political aspect to Dick's work even in his bonkers late-career books - who controls "reality" or "image", who manipulates it and for what purpose? No surprise that's not a major topic in a Hollywood blockbuster but Nolan clearly didn't even try to sneak it in.)
But the ending went even further by rubbing the arbitrariness in our faces - if that final shot had lasted just another few seconds the question would have been resolved, mostly anyway. Unlike say Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers where the meaning of the end depends on a conversation that the viewer can't hear, Inception feels more like a con game and a much-too-long one at that. You can claim some of this is the genre conventions that the film uses - why Cobb says three-level dreams and inceptions are possible but then doesn't reveal any further information. We know that later he'll provide that information but the genre requires that it be withheld at this point. The better part of the ending is one that apparently wasn't much discussed (but then I haven't searched through a lot of commentary) - was the inception successful? Does Fischer fils break up the company?
So here are some suggestions for other ways the film could (and maybe should) have ended:
* Cobb starts spinning the top as before, camera on the table. Pan up to his face, he sees his children and then walks away. Fade out. No more images of the spinning (or not) top.
* Cobb sees his children, looks at the spinning top for a second then picks it up and puts it in his pocket.
* Same last shot as current but the kids run in and accidentally bump the table, knocking the top off.
* Same last shot but Miles (Michael Caine) comes in and picks up the top before it stops or not.
* Last shot continues until the top tips over but it just keeps rolling around and around.
* Top tips over and stops. But the room slowly tips at a small but noticable angle.
* Top tips over and stops. Cobb comes back, looks at it and starts it spinning again.
* Last shot but dolly back where we can't see the top and until there are two figures at the edge of the room on each side of the screen, just watching. They're Mal (the wife) and Ariadne (the architect).