I don't think a film that is as genuine and earnest and conventional as Inception earns a "gut punch" ending. For that to work, I feel you have to work up to it. I didn't feel Nolan was, and feel like the cut to black was an unearned "kick."
I can certainly see that viewpoint, but to me the ending felt very true (even to the point of being a bit of a cliche
, in fact) to a story about, well, people running around and living in a dreamworld
It only seemed natural to me that at SOME point we were going to have to question if what we were seeing was actually taking place in the real world or not. Especially after what we see happen to Mal. In fact Nolan already toyed with that idea at the beginning of the movie, with the multiple dreams.
And in any case, I only saw this as just a temporary setback for Cobb anyway. Being as smart and resourceful as he is, I fully expected as the screen went black that he WOULD eventually realize his situation and make his way back to the real world and his kids.
I mean, eventually he HAD to notice that the top was still spinning on his dining room table.