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My interpretation of Inception’s ending

August 13th, 2010 - 4:08 pm

This doesn’t really have anything to do with Hostile Takeover or game making in general, but this is the only blog I own and I wanted to share this. If you haven’t seen the movie Inception, stop reading this blog post right now as it will completely spoil the film!


There have been a lot of theories and interpretations of what the final moments of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception really mean. Does Cobb really get home to his kids or is he still in a dream? Will the spinning top fall over? Some argue that he’s in a dream world and that the top will never fall over, while others believe he’s in the real world and the top will fall. As most probably agree on, though, the point at the end is that it doesn’t matter to Cobb. He’s come to accept the world he’s in as his reality. I agree with that. However, I come to that conclusion in a manner I haven’t seen proposed anywhere else, so that’s what I’ll present here.

Let’s get my conclusion out of the way and then I’ll explain how I come to it: Cobb is in a dream at the end. And he knows this. He doesn’t set the top spinning to test his reality or to show the audience that he doesn’t care about it’s outcome anymore – he sets the top to constantly spin as a reminder to him that he’s in a dream, so he won’t get lost in it. Just like he used the constantly spinning top to incept the idea in Mal’s mind that the limbo they’d shared for 50 years wasn’t real. So, yes, the top will continue to spin because that’s what Cobb has set it to do. He’s almost doing an inception on himself in the end!

Now, how do I come to this conclusion? The seed of this idea (you might call it it’s inception) is that the top doesn’t really make sense as a totem for Cobb – or is at least somewhat confused. The point of a totem is to check the reality status of the world you’re in. You do this by making sure that nobody else knows exactly what your totem feels like or how it will fall (like Ariadne’s chess piece and Arthur’s dice). If somebody else knows this, they’d be able to recreate your totem so realistically that you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in a dream or the real world. The spinning top originally belonged to Mal and was her totem. That’s not a problem since she’s dead and thus won’t be able to create the dream Cobb experiences. But how does the top work as a totem for Cobb?

I first thought that it works by always constantly spinning when in a dream and eventually falling over when in the real world. But that doesn’t work as a reliable totem. If someone was to try to recreate the top in a dream world to fool Cobb, they’d likely make it as an ordinary top – one that doesn’t continue to spin forever. Which would mean that the recreated top in the dream world would eventually topple over and Cobb would believe he’s in the real world. So maybe it’s just that Cobb knows the top so well that he knows exactly how long it’ll spin in the real world, but that doesn’t really make much sense either. Just think of all the factors that determine how long the top will spin. He’d have to spin it exactly the same way every time – even a faint gust of wind would change the outcome. It’d be like spinning a roulette wheel and getting the ball to fall on the same number every time. It’s virtually impossible.

So if the top doesn’t make sense as a totem, what is Cobb’s totem? Some have presented the idea that his wedding ring is his totem. He wears the ring in the dream world, while it isn’t on his hand in the real world. But that presents the same problems as with the spinning top: Everybody he’s ever shared a dream with knows that he’s got his wedding ring on his finger in the dream world, so it’d be easy to fool him by simply not recreating the ring in the dream world. So why then does he wear a ring in the dream world and not in the real world? Because he’s basically still married in the dream world. Mal still exists in the dream world. That’s his entire problem. The ring merely symbolizes that he hasn’t come to peace with his wife and that her presence still exists in the dream world.

Well then, if the top doesn’t make sense as Cobb’s totem, and the ring doesn’t either, then what exactly is Cobb’s totem? Think about it. What’s the one thing he can be sure will happen in the dream world that will remind him he’s in a dream? His dead wife showing up. He knows that his wife is dead in the real world. So, in a way, Mal is Cobb’s totem. It’s not something Cobb intended, but the fact remains that she works just like a totem: She reminds him he’s in a dream.

Now, let’s back up a bit. What does Cobb want in the movie? To get home. To be with his kids again. Alright, why doesn’t he just recreate them in a dream then to be with them? Because he knows they wouldn’t be his real kids? That’s probably part of the explanation, but the most simple explanation is that he can’t. He doesn’t have enough control over his subconscious. That’s why Ariadne gets involved, remember? Cobb can’t be the architect of the dream world, because if he builds it, Mal will probably run completely amok in it (which she still does to some degree, but I imagine her influence is smaller when Cobb didn’t build the dream). That’s why Ariadne gets hired to be the architect. So, Cobb can’t make a dream world in which he can be together with his kids because Mal won’t let him.

And now we’re getting to the end of the film. Cobb confronts Mal in the limbo. He finally comes to grips with what he did and can forgive himself (or something to that effect). The point is that he finds peace with himself and thus with the Mal in his subconscious. He makes sure she won’t show up and ruin his dreams anymore. Which means that he can now build a dream for himself in which he can be with his kids. That’s how he gets home in the end. By going into limbo after Saito and then staying there to build his own world with his kids. Because now he can. Now Mal won’t screw up his dream anymore. So Cobb knows it’s a dream in the end because he himself built it! But he doesn’t want to get completely lost in it like Mal did when they spent 50 years in limbo together. So he makes sure he won’t forget that he’s in a dream by using the exact same method he used on Mal to convince her that their limbo wasn’t real. He sets the top to constantly spin on the table in his living room, just like he placed the constantly spinning top in Mal’s “safe”.

In that final scene of the film, Cobb is basically doing an inception on himself: He’s planting the idea in his own mind that the world he’s in isn’t real to make sure he won’t get completely lost in the dream he’s created.

Addendum: Actually, my theory still holds true even if the top is Cobb’s totem. Then the top just has two functions in the film: It’s used to check the reality status of the world and it’s used to do the inception of first Mal and then Cobb himself. The gist of my interpretation is that Cobb was finally able to build his dream world at the end because Mal would no longer mess it up for him. And he uses the constantly spinning top to remind him that it is indeed a dream world.



August 13th, 2010 4:08 pm

Only one problem with the end of your analysis. Cobb didn’t plant the spinning top in Mal’s safe. SHE put it there, then COBB found it after looking for it. There is a scene in the beginning of the movie where she locks the totem in the safe.

Other than that, great breakdown of the ending for those that believe he’s still in a dream.

Christian Knudsen

August 13th, 2010 4:08 pm

Yes, she places the totem in her “safe” to start with. But Cobb does the inception on her by setting it constantly spinning. It doesn’t matter who placed it there to start with, the point is that the constantly spinning top is a reminder/idea that the world she’s in isn’t real. And Cobb uses that on himself in the end.


November 30th, 2010 4:08 pm

Do you think that the last interpretation mentioned at this site could be possible?

Christian Knudsen

November 30th, 2010 4:08 pm

Well, it kinda renders the entire movie pointless. If everything was just a dream that Cobb had while flying on a plane, then what’s the point? He might as well just have dreamt that he was a cow grazing on a field (though that would probably have been a less interesting film). And if he doesn’t even know any of the other passengers on the plane (i.e. all the supporting characters), then his dream and everything he goes through likely doesn’t have any relevance to who he really is – we as the audience would have no way of knowing if the stuff he experienced in his dream had any importance to him or if it was just some weird dream he had for no apparent reason. I find the movie powerful not just because of the ideas it presents, but also because of the personal catharsis that Cobb experiences – he’s struggling with his own guilt and manages to forgive himself in the end. If he hasn’t even lost his wife in the “real” world and that’s also just something he dreamt up for no reason, then, again, what’s the point of it all?

Besides, what’s the deal with spinning the top when he gets home if everything until he woke up was just a pointless dream?


August 13th, 2010 4:08 pm

Neat Theory,
But he can’t dream anymore in the movie…. without that machine. He’s completely messed up and his subconscious has taken hold of him. And his “dreams” are only memories where he keeps Mal locked up in the “basement” and about the children, he says he remembers their faces but he can’t ever see them anymore in dream, well he says so himself that he can’t dream period. Remember when he tells to adrienne never make a dream out of memories because you lose the concept of reality. He never follows any of the rules he sets, hinting, he is in the dream world but doesn’t realize it. He’s under the illusion that he can control it, when he obviously can’t, hence Mal messing up all their plans and seeing his children randomly in the dream world.


August 13th, 2010 4:08 pm


Christian Knudsen

August 13th, 2010 4:08 pm

At the end of the movie, he’s already hooked up to the machine. He’s four (or five, I can’t recall) layers deep when he meets up with old Saito in limbo. He just stays there (I presume Saito manages to leave when Cobb shows up and reminds him where he is) and builds his dream world, just like he did with Mal for 50 years. And it wouldn’t be a problem for him to create the dream (with his children) from his memories, since he’ll have the constantly spinning top to remind him that he’s in a dream, just like it created the idea in Mal’s mind that she was in a dream.

inception Fan 001

August 14th, 2010 4:08 pm

Hmm i think Cobb wants to get back to his “real kids”, i don t thnk he would dream up another world. Remember when created his other world he coundt stand that it wasnt real so i dont think he would create another one

Christian Knudsen

August 14th, 2010 4:08 pm

I’m not so sure about that. I think one of the widely agreed upon messages of the movie is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s real or a dream – the inception that happens to Fischer is “fake”, but it has a real and profound effect on him. Just like the movie itself is a fake, a construct, but it can have a real and profound effect on the audience. Plus, a lot of people believe that the ending shot of Cobb walking away from the spinning top is to show that he no longer cares about it’s outcome, i.e. what’s real and not. Besides, he did spend 50 years in the dream world with Mal before he had enough. I don’t think he would have spent quite such a long time there if he couldn’t stand that it wasn’t real?


August 15th, 2010 4:08 pm

He is still in a dream, somewhere. It is too unlikely that Saito can get his warrant waived so quickly. Everything with the children (and their place) looks way too much as in his memories.

What annoyed me most during the movie was that Cobb is so hell-bent on getting back to his children in the US. Taking dangerous chances for a small chance to get there.
The obvious solution is for the children to live with him outside the US instead. Mohammed and the mountain. But that wouldnt make as good a movie :-)

Christian Knudsen

August 16th, 2010 4:08 pm

Yeah, despite Saito’s wealth and influence, I find it a bit hard to believe that he’d be able to get a guy that’s charged with killing his wife off the hook with a single phonecall.

Maybe Cobb lost custody of his kids when he was charged with the murder of their mother? Bringing them out of the US to be with him would probably constitute kidnapping then. I don’t know. I guess I just kinda accepted it as the basic premise, but you’re right that it’s not really explicitly explained.


August 23rd, 2010 4:08 pm

Let me, after viewing many valid and thorough posts and hypotheses, present a different idea, if only for discussion, since we can argue all these points back and forth.

What is truly fascinating about this movie is how Nolan can make tangible even the most abstract things within the flow of the movie that it seems perfectly acceptable. 1.An actual elevator to go “deeper” into Cobbs brain from the beach to the hotel. 2. an actual architect rendering these levels for the dreamer to fill with information that is revealing to the extractors, or inceptors in this case. These are all almost silly when discussed but fully plausable for those who saw it. Also well done is the exaggeration of dreams based on actual factors. When Arthur is flopping in the van, the entire hotel shifts axis and everyone floats as if in a space simulation parabolic flight. In the fitst extraction, an Entire building begins to flood from the top windows. The avalnch in the third fortress level. Each further level one goes into, the more exaggerated even a little event feels (whch is why they use the kicks at the very least).

So with that in mind, I will say the whole movie is a dream and an exaggeration of a fully relatable problem many fathers faec with their children in the corporate day of age. He is always on the road, going from place to place, losing touch with his kids, who he would love to be there, and his wife, who he must have arguments with. He has lost reality by ways of his constant and demanding job (one could even question if he is an actual dream grifter/incepter – or that is just his symbolism for someone who is in psychology or even something like advertising where he can manipulate the mind into wanting to buy a product or figuring out what focus groups like–which is why i can even believe someone saying this movie is actually in the past {look at the clothing and hairstyles emphasizing the 1920 to 40s–then again the hotel had modern technology.. anyways).

He is a man always on the run, and in his dream, he had fabricated that it is not his fault he is constantly o nthe road —

1.”numerous anonymous corporations are constantly chasing you. “, which Cobbs wife uttered to him and questioned whther or not HE was dreaming, when they were both in limbo before she stabbed him.

2.a. His wife turned him in to force him to “take a leap of faith” with her and go into reality by jumping off the ledge. b.He is not allowed to go into the country because of this or he’ll be shot. c. Others seem to know about this without being told.

3.his kids are never facing him, but turning and runnin away, almost going on childhood withouthim.

4.His guilt creates a wife who is a menace and dangerous (which he calles a shadow) , even though she seems so pretty and harmless, as an excuse to leave as if he doesn’t have one good enough for himself.

So He is using companies and work as a scapegoat. He feel compelled to work just as much as he does to be with his kids. But the pressures of the corporate empire press down on him more than his guilt.

In this movie, his dream, his wife jumps off the ledge wanting to get out and into reality. She does this because she confuses reality with dreams based on his inception and follows his advice from a deeper dream to escape (by riding the rails so to speak). In actuality, its Cobbs own confusion of reality and perception of his day to day jobb. Cobb projects his wife, instead, being confused, and he jumping off the ledge is his own manifestation of him feeling he is losing his relationship with his wife. It’s exaggerated, since it’s symbolic in a dream, like the avalanche and the turning hotel. The reasons he is banned from the US based on this are almost absurd, since the police can find out the verdict fairly simply.

Cobb cannot jump with her, and be in a commitement with her forever, like he promised in marriage, his own perceived dreams by wearing the ring, and numerous times in the dream, because he is so reluctant to abandon his alternate reality: his demanding job -his day to day reality,, his dreeam/this movie and take a leap of faith to his family and kids.

Saito, is his fantasy. A man who can come and fix everything for him — by force no less. he can make a call, he can let him be with his kids. how? by Cobb convincing an heir to a corporate kingdom, to break it up into less powerful entities. How convenient. Cobb;s ticket to his family is by breaking up the establishment: convincing a corporate titan, the future runner of an international empire, to lay off, for lack of a term, and demagnify its hold of Cobbs everyday life. This is cobbs dream, a man to come sweep him and save him. Saito asks him to take a leap of faith, and cobb does… for a man in order to break up an empire first, family and guilt next. He cannot go back unless he takes care of his hecktic work situation and he cant take care of the work situation(by breaking apart the oppressive companies —the inception mission) until he can deak with his guilt.

The whole movie has a continuous loop theme. 1.the endless staircase 2. the recurring characters 3. most importantly, the clockwise depiction of a dream Cobb scribbled to Ariande, in her dream, of a mind constantly processiong and creating in a loop. Cobb then draws a line saying “this is what we need you to do, create, so the mark can process”. This line is what the movie is. Cobb processing his situation above the surface (not in the movie) and creating more based on that procession below the surface (what is shown in this movie). It is prefect how the movie, like a clock, basiclly ends where it began, on the 12, on the beach in Japan, but like a clock, the hand may still be on the same number but it is in a different time, not 12am but 12 pm. Saito is old, relecting now Cobbs anti-hero, the opposite of Saitos early depiction of a fantasy. Old and alone, regretting his inaction is saito, just like he told cobb not to be.

He is in his deep limbo here, on the beach, washed ashore on the coast of japan. his own mission to save, within himself, his sanity, is complete with the inception into fischer. He can go to his kids again, and not have to work. The totem spins, and just when it wobbles, the movie ends. It’s not important, Cobb doesn’t care anymore. He will stay in this state with his kids to leave reality and responsibility of work and fam.

The top – the top is cobbs totem all along, Not Mals. Why? The only totem not shown in the movie is either Cobbs or Mals. Many think the top is not cobbs, due to obvious scenes where it clearly shows her owning it. However, throughout the whole movie, Mal is a projection by Cobb. She is the only one guaranteed to not be in the movie. In no way is she hooked up to the machine on any level. Since the movie is a dream and all the figures in it are projections, Cobb can know their totems since he created them in his mind, whether his subconscious self knows about them or not. Since Mal enterred the dream with Cobb on the same level, and is now, one can argue, awake, Cobb’s subconscious doesn;t know his wife’s totem because she never showed it to him in reality. So, when he, in his limbo, projects his wife, his closest thing to him, he renders his token as hers since, when they entered the dream, he had no clue what she would use to know reality. By him projecting his wife to lock the totem safe in a vault, he is convincing himself on a deeply subconscious level that his wife’s dream of them to be together and not have him jet setting for work are unrealistic (since in that dream they made in limbo they were together always). He then spins the top and changes reality to make her believe this is not possible. This is him trying to convince himself his work is worth it. He ends up regretting it because his wife jumps off a ledge because of this.

By spinning this deepest level top, his whole perception of a totem being a link to reality. On his deepest level, he changed the meaning to what a top spinning means. So when his wife jumps off the ledge and the top is still, it is his reality since he convinced himself it is. He is confused, just as his wife said, just as ariande said, just like michael caine said (sorry forgot his name), and his totem lost meaning. So at the very end, when the top spins and wobbles a bit, He is in a fantasy land, but it doesn’t matter. He walks away to join his kids in a state he wants to be real and convinces himself to be, although it is not. He is in limbo.

how is that? well, the way the top wobbles is telling. nolan could have cut the scene at any time after the wobble, but only does when the top is perfectly upright. Of course, when filming, the top eventually fell, but when the screen is cut is totally arbitrary and the top looks as if it will recover. It is purposely vague, because this is scence is vague, even to Cobb, but it doesnt matter sinec he convinced himself to be able to accept the guilt of alienating his wife for work, at least in his make believe state. His kids, he can have now that the corporation is broken up and work is done. When he is in reality, he may have to quit his job, but for now all good.

why are the kids different? they are slightly different in dress and in positioning in the final scene which is extremely telling. Since in cobbs mind, he has not seen his kids in some time when he finally does his brain knows to render them a little differnt. However, his brain only has that one image to work with, so the alterations are ever so slight, but not enough to probably reflect reality, since he cannot.

who is ellen paige supposed to be. well, ellen paige is his own representation of a female young Cobb. A young Cobb, after college, would question cobbs actions constantly and and play counter to his actions. She is a flat one dimentional character, as is his wife, since they are projection by cobb to convince himself conflictiong things. They bother question if he views reality correctly and oppose his actions. They are made by a man to oppose a man, so its not deep. However, the college kid is described as being being “even better than”cobb was at her craft. the kid is his old self asking why do you do these things? old self knows. he views her as his better self.

David Phelps

August 19th, 2010 4:08 pm

I see the movie hapening as one of two ways. One the top falls over at the end (we just don’t see it) and he is in the real world and everything he set out to do was accomplished.

The other way, and the one I would like to belive even more is that only about 5 minutes of the movie actually happen. The parts with him and Mal in limbo actually happen. Everything from him and Mal waking up afterward never happen. She never jumped out of a window, he was never being chased, none of it. A couple of times in the film Mal told him to come back to her and that he knew where to find her. She was in their original limbo world the whole time and it was him that found a way to leave and eventually come back. It was Cobb that created a world in limbo with out her and went off on his own tangent. It’s just like Saito whom never exisited created his own world. The funny thing about Saito’s world is that it that looked a lot like the place in the first scene of the movie which was soppose someone elses dream. I think the similarities between Saito’s limbo world and the dream world where Cobb tried to steal the cooperate secrets from him are too great and helps to prove that is is all Cobb’s dream. Mal tried many times to find him and ask him to come back but he wouldn’t. Remember they say that if you get caught in limbo that you are there for good. Towards the end of the film she told him that his “reality” is too far fetched.

Ok, don’t agree with that? Think of it this way. If it was all real and Cobb could visit his father why didn’t the kids go to live with his father so that he could visit them. This gave Cobb a puzzle (getting back to the US). Ok why take a plane and use your passport. There are millions of people living in the US with fake SSN and fake names. Don’t you think it would be easier for him to do that that someone with just a 5th grade education like many of the people that cook your food at the restaurants you eat at. Sorry, he was dreaming the whole movie but sometimes I like to think that he did reach his kids after they had not aged nor changed clothes just becasue it makes me feel warm inside.

Christian Knudsen

August 19th, 2010 4:08 pm

“Remember they say that if you get caught in limbo that you are there for good.” Unless you’ve found a method to remind yourself that you’re in a dream. Which Cobb has. :)

Otherwise, it’s certainly possible. As to why he took a plane in the end and didn’t just have the kids come to him… Maybe Cobb lost custody of his kids when he was charged with the murder of their mother? And they had to take the plane because that was their opportunity to do the inception on Fischer (Fischer was taking a plane to the US and the long trip was the perfect opportunity).


September 1st, 2010 4:08 pm

What I’m wondering about now with your theory is: Cobb is shown to wake up in the airplane at the same time as Saito. Are you saying he built that into his dream? If so, to what end? To make himself believe that he’s back in reality… and then set the top spinning to remind himself that he’s not in reality after all? That’s a little twisted. How would that all go together? Considering Cobb waking up in the airplane it doesn’t seem likely to me that he remained in limbo. Except maybe someone manipulated Cobb’s dreams… but who and with what motive? The only one with any reason to make Cobb believe he was back in the real world reunited with his children while he’s actually not would be Saito. But I don’t see how Saito could have managed such manipulation. He’s not the dream expert – only a “tourist”. And that story line would also not go together with your explanation of Cobb being aware that he is still dreaming and therefore setting the top aspin.
So, the question for me remains: how does Cobb’s waking up in the airplane with all the others go together with him staying behind in limbo? I’d appreciate your thoughts on that. Thanks

Christian Knudsen

September 2nd, 2010 4:08 pm

It could be that Cobb did indeed create that as part of his dream world, since that’s what he wanted (dreamt about!) happening: finishing this last job and being able to walk through the passport check without being withheld. Cobb talks a lot about catharsis when they plan the Fisher job, and Cobb being able to walk off the plane and through customs is part of his own personal catharsis.

Also, I’m sure the waking up on the plane bit is included by Nolan specifically to raise doubts about such an interpretation. :)


September 1st, 2010 4:08 pm

What makes me wonder a lot is why Saito is so old in Limbo and Cobb is not. Cobb entered Limbo before Saito dies. So actually Cobb is in Limbo for a longer time than Saito and should have aged more. Or does Cobb only dream he’s still young, like he and Mal had dreamed of themselves being young while they had actually aged fifty years?
Questions upon questions. Things don’t quite add up.

Christian Knudsen

September 2nd, 2010 4:08 pm

“Or does Cobb only dream he’s still young, like he and Mal had dreamed of themselves being young while they had actually aged fifty years?”

I think you just answered it yourself there. Saito has gotten lost in limbo. He’s forgotten that he’s in a dream. That’s what Cobb goes to remind him so that he can ‘escape’. That’s why Saito looks old – until Cobb arrives, he’s been living under the assumption that his world in limbo was real and so he believed that his body actually grew old. While Cobb knows that it’s just a dream, so his mental projection of himself isn’t old since he knows he hasn’t really grown old – all of this only takes a few seconds in the ‘real world’.

And Cobb and Mal were only old at heart (or in their souls). The fifty years they spent together was fifty years for their minds but not even a day for their physical bodies.

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