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My interpretation of Inception’s ending

August 13th, 2010 by Christian Knudsen

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.

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