In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Inception, we answer questions you have about the movie. If you’re curious about plot explanations, meanings, themes, lessons, motifs, symbols, or just confused by something, ask and we’ll do our best to answer.
- Dom Cobb – Leonardo CiCaprio
- Mal Cobb – Marion Cotillard
- Arthur – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
- Ariadne – Elliot Page
- Mr. Saito – Ken Watanabe
- Eames – Tom Hardy
- Yusuf – Dileep Rao
- Robert Michael Fischer – Cillian Murphy
- Professor Stephen Miles – Michael Caine
- Writer – Christopher Nolan
- Director – Christopher Nolan
Inception | Questions and Answers
Did Cobb stay in limbo at the end? Is he stuck in a dream?
The end of Inception is ambiguous in a way where the audience doesn’t know if Dom’s in a dream or in reality. Is he really back home, seeing his kids? Or is it all in his head? Will the top fall or spin forever?
I would argue that Cobb’s in reality. And that Nolan wanted to convey the idea that Cobb returning to his kids is like a dream come true. That, for all intents and purposes, reality has become a dream. So the top spinning is merely symbolic of this state of being.
Of course, you can make the argument for Cobb still being in the dream. That would bring us full circle, as Inception started with Cobb stuck in a dream and trying to get out. Stories often end similar to how they began but with a reversal of energy. Like Godfather starts with a wedding where don Vito Corleone has a bunch of people paying tribute to him. And it ends with Michael Corleone, the new don, having people show up and pay tribute. Similar situations, but we’ve moved from the father to the son. And all the innocence Michael had at the start, when he was outside the family business, is completely gone, as he’s now a ruthless mob leader. That’s a reversal of energy. If someone is innocent at the beginning of the story, they’re experienced by the end. If they’re angry at the start, they find peace. If they’re peaceful, they find anger. Opposites.
That would be, I think, the major argument for the end being a dream. But Cobb’s whole character arc is about finding closure in regards to Mal’s fate. And he does. He makes peace with her. It’s a bit pointless to go through all of that character growth just to have Cobb inexplicably get lost in the dream and for the film to then ignore the consequences for all the other characters. There’s a way to make that work, but that’s not what’s implied by any of Nolan’s choices.
So, I’m going to say again—Cobb’s in reality. And the reason the top’s still spinning is just to convey the sense that Cobb’s dream has come true. But, really, it doesn’t matter. If he’s dreaming, Cobb’s happy. If he’s in reality, he’s happy. Either way, he’s found closure.
According to Michael Caine, Nolan told him any scene Caine is in is in reality. And Caine’s present when Cobb lands in America.
Why’s the top spinning at the end of Inception?
The spinning top was Cobb’s wife’s totem for the dream world. When she was awake, the top would spin for a bit before falling over, how tops do. When she was dream-sharing, it would spin forever. The point of totems was to serve as a clear indicator if you’re awake or dreaming. So Inception ending with a shot of the top spinning has a huge implication that maybe Dom’s still dreaming.
But the context matters. Cobb had spent years wanting to return home to his kids. But he couldn’t since he was wanted in suspicion to the death of his wife, Mal. You could say getting back to his kids was his dream. So when he finally is able to do that, it’s a dream come true. I think the top spinning during the reunion is just to symbolize the dream-like nature of that moment in reality. Imagine you won a $250 million dollar lottery. There would be a period where you felt like you were dreaming. Eventually, that feeling would end. But for a time it would be wild. That’s what Cobb’s experiencing.
Also, the top was Mal’s totem. So it adds a bit of bittersweetness to the moment, like she’s present in just a small way.
What was Cobb’s totem?
There’s debate about what Cobb’s totem was. Most people believe Cobb’s totem is the top. And all the relevant scenes in Inception reinforce that reading. Yet the theory emerged this was a red herring. Why? Because the top originally belonged to Mal. Which means Cobb had his own long before using the top. So an entire subset of Inception fans believe there’s more going on here. Especially since there’s that scene where Arthur tells Ariadne to never let someone else touch your totem. That dialogue adds a degree of mystery to totems. So if the top isn’t Cobb’s totem, what is?
The theory goes that Cobb’s wedding ring is the actual totem.
It’s true that Cobb has his ring on whenever he’s in a dream and it’s not there when he’s in reality. But that can just be his subconscious generating the ring because he’s still not over Mal’s death and thinks of himself as still married to her. Which is the whole point of his character arc: letting Mal go.
There’s a YouTube video that debunks the ring theory by saying totems have to be physical objects and the ring isn’t a physical object. But that doesn’t make sense. Totems don’t physically travel into dreams. They just have to be something unique enough that someone else’s subconscious can’t recreate it. Cobb could absolutely use his wedding ring as a totem, since only he knows the weight and feel of the ring on his finger. Someone else’s subconscious could generate the ring but not get the feel of it right. He also never wears the ring in reality, so if it’s on it’s a sign he must be in a dream.
You may think I’m defending the ring theory. I’m not.
The reason the ring theory doesn’t work is that we never see Cobb react to not wearing the ring in reality. There are multiple times he panics about the divide between dream and reality and rushes off to spin the top. And he does it when other characters aren’t even around. So it’s not like he’s playing some super secret game of hiding his real totem. Whatever his original totem was, it’s been retired. The top has become his totem.
As clever of a filmmaker as Nolan is, he’s not some super subtle “you must read between the lines to figure things out” kind of storyteller. He has twists and turns. He sometimes suppresses information. But he always, always, always reveals everything that needs revealing. Remember, he makes movies for mainstream audiences. There’s nuance, but not buried treasure. So you’ll get a detail like the wedding ring being on in dreams and off in reality. That’s nice. That’s cool. But it’s not some big, unrevealed thing that unlocks an ocean of previously unknown insight.
What are totems in Inception?
A totem is a physical object used to help determine if you’re in a shared dream or reality. Ariadne initially asks Arthur if a coin would work. He says no, because a coin is a generic thing, and the purpose of a totem is that someone else’s subconscious can’t recreate it. His example is a loaded dice. It rolls in a very specific way only he knows. Meaning if he was in a dream and rolled the dice and it rolled normally, it would stand out. So a coin could work if it had some special prosperity, like it looked like a penny but weighed 10x a penny.
Honestly, Cobb’s totem doesn’t make a lot of sense. It spins normally in reality but spins forever in a dream. Why would someone else’s subconscious have the top spin forever? Wouldn’t they just have it spin then fall like a regular top?
Honestly, the entire concept of totems doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would someone else’s subconscious even create the totem in the dream? Especially if they don’t know it exists in the first place? You could argue that since it’s a shared dream that the subconscious of the totem owner is what creates the dream totem. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the dream totem have the identical unique properties of the real totem? And thus defeat the purpose of having a totem?
Really, the only reason totems exist in Inception is for that last scene. They’re not supposed to be all that important in the story. Meaning the viewer isn’t supposed to think too deeply about how they work or why. We’re just supposed to accept the concept in order to set up the tension of Cobb spinning the top once he’s back with his kids.
People touched Cobb’s totem, does that mean it doesn’t work?
No one in reality ever touches the top. The only time people touch the top is in the dream. And it doesn’t matter if they touch it in the dream because the dream totem is always false. The whole point of the totem is that the dream version doesn’t replicate all the properties of the real totem. So the only time someone touching the totem matters is in reality. So dream Saito spinning the dream top shouldn’t affect the top’s performance as a totem.
Even in reality, it only matters if the person sharing a dream with you has touched the totem. So if your totem was your watch, it’s not like no one else could ever touch your watch. Only the people you’re sharing a dream with can’t know the hidden trait that makes the watch a totem. Cobb’s kids could spin the top every single day. It would have zero impact if Cobb then jumped into a dream with Ariadne, Eames, and Arthur, because those three still don’t know what the top feels like.
What does the name “Ariadne” mean?
Ariadne is a name from Greek mythology. It’s not a random choice by Nolan, as the Greek character is part of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The story goes like this: Zeus had a son named Minos. Minos was the king of Crete and a bit of a jerk. His son, Androgeus, was a tremendous athlete but unfortunate. Various stories exist as to the why but they all agree that Adrogeus died in Athens. In some versions, it’s an accident. In others, it was political. Either way, Minos was angry. As retribution, he went to war. Even asked his dad, Zeus, to mess up Athens. So there was war, famine, and plague. Athens gave up and asked Minos what he wanted. Minos demanded a recurring sacrifice. Every seven years, Athens would send a group of young men and women to the labyrinth of a minotaur for the monster to feed on.
Minos actually assigned his daughter, Ariadne, to oversee the minotaur’s labyrinth. Which seems like a pretty awful job. But one year, this kid named Theseus was part of the group of would-be sacrifices. He swore he was going to defeat the minotaur and free Athens from this barbaric ritual. Ariadne liked that. In fact, she loved it. And loved Theseus. So to help him out, she gave him a sword and this huge thing of thread he could use to navigate the labyrinth. This worked! Theseus succeeded against the half-man-half-bull then he and Ariadne ran off together.
So Ariadne is historically associated with mazes and labyrinths and helping a hero slay a monster. Which makes Cobb a bit like Theseus, Mal a bit like the minotaur, and Ariadne the one who helps the hero overcome the monster. As original as Inception is, it still uses the Greek myth as a foundation.
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