The Spinning Top: The Dream Worlds of ‘Inception’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

The film Inception’s ending is much discussed, insofar as the film ends on an ambiguous note, without revealing whether the main character has finally woken up from his dream into the real world. There are a few clues which can help us to question the end of the movie.

Illustrated sequence of abstract things from a dream.
In Inception the central premise is that of multiple dreams. (Image: Helea/Shutterstock)

The Multi-layered Dream

Christopher Nolan’s Inception introduces us to Dom Cobb, who infiltrates people’s dreams to extract information. Because he’s been charged with his wife’s murder, he’s been denied access to his children. So, when a businessman named Saito offers him a job in exchange for erasing the murder charge, Cobb can’t say no.

Cobb must perform an inception: he must implant, in the mind of rival businessman Robert Fischer, the idea that Fischer should break up his father’s company. To do so, Cobb subjects Fischer to a multilayered dream sequence, where on each level time passes more slowly than the last. Although the inception seems successful, by the end we aren’t really sure if Cobb has successfully returned to the real world and his children, or whether he is still stuck in a dream.

He does check his totem—his way of distinguishing reality from a dream—a spinning top, at the end of the film, but before we see whether the top falls, the screen cuts to black. Cutting to black before the top falls is a great ending; ambiguous endings are nice. But what makes the film great is that, upon multiple viewings, you realize that whether the top falls or not tells us nothing.

Learn more about Inception and the interpretation of art.

The Misdirected Totem

First of all, totems only tell you whether you are in someone else’s dream. Second, to be effective, no one else can know how your totem works. Yet not only does Cobb’s wife, Mal, know how Cobb’s totem works, but so does Cobb’s apprentice, Ariadne, who designed the dreams he is trying to escape. Third, Cobb’s totem can’t tell the viewer anything because its behavior is backwards.

A totem’s behavior in the real world is supposed to be unique, like the weighted red die used by one character, and the hollowed-out bishop used by another. If it behaves ordinarily, you know that you are dreaming. But in the real world, tops always fall! Cobb’s totem behaves uniquely only in his own dream by not falling. So, Cobb’s totem can’t actually tell him anything at all! What makes Inception a masterpiece is that the ending isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s misdirection.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Things to Remember

First recall that parts of a dreamer’s subconscious can work themselves into a dream world. The train that killed Cobb and Mal in the deepest dream world appears in the kidnap dream. The random string of numbers that Fischer utters in the kidnap dream—528491—turns out to be many things: the ‘phone number’ the blonde gives to Fischer; the hotel room numbers in the hotel dream level; and the combination to the safe in the snow fortress dream level.

Recall also what happens when you exit Limbo. When people die in Limbo, they don’t wake into the real world; they merely wake up in the dream from which they entered Limbo. We see Fischer and Ariadne wake up in the snow fortress dream and then ‘ride the kicks’ back up to the kidnap dream.

Recall that the movie begins and ends with Cobb interacting with Saito in a dream world. In both cases, Cobb is visiting Saito in a grand house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It is here, at the end of the film, that Cobb tries to convince Saito to shoot himself to wake himself up.

The Audio Clue

So, what’s the clue you missed? What happened while you were watching the spinning top? What happens is that as Cobb greets his children, he asks them what they are doing, and they say, “We’re building a house on a cliff.”

Image of a castle on a hill.
The idea of a hill on a cliff occurs both in Saito’s dream and later when Cobb meets his children. (Image: Shchipkova Elena/Shutterstock)

So, did Saito and Cobb make it back to the real world after exiting Limbo? Or did they, like Fischer and Ariadne, just go one layer up, to what was the snow fortress dream that is now empty? Did they wake up in the real world, or did Saito create his own dream world upon exiting Limbo—a dream world Cobb would have entered upon exiting Limbo, and found filled with elements of Saito’s subconscious, like his house on a cliff?

If dying in Limbo doesn’t necessarily get one back to the real world, how do we know that Cobb and Mal ever made it back to the real world? We see them wake up on an apartment floor, but Cobb said that they entered Limbo by experimenting with dreams within dreams. Is that apartment in the ‘real’ world? Or did they awake into the dream they used to reach Limbo?

Learn more about the strange world of dreams.

The Persistence of the Dream Worlds

Maybe Mal was right; maybe they were still dreaming, and her suicide actually did wake her up. Maybe the entire movie is a dream. Maybe that’s why all the members of Cobb’s ‘dream team’—Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Yusuf, Saito—only have one name: they’re all just elements of his subconscious. Maybe this is why the city of Mombasa looks so much like a maze, and the walls of its buildings seem to close in around Cobb while he’s being chased. Maybe this is why Eames can mysteriously produce casino chips out of thin air. Maybe that’s why Mal, before her suicide, is inexplicably sitting in the window of a different hotel room!

And finally, do you recall the song Cobb uses to signal the end of a dream—Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’? It’s 2 minutes and 28 seconds long. And the movie Inception is, exactly, to the second, 2 hours and 28 minutes long. Maybe it’s all just a dream, and the top is irrelevant.

Common Questions about the Dreams in Inception

Q. What is Dom Cobb’s task in the film Inception?

In the film Inception, Dom Cobb must perform an inception: he must implant in the mind of businessman called Robert Fischer the idea that he should break up his father’s company. To do so, Cobb subjects Fischer to a multilayered dream sequence.

Q. In Inception, what are the qualities a totem must have?

In the film Inception, first of all, a totem’s behavior in the real world is supposed to be unique. If it behaves ordinarily, you know that you are dreaming. Second, to be effective, no one else can know how your totem works.

Q. In the movie Inception why is it not possible to tell if Cobb has woken up or not?

Cobb’s totem does not work like other totems. Cobb’s totem behaves unusually, in that its unique behavior is only evident in Cobb’s own dream. The top would fall if it was the real world, or if it was someone else’s dream.

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