Top vs. Ring: Theories About the End

This 2010 contemporary sci-fi actioner follows a subconscious security team around the globe and into the intimate and infinite world of dreams.
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Posts: 135
Joined: April 2010
Location: Iowa
So there’s a lot of debate about the ending and I wanted to throw in my observation and opinion. I have arrived at two possible theories to describe the ending of the film. I will look at the functionality and meaning of the totem and wedding ring.

THE TOTEM -- THE TOP

[Who handles the ‘top’ totem?]

Mal, Saito, Cobb

[What does Arthur say about the rules of a totem and what does this really mean?]

When Ariadne reaches for his totem, Arthur says, “Well nah, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know how this feels. It’s uniqueness. The totem allows you to know if you’re in someone else’s dream.”

What he is saying is that only the user knows the uniqueness, so he knows if the totem signals I’m in someone else’s dream or I’m not in someone else’s dream. He DOES NOT state, that it tells the difference between dreams and reality. We cannot make that inference based on the information we’ve been given.

Furthermore, he never says that if someone else touches the totem it will lose some sort of power. All he says is that the only the user is able to know the difference. This means that anyone can use a totem but only, Arthur in this instance, will know the uniqueness.

However, this concept of knowing the difference is unique. It’s like watching a magic trick. If you know how the trick works, it’s different for you than someone who doesn’t know. Let’s say you have small jewelry box with a small trap door. If you use it and make the jewel inside disappear you know why and how it works but if someone else uses it and it disappears they acknowledge that an action has taken place but they don’t understand the inner working of it. If they did this in front of you, you would visually tell the difference and they wouldn’t –it would fly under their nose.

This concept is important for what I will talk about later.

[What is Mal’s relationship to the totem?]

Now, from what Cobb says, it was Mal’s idea to use the totem. The top was Mal’s totem. Cobb says that for her, in someones dream it would just spin and spin and spin. This information tells us two things: 1) Specifically how Mal’s totem works—its uniqueness and 2) that Cobb knows this uniqueness.

So when Mal doesn’t want to accept the reality of limbo as a dream but rather as THE reality, she hides her totem away so she’ll never know the difference (specifically, she places the totem in the safe on its side). Inception occurs when Cobb finds the totem and decides that he and Mal need to get out of limbo. To do this, knowing the top’s uniqueness, Cobb spins the top because he knows that since they are in limbo (a presumed false reality) it will keep spinning. All this is to function so that when Mal sees it, remembering its uniqueness, she realizes she’s in a dream (whose dream is for another debate but for now we will say limbo). Hence, inception.

[About Cobb’s?]

When Cobb uses the totem throughout the film, he knows its uniqueness so he’s able to tell if he’s in someone else dream or not. This is not to say that he himself isn’t dreaming but only that he isn’t in someone else’s dream.

[What about Saito and the totem?]

Saito is never given the information of the top’s uniqueness. To him, it’s just a spinning top. So in the scenes where Saito is old, him spinning the top is not to tell himself that he’s in someone else’s dream, it’s just him spinning the top. However, to Cobb sitting across the table, he knows its uniqueness and knows that he is still in limbo.

[So at the end, is he dreaming, in someone else’s reality, or in the real world?]

Because of the points I made about Arthur’s explanation, there is nothing to say he is ever REALLY in the the so-called real world, only that he isn’t in someone else’s dream (shown by the times we see the top fall). So I cannot for certain, going with this theory, say that he is in the real world.

When we see the top spinning in the movie, it is completely stationary and spinning—perfect. This is the tip off that Cobb, or the user of that totem, is in someone else’s dream. At the end, we can hear and see the top moves. I won’t be so bold as to say wobble but it moves. This diversion of the perfection we’ve seen hitherto would hint that it is topple over. If this is the case, then we know that we aren’t in someone else’s dream.

However, all this is to say that if the we aren’t in someone else’s dream world whose dream world are we in? Can we be certain it is Cobb’s? Why not, the childrens (just for debate)?

THE WEDDING RING

This is a so simple it can’t be right…or can it?

If you watch the beginning, you’ll notice that Cobb washes up on the shores wearing a wedding ring. He is at this point (because we see this loop at the end) in some sort of limbo/dreamworld (see above theory). Now when he comes out of the dreamworlds of Arthur and Nash’s, after trying extraction on Saito, he is no longer wearing a ring. Now without going into the symbolism of the ring I will stick to the functionality of the ring.

I believe that the ring, not the totem, is the true tell of being in a dream or not (or rather someone else dream to the contrary).

I believe this because throughtout the rest of the film, Cobb only has the ring on in the “dreamworld.” When he’s in the assumed “real world” he never has it on. If this is indeed the real signifier, then at the end we know he’s not in the dream world (or at least anyone elses) because he’s not wearing a ring. This would follow with the “rule” the movie has cleverly and subtlety laid in place. The totem, is the ultimate form of misdirection. The entire movie, the emphasis is put on the totem in that we never really pay attention to the little detail of the ring. Even at the end it’s on the totem and not the ring.

[But what about the “flashbacks”?]

When Cobb is telling Ariadne about Mal and her death, we see these “flashbacks” of Cobb wearing the ring. I would argue that the world of the flashback does not apply to the same rule as the dreams. What I mean to say is that, the ring showing up in the flashback is functional to the story of Cobb and Mal’s relationship. They were married, hence, they have rings in the “actual” past (via the flashback). So we cannot state that this idea of the wedding ring theory is countered by the inclusion of said wedding ring in the flashback.

THE VERDICT?
Honestly, these are just theories so I cannot say which, if either at all, is the right answer but it’s sure fun to think about! Thoughts?

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Joined: July 2010
wow nice catch on the wedding ring! Totally didnt notice that

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Joined: May 2010
unless they are not related, but the prologue comic had Cobb said: "this is not a dream, you are awake" after he spun his top....

Posts: 135
Joined: April 2010
Location: Iowa
An underlying question arises out of the observation you made:

Because Cobb knows the uniqueness of the totem would he ever, conciously or sub-conciously, fool himself into believing what he wants versus how things reall are?

And at the point in the comic, since we don't go any further back in the story at this point, Mal is dead. Which, leads back to what I said in my initial post witht the addition of the question I just posed.

Fascinating!

Of course, if it IS the real world in the comic, and we are to treat the comic and film as the same worlds, then we know at the end of the film he is indeed in the real world and not the dream world.

Interesting, indeed.

[EDIT]

Which leads the theory about the wedding ring to coincide with the idea of the totem being the signifier of the real world.

The wheels are spinning!

Posts: 11
Joined: July 2010
AaronFaulkner wrote:So there’s a lot of debate about the ending and I wanted to throw in my observation and opinion. I have arrived at two possible theories to describe the ending of the film. I will look at the functionality and meaning of the totem and wedding ring.

THE TOTEM -- THE TOP

[Who handles the ‘top’ totem?]

Mal, Saito, Cobb

[What does Arthur say about the rules of a totem and what does this really mean?]

When Ariadne reaches for his totem, Arthur says, “Well nah, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know how this feels. It’s uniqueness. The totem allows you to know if you’re in someone else’s dream.”

What he is saying is that only the user knows the uniqueness, so he knows if the totem signals I’m in someone else’s dream or I’m not in someone else’s dream. He DOES NOT state, that it tells the difference between dreams and reality. We cannot make that inference based on the information we’ve been given.

Furthermore, he never says that if someone else touches the totem it will lose some sort of power. All he says is that the only the user is able to know the difference. This means that anyone can use a totem but only, Arthur in this instance, will know the uniqueness.

However, this concept of knowing the difference is unique. It’s like watching a magic trick. If you know how the trick works, it’s different for you than someone who doesn’t know. Let’s say you have small jewelry box with a small trap door. If you use it and make the jewel inside disappear you know why and how it works but if someone else uses it and it disappears they acknowledge that an action has taken place but they don’t understand the inner working of it. If they did this in front of you, you would visually tell the difference and they wouldn’t –it would fly under their nose.

This concept is important for what I will talk about later.

[What is Mal’s relationship to the totem?]

Now, from what Cobb says, it was Mal’s idea to use the totem. The top was Mal’s totem. Cobb says that for her, in someones dream it would just spin and spin and spin. This information tells us two things: 1) Specifically how Mal’s totem works—its uniqueness and 2) that Cobb knows this uniqueness.

So when Mal doesn’t want to accept the reality of limbo as a dream but rather as THE reality, she hides her totem away so she’ll never know the difference (specifically, she places the totem in the safe on its side). Inception occurs when Cobb finds the totem and decides that he and Mal need to get out of limbo. To do this, knowing the top’s uniqueness, Cobb spins the top because he knows that since they are in limbo (a presumed false reality) it will keep spinning. All this is to function so that when Mal sees it, remembering its uniqueness, she realizes she’s in a dream (whose dream is for another debate but for now we will say limbo). Hence, inception.

[About Cobb’s?]

When Cobb uses the totem throughout the film, he knows its uniqueness so he’s able to tell if he’s in someone else dream or not. This is not to say that he himself isn’t dreaming but only that he isn’t in someone else’s dream.

[What about Saito and the totem?]

Saito is never given the information of the top’s uniqueness. To him, it’s just a spinning top. So in the scenes where Saito is old, him spinning the top is not to tell himself that he’s in someone else’s dream, it’s just him spinning the top. However, to Cobb sitting across the table, he knows its uniqueness and knows that he is still in limbo.

[So at the end, is he dreaming, in someone else’s reality, or in the real world?]

Because of the points I made about Arthur’s explanation, there is nothing to say he is ever REALLY in the the so-called real world, only that he isn’t in someone else’s dream (shown by the times we see the top fall). So I cannot for certain, going with this theory, say that he is in the real world.

When we see the top spinning in the movie, it is completely stationary and spinning—perfect. This is the tip off that Cobb, or the user of that totem, is in someone else’s dream. At the end, we can hear and see the top moves. I won’t be so bold as to say wobble but it moves. This diversion of the perfection we’ve seen hitherto would hint that it is topple over. If this is the case, then we know that we aren’t in someone else’s dream.

However, all this is to say that if the we aren’t in someone else’s dream world whose dream world are we in? Can we be certain it is Cobb’s? Why not, the childrens (just for debate)?

THE WEDDING RING

This is a so simple it can’t be right…or can it?

If you watch the beginning, you’ll notice that Cobb washes up on the shores wearing a wedding ring. He is at this point (because we see this loop at the end) in some sort of limbo/dreamworld (see above theory). Now when he comes out of the dreamworlds of Arthur and Nash’s, after trying extraction on Saito, he is no longer wearing a ring. Now without going into the symbolism of the ring I will stick to the functionality of the ring.

I believe that the ring, not the totem, is the true tell of being in a dream or not (or rather someone else dream to the contrary).

I believe this because throughtout the rest of the film, Cobb only has the ring on in the “dreamworld.” When he’s in the assumed “real world” he never has it on. If this is indeed the real signifier, then at the end we know he’s not in the dream world (or at least anyone elses) because he’s not wearing a ring. This would follow with the “rule” the movie has cleverly and subtlety laid in place. The totem, is the ultimate form of misdirection. The entire movie, the emphasis is put on the totem in that we never really pay attention to the little detail of the ring. Even at the end it’s on the totem and not the ring.

[But what about the “flashbacks”?]

When Cobb is telling Ariadne about Mal and her death, we see these “flashbacks” of Cobb wearing the ring. I would argue that the world of the flashback does not apply to the same rule as the dreams. What I mean to say is that, the ring showing up in the flashback is functional to the story of Cobb and Mal’s relationship. They were married, hence, they have rings in the “actual” past (via the flashback). So we cannot state that this idea of the wedding ring theory is countered by the inclusion of said wedding ring in the flashback.

THE VERDICT?
Honestly, these are just theories so I cannot say which, if either at all, is the right answer but it’s sure fun to think about! Thoughts?
I agree with you man, I just saw it tonight and what you said makes perfect sense to me. What are your thoughts about what I said in the other discussion "For those who have questions"?

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Joined: November 2009
If you want to know the truth:Just ask Nolan :lol:

Posts: 2281
Joined: July 2009
Location: Ontario, Canada
Nice catch!

Posts: 94
Joined: July 2010
Thank you. You answered the question I had about the totem and also pointed out a great catch. Bravo.

Posts: 254
Joined: June 2010
The wedding ring is key. It symbolizes his attachment to Mal that Ariadne is trying to break him off, which he finally does with his own catharsis that he has in Limbo. So if he's not wearing the ring when he sees the kids at the end...

Posts: 254
Joined: June 2010
I also think the top exists outside of the narrative at the end. Obviously, if Cobb came back into that room and saw the top still spinning he would try to wake up, because he clearly loves his kids that much. He had already rejected his shade of Mal from them at the climax of the film. So I think it's safe to say that the spinning top being cut off by the black before it wobbles is meant to raise questions, not about Cobb's reality and his fate, but about our reality and the reality of film.

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