Well, I figured I would get to this one sooner or later.
It’s time to talk about a fan theory regarding Inception, the cerebral action sci-fi thriller from director Christopher Nolan.
I admit, I’ve only recently gotten around to watching it, but nonetheless, I consider it a very good movie. Great acting, good story, great effects. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading this, since there will be spoilers.
Now, such an excellent movie obviously warrants an equally excellent fan theory.
Unfortunately, we don’t have one of those. So what do you have for me instead, Dave?
Dave: Well, the theory about Inception is that Cobb’s totem is actually his wedding ring.
Right. And what are the arguments?
Dave: Throughout the movie, Cobb is wearing his wedding ring when he’s in the dream world, and when he’s awake, he’s not wearing it. That could mean that originally, his ring was his totem, until he took Mal’s spinning top.
But… how do you figure that?
Dave: Well, he’d just have to look at his hand, and see that the ring was missing, obviously.
Aha, I understand. Let’s get started.
I will admit that, as far as I know, you are right that Cobb only wears his wedding ring in the dream world.
Yes. But the idea that it is a totem doesn’t work.
Dave: Why not?
Because if the ring was a totem, he would actually USE it as a totem. He would always be wearing it, awake or not, so he could compare it to reality. But instead, he uses the spinning top to determine whether or not he’s awake. As it is, at no point in the movie, does he acknowledge, look at, interfere with or show any interest whatsoever in the ring.
Not to mention that, if it’s his old totem, he wouldn’t still have it around, since he no longer needs it. The spinning top is already fulfilling the purpose.
Dave: Ah, but then why does he wear it?
That’s a good question. Disregarding the totem theory for a second, why do you think he’d wear the ring in his dreams and not in real life?
It’s because subconsciously, he DOESN’T ACCEPT THAT HIS WIFE IS GONE.
It’s a representation, a construct if you will, of his denial. A wedding ring is a symbol of a deep connection between two people. Deep down, he doesn’t want to face the fact that Mal is dead. He takes the ring off in real life, but in his dreams, it’s still there.
That inability to let go of the past is what gives Mal power. Remember, she’s not actually real. She’s only a construct, another facet of his personality. And that part of his mind is trying to make him give up, to succumb to the temptation of living with her, in the past, forever. He is constantly trying to hurt himself and sabotages his own plans, because of that temptation.
And in the end, he comes to terms with the guilt of having unintentionally driven his wife to suicide by making her believe the real world was just a dream they needed to wake up from.
He faces that part of his subconscious, the personification of his guilt, and tells Mal that she’s not real. She’s just “a shade”.
After that, the ring has no meaning.
Dave: But if the spinning top is Mal’s, and the ring isn’t Cobb’s totem, then what was his totem, originally?
He didn’t have a totem.
A Totem exists, to help you tell the difference between reality and dreams.
Cobb didn’t have a totem, because he didn’t need one. His whole reason for planting the idea that killed his wife was that he always knew it was a dream. He always knew none of it was real, that the world they built was imaginary. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it, and wanted to wake up.
As he says himself, the totem was Mal’s idea originally, presumably because she had difficulty telling the difference between reality and dreams.
After her death, however, his guilt started infecting his dreams, making him doubt reality. So when he needed a totem, he used the spinning top.
Dave: But in the final scene, when he awakes, Cobb is reunited with his children, and he’s not wearing the wedding ring. That means that the ending is real, and not a dream!
That’s what this is all about, is it?
You know, this is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand about you, Dave. If the ending is ambiguous, you want to clarify it. If the ending is clear, you want to add ambiguity.
This theory, at its core, exists for one reason, and one reason only: to remove the ambiguity of the final scene.
The ending is supposed to be left ambiguous! The movie cuts, right before the top would ordinarily start to wobble. It’s up to the viewer whether it’s a dream or not! And in the end, it doesn’t actually MATTER!
Dave: What!? What are you talking about?! Of course it matters if it’s a dream or not! What could possibly make you think otherwise!?
Oh, I don’t know, how about this quote by Christopher Nolan himself?
I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me […] The real point of the scene […] is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter if it’s real or a dream. What matters is that he’s at peace, he’s happy and no longer haunted by his guilt!
Now, Nolan has stated that he believes the ending is real, but also that it’s up to the viewer to make their own opinion. In making the ending ambiguous, both ending are, in a way, equally valid. It could be a dream, it could be real. It’s up to you.
Meanwhile, this theory is made in order to take that away from people. It’s someone trying to impose their own interpretation and claim that is the only one of value, just so they can feel clever about themselves.
But unsurprisingly, the theory doesn’t work. Which reminds me. You and Mal have a lot in common, Dave.
Yes, you’re just as delusional, and have an equally nasty habit of trying to drive me insane…