The Alexandrian

Inception - Christopher NolanI recently watched Oblivion, which is a mediocre science fiction film starring Tom Cruise. It features a soundtrack which was apparently written by someone who watched Inception the night before and just couldn’t get it out of his head. So when I came out of the theater that night, I decided that I needed to watch Inception to clear both the mediocrity of Oblivion’s hackneyed score and the mediocrity of its hackneyed science fiction.

This, in turn, resulted in me diving inadvertently back into online discussions concerning the “true meaning” and “hidden depths” of the film. Some of this stuff is basically people saying “you may not have noticed that Rosebud is a sled” and some of this stuff is people saying “you may not have realized it, but Rosebud is actually a shapeshifting alien from the planet Vulcan”; but some of it is actually interesting insight into a movie which is not particularly complex but is remarkably rewarding in its depth.

Something that appears to have been completely overlooked, however, is the true nature of Cobb’s spinning top: Cobb describes this as his “totem”, but it notably doesn’t work like any other totem in the movie. There’s a theory that Cobb’s real totem is actually his wedding ring (which would presumably have some feature on its inner side that only he knows the feel of), but whatever his real totem is (if he has one) is largely inconsequential to the issue of the spinning top.

The short version: Cobb is not using the top as a totem in the same way that everyone else in the movie is.

See, a totem tells you if you’re in someone else’s dream. If you’re in someone else’s dream, they (or their architect) can’t properly realize your totem within the dream and you’ll be able to spot the inconsistency. (Saito does the same thing, albeit inadvertently, with a carpet near the beginning of the film.)

Cobb, however, is not using the top to test if he’s in someone else’s dream: He’s using it to test if he’s in his own dream. He’s not afraid of being hijacked by another dream team; he’s afraid of losing himself in his own personal Limbo. A traditional totem doesn’t help you with that because if you’re lost in your own dream you know what your totem feels like and you’ll simply create it for yourself. What seems to be true in the movie is that both Cobb and his wife have created a subconscious compulsion for themselves (probably using techniques similar to those which militarized Fischer’s unconscious): If they’re dreaming, their subconscious will cause the top to spin forever without falling over.

To sum up: When the other members of the team use their totems, they’re checking to see if they’ve been hijacked into another person’s dreams. When Cobb uses the top, he’s checking to see if he’s gotten lost in his own dream.

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4 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Inception: The Spinning Top”

  1. Neal says:


    I haven’t seen either of these movies, but the Inception soundtrack on youtube has it’s moments. I guess you’d recommend seeing inception, but not Cruise’s Oblivion?

    When do we get to hear about ‘the shit-storm” of your reviews of The Sovereign Stone? From your first review the system it did looked pretty interesting. How’d they screw it up from that point?

    I found myself frustrated with so many of the assumptions of gaming back around 1982, that I found myself fed up with all of them, and wanted to create a system to beyond just home-brewing a few rules adjustments here and there. Something more along the lines of Runequest. Guess, eventually, I wasn’t the only one with that idea. However, the level of detail and elegance I was aiming for proved to be more of a challenge than I was up to at the time. But it’s always percolated in my head for these years, on and off.

    If Sovereign Stone was almost your go-to system of choice, then I’m very curious as to what dissuaded you from continuing to be impressed with it. Asides from being introduced to D&D 3.0, that is.

  2. Vegepygmy says:


    I like the idea that Cobb is using his wife’s totem to see if he’s dreaming, but his wife couldn’t have used it the same way (could she?) because if she had, she would have known she *wasn’t* dreaming when she killed herself to escape what she believed was their shared dream.

    Aside from that detail, though, I think your theory is probably correct.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Neal: Looks like we’ve got 5 more RPGNet reviews between now and when the full Sovereign Stone review will appear.

    @Vegepygmy: There’s a scene in the movie where Cobb and his wife are arguing about this. He says something to the effect of, “If this is a dream, why can’t I control it?” And she replies, “Because you don’t know you’re dreaming!”

    If Mal uses the spinning to to determine if she’s in her own dream, it won’t do her any good if she’s trapped inside his dream. Of course, if he had conditioned himself the same way at that point in time then the top would also keep spinning. There are two possibilities: First, that Cobb had not yet conditioned himself like that (and only did so after Mal died). Second, Mal’s doubt of reality had become so deeply ingrained that even solid proof that she was in the real world would only lead her to deny it. (Or both.)

  4. Jorgeman says:

    “Second, Mal’s doubt of reality had become so deeply ingrained that even solid proof that she was in the real world would only lead her to deny it.”

    That was how I interpreted it. Our mind is actually quite good at believing in things that are contradicted by reality (take a look at Oliver Sack’s books for plentiful of examples).

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