Inception Explained: Unraveling The Dream Within The Dream

Inception crashed into theaters last night at midnight and if you haven’t seen it, we hope you will soon. When you do, it’s sure to be the only thing you’ll want to talk about for at least the next week. Internally here at Cinema Blend it’s pretty much the only thing we’ve been able to think about and walking out of the movie left us and pretty much everyone whose seen it with a lot of questions. Inception is the kind of movie that gets you thinking and the film’s complex plot is the sort of thing that almost demands unraveling.

To help make sense of some of the movie’s more twisty details the entire Cinema Blend team got together and tried to ask some of the more common questions people are asking about the film. It’s our attempt to explain Inception and make sense of Christopher Nolan’s fantastically detailed dream world.

But we don’t have all the answers. It’s our hope that you’ll help us make sense of things by contributing your own theories and questions to our detailed list below. Tell us where we were wrong, help us fill in the gaps, pose new questions we haven’t thought of yet, in the comments section below. This list of questions and answers will be updated with your contributions and new contributions from us as we work in second and third viewings of the film over the weekend, so keep checking back to see the latest updates.

Ready? Enter the dream and try to understand it.

SPOILER WARNING: What follows should only be viewed by people who have already seen Inception. It contains heavy, critical spoilers which will impact your viewing of the film. If you haven’t seen Inception yet, stop reading and don’t come back until you do.

Inception questions explained

UPDATED 8/2 At 12:21PM PST

How did Mal get involved in all the dream invasion stuff to begin with?

A: It’s seems pretty clear from the context of the movie that Mal and Cobb were married and engaged in legitimate dream exploration together before Mal’s death. After her death, Cobb was forced to use his knowledge of dreams to become a thief.

How do the never-ending staircases work, and how was Arthur able to use one without Ariadne, as the architect, there to alter the architecture?

A: The never-ending staircases are paradoxes (logical fallacies that can’t exist in reality). Though Ariadne designed the levels and probably designed the staircase, in the level where Arthur uses it he's the dreamer. Similar shortcuts were worked in, in advance, to the snow dream by Eams. Ariadne tells Cobb about them when they need a faster route to the fortress.

What causes the loss of gravity in the hotel dream world?

A: As it is in real life, the dreamer's dream can be affected by things happening outside the dream. If it gets cold while you’re sleeping, sometimes people dream of ice or snow. If a person falls out of bed, sometimes they’ll dream of skydiving or falling in their dream. So when the van in the dream level above the hotel falls off the bridge, the motion of those inside the van is thrown off, and that feeling of falling carries over into the dream, making it as though there’s no gravity in the hotel level below the van. This effect does not, however, seem to extend any further than one level in a dream within a dream within a dream.

Arthur blows up an elevator to create a Kick in anti-gravity. How does that work?

A: Since there is no gravity, Arthur disconnects the elevator from the cables and then uses an explosion to propel it, as it would be propelled if there were gravity. When it hits the bottom they're shaken around, creating a Kick. Arthur uses the elevator because he needs a way to insure that the Kick occurs quickly and to everyone at once so he doesn't have to do them one at a time, in much the same way the falling van drops them together.

After he’s shot and killed, they resuscitate Fisher Jr. Why couldn’t they save Saito in the same way?

A: This one had us stumped but Max Miller offers this explanation in the comments below: "Saito is shot on the first level of the dream, but doesn't die until the third. If they resuscitated him on the third level, it would only bring him back to the second where he was still dying, and if he survived that, then it would only bring him back to the first where he was dying the fastest anyway. Meanwhile, since Fischer was shot on the third level and sent to Limbo, his "bodies" on the other two levels were totally fine. The kick from the defibrillator timed correctly with the falling sensation he experienced after Ariadne pushed him off the building was enough to bring him back to normal level 3 so he could complete the mission. If she had just shot him again down in Limbo, he probably would have woken up for real and the mission would have failed."

Aren’t you supposed to be alone in limbo? Why are Cobb’s projections of his wife and kids there?

A: Our understanding is that limbo only contains things you’ve built in it, which could explain why Cobb’s limbo has so few projections. The projection of his wife is something he tells Mal at the end that he’s tried to recreate over time, so it could be that she’s more than a projection and is actually an intentional creation of his. Similarly, Saito could have created the guards which populate his limbo.

If the world with crumbling buildings is Cobb’s limbo, what is the place he ends up in with Saito?

A: Two different theories possible, let’s break them down one at a time:

Theory 1 The simplest answer here would be that this world isn’t actually limbo but a deeper level which perhaps Cobb has mistaken for limbo or misrepresented as limbo. You have to die to go to limbo and neither Cobb nor Ariadne dies in the ice fortress, they merely go to sleep again and enter Cobb's dream, which only resembles the world he and Mal built in limbo because Cobb has created it. (Their kids weren't with them in their original limbo, so if this were limbo again, why would they magically be there with them to live happily ever after?) Also, Cobb could have deliberately been planning how the whole level worked out - he used it to detach himself from Mal, create a projection of Fischer to compel Ariadne to get out and not go into limbo and stayed as the whole thing crumbled to get to the real limbo to help Saito. And maybe that's the reason Fischer can be revived. He wasn't really shot dead.

Theory 2 But since Ariadne tried to kill herself to escape it, and we know that killing yourself in any level but limbo will only send you to limbo, it seems as though Ariadne must have believed she was in limbo. If the crumbling city level really is a form of limbo, could that mean both Cobb and Saito in limbo, but in different limbos? If dreams are the machinations of the subconscious, and limbo is the subconscious that Cobb has built, the locations are one in the same. It’s the same reason why Cobb can no longer work as an architect. Perhaps Cobb and Saito’s final locations are the same place. If so, how does Cobb find Saito’s fortress? How does he end up on that beach? We’re full of questions on this one, but given the context of the movie this theory seems like the most likely of the two.

Why is Saito so much older than Cobb in the final dream level?

A: It's likely that Cobb and Saito are in limbo for the same amount of time, however Cobb knows he's in limbo, so perhaps this keeps him from aging visibly. Saito on the other hand seems to have forgotten where he is, and so the passage of time (which could have been decades since time runs faster the deeper you go) has more of an affect on him. Similarly, the first time Cobb and Mal end up in limbo they aged because they've forgotten where they really are and accepted it as their reality.

Does Cobb’s totem keep spinning at the end or is it about to fall off the table?

A: The fact that the film cuts away before we know for certain suggests that they want us to keep guessing. But we think it kept spinning. Here’s our reasoning: Note that at the end of the film Cobb’s kids haven’t aged. They match exactly his memory of them. A memory which must almost surely by now be out of date, since he’s been away from them for many months. Though he finally sees their faces, otherwise they look exactly as he envisioned them. They're even wearing the same clothes. In reality, his kids would now be older and different than his memories of them. This could suggest that Cobb is still in the dream and the top does indeed keep spinning after the credits roll.

Alternate Theory Aaron points this out in our comments section: "In the opening moments you get a glimpse of Leo's hand. Specifically, he's wearing his wedding ring. Now, if you follow the rest of the movie keeping an eye out for this you will notice that he only has the ring on when he's in the dream world. At the end of the movie he isn't wearing the ring." If the ring only appears when he's in a dream and he's not wearing at the end of the film, that could be confirmation that in fact, the top does stop spinning after the credits and Cobb is at last in the real world.

New Information Even though Cobb's kids appear to be wearing the same clothes at the end of the film, according to Inception's costume designer here they are indeed wearing different clothes.

If the top really does keep spinning at the end and Cobb’s reality really is a dream, then why didn’t it keep spinning when he tried it earlier in the film?

A: Assuming for a moment that Cobb is still in the dream when the movie ends, it doesn’t necessarily mean he was in a dream for the entire film. The Cobb we see at the end could in fact be a man still trapped in limbo. This seems unlikely though since the film seems to indicate that Saito and Cobb killed themselves to escape it, right before waking up on the plane. See alternate theory.

Alternate Theory Ivan in the comments below suggests that it's still possible that the entire movie could be a dream because the totem may only work to ensure you're not in someone else's dream. "Think about it, YOU know your totem's trick exactly so if you were in your own host dream then you could replicate it perfectly. It is only when you are in someone else's dream that your totem does not behave in it's trick form since that host cannot architect it so. This is why nobody knows the trick functionality of anyone else's totem!"

How do Cobb and Saito survive limbo for such an extended period of time? Isn’t your mind supposed to burn out in there?

A: The film never actually says your mind will burn out there, merely suggest that you'll become lost there and be unable to find your way out. The real obstacle to getting out of limbo seems to be realizing that you're in limbo. At the end of the film, it takes an appearance by Cobb to remind Saito that the world he's in isn't real, and once he realizes Saito reaches for a gun and, presumably, shoots himself in order to escape. It could be that your brain only actually is damaged out if you stay in Limbo for the full term, or if you stay there after the machine connection powering the dream is disconnected.

If the dream they enter at the end of the film belongs to Fisher Jr., then why does Cobb enter the limbo he built with his wife? Shouldn’t it be Fisher Jr.’s limbo?

A: The snow fort dream is not Fisher's. That dream belongs to Eams. Each level is dreamt by a different member of Cobb's team, and then Fisher's subconcious is brought in to fill it. The first level is dreamed by Yusuf, who then stays behind to drive the van and initiate a kick to bring them back. The second level is dreamt by Arthur, who then stays behind to put them in the elevator and initiate another kick. The third level is dreamed by Eams, who again stays behind to plant explosives on the building, which drops them and initiates another Kick. The final level is Limbo. Limbo is a shared environment not limited to a single subconscious. Limbo contains nothing, excep the remnants of whatever might have been built by someone who has been there before. Cobb has been there before, so limbo contains the buildings he and his wife built over the 50 years they spent there.

If Mal and Cobb grew old together in Limbo, and we see them as an elderly couple, why are they young when at the end of the time in limbo they kill themselves on the railroad tracks?

A: The most likely explanation for this is that Cobb's memory of their youth was merely a fantasy of his, and in truth they aged together as we saw. This is supported by the film. The first time we see Cobb envisioning them killed by the train, they're young. A close up shot of their hands clasped reveals their hands to be young as well. Later when Cobb tells the real story of how they escaped limbo, we see their hands clasped on the railroad tracks and they're older and wrinkled, just as Cobb and Mal are when we see them walking through the city while Cobb talks about them growing old together. It seems likely this is the true version of the story and the version in which they're younger is part of the delusion Cobb constructed which was visited by Ariadne.

How did Cobb and Mal end up in Limbo in the first place?

A: The movie suggests it was an accident, caused by Cobb's desire to keep going deeper and deeper into the dream until he went too deep. Several different ways this could have been accomplished, perhaps they used the same type of sedation as Yusuf used and then intentionally killed themselves just to see what would happen.

Why did Cobb perform Inception on Mal?

A: Cobb and Mal were trapped in Limbo for 50 years, unaware that their world wasn't real. Cobb eventually discovered the truth, but Mal refused to accept it. In order to get Mal to kill herself and return to the real world, Cobb performed Inception on her, planting the idea that the world wasn't real in her mind. This worked, they killed themselves and escaped Limbo. Unfortunatley, the idea remained in Mal's mind and once they returned, she was unable to accept that the real world wasn't a dream.

Who were the dreamers for the different levels?

A: Level one, with the van, was dreamed by Yusuf (Dileep Rao). Level 2 in the hotel was dreamed by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Level 3 with the snow fort was dreamed by Eams (Tom Hardy). The final level was Limbo and dreamed by no one, since it's a place of shared consciousness.

How does the Architect have control over someone else's dream?

A: The Architect designs the dream levels in the real world, and then teaches the level design to the dreamer.

How does the Forger work?

A: Eams is the Forger. This name has two meanings. In the real world he can forge identities using his contacts and his ability to fake documents. In the dream world, he can alter his appearance and take on the personality of someone else he's studied, probably using much the same methods used to construct buildings.

Was Ariadne somehow aware of the numbers Fischer would come up with or did she change the hotel's floor plan so that 491 would be below 528?

A: It seems impossible that they could have known in advance, they must have left a blank place in their design to be filled in with the numbers as they learned them. If anyone has any other theories on this, sound off in the comments!

Why did dying wake dreamers up early in the movie, but later in the movie it sent them to Limbo?

A: The film explains this as being due to the types of sedatives used on the dreamers during the final sequence. When normal sedatives are used, death wakes you up. But in order to go three dream levels deep, heavier sedatives must be used, causing this unwanted side-effect.

Why didn't Arthur wake up when the van drove off the bridge?

A: When the van drives off the bridge, Cobb says they missed the first Kick. This is understandable since Cobb, Eams, Ariadne, and Fisher Jr. are two levels below it and can only be awakened by a kick in the level above them, where Arthur is. But Arthur is in the level directly below the vans, and the rules of the movie do seem to suggest that he should have awakened by that Kick. Perhaps experienced dreamers have some control over whether a Kick wakes them up? We're a little baffled by this one, let us know if you have a better theory.

Alternate Theory CB reader Jordan offers this possible explanation: Ealier in the movie Arthur tells Ariadne that if Yusuf kicks too early then they won't wake up. While normally in order to wake up you must recieve a Kick in the level above, this isn't true when using the special sedative. Instead with the sedative it takes two synchronized Kicks. In order to be Kicked when under the sedative you had to be kicked in both levels simultaneously. Arthur didn't have the second Kick ready when the van drove off the bridge, so he wasn't awakened by the van falling off the bridge.

Why did Ariadne jump off the building in Cobb's limbo if Eames was going to wake her up with his Kick in the level above?

A: Ariadne may not have been certain Eames' Kick would work, so she was attempting to kill herself by jumping off the building. Even though we'd been told killing yourself inside the dream would only push you into limbo, Cobb has just told her that once he got to limbo with Mal they escaped by killing themselves so Ariadne knows that death is a way to escape, even though in this case it wasn't necessary.

Alternate Theory Because of the sedative it may require two, synchronized Kicks in two levels to wake someone, instead of the single Kick normally used.

When Arthur plans his Kick, why is it important for everyone to wake up at the same time?

A: We're not entirely sure it is. It's more important that he wake them up quickly when it comes time for the Kick, to time it to occur at the same time as the Kick in the level above. By putting them in the elevator he can give them a Kick all at once, and synchronize it with the other Kicks.

What did Cobb putting a spinning top inside the safe mean?

A: The safe is a creation of the subconscious that Cobb exploits, in this case Mal. The safes are constructed so that the dreamer believes that it is a safe place for them to store their secrets. The top is Mal's totem, which she uses to determine whether she's in a dream. If it never stops spinning, that tells Mal that she's in a dream. By placing a constantly spinning totem in the safe, Cobb is placing an idea (and a very simple one) inside her subconscious. It's not that she saw the totem spinning, but that it was always spinning in her subconcious mind. This is why she thought she was trapped in the dream world.

Why did Cobb need to use Inception on Mal to convince her to kill herself? Couldn't he have simply snuck up on her and shot her?

A: Concievably. But perhaps Cobb, madly in love with Mal, simply couldn't bring himself to do it. Remember, he was barely able to shoot a projection of her. It might be all but impossible to kill the real Mal, no matter how important he thought it was to do so.

Glossary of Inception terms

Updated 7/16 At 7:52PM PST

A Kick: By upsetting the equilibrium of a dreamer you can wake them from a dream and return them to reality. If you’re dreaming a dream within a dream, each level of the dream has to have its own Kick in order for the one on the higher level to work. So Arthur blew up the elevator to wake them up from the snow fortress dream so they could then be woken up by the car hitting the water.

Limbo: A place where dreamers may end up if they go too deeply. It’s a place where time runs quickly and people seem to forget reality. We’re told a person flung there might burn out their mind, though somehow Saito, Cobb, and Mal all survive it and escape. Because of the drugs used in the dreamers in Inceptions final mission, we learn a dreamer can in this one instance also be flung into limbo if they’re killed in the dream.

Inception: The practice of entering dreams and planting an idea in someone’s head. Normally Cobb and his team only invade dreams to steal secrets and they aren’t sure if Inception is really possible.

The Architect: The person who constructs the dream world inside the mind of the Dreamer. In the final dream of Inception, Ariadne (as played by Ellen Page) is the architect.

The Dreamer: The person whose dream you're actually in. When creating a dream within a dream, each level must have a different dreamer. In the final sequence, Yusuf dreams the first level, Arthur dreams the second one, and Eams dreams the third level with the snow fort.

The Subject: The person whose subconcious is actually brought into the dream, usually for the purpose of extracting information from them or on rare occasions in order to plant an idea in their mind. In the final sequence, Fisher Jr. is the subject.

Totem: An object constructed by someone who plans to invade a dream, whose exact weight and composition only they know. This object can be used to help verify whether you’re in the real world, or the dream world. Cobb uses a top which, when spun inside a dream never stops spinning. Ariadne constructs a chess piece, which she plans to use as her totem.

Projection: A person created by the subconcious mind of the subject. Projections are not real. They function like white blood cells and should the subject begin to realize that the dream he's in isn't his, Projections respond violently and attempt to seek out the Dreamer and destroy him.

Now it’s your turn. Think you have better answers? Have questions we haven’t already posed? Post them in the comments section below.

For even more in depth Inception discussion join the analysis in our in-depth Inception Obsession Discussion Forum.