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Explaining Inception: an FAQ Guide

Guide to the dreams within dreams in the movie Inception.
Spoiler Alert! This guide contains key plot information and you should watch the movie first before reading it.

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What are the "kicks" from different levels in the final mission? » Improve Q
  • Level 2 to 1: Van driving off the bridge. The original plan was to make use of the impact with the barrier, but this impact was "missed" by the dreamers in Level 2. The second kick came when the van hit the water.
  • Level 3 to 2: The explosion under the elevator forces it to rocket upwards, hence simulating gravity. The moment the elevator hits the top the acceleration stops, and the characters are thrown upwards.
  • Level 4 to 3: Exploding the base of the fort should be sufficient to bring dreamers back from Level 4 (though it might be a little overkill!).
  • Level 5 to 4: There is no Level 5, so there are no dreamers to be "kicked" back to Level 4. Ariadne and Fischer falling off the building seems to play no clear role in the dream mechanic (there is no equivalent at Levels 1-3). Cobb and Saito are by now in Limbo, which operates by different rules (you must die to change levels).
    Level 1 to Reality is unknown. The characters will wake up when the dream machine times-out. They must survive several more days in Level 1 before this happens (faking death by drowning helps here, it will calm the militarized projections). Possibly the air hostess administers a kick.
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When the time on the machine timer runs out, people who are dreaming wake up, but if a person is in limbo at that time, would that person still wake up, or is killing yourself only way out of limbo? » Improve Q
The person would wake up. However because time in limbo would be almost infinite, one would experience time that seems forever before the timer runs out, and the brain would "drain out", which may lead to a lost of memory.

I believe you would be in a persistent vegetative state, not asleep, not dreaming, but unable to interact with the world around you, perpetually unfocused on reality.
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What happens when one dies in a dream? » Improve Q
Normally, one would wake up if one dies in dream. However, in the case of the last mission a strong sedative is used which prevents waking upon death. Instead, upon death one enters a state called "limbo", which is usually a state of delirium where the character can no longer tell reality from a dream. If the sedative operates at all levels, this will be the case for all levels. If the sedative only operates on Level 1 - if, for example, it is only administered on the plane, as some have conjectured - then death only leads to limbo on Level 2 (death on all other levels should lead to either a regression to a previous level, or to Level 2).

This may be, but in the movie Fischer dies on level 3 (snow fortress) and goes to limbo. He is not in a coma as I have read elsewhere here...people in a coma have cardiac activity, and defibrillation will not only not pull someone out of a coma but it will stop their heart. Accepting Fischer died, then the sedative had to be working on level 3 since he went to limbo. What is interesting is that the machine is able to send people in a reversible fashion to limbo from the lowest designed level. This explains how Cobb and Mal spent years in limbo, and then came back to reality by "suicide" on the train track in limbo.
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Why was the hotel room from which Cobb saw Mal jump already smashed up? And does the fact that we/he never sees Mal hit the ground imply she was indeed creating a 'kick' that took her up to the real world? » Improve Q
The kick is applied by a person to another person who is sleeping. You cannot kick yourself by falling. She must have killed herself to wake up. 
The hotel room was smashed up so that it does not look like a suicide but Cobb killing her. She wanted to force him to fall too, therefore she staged this so that if he stayed he would be convicted of a crime.
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What are "kicks"? » Improve Q
In general, a kick is anything that would jolt you from a sleeping state to a waking state. We are shown several types of kicks. Cobb is dunked in water from his Level 2 dream in the first dream shown in the movie. The sensation of falling is induced in several of the dream states during the heist.

As demonstrated in the warehouse during training, a kick is used to wake the dreamer from the next level of dreaming, it basically takes you "up" a step. The sedative used to allow for dreams within dreams leaves the inner ear unsedated (the part that detects motion), and so a "kick" - a falling sensation - will be felt by the dreamer in the dream. As the final mission involves dreams at many levels, a kick must be administered at each level to rouse the dreamers from the next level in the sequence. 
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Why did Arthur know about the crash on the bridge (lvl1)? He was in lvl2 and did not know the route of the car. » Improve Q
Not only Arthur, but everyone else was also aware of the crash since that was the initial plan. Yusuf started the music before driving the van into the railing. So, everyone knew that the crash was coming soon. » Improve A
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What happened to the chinese boy in the train? » Improve Q
It is a Japanese boy. He was only hired for that specific job and went his own way after it; The same way the airline stewardess was hired  to help them set up for the Fischer mission.
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If anyone in a dream can alter the dream world (regardless of who the dreamer is), why did Cobb need to know if Ardiane has built a shortcut to the snow fortress in level 3? He or anyone else in the dream could easily have created a shortcut right on the spot. (I know that altering the dream causes the subconcious agents to attack, but the team is already fighting with Fischer's subconcious agents. So, it wouldn't change anything) » Improve Q
As previously explained and displayed by Cobb, making changes in a dream world will make its inhabitants increasingly hostile to the alien entities - in this case, the team. If they were to create a new passageway on the spot, the inhabitants would likely become even more aggressive and more difficult to defeat, and so the action would simply compromise the mission further. Also if Cobb altered the 'Maze' as it were, then it is possible that Mal could then appear and try to attack them, as he would then know the structure. » Improve A
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If anyone in a dream can alter the dream world (regardless of who the dreamer is), why did Cobb need to know if Ardiane has built a shortcut to the snow fortress in level 3? He or anyone else in the dream could easily have created a shortcut right on the spot. (I know that altering the dream causes the subconcious agents to attack, but the team is already fighting with Fischer's subconcious agents. So, it wouldn't change anything) » Improve Q
Why would you want to alter the design if the architect had already created one beforehand (which she did). It seems a little unnecessary to piss off the projections even more if what you need is already available?  » Improve A
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Why was music played through headphones to the dreamer? » Improve Q
The headphone is always placed on the dreamer of the following level and is a cue that a kick is about to take place, urging them to start the kick process for the dream of the next level.

The music will be incorporated by the dreamer into their dream, and all those in that dream will hear it. This acts as a signal to prepare for a kick. It is an instance of the more general phenomenon of something experienced by a dreamer entering the dream in some form - for example, the water of the bath enters Cobb's dream, the champagne drunk by Yusuf on the airplane enters his dream as rain, drowning in the van enters Cobb's limbo dream as the experience of being washed ashore choking, etc
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