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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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If the whole thing was a dream and Mal was up in "reality" why didn't she give her husband a kick to wake him up? » Improve Q
It could be that Mal was angry at Cobb because he didn't believe in her, so if she woke up she probably was disappointed at him and left him. » Improve A
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A kick only works from the level above the current one: for example, the elevator wakes up the person from the Third Level and the van falling wakes up the person from the Second Level. There was no kick in the real world to wake anyone from the First Level, so that's why they stayed in the First Level near the end of the movie. If dying in Limbo wakes someone up and returns them to the Third Level, then what is the purpose of blowing up the snow fortress in the Third Level if there is already a way to wake someone up from the level below? » Improve Q

Blowing up the snow fortess in the Third Level would wake you up in the Second Level, and since they were about to die in the second level, they were almost instantly redirected to the first level, in which they had to wait until the sedative weakens for them to wake up in reality.
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Why did the team need to go so deep into dreams in the final mission? » Improve Q
The team's purpose was to create an "inception", to plant an idea or thought in a dream that would be accepted by the target subject as one of the subject's own ideas. Only in this way would it successfully embed in that person's belief system, and affect their way of thinking in real life. An idea placed in a "shallow" dream level is more easily detected by the subject as an intrusion, as not their own. By suggesting the idea to the subject (Fischer) at the shallow levels, the team hoped to encourage Fischer's own subconscious projections to feed him the idea instead, and so make it more believable for Fischer. With increased depth, Fischer began to feed himself the idea that they presented. This is also known as the power of suggestion, or hegemony (See Wikipedia's article on cultural hegemony, linked below).» Improve this Answer » Improve A
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How was Saito saved? » Improve Q
Cobb died, went into Limbo, struggled to remember why he was there, was reminded when Saito showed him the spinning top, used the memory it also triggered in Saito to persuade him to join him as a younger man (i.e. return to reality ... or at least to a different dream level).

We never see the gun used, but the presumption is that Saito shot Cobb, then himself. Because both men recognised the unreality of Limbo, they were able to pass out of it without losing their minds. 

There is also the possibility that he wasn't saved, that Cobb and Saito just entered another dream level, and not reality proper. » Improve this Answer
» Improve A
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When the Second Level's gravity was affected by the van's apparent free-fall (and thereby inducing anti-gravity), why weren't the subsequent levels affected by the Second Level's weightlessness? » Improve Q
Like hearing the music more dimly, and Saito's wound being less intense, the effect of gravity "wear off" as you go through levels. They were only suspended in the hotel due to the van being weightless, not due any special thing happening in the hotel. Therefore, the effect of the weightlessness does not pass on seemingly at all. (Although major shocks like the van breaking through the barrier do pass through in the form of an avalanche.) » Improve A
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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).   » Improve A
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At the start of the film a kick is needed in the second dream level, with water rushing through Saito’s palace as he falls in the bath on the first dream level. Why is no kick needed in the first dream level to wake him up to reality? » Improve Q

They are awakened by turning off the machine that makes them have a shared dream. The partner that betrayed them is killed by the mob of people, so he wakes up that way.
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How is a totem used to identify the real world? » Improve Q
Totems are objects unique to their owners in that they carry a particular set of traits that are known only to their owners. Because these traits are known only to the totem's owner and no one else, one can determine whether he/she is in someone else's dream by using the totem as a reference point.

For example, say you were to have a pair of black socks as your totem and only you know that a red dot exists on the heel of the sock for your left foot. If you suspect that you are in someone else's dream, all you need to do is to check your left foot to see if that red dot is in fact there. If it isn't, then you know that you are in another's dream (because the red dot should be there if you are in present reality).
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Why does Ariadne wake herself by falling off the tower in limbo? Wouldn't dropping when the bunker exploded wake her from that, then the elevator, then the van hitting the water? » Improve Q

She is in limbo. She needed to have a kick from that level, and time a fall from there. That is why she jumped off the building when Arthur's music started.
» Improve A
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Finally, why does the first kick not work, with the van hitting the bridge and going over the edge? Surely this should wake Arthur; he can't choose to ignore a kick, can he? » Improve Q
The sedative has not worn off and the machine is not off. » Improve A
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