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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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Why couldn't Cobb just spin the totem for Mal to convince her she's in reality? » Improve Q
At one point we see (In Cobb's memories) Mal playing with the top. It can be assumed that she spun the top of her own volition. It's just that the idea that her world wasn't real had so taken over her thoughts that she wouldn't even believe what she had always known to be truth before. That is how resilient and parasitic an idea is.

In addition, totems can only be used to prove that one is not in someone else's dream. If Mal's totem stopped spinning this could only prove to Mal that she's not in someone else's dream but she could very well be in her own dream.

Interesting point: Cobb planted the (spinning) totem in Mal's safe, and in so doing he implanted the idea in Mal that her world was not real. Presumably, Mal must have opened the safe at some future point, and saw it still spinning by itself (the totem had to leave the safe again for Cobb to use it as his own). This is a little paradoxical. Mal must have believed in the totem if, on opening the safe, she was to be persuaded that her world was unreal. But once persuaded, she apparently no longer believed in the totem - it's toppling didn't convince her of the reality of reality. But if she didn't believe in the totem any more, why is she still persuaded by the unreality argument? The totem had planted the idea in the first place! Paradox!   SO confusing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11
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Was the dream of the crumbling city Limbo? Or was it just a Level 4 dream? » Improve Q
Both.

To Fischer, it was a limbo because he was shot and evidently taken hostage by Mal into that world, in order to lure Cobb in. To Cobb and Ariadne, although it is the same dream space, you can take it as a level 4 dream because they used machine to go through. In addition, when Aridane and Fischer left the dream via death and they did not end up in "limbo". This suggested they are in fact already in limbo and death was the way out. Cobb, on the other hand, had to be "kicked" from the dream via explosion at the snow fort. Therefore the crumbling city was both a limbo and a level 4 dream.

Alternative Answer

It is indeed Limbo.  We gather this because it is the same world that Cobb and Mal spent 50 years in previously.  Cobb not only describes how he and Mal built the world, but remembers the world distinctly.
However many consider it to be a fourth level of the dream world.  I think this is because we once again see Cobb wash up on the shore of Limbo when he meets Saito. However I believe that because Cobb initially entered Limbo on his own volition when he died in either Limbo (from Mal's stab) or level 1 (by drowning) he re-entered Limbo in an area created by Saito to live in.
(Addition to the original answer:) I support the notion that this is Limbo even though Cobb and Ariadne enter it through the machine. I don't recall anyone saying that you have to die to enter Limbo, i.e. dying in a dream to be the only way to get there. Mal and Cobb previously probably also entered it by using the dream machine.
Another argument against this being Limbo is that Ariadne and Fischer go up to the next dream level when they die (by falling off the building). This however may be the normal way of leaving Limbo; waking up directly into reality (like Cobb and Saito did) probably only happens if the other dream levels do not exist anymore as the dreamers have woken up already.


Alternative alternative answer.

Fischer didn't die, he was left in a coma-like state. A defibrillator is used for life-threatening conditions, not for dead patients (see Wikipedia link below). He was just unconscious, i.e. dreaming. Therefore, he didn't go to Limbo, but descended to another dream level: Level 4. Cobb and Ariadne join Fischer in his dream using the dream machine - you can tell Fischer is doing the dreaming, and all three are connected, by the lightning Ariadne sees in the sky of Level 4: this comes from the defibrillator shocks experienced by Fischer, which is transmitted in lightning form into his dream, much like the music or water is transmitted. OR Cobbs is doing the dreaming, and the shock is transmitted to his Level 3 body along the wires - they're all connected, remember. This would let Cobbs design and create the "Limbo" landscape.

Ariadne and Fischer leave Level 4 because there is a kick in the level above, just like all the other non-Limbo levels. Falling off the building is a redundant plot device. In any case, it would be the falling sensation that provides the kick, and not the impact (i.e. they didn't need to kill themselves, it was a regular dream level). But there's no Level 5, and no one sleeping on Level 4, so why the kicks on Level 4? Maybe they need to die after all, maybe they are in Limbo! Oh dear. Or maybe it's just inconsistent.

It is not Limbo just because it looks like the Limbo Cobb left. Cobb could be using his memories of Limbo to create an imperfect replica, with (what we are explicitly told is) an imperfect replica of Mal inside.

Most likely Cobb drowns in the van on Level 1 because he does not / cannot heed the kicks and wake up (why the other team members don't try harder to release him is a mystery!). Satio also dies on Level 1, the level where the wound was inflicted, even if we see him collapse on Level 3. Satio dies before Cobb, so he enters Limbo earlier, which explains his old age when Cobb is finally washed up on the shores of Limbo. If Level 4 is indeed Limbo, then Cobb would have entered it earlier than Satio, and would be the older man. He is not.

And remember, Limbo involves delirium, loss of grip on reality etc. Cobb might avoid some of this (he eventually avoided it with Mal the first time), but Ariadne? Fischer? Wouldn't they be totally disorientated if this was Limbo proper? Like Cobb washed up on the beach?

Interestingly, if Limbo is deep down, then you can't just go from Reality to Limbo, so Cobb and Mal would have gone up just one dream level after the train crash. Mal was right, they never woke up. Perhaps they never could, Limbo was the best they could ever hope for.
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Why did Mal seem surprised when she learned that Cobb performed an inception on her? » Improve Q
Mal is simply a projection of Cobb's own subconscious.  The fact that she didn't seem to know that Cobb planted the seed of the idea in her mind tells me that Cobb hadn't ever admitted to himself what he had done.  He was aware that Inception was possible, as he said as much when Saito first proposed it.  This scene shows Cobb's own catharsis, he was finally able to admit what he had done and let go of his guilt. » Improve A
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Why was Mal, a projection of Cobb, always trying to sabotage him? » Improve Q
It is likely due to Cobb's guilty feelings over her death. He can't escape his guilt, thus it will never leave him alone. It is symbolic of the way that unresolved issues from the past do not allow a person to proceed in the best way they could or should in the present.

Either Cobb was trying to sabotage himself, as a manifestation of self-loathing, guilt etc., or Mal was someone else's projection, a projection trying to protect against Cobb's intrusion into a dream. Who's dream? It must be someone who knows Mal quite well. Mal herself? Was Mal her own projection? Too complicated!

Most likely the first. It is classic film psychology for the female character to be nothing more than a projection of the male character, a 2 dimensional replica, poorly imagined. See Tarkovskiy's Solaris! (linked below).

As a side note, how does Cobb's subconscious (presuming it is his) intrude on other levels where he is not the one creating the dream? Perhaps he is creating the other levels after all. Do none of the other characters have traumatic experiences in their own subconscious, struggling to get out? What happy and well adjusted individuals!
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What happened at the beginning of the film? » Improve Q
The team was on a mission to extract information from Saito by Cobol engineering (A rival of Saito's), Saito recognized the deceit, but played along in order to audition the team. The film started at a dream within a dream, dreamed by Arthur, where Cobb got the document but was stopped by Mal who informed Saito and captured Arthur. Cobb killed Arthur to freed him from Mal's torture, which caused the dream to collapse because Arthur the dreamer was killed and woke up to the first level dream. Saito woke up after getting killed by the falling building. Nash tried to wake Cobb up by performing a kick into the tub. Level 1 dream was dreamed by Nash at Saito's mistress hide out, but Saito discovered that the material on the carpet was wrong thus realized he's still in dream. Time was up and all woke up one after another as the rioting crowd enters the room. The team woke up into reality and escaped before Saito finally woke up moments later to find the team gone from the train cabin.  

Then Nash the architect went to Saito and gave up Arthur and Cobb's location so that Saito would protect him from Cobol, who was looking to kill the team because of their failure.  Saito didn't like Nash's betrayal and offered Cobb an opportunity to kill him.  Cobb refused and Saito left him for Cobol to find.
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How did Cobb go into the limbo to find Saito? » Improve Q

Cobb was already in limbo to retrieve Fischer, so he was already there. But what I don't understand is if Cobb was already in limbo, then why did he end up washing up on the beach in the first scene and the same scene where he is coming back to Saito? (if that makes sense)

As an answer to the unanswered question above, perhaps Cobb, Ariadne, and Fischer were not already in Limbo. They were in a fourth level dream created by Cobb. Since Cobb created this fourth level, he replicated his own Limbo so he would know where to find Mal and Fischer. If this was the case, then Ariadne and Fischer fell off the building creating a kick for themselves when they hit the ground. Cobb stayed with Mal and admitted hit guilt, relieving his sins, until he drowns in level 1. At this point Cobb then actually enters Limbo, that Saito has been creating ever since he died a few minutes before Cobb in the movie (but nearly 60 years in Limbo time). To me, this is the only way the whole level 4 scene and Limbo at the end could have played out.

Or it could be that Cobb and Ariadne were in Limbo (hence all the structures he and Mal had created), but lucidly, because they were using the dream-sharing machine.  Fischer and Saito had entered Limbo by dying, and were not lucid, which is why they needed to be rescued.  Cobb, however, eventually lost his lucidity because he stayed behind (instead of following Ariadne and the kicks back up), and died in Level 1 (by drowning).  He then drifts until washing up on the shores of Saito's subconscious.  Cobb and Saito regain their lucidity only by remembering together that they are not in Reality.

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Why was Saito so much older than Cobb in limbo? » Improve Q
Saito entered limbo earlier than Cobb. Saito entered limbo when he died on level 3, Cobb did not enter until later. As limbo is considered a deeper level, time goes by slowly and even though Cobb entered not too long after Saito on upper level, much time has in fact passed in limbo.

Alternative: Saito died on Level 1, the level where he sustained his fatal wound. The death throws were transmitted through to dream Levels 2 and 3. His dying on Level 3 was just a reflection of his death on Level 1.

Alternative 2:  When you die in Limbo, you wake up (evidenced by Cobb and Mal waking up after being run over by the train).  The fourth dream level is Limbo.  Cobb, Mal, Ariadne, and Fischer were all in Limbo in the climactic scene when the world is crumbling apart.  Satio dies on the third level (the snow level), and consequently enters Limbo also.  But technically, Cobb entered Limbo before Satio since Satio died (on the third level) after Cobb and Ariadne enter Limbo to retrieve Fischer.  However, Cobb later dies on the first level because he drowns in the van.  This death comes well after Satio's death.  And because of the time differences between dream levels, much more time has passed in Limbo than has in the first dream level.  So by the time Cobb dies in the first dream level, enough time has passed in Limbo for Satio to have become an old man.  Thus, when Cobb meets Satio at the end of the film, he is much younger than Satio.

Additionally: when Cobb intentionally goes into Limbo with Ariadne to retrieve Fischer, he is stabbed by Mal.  He does not die in Limbo immediately, however.  Consequently, he is unable to ride the kicks back to reality (like the rest of the crew, other than Satio) because he cannot get out of Limbo without dying.  Ariadne and Fischer are both able to ride the kicks back to reality because they both died in Limbo, meaning they woke up on the third dream level (the snow level) in order to ride the kicks.  Cobbs death by blood loss (because he was stabbed by Mal) was delayed.  If he died in Limbo, it was so delayed that by the time he woke in the third dream level, he immediately died from the building crashing down on him, or by drowning in the van on the first dream level.  So, even if it would have been impossible for Cobb to reenter Limbo while he was already in it, he could have died in Limbo, woken up in the third dream level, then almost immediately died in either the third dream level or the first dream level, thus putting him right back into Limbo.  But this time, he has reentered Limbo well after Satio.  Therefore, it would only make sense that Satio is much older than Cobb in the final scene of the dream sequence, due to the drastic differences in time between the different dream levels.
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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. 


Edit: Cobb didnt die. He was already in limbo along with Ariadne and Fischer. Everything else is correct.

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How did Cobb and Saito end up in the same limbo? Why not each their own? » Improve Q
Because they are all connected to the same dream, they experience the same Limbo with elements from both of their subconscious minds.

Limbo is a shared dreamspace. The beach was a feature of Cobb's previous Limbo experiences, from the "memory elevator" Ariadne sees Mal play with the kids on it, and she sees the train rush past on it. For Cobb it seems a site of trauma. Saito adds his Japanese house to the shoreline.
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Did the kids age at the end of the film? If not, is this proof that Cobb was dreaming all along? » Improve Q
Since we can never see the face of the kids, it is difficult to tell whether they have aged or not. They do seem to have aged, in particular the girl, though it is difficult to tell exactly. They are also wearing subtly different clothes. The girl wears a white shirt under the pink dress at the end, and she has red or pink converse shoes instead of the earlier flip-flops.

Further, in the film credits Cobb's daughter Phillipa is credited to two different actresses, aged 5 and 7. There are also two actors for the boy as well (one of which is Christopher Nolan's son), aged 2 and 4 (see the IMDB entry, linked below). The younger actors seem to have been used for the scene on the beach during Cobb's "memory" dreams, where they also wear completely different clothes.

However, the positioning and actions of the kids at the end mirror the positions from his dreams. It is very unlikely that the kids would be doing exactly the same thing, in the same way, two years later. 

If this is a dream, it is likely a wish fulfillment dream. Cobbs could easily create an imagined two year age gap, subconsciously. I think everyone agrees that the scene has enough similarity to his memories to be based on them, but enough difference to allow Cobb's conscious mind to believe in a two year gap. 

The scene may also be designed by Ariadne, who witnessed the original memory, and could easily create a scene for Cobbs. 

More interestingly, why does Cobbs no longer care about the results of the spinning top? Surely he'll pass that table again, and glance in its direction ...
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