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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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Did Cobb's totem topple at the end of the film? » Improve Q

It seems clear that the ending is left open deliberately, mean to keep the discussion going.
Some claim that the sound of it falling can be heard after the scene cut to black, but those confirmations are few and far between.
As a side note, many have argued that what is really relevant is not if it topples or not, but that Cobb's doesn't care any more.

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In the first level, Cobb has mentioned about limbo, and Arthur seems to have implied that Cobb has been into a limbo before. Has Cobb really been in a limbo before? When was it? » Improve Q
Yes, he has. This happened when Cobb and Mal were experimenting with dream sharing in multiple levels. This is how Cobb and his wife's dreamland was built in the Limbo that is falling apart in the end of the film.

Alternative: The falling apart city at the end of the film is not Limbo, but a 4th dream level (see previous answers). It is built using Cobb's memories of the city he built with his wife. If it is Limbo, there's a question about how Saito can be much older than Cobb in the final Limbo scene, as Cobb would have entered "Limbo" earlier than Saito.

Far Out Alternative: Cobb and Mal never went to Limbo, they just lost track of reality while exploring dream levels. They never seem to have experienced delirium, which is apparently a Limbo phenomena. Rather, they created their own dreamworld, and settled down, tried to forget etc. ... of course, if, by definition, forgetting what is real = entering Limbo, then they did. 
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How are the plans for the dream world which are designed by the architect actually inserted into the dreamer's dream? Is the device used to administer the sedative actually linking the dreamers in some way? » Improve Q
The architect explains the design in depth to the dreamer (We see Ariadne explaining it to Yusuf).  However the dreamer is supposed to be the only one who knows the layout so that the others don't give information to their subconscious, if they happen to bring them with them.

We also see a scene in the preparation for the heist where the team is standing in the streets of level one and you can see the buildings being rolled out and Yusuf watching it happen.  It is clear that the dreamer simply lays out the dream after he is taught the design.
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Even after Cobb made Robert Fischer believe in him in the hotel and Fischer has trusted them in the snow level why they were still fighting with the guys who were protecting the building(snow fortress)? Weren't they the guards who protect the Fischer's mind? » Improve Q
The guards are projections from Fischer's subconcious which came from previouse trainings done by Fischer to protect his mind from extractors such as Cobb.  They act as auto-defence machinisms so they are not really controlled by Fischer, they simply serve to protect intrusion.

This can be explained by the fact that concious are controlled or thought out by people where subconcious are automatic, like 'reflex'.

In another sense, the guards from Fischer's subconcious are the ones who can identify true invaders better than FIscher's concious who can be manipulated.

(The snow fortress is not, as some believe, Fischer's godfather's dream.  This is clearly stated in the hotel room before they enter the snow fortress level.)
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Why Saito said he saw the spinning totem before in a nearly forgotten dream? » Improve Q
Because Saito saw the totem on the bathroom floor after Cobb dropped it. (Right after he tried the improved sedative). Saito clearly has a very good memory, he sees it for a few seconds, then remembers it 50 or so years after ... » Improve A
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Doesn't Cobb's lack of wedding ring prove that he wasn't dreaming in the end? He is only seen wearing it when he's in a dream, never in reality. » Improve Q
This is simply a theory and is difficult to totally confirm as Cobb's left hand is often hidden from the camera during the movie. It is possible it is true and that it is reality, however it may also be a dream because Cobb has made his peace that Mal is dead in the dream world too.

During the "reality" scene at the end we never in fact see Cobb's left hand, so even if the theory were true it wouldn't tell us if he was dreaming at the end or not. The director has taken care to remove all obvious clues, he wants us to keep guessing.

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How could Cobb and Ariadne find Fischer in level 4 if Fischer was killed in the previous level? Shouldn't Cobb have found him in the limbo where he found Saito? » Improve Q

There is no "level 4" because Ariadne didn't construct one when they were planning the inception. When Fischer dies, he goes to Limbo, which is where Mal is. Mal finds Fischer because she knows Cobb is looking for Fischer and she wants Cobb to come to her. Cobb and Ariadne are able to find Mal because Cobb knows where she will be. After Mal and Fischer "kick" back to level 3, Cobb stays in Limbo to find Saito.

Or Fischer did not die immediately.  He was fading and the team had time to enter sleep with him.  A world was not contructed for this level so they entered Cobb's premade world.  The risk would be that Mal is there.  But this is better than Ariadne's world which isn't even made or Fischer's world which he doesn't know he supposed to be making.  The plus is that by going into a premade world, you know your way around.  Another "plus" of going into Cobb's world is that it's predictable that Mal would be there and abduct Fischer.

It seems that Eames could only shock Fischer into waking up if the team found him in the lower level and made sure he was conscious (Adriadne asks if he's ok and he responds).  Otherwise Eames would have started shocking him a while ago to no avail.

When Fischer is shocked back to life and able to go to the chamber, why is he not suffering from a gunshot wound?  It seems that these dreamworld wounds (they aren't real afterall) are erased if you pass out and come back.  Therefore, Saito would have recovered from his wound too if once in the hotel world Yusef (in the rain world) would have shocked him.  They probably did not do this because his wound was not as reletively serious as Fischer's and he had time to see the mission through.  Sure he could have gone to the hotel world, been shocked back to the rain world and returned to the hotel world, but as we know, if he would have spent one minute in the rain world then he would've missed 20 hotel minutes.  And they were in quite a rush.

Speaking of Saito, eventually he succombed to his wound while in deep sedation therefore he went to limbo.  Cobb eventually died too (his drowning is shown not really his succombing to the knife wound) so he makes it to limbo.  As we know, you don't need kicks to get out of limbo.  The instant trip from limbo to the real world is death.

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Didn't Cobb's totem fall earlier in the film? If it did, how would it be possible for Cobb to be dreaming the whole time as implied by the spinning top in the end? » Improve Q

It was never Cobb's totem: he took (stole) it from his wife, placed it spinning in a safe. He is dreaming through the entire movie, in his dream, it is his totem but not in reality.

Another possibility is that if he is in his own dream, he would know about the totem and it would be able to fall over. Totems only work in other people's dreams

Or this is a huge hole in the theory that it is all a dream.
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If you can simply get out of limbo by killing yourself, why did Cobb insist on the first dream level that Saito mustn't die? Wouldn't it have been easier to just tell Saito to kill himself when he gets into limbo? » Improve Q

I wondered about this too; why didn't Saito just commit suicide when he went into limbo? But I think that when a person goes into limbo on their own, they don't know they're in limbo. Cobb can't remember why he is there either, but once they meet and speak they begin to realise that they know each other from before. Cobb manages to realise they are in limbo and tells Saito to come back.  On the first level, Cobb wasn't in Limbo.  He still knew the reality.

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When Ariadne first entered Cobb's dream, she was attacked by Cobb's subconscious projections as she changed the surroundings. Then how could Mal and Cobb possibly create an entire city without one being attacked by the other's subconscious projections? Also, why is it that it seems as though there are no subconscious projections at all whatsoever in mal and cobb's dreams? » Improve Q
In the upper layers of their shared dreams, they might have been attacked by each other's subconscious projections. However, in the Limbo space, such projections don't normally appear as it is a shared dreamspace, instead of one person's dream. However, Cobb's projection of Mal was so ingrained into his psyche that it haunted him inside any person's mind, including the raw mental space of Limbo. » Improve A
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