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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 one dies in limbo, one would wake up in reality. But after Ariadne and Fischer jumped off the building and left Cobb behind, they woke up in the previous level, not in reality. Why? » Improve Q
There's a few possible answers: 

(1) It's not actually limbo, but a 4th level of the dream as dreamed by Cobb and perceived as limbo (although this is highly unlikely if Fischer is dead in the 3rd level, and therefore wouldn't be anywhere but Limbo ... though he might just be unconscious).

(2) Neither Fischer nor Adriane actually die in limbo: they both are given a kick.  It's the sensation of falling from a great height that causes them to wake up in the 3rd level, not the sudden stop at the end.

(3) If you die in limbo you don't immediately wake up: you return to the level you 'died' on (and in Adriane's case, not being dead in level 3, it's the kick of 'dying' or 'falling' on the lowest possible level that pushes her up only one level).  (For this to be the case, then both Cobb and Saito would have returned to the first level of the dream before waking up, although they could probably wake in their entirety because at that point the sedative is no longer in effect).

(4) You only jump up one level from Limbo. Limbo is deep down, so Cobb and Mal did not returned to reality after the train crash, but rather they woke up in another dream level. Mal was right!

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What's the deal with Mal "locking something away, something deep inside"? Why would hiding the totem cause her to get lost; and why would Cobb finding and making it spin make any difference? » Improve Q

Mal locked away her totem, aka her way of making sure she's not in a
dream. Symbolically, she locked away her ability to verify reality.
She accepted limbo as her new reality.

When Cobb found the safe, found her totem, and set it to spin, it must
do so eternally because that's the nature of Mal's totem in dreamspace.
Symbolically he planted the idea that the world is not real, since her
totem is always spinning. Should Mal open the safe, it will be clear to her that the totem must be spinning for eternity, and she will remember what this means. Unfortunately, doing so incepted the idea
that no world is 'real'.

Unfortunately, it should also be clear to her that someone else must have set the totem spinning, so the "idea" cannot be her own - someone else has given it to her. This seems like another paradox: the inception cannot succeed if she does not think it came from herself, but she will also, by her own lights, have to believe that her world is not real - that's what the totem tells her. So she both has to believe the idea, and she can't accept it as her own. The story we are told about successful inceptions seems false.

A further paradox: how can the idea that a world isn't real, produced by the totem when she still accepts its verdicts as true, be sustained when she no longer accepts the totem's verdicts as true? She no longer accepts the totem's verdicts when Cobb tries to use the totem in reality to convince her that reality is really real. She no longer believes it is an accurate indicator. But if her distrust of the world around her is fundamentally based on the evidence of the totem, then her rejection of the totem undermines the source of that very distrust. She must be really mad!

But in another vein, it's the difference between a visual proof that another person tries to give you, when "deep inside" you just don't feel like their answer is correct regardless of what proof is offered. Like with Morpheus describing a discontent with the world that is like a "splinter in the mind," no matter what "proof" Dom tries to give Mal, even proof she would have accepted in the past, the idea that her "world is not real" is a permanent top spinning inside her mind, and it is so firmly rooted that it comes to dominate everything about her.

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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.

Alternative 3 (for "Film is Cobb's dream" theory): Saito assumes the role of his older self to make Cobb realise he's dreaming after confronting Mal for the last time. This provides some  final form of inception on Cobb and makes him want to come back to reality.
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What is the significance of the pinwheel thingy that appeared in the safe with old man Fischer's will? Is it just a sentimental symbol of some (unexplained) aspect of Fischer's childhood that adds emotional impact to the inception? » Improve Q
For Fischer, finding that pinwheel in the safe is the proof that he mattered to his father. The actions and decisions that proceed from knowing that he was loved, valued, and accepted will differ from those that might be made by a bitter man who feels like a disappointment to his father.
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Why is Mal jumping from a window right opposite from where Cobb is? And when Cobb tells her to "come inside" he actually moves his hand, twice, like he wants her to come towards him, not back in the room behind her. » Improve Q

It could be that the 'reality' in which Mal jumped was actually a dream.

Or it could be that Mal actually set it up that way. (i.e. rented the room she jumped from as well as the one he enters, as part of her plot - so he couldn't save her). [in some hotels there are matching rooms facing each other in different buildings].

It could also just be artistic license. Remember Cobb is describing what happened - this is his memory of it. He would gesture inwards, that's his memory of his physical action - perhaps they were on the same ledge, but in his memory he feels further away from her - more impotent to stop what's about to happen. The room beyond her looks like a mirror image of the room he is in...

I think many people are forgetting one of the simpliest facts that Cobbs says at the begining of the film, that is, dreams always have things or facts that are not logical and we only realize that when we wake up. Taking this into account all the movie must have been a dream because it does not make sense that she is in another building window in front of the room they rented and Coobs instead of telling her to get back in the room he tries to convince her to get into the room he is in, which doe not make sense because it is a dream...

Also and very important the flight everybody takes to do everything goes to Australia at the begining of the film and suddenly at the end of the film the flight is going to Los Angeles... it does not make sense either, just like  dream

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If a dream is populated by the subconscious projections of the dreamer, and they attack other intruders (e.g. Cobb's projections attacking Ariadne when she was first introduced to dream sharing), then why do Fischer's projections populate Yusuf's dream (first level), Arthur's dream (second level), and Earnes' dream (third level)? » Improve Q
The distinction between the "dreamer" and the "subject" is a little confusing since both people are in fact asleep, in the dream and dreaming. However, it is clear that the people in the dream are projections of the subject, not the dreamer.

In the second trip into the "dream workshop" Ariadne asks Cobb: "Who are the people?"

COBB: Projections of my subconscious.


COBB: Remember, you are the dreamer. You build this world. I am the subject. My mind populates it.

Later, after "messing with the physics" and changing the dream radically, Ariadne asks Cobb: "Why are they all [the projections] looking at me?

COBB: Because my subconscious feels that someone else is creating this world. The more you change things, the quicker the projections start to converge on you.

ARIADNE: Converge?

COBB: They sense the foreign nature of the dreamer. They attack like white blood cells attacking an infection

ARIADNE: They are going to attack us?

COBB: No. Just you.

I'll have to watch again, but I think that Fischer is always the subject in the dreams of others, never the dreamer (although possibly it his his dream when he is in the 4th Level (or Limbo) with Mal, Cobb and Ariadne)  In any event, it is explained in first level that his projections are especially aggressive and lethal because his subconscious has been specially trained by security experts to protect him from extractions. If Fischer is always the subject, naturally, it is his projections that are attacking.
There may be some plot inconsistencies to this business of projections, dreamers and subjects. Certainly the principle that the dreamer builds the world and the subject populates it is at best arbitrary, but it is  one of the rules we are required to accept for the movie to work. However, the great thing aobut this film is that it WORKS even when imperfect.

There is certainly no plot mistake. Christopher Nolan has worked 10 years on the story and the actors say in interviews that there is absolutely no plot holes. 
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Why did Robert Fischer not recognize the people on plane after he woke up? » Improve Q
It is difficult to remember the details of our dreams.  He may have thought he recognized their faces, but he probably couldn't figure out where he had seen them before.

In the airport scene at the end, as Cobb walks past Fischer, you can see an expression on his face that seems to show slight recognition.  Cobb then gives him an odd look that seems to say, "Does he remember?"
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The wedding ring is totem of Cobb? i have this idea because it only appeared when Cobb was dreaming but not in reality. And actually, the spinning top belonged to his wife ( is it right?), and Cobb said totem could not be touched by others because if others touch it, then the function of totem would be lost ( that's why Ariadne refused letting Cobb to touch her own totem) , so i think the spinning top was kept by Cobb just because he wanted something belonging to his wife could be with him , the real totem of him was the ring, Will there be any possiblity? » Improve Q
I highly doubt so. By saying that Cobb kept the totem for memory might be true. But if that is the case, he would just keep it and not use it. He would rather use his own totem. Furthermore, a totem was used to confirm reality and Cobb only realised the importance of knowing if you are in a dream or not only after Mal's death, therefore he most likely does not have a totem before that.

In Addition: No. Many believe that the wedding ring is Cobb's totem because it appears on the 'dream' scenes (most notably in the begining/ending when he is in Limbo with old Saito) BUT if you look at the scenes where Mal commits suicide you can see Cobb's ing in ALL of them. This is a potential 'reality' scene, a past 'reality' so, as expained above Cobb didn't have a totem before Mal's suicide.

Addition: It makes sense for Cobb to have the wedding ring on in the suicide scene. It's reality, it happened, and they were married. He could have made the ring his totem after her death.
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In Level 3 (Snow Fortress), when Fischer was at his father's death bed, was Fischer's father really disappointed that Fischer TRIED to be like his father? Or was it only an idea planted by the Inception team? » Improve Q
It's unknown what Fischer's father actually wanted for his son. The father we see in the 3rd level is a projection from Fischer's subconscious.

There are two ways to explain this:

1.) The interaction between father and son was mostly/entirely contrived by the team.

2.) What happens is what Fischer wants to happen. Cobb says earlier in the movie that we all seek catharsis. In level one they plant the idea that the father wanted to break up the company. It's possible that Fischer seeks catharsis, and latches onto the idea that his father wants to break up the company. So what we see is what Fischer wants the truth to be.

A combination of the two is much more elegant, though: The team (very subtly) pushes Fischer in the right direction, then his subconscious fills in the rest.

The wish fulfillment reading could also mirror what happens to Cobb at the end. He too is dreaming, and sees what he wants to see.


Though in Level 3 Fischer's father is a projection of Fischer's subconscious, Eames is the dreamer and Ariadne remains the Architect, so they both have the power to put any object in the safe. The fact that Fischer finds the windmill that Eames saw in the photograph in Fischer's wallet earlier in he first level supports this thesis. Of course, Eames is also the forger, so he could technically impersonate the father, but we assume he is too busy defending the fortress. The father's speech is thus a product of Fischer's subconscious desires.

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After trying out the sedative in Yusuf's basement, Cobb washes his face. He then starts spinning his spinner, which falls down. Before he gets to retry, Saito interrupts him. Does this mean that from that point on we don't know, whether it's a dream or not? » Improve Q
Having watched Inception twice, I think this is the point at which you can question whether or not what follows is a dream.  On their visit to Yusuf, The Chemist, he challenges Cobb upstairs as to whether or not he wants to see. Cobb takes the compound, and descends to the roomful of dreamers. 

He has a short dream about he and Mal ending their time in Limbo and jerks awake, stumbles to the sink and drops the totem in front of Saito.  After this point, we only see the totem  spinning twice - once before Saito as an old man, when Cobb would certainly expect the totem to continue, and the final ambiguous scene where we're not sure.

So, if Cobb began to dream in Mombasa in Yusuf's dream room, and the totem fumble was part of the dream, everything after that could have been multi-layered dreaming, and with the 20x effect of the sedative, his travel through the layers could have left him with infinity in his life with his children at the end of the film .... IF it was all a dream.

Alternative Answer

The totem fumble was clearly an intentional plot element. However, was it a misdirection or an event that actually advances the plot? It is a convincing argument that since the fumbled totem prevents us (and Cobb) from confirming reality, we cannot be sure of anything beyond that scene. However, ultimately, that doesn't feel very satisfying to me, and if you were to edit out the fumble, the continuity and significance of the movie is not effected one way or the other.  Nothing is revealed, nothing is obscured.  Noting changes.  The plot and the mystery remains intact.
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