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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 can't the top fall in another person's dream? Wouldn't the expected behavior be for the top to actually fall rather than keep spinning? » Improve Q
Because that's how the totem works - it has a special property that only applies when the owner is in someone else's dream.  The top, then, is MEANT to continuously spin when its owner is in someone else's dream. The whole point of having a totem is having something on your person that is unique to you, in that only YOU know how it's supposed to act under various circumstances.  The whole concept of a totem only works in someone else's dream. If YOU are dreaming and don't realize it, you think your dream is reality and thus expect the top to fall - as it would in reality.

I guess this also implies that on some level, your subconscious knows whether or not you are in a dream, but because you can't control your subconscious you need a way to access it indirectly.  This is what the totem does. 

Alternative Answer:

 I'll have to watch again to confirm the exact quote and which scene it takes place in.  However, it may be the scene when Ariadne is working on her chess piece totem.  She says something to the effect of "It's a good way to keep track of reality."  If we take that statement literally, it implies that the totem in fact does more than simply confirm if you are in someone else's dream.

CONFIRMED:   While making her chess piece totem, discussing it with Cobb,  Ariadne says:  "An elegant solution for keeping track of reality."

This does not prove anything in-an-of-itself, of course,  and it could just be a small inconsistency in the script, but it could also suggest that the totem does more than simply confirm if you are in someone else's dream.
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Taking into account the fact that Cobb says that memories are the only way he can dream anymore, as well as the fact that Cobb and Ariadne know that they are in "Limbo" (as opposed to when Cobb is thrown back to rescue Saito, when he doesn't immediately realize he is in Limbo), how does the theory that the fourth level dream is in fact Cobb's memory of Limbo hold up? » Improve Q
It holds up very well indeed - the entire notion that Cobb and Ariadne enter limbo to save Fischer could well be a complete misdirection. The key evidence that they are simply entering a deeper level dream is the fact that Cobb and Ariadne hook themselves up to the machine to get there - they do not shoot themselves. If this is the case, them it must be Cobb who is creating the memory of his (crumbling) limbo, although this does not mean that Cobb is necessarily hosting the dream. It may be, in fact, they they are entering a kind of 'unplanned' dream of Fischer's (who passed out as a result of Mal wounding him). Cobb then fills that dream with his own memories. » Improve A
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How does Ariadne's totem work? If Cobb's worked by never falling over, then how does Ariadne's totem work? What would she do with it to show that she was or wasn't in a dream? » Improve Q

She knows the properties of her chess piece totem...the weight, the way it falls, the sound it makes when it hits the table. Any variation of these expected properties would make her suspect she was actually in a dream rather than in reality.

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The totem Cobb holds was Mal's. What did he use as his original totem? » Improve Q
The first use of the totem is credited to Mal. He choses to use the spinner as the first totem after her death to stop him from having a similar fate to Mal.  In other words he may not have used one at all before Mal died. » Improve A
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Why are only Fischer's projections in the dreams, why aren't there the projections of the other characters? » Improve Q
Because everyone else knows that they are dreaming/in someone's dream. Fischer (the character that Cillian portrays) never knows about it, so he is the only one whose subconscious fully kicks in and fills the dream world he is in with other people.

They "consciously know" that they are about to dream/enter a dream, so they can control their subconscious to a degree to not let it run wild on them and fill the dream with everything that they can dream.

Fischer of course doesn't know he is dreaming, so his subconscious simply runs wild (i.e. is a normal dream) and he therefore dreams the other beings into existence there. Personally, I think the entire movie is flawed, because if he can be trained to protect his thoughts by having the protectors pop up into his subconsious without him even trying, why make these protectors human? In a dream, it could really be anything..... dragons would have made everything a whole lot harder for Cobb and his team to ever try and place the inception on him.
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If Cobb re-enters Limbo (to find Saito) by drowning in the water in the 1st level, why did we never see him wake up in the water? He must have jumped off Mal's apartment in Limbo, only to die and enter part 1 again (he already got the kick in part 2 and 3), but we never saw him wake up in the water. » Improve Q
Dying in limbo takes you back to reality, period, regardless of how many levels you'd gone through to get there. It is not true that he "must" have jumped off the apartment in Limbo - he could have died from blood loss due to Mal stabbing him.

Alternative Answer

Dying in limbo may not always bring you back to reality. Ariadne and Fischer died in limbo, but only got one level up (regardless of the method of how they had left that level earlier, i.e. Fischer by dying, Ariadne by dreaming). The reason why Cobb and Saito went straight from limbo to reality could be that there were no more dream levels before reality (as all dreamers at the respective levels had already woken up).
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Why was Saito's subconscious savage while Nash was the dreamer? » Improve Q
Saito's militarized subconscious attacked Cobb only after seeing the Deception in level 2..... Unlike Fischer but that's dismissive... But in Level 1 they were all primitive, rioting during the attack on Nash.... Does anyone know.. He doesn't seem like a savage being..

.... Expanding on this answer, the projections most likely have to do with the location/setting of the dream.  For example, Fischer's projections changed according to the setting.  In Level 2 of the extraction of Saito's mind (in the beginning), the projections are very different and more refined because he is in a more refined place.
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Why did Cobb's projections hold him back as Mal came forward and stabbed Ariadne during Ariadne's Paris bridge dream? » Improve Q
Probably so he couldn't stop Mal.

I think this is a reflection of Cobb's ambivalence about Mal. On one hand he wants to be free of guilt and back with their kids, on the other hand he is holding on to beautiful memories and cannot let go. Subconciously he sees Ariadne as a threat to the status quo, his mind's unhealthy attachment to the tortured past Mal is a part of.
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How does Mal actually die in reality, not in the dream state? » Improve Q
She kills herself by jumping off the window ledge as she believes the real world is still a dream world (as Cobb has indirectly caused her to believe that the world around her isn't real). She commits suicide but incriminates Cobb to "free him from the guilt of leaving their children" who she believes are just projections, as she thinks that their "real children" are waiting for them in the "real world." » Improve A
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Will you still wake up if you kill yourself in limbo if you're sleeping under a sedative? » Improve Q
Yes, however it appears for those that rode the kicks up they ended up on the first dream level until the sedative wore off. Presumably this would have happened to Cobb and Mr. Saito as well when they killed themselves in limbo. If the sedative had already worn off then they would most likely return to reality immediately. They would be easy to awaken if not "lost" in limbo, and the dream levels would not be able to be supported. Early in the movie the comment is made that three dream levels is very unstable without the sedative. However if they do not decide to leave limbo, I believe they would be in a sort of persistent vegetative state in reality. » Improve A
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