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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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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!
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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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How does Saito know for sure that the mission is accomplished? He went to limbo before he could see Fischer open the safe.
And since Cobb and Saito are the last to wake up on the plane, shouldn't they still be connected to the dream machine when they wake up?
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Cobb rescued him from his worst fear of "dying alone of old age" (not sure if it's a proper quote), so it might be that he no longer cares about the mission and gives Cobb his reward out of pure gratitude.

Alternatively, it is a strong argument if you think that the real mission was to save Cobb instead. Then he is most certain that the mission was a success!

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What will happen if we die in Limbo? will we be back to reality or enter an another level of limbo? And are there any difference between ' being killed' and 'attempting suicide' in Limbo? will the result be the same (both will lead us back to reality/another level of Limbo) » Improve Q
If one dies in limbo, one would wake up in reality. there is no difference between  'being killed and 'attempting suicide' in limbo. In fact, limbo is more than a level, it's a space. Thus, you cannot go deeper. 

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Why/ how does Saito have guards with him in Limbo? » Improve Q
They are projections from his self defense, much like how Fischer's guards appear in the first level dream. » Improve A
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Who designed and populated the dreams of the different dream levels? » Improve Q
DESIGNER

Levels 1-3 are designed by Ariadne, "The Architect".
Level 4 is designed by Cobb, The Extractor, likely based on his memory of limbo (which, in turn, was designed by Mal "The Shade" and Cobb, based on their memory of reality).



POPULATION

Levels 1-3 are populated by Fischer's unconscious (with the occasional intrusion from Cobb's unconsious).
Level 4 is populated by Cobb's unconscious.

OR (alternative explanation of Level 4) Level 4 is unpopulated, except for Cobb's intrusions.

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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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Why is there no zero gravity in the snow level? Zero gravity in the van causes zero gravity in the hotel. Hence zero gravity in the hotel should cause zero gravity in the snow, doesn't it? » Improve Q

Saito's death was prolonged as the levels went down, due to the 1:20 ratio of time expansion per level (with this sedative, compounded at each successive level). So the weightlessness was prolonged on the second (hotel) level. I would also argue it would have made the most sense to have there be some weightlessness, but it should have been diminished at each deeper level. The rate of fall would be one twentieth of that of the level with the falling van (gravity 19/20ths of normal). At the snow level the weightlessness effect would be minimal (399/400ths of normal).
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why did the team stay asleep when the van hit the guardrail (i.e., why did they "miss the kick")? While its possible that they stayed asleep because they were 2 levels down, it seems like Arthur should have woken up » Improve Q
While sedated, it requires a kick from both sides of the dream to wake someone up. Fischer was only woken back up in Level 3 after being kicked off the building in Limbo and Eames using the defibrillator. Same for the rest of the levels. The bombs destroying the hospital is matched by the elevator hitting the top of the shaft in the hotel, which in turn is matched by the van hitting the water, allowing the team to "ride the kicks" up the dream layers. » Improve A
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After the van drove off the bridge, it wouldn't last more than 3 seconds in this level before hitting the water. How could Arthur put the bombs in 1 min? (20 times) I mean the it is definitely more than 1 min in the movie. » Improve Q

From the scene in the movie when Yusef first drives the van off the bridge, the bridge looks about 300 feet tall (roughly the length of a football field, maybe a bit more). Knowing this much, we can use a kinematic equation to find out how much time Arthur really has in his 20 times dilated dream world.

We have acceleration of roughly 10 meters per second squared due to gravity, we have initial vertical velocity to be 0 m/s, we have the height of the bridge (roughly 100 meters), and we're looking for time before impact.

Using the equation d=Vit+(1/2)(a)(t squared) and plugging in the different variables, we get t-squared=20, and t equals to 4.5 roughly. However there's still the matter of 2 things:

1, from the moment the "kick" happens (the back of the van hitting the rail) to when the van is in actual free fall, there is a period of time in between. Let's say it takes 1 second for the van's front wheels to become completely suspended in midair and freefall begins;

2, air resistance is very significant on an object as big as the van. The kinematic equation assumes it to be a vacuum condition and that the gravitational pull is unaffected by drag force, however in the real world the large surface area of the van will induce an immense amount of drag force that decreases the acceleration due to gravity. (The principle behind parachutes) So taking this into consideration it will add at least a second or two to the overall time.

However let's be lenient here and say that there is no drag force. And that from the moment the van hit the rail to the moment it hits the water there is a 5.5 second differential. Which translates to 110 seconds in arthur's world, or roughly 2 minutes, which is plenty time for him to gather everyone together (30 seconds), push them to the elevator which is right outside (30 seconds), get through the top of the elevator, snap the string (20 seconds), float to the bottom, plant the charges, get back inside (30 seconds), and do his little count down.

All this without taken into consideration the large drag force the van experiences.

It's all physics, my friend!

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