Inception: Plot Analysis

This isn’t a review of Inception but a careful outline of the plot. Many complain that the film is confusing to follow (on first viewing anyway) and even that it violates its own rules of the dream world. While I don’t think it’s a fraction as confusing or inconsistent as some critics make it out to be, there are a few points where I could use more closure. Please leave comments if you think any part of this analysis is askew, or if other parts of the plot demand clarity.

I’ll review the film later, but for now simply note that while it’s very good, I don’t agree with Doug Chaplin that it’s Nolan’s best, certainly not as good as The Dark Knight, and perhaps not even Memento though admittedly close. My one problem with Inception is the remarkable lack of character development over two and a half hours. The actors do a fine job with what they’re given, but aside from Leo Di Caprio’s Cobb, we don’t get to know them well. (In stark contrast, The Dark Knight‘s two and a half hour length gave us an intimate look at almost every character.) But that’s an admittedly small complaint, given that the film’s strengths lie elsewhere. And Doug is right about the tempus fugit effect of watching it: it certainly doesn’t feel like a long film at all — almost as if we’re dreaming it ourselves.


The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive (Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cilian Murphy) so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a very deep level, a third-level dream — a dream within a dream within a dream — where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up or falling into limbo escalate dramatically.

The level one traffic dream is dreamed by Yusuf (Dileep Rao) on the airplane (level zero). Saito is shot on this level and starts dying. The team captures Fischer, and Eames (shapechanged as Fischer’s right hand man, Browning) tells him they’ve been torturing him (Browning) to get the combination to his father’s safe, and that his father left an alternate will in the safe allowing him to dissolve the empire if he so chooses. The first seed is planted: that Fischer may not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fischer’s defensive projections zero in on the Inception team, who flee in a van. They are relentlessly chased and shot at in busy traffic. Yusuf stays behind on this level to keep driving the van as the rest of the team go to sleep and enter the level two dream. He will signal down to level two when he’s ready to initiate a kick by driving the van off a bridge.

The level two hotel dream is dreamed by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the van on level one. Saito continues dying on this level from the previous gun wound. Cobb (posing as “Mr. Charles”) convinces Fischer that the Inception team are Fischer’s own defensive projections to help fend of dream invaders, and that Fischer’s actual defensive projections are the enemy invaders; they encounter Fischer’s projection of Browning, whom Fischer accuses of working with the kidnappers and wanting the alternate will for himself. The Browning projection says he can’t just let Fischer destroy the empire by rising to his father’s last taunt — to build something for himself. Fischer’s subconscious is feeding these ideas given by Eames on the first level, so in effect Fischer is by now giving himself the ideas. The second seed is planted: that Fischer can create something for himself. The Inception team succeeds in recruiting Fischer on this level, convincing him that Browning isn’t telling the whole truth, and pretend to use Browning’s subconscious to enter level three and determine his motives (but of course they’re still using Fischer’s subconscious). Arthur stays behind on level two to watch over the rest of the team as they go to sleep in the hotel room and enter the level three dream. He will signal down to level three when he hears Yusuf’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by detonating the charges he planted in the ceiling of the room below, bringing the dreamers through the floor.

The level three snow-fort dream is dreamed by Eames (Tom Hardy) in the hotel room on level two, who then stays behind on level three when Cobb and Ariadne unexpectedly have to enter limbo in order to retrieve Fischer when he is killed by Mal. They hook up to the dreamware and navigate their way to limbo as Cobb had learned how to do long ago with Mal. Eames will signal down to limbo when he hears Arthur’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by planting explosives on the building to make it drop. They are only guessing that limbo might function as a “level four dream” this way in being responsive to kicks. Saito finally dies on this level after Cobb and Ariadne go to limbo.

The limbo level is dreamed by no one, since it is a place of shared consciousness. (On levels one to three, each dreamer’s dream is filled by Fischer’s subconscious.) It contains nothing other than decaying remains of whatever was built by those who had been there before, such as Cobb and Mal. Cobb and Ariadne find Mal, who gives up Fischer only after extracting a promise from Cobb to remain with her in limbo. Ariadne learns from Cobb that one can escape limbo by dying in it (he tells how he and Mal freed themselves from limbo after fifty years by throwing themselves in front of a train), and so she pushes Fischer off a building and then throws herself off likewise, not bothering to wait for the kick from Eames on level three (and they were never quite sure they could be kicked out of limbo as in “regular” level dreams anyway). Cobb remains behind, telling Ariadne that Saito must have died by now and he needs to find him (lest Saito succumb to the lure of limbo and decide to stay there forever, believing it to be reality; Cobb of course needs him to clear him of charges so that he can go home). Ariadne warns him not to lose himself as he did before with Mal.

Back on level three Eames resuscitates Fischer with the defibrillator (after Ariadne frees him from limbo by killing him) who then enters the hospital room and meets his dying father. The third and most critical seed is planted, thus completing the mission: that Fischer Sr. never wanted his son to be like him. Note that Saito cannot be resuscitated the same way since he has been dying on all three levels of the dream, unlike the case of Fischer, whose bodies remain intact on levels one and two; and even if Saito could be resuscitated this way, he is still lost below in limbo. He becomes trapped there, believing it to be reality (like Mal did). Cobb also loses himself in limbo, until he eventually finds a very aged Saito and kills/liberates him.

So when the mission is completed on level three (Fischer meeting his dying father), the kick from level two (the elevator falling down the shaft) snaps Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level three dream and they wake up on level two. Then the kick from level one (the van hitting the water) snaps Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level two dream and they wake up on level one. Finally, after a few days of milling about on level one, Arthur, Eames (still shapechanged as Browning on this level), Ariadne, and Fischer get “kicked” up to reality when the sedation wears off on the plane. Cobb and Saito wake up too, but they had to wait many years since they were stranded down in limbo.

Note: The first kick on level one — the van falling off the bridge — was missed, as the mission was still unfulfilled and no kicks from levels three or two had taken place yet. The team would be given a second chance when the van hit the water, but because the level one dreamers were now in freefall, the level two dreamers became suspended likewise, thereby requiring Arthur to come up with a new and creative kick for zero-g environment (the elevator falling down the shaft). (The van’s freefall didn’t effect the gravity of the level three dream, only the level immediately below.)

Note: It appears that kicks can be resisted. (1) When the the first kick on level one is missed (the van falling off the bridge), it at least should have woken up Arthur, since he was awake (and not dreaming like the others) on level two. (2) Similarly, the kick on level three (the fort crumbling and falling) should have woken up Cobb from limbo (assuming that one can get kicked out of limbo like this, which the team is unsure of), but didn’t. Obviously Arthur needed more time on level two to initiate a kick there, and Cobb needed to find Saito in limbo. The implication is that (trained dream invaders?) can resist kicks.

Regarding time: We are told that ten hours of real time (on the airplane) translates into seven days in a level one dream, six months in a level two dream, and ten years in a level three dream (and God only knows how much in limbo). So when the van has a mere (three?) seconds to hit the water, that should translate into one minute on level two and twenty minutes on level three. We are indeed told that the team on level three has twenty minutes to complete their mission after they miss the first kick, but we’re told that Arthur has three minutes (not one) to initiate a kick on level two — and it sure seems like it takes longer than three minutes (let alone one) for him to bind everyone up and rig the elevator.

Finally, the ending is left wonderfully ambiguous, since it’s not clear if the totem tops or not. Did Cobb stay down in limbo or go home? Given Chris Nolan’s penchant for the tragic, I prefer to think the former. Notice that when he finally meets his kids, they appear exactly as he remembers them, in the same clothes, not having aged a day. I believe that Cobb decided to remain in a dream with his wife and kids, rather than in reality with his kids alone.

UPDATE (7/21/10) Here’s my actual review.

UPDATE (7/23/10): I stand by everything said in this post except the last paragraph. Eagle-eyed Vic Holtreman points out that at the end Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB). So Cobb’s homecoming is probably real after all.

42 thoughts on “Inception: Plot Analysis

  1. I totally agree when you say it is not as confusing as the critics have made out to be. I rather think that it doesn't actually make sense at all. I think it is just a silly idea that they got carried away with. It's not deep, it's not clever.

    What happens with critics is on one hand they think that the public is so stupid they won't get it on the other that it is a smart piece of intellectual film making and they want to see more film like it (and less 'Pirates of the Caribbean' or whatever).

    Unfortunately, just because people like simple entertainment doesn't mean they don't like smart films.

    The 'if you just don't understand it, you should see it again/you're too dumb/go and see Pirates of the Caribbean' is not, in my opinion, a defense. If I don't understand, the filmmaker hasn't explained it. If I don't care, the filmmaker hasn't connected the ideas with the film in a way that works.

    Am I wrong? I think you must agree. After the endless cutting back and forth (between the dream levels), they all wake up on the plane and he sees his family and then..oh, it was all a waste of time!

  2. Enjoyed it, but a bit too long and waaay to much overdone action. Does every fantasy world have to be a shootout? I have all kinds of crazy dream adventures sans guns.

    As to the ambiguous ending with the spinning totem, it seems some have said perhaps Cobb stayed down under. Really? I was thinking that was the whole point of the movie start to finish…it's all in Cobb's head. The argument with the wife, the super-complicated mission to get back to his kids, all the awesome but really flat super-agent characters on his side. Most of all – how come it is only Cobb's rogue subconscious wife who is able to interfere with the dream worlds? What happened to the other characters abusive uncles, Vietnam murders, hit and runs, etc? Wouldn't we more likely be in Cobb's mind to begin with, dancing around and thinking we are coming up through all these levels of a secret mission when we're lost to reality a long time ago (dead perhaps? been in limbo since the start of a mission a while ago?) How many times has this loop played over and over?

    I think the above is a much more intriguing reading of the film and speaks more to the potential that existed with this idea. More so than snowmobile action we haven't seen since Bond sliding downhill on a cello, we should've been questioned about the very status of reality – couldn't all of existence be dreams within dreams? This was an idea of unfulfilled potential, spent on a Hollywood blockbuster film with Matrix imitations and a competition for screentime for a cast of great actors/pretty faces. Overall I was let down.

    Still visually pleasing and an interesting concept. The best sci-fi though tends to be about ideas and less on flashy camera tricks. This was idea buried in flash.

  3. Yes, that's another way to interpret the ending: that the entire thing was a dream.

    The only thing I was let down by (somewhat) was the lack of character development, but a rather small complaint on my part. The film excels so well in other areas it almost doesn't need it. I think it's well more than just a Matrix imitation, and I love the minimalist feel (and black-greys) of the dream world. But you're in good enough company — a significant number of critics felt underwhelmed by Inception. It happened to do the sort of things I like in films.

  4. I interpreted it Dale's way, too. The fact that he appeared awake on the plane suggested to me that he was no longer in limbo. Maybe I misunderstood the dream mythology, though. Thanks for making this post, Loren.

  5. I have to agree with “TheCuttingBlade”. Several other elements, apart from getting the time right, were implausible and ultimately unsatisfying. Here's just a quick snapshot of some of the more bothering parts:

    1. The premise of dreams within dreams being 1 hour for 5 minutes is downright silly. In fact, the premise of dreams being 1 hour for our real 5 minutes is also unrealistic and facile.

    2. In Cobb's first dream with Ariadne, she can use her mind to change the structure of the environment, like when she moved the city to form a cube-like world. Why couldn't they use these powers in later dreams?

    3. If they could bring in the machine to get into a dream within the dream, then why on earth couldn't they bring in something else, something unrealistically powerful. Reality is suspended in dreams, why were these dreams “realistic”. Moreover, there was an inconsistency – the dreams were on one hand conforming to reality (Saito gets shot in the dream and starts to die) and yet we still see the unreal (train through a city).

    4. How Cobb's subconscious can effect other dreams is not fully explained, unless it was in the very very beginning, because I only started watching the movie in Saito's dream.

    and finally, 5. The idea of that sort of machine allowing people to “enter dreams” or that one's subconscious will create “projections” that will attack intruders into dreams “like white blood cells” (direct quote from the movie IIRC) is laughable at best and terrible sci fi at worst.

    That being said, the action and overall feel of the movie made up for it. If I suspend belief, I can give it a B. The more one thinks about it, though, the less appealing it becomes.

  6. Chris (Weimer),

    With regards to your (1), I fail to see how the time differentials are “silly”. I rather like the idea.

    With regards to (2), the whole point of changing structures (which Ariadne did in a training session, not on a real mission) is that it's dangerous because it calls the subject's attention to the fact that something is wrong, prompting defensive attacks (Ariadne was immediately attacked by Cobb's subconscious in the training session).

    As for (3), see my point regarding (2). The dreams had to be fleshed out “realistically” by an architect precisely so that nothing seems untoward and the subject doesn't become unaware that his mind is being invaded. (Of course, they didn't count on Fischer having the necessary dream training, so it didn't take much to call forth his defensive projections anyway.) I actually love the minimalist approach of the film, and the grey/black shades, and am glad nothing “unrealistically powerful” along the lines of What Dreams May Come was used.

    This last point about takes us to your point (5), and you consider the whole concept of the defensive projections “laughable”, to which I say all of your objections are laughable. 😉

    But thanks for airing your views, my friend.

  7. Loren,

    On films it seems we disagree greatly. Anyway, please show me any science backing up any of the claims made by the movie.

    I don't like unrealistic movies for the same reason I don't like theism.

    All the best,


  8. Hi Loren. Just came from viewing the movie. Absolutely loved it. Right up there with Memento for me.

    Good summation. I am with you up to the last paragraph. I do think that the two alternatives are intentionally underdetermined and designed for people to argue over it, but my gut goes the other way. He did wake up in “reality”; i.e. the top at the end will eventually topple over.

    My main reasons for this is that the top previously fell over, and I don't see the the point of rejecting one dream “reality” with Mal only to live another dream reality with her. As for tragic, I think that having to raise kids without their mother is plenty tragic.

  9. Yes Stephen, that's quite possible. The ending could go other way, and I naturally grab at the depressing one to feed my masochism. However…

    As for tragic, I think that having to raise kids without their mother is plenty tragic.

    Unless perhaps they're your kids. 😉

  10. Well, I think I agree you on one point of opinion (rather than description) and that is the way the age of Cobb's children raise the dream question quite acutely.

    But please, don't join the crowd who have so over-estimated the Dark Knight. Too long and in need of an editor who can say boo to an auteur. Unlike Inception, it felt long too.

    And I'm a bit stunned by Chris Weimer's dislike of any film with a fantastical imagination rude enough not to be bound by the laws of physics.

  11. I'm afraid you're wrong about The Dark Knight, Doug, which was just about a perfect film in every way. But just to make your bowels burst, check out Carson Lund's review of Inception, which he railroads as Nolan's worst film, opposite your claim that it's his best. This has to be the nastiest review I've ever seen Carson put up. Though it tickles me, much as I disagree with it.

  12. Inception is a brilliant movie. It is already largely misunderstood because people are bringing their own constructs of requirements to their analysis. Statements like “It wasn't realistic because…” miss the point that the entire intent of the story was that it was SUPPOSED TO BE UNREALISTIC. It was a dream! Dreams don't always make total sense and they are frequently unrealistic. One of the main brilliant devices of the film is the use of “dream logic.” Some scenes seem to begin in mid-stream with no explanation or connection to what has come before. That is brilliant! It happens like that in our dreams too. Nolan gives us clues throughout – ie: “Think about dreams you have had. You never remember how a dream begins.” The complaint that the characters other than Cobb are flat misses the point again. This is a representation of a dream and in most characters in our dreams are fairly flat by comparison. We don't flesh out major character development for every person that appears in our dreams. They are all symbols for an emotion or an analog for a person in our life. These characters are in our dream simply to drive the plot of the dream along. Odd, simplistic devices like a machine that (somehow) attaches to your wrist and a big button you just push to instantly plunge everyone into a shared dream is not lazy storytelling or an unrealistic failure on Norlan's part. It is another brilliant example of dream logic being represented. Inception, after all, is a dream. This is completely how we tend to imagine complex scenarios in dreams, with overly simplistic and sometimes completely illogical devices. I have had a dream where I was driving in my car and realized I needed to get home. Wherever I was at the time (hundreds of miles from home) I stopped the car and stepped out of the car instantly in my bedroom. I didn't need to create a transporter or envision the entire drive back to my house or flesh out all the gas station attendants or fast food workers I met on the multi-hour drive back home. I just thought “I should be home” and I was – Dream Logic. Nowhere in the dream did I suddenly stop and say “Well, that was completely unrealistic. This can't happen.” When I have had that reaction, that's when the dream becomes lucid, and, knowing I am dreaming, I tend to wake up at that point. Complaints about the snowy mountain scene being like an old James Bond movies as a criticism of Nolan being out of touch or unimaginative again completely miss the point of the movie. It is a dream, someone's dream. In our dreams we often tend to incorporate images and plots that come from our previous experience (even our movie going experience from 20-30 years ago sometimes). I've had a dream where I am in the ring fighting Apollo Creed. Realizing all (or 99.9% of the movie) is a representation of someone's dream, Cobb or another character, (depending on which theory you support) is the first step you need to take to get the point of Nolan's storytelling. Recurring use of water motifs, falling motifs, wondering what happens to you if you die in a dream, etc. etc. are all masterfully woven into his story that is a constant wink to the audience that keeps saying “This is a dream!” You the audience are invited to a session of dream sharing. Suspend your reality, get lost in the story, accept the odd dream logic just as you would in your own dreams and you will “get it.”

  13. Ok I'm confused about how he's saying that level 3 is Fischer's dream, not Eames'. Wasn't the hospital and everything designed? How would that be in Fischer's dream?

  14. Ok I'm confused about how he's saying that level 3 is Fischer's dream, not Eames'. Wasn't the hospital and everything designed? How would that be in Fischer's dream?

    Level three was designed by Ariadne, dreamed by Eams, and filled by Fischer's subconscious.

    All three levels were actually designed by Ariadne (the architect) and all three were filled by Fischer's subconscious (since he's the subject whose mind is being invaded). But there are different dreamers for every level (Yusuf for one, Arthur for two, Eams for three), who bear the brunt of the attacks from the subject's defense mechanisms, and who stay behind on their respective levels to initiate kicks to the lower levels.

  15. Stephen: “I though the film very effective at suspense, and the way it achieved three or four simultaneous climaxes was outstanding.”

    Yes, absolutely, I'll definitely give it that.

    Doug: “And I'm a bit stunned by Chris Weimer's dislike of any film with a fantastical imagination rude enough not to be bound by the laws of physics.”

    That's not accurate. It rests more on the implausibility then on pure unscientific imagination. But the latter is definitely a turn-off, and yes, I don't watch Dr. Who or Fringe and couldn't finish watching LOST after the 2nd season. Anything where the “whole show/movie” was supposed to be in someone's dream always makes me roll my eyes at the end because in real life dreams don't happen like that.

    Lord of the Rings, though, is something quite different, as the whole world is different than ours, not just a part of it.

    Finally: “I just thought “I should be home” and I was – Dream Logic. Nowhere in the dream did I suddenly stop and say “Well, that was completely unrealistic. This can't happen.””

    Unless the whole movie was a dream, then the criticism counts. If it was a dream, all of it, then you're correct that logic can be, and ought to be, suspended. But is the whole thing really a dream? If so, it shouldn't be nearly as direct as a plot, and then the message is cheapened. Rather than what if we end up in a world where we can't tell reality from fantasy, it's rather a Matrix knock-off where the question becomes what if all this wasn't real – and how meaningful is that?

    All the best,


  16. I said before that I thought the two alternatives were underdetermined, but, thinking about it, I'm afraid Nolan didn't quite pull it off and made it contradictory.

    As for the idea that it was still a dream for Cobb, I would have to say that this possibility, much like the idea of a Matrix-within-a-Matrix interpretation, is superficially cool but ultimately unsatisfying.

    (Word verification: “uncial” — awesome!)

  17. The principle reservation I have about Cobb returning to reality is that his kids look exactly as he remembers them (same clothes, age, etc.) when he reunites with them.

    The totem could be interpreted either way (we don't know if it falls or not); the fact that we see Cobb waking up on the plane (and deplaning) could also be interpreted either way; and we don't see what Saito does or doesn't do to him in limbo.

  18. Great job! You are right on with your analysis; there's only a few slight differences between your outline and the one I came up with myself, namely:

    1. Fisher never entered limbo, he was rendered unconscious and fell into another dream level when Mal shot him but he was not killed.

    If it really were limbo, Fisher and Ariadne would have simply woken up on the plane when they fell from the building.

    2. Cobb stayed behind in this 4th state and only entered true limbo via drowning in the van, hence he washed up on shore, similar to the event in the first act when Cobb's falling into a bathtub floods the dream with water

    3. At the completion of the mission, in the first dream state, the team didn't sit around for a week or so, they were more than likely found and killed within a few minutes by elements of Fisher's subconscious…

    4. Cobb's final reality likely is not real, the obvious issue being that there is really no legitimate way for a person wanted for murder to just 'get off' via some bigwig and re-enter society with his identity and life intact. More than likely Cobb is still living in an elaborate limbo of his own construct, and the events of the film returned his nightmare dream into a pleasant one again. That's my take.

  19. Osita,

    Regarding your point (1), you claim that Fischer wasn't really dead, just unconscious. But Cobb and Ariadne presume that he's dead and explicitly say they will attempt to enter limbo to find him — by navigating their way as Cobb and Mal once did.

    You say that “if it really were limbo, Fisher and Ariadne would have simply woken up on the plane when they fell from the building.” But do we know that dying in limbo returns one to reality instead of the immediately previous dream level? I guess the question really is: how do we know Cobb and Mal hadn't navigated their way to limbo directly from reality?

    Your (2) admittedly makes good sense of your theory, however.

    You could well be right about (3), of course, and I did think of that.

    Regarding (4), you're not living in reality yourself if you don't believe there are people influential enough to “fix” things and make people's problems disappear, no matter what the crime! But you know I agree with you in any case that Cobb is likely in limbo by the end of the film.

    I'll continue pondering the idea of the level four dream. What makes the issue tricky is that Ariadne tries killing herself and Fischer about the same time the kick comes from Eams. The question being, which came first? Did the kick take effect (perhaps making your theory correct, that it was a level four dream), or did Ariadne succeed in killing herself and Fischer (thereby throwing them out of limbo)?

    And here's another problem: If that was a level four dream, who was the designated dreamer (Cobb or Ariadne)? Whose subconscious did they use? Most crucially, why does this level four dream look so much like limbo, with everything Cobb and Mal had built there over 50 years? Certainly Ariadne hadn't constructed anything in advance to prepare for a level four dream.

  20. I have yet to see the film a third time to confirm this, Stephen, but I've seen more web comments about the shoes too. On top of that, IMDB lists different actors who played the kids. I now accept the reality option, and have updated this post and subsequent review accordingly.

  21. Didn't Cobb show us several memories “stored” in his own dream world (the one with the elevator)? The children were of various ages there. I think they were younger when on the beach. Anyway, if so that could account for the credits listing children at two different ages.

  22. I heard something interesting. I recently heard that while we are drawn to the top at the end, wanting to know whether the final scene is reality or a mere dream. The top was not Cobb's totem, it was Mal's. I was told by a friend and watched the entire movie with the following in mind: Cobb's totem is his wedding ring:

    In every sequence in the movie that was supposed to be a dream, Cobb is shown wearing his wedding ring. This makes sense, considering that Mal only continues to exist in Cobb's subconscious.

    In all scenes that were supposed to take place in the real world (including the final scene) Cobb's wedding ring is not on his finger.

    Also to be noted, whenever Cobb wakes from a dream, he reaches for his finger, searching for a wedding ring, indicating that he knows it to be his totem, his anchor to the dream world.

  23. Can someone explain this to me like I'm four years old. Why did Mal not simply use her totem to recognize the real world? Sure Cobb planted the idea that only by killing herself would she return home… but did that mean she would forget to check if her totem stopped spinning before she jumped? Why did Cobb not say “hey Mal, check out the totem, not spinning so much now”.

    Thanks, appreciate the help and loved the movie btw.

  24. I was a bit miffed as well about Arthur not going up a level when the van started falling off the bridge. But then I thought I recalled a scene in the movie where they were talking about how strong the drugs were, that to go up a level you needed a kick on the level you were on and also on the level above at the same time to move up.

  25. I personally agree with you Loren and I believe this was Nolan's best movie after the Dark Knight (Memento is outstanding as well, but I'd have to say Inception has a more intriguing concept) I'm very glad you had this plot analysis as well as it cleared up a few lingering questions, I'm more inclined to agree that Nolan went for the “happy ending” because the “unhappy ending” would have been absolutely predictable, but I love how he leaves it open to interpretation

  26. Scoot,

    Since Cobb planted the idea in his wife's head that when she's dreaming she's in “reality”,hence in the real world,she would perceive it as dreaming. So even if her totem were to topple in the real world,she would still perceive it to be a dream.

    Or view it from another way, it could mean the incepted idea is so powerful that it over-rode the sole mechanism responsible for helping her distinguish reality from dreams.

    Just my 2cents.

  27. what if the entire movie was a level one dream (dreamt by Cobb)? Every other level beyond was simply another level of the dream…
    1. points to consider: what if Mal was right – they had yet to awaken from the last level?
    2. the kids hadnt aged, and were wearing the same clothes (have to verify if the shoes were different on purpose)
    3. Cobb hadnt seen the kids faces so he chooses to see the kids in the last level (because the distinction between dreams and reality become increasingly harder to make)
    4. Sharing dreams, and tiering dreams in layers are easier done in dreams than in reality – even with modern day technology

  28. imho, the final scene is reality, reason being Cobb went over to carry his children. The human touch was probably symbolic that Cobb was in the real world. In the previous scenes when in his dreams, all he did was to watch his children from a distance.

    And the plot made it clear that the airplane/airport scenes are reality, hence lesser reason to doubt it. As for Cobb spinning Mal's totem in the final scene, it could symbolize Cobb achieving her “dream” (of reuniting with their children) that his wife wanted to achieve but never did get the chance to.

  29. Anonymous (one of the earlier anonymi) is correct … Arthur did not wake up on the first van-kick because the kicks needed to be synchronized from above and below. The team talked about the need for this synchronization and that's part of the purpose of the music … hear the music from above, kick is coming, get your own kick ready.

    I believe Cobb's final reality is genuine. As others have said, the airplane and airport scenes are clearly real, the mission is clearly a success, and grandpa escorts us from the (real) airport to the (real) children to provide credible continuity. Some commenters are focusing on the fact that you “can't tell” if the totem is going to topple, but in fact it does not matter whether it topples. The film never claims that Cobb was able to spin it perpetually; that was just something Mal could do when the totem belonged to her.

    Given these facts, the ending is masterful. It provides us with the ambiguity that we all know is coming (and is all but demanded by the film's premise), and lets us roll it around in our heads and ponder, yet we eventually get to figure out that it really was a happy ending for Cobb. Anybody can slap an ambiguous ending on a film (and in many cases they are quite unsatisfying), but what Nolan accomplished here takes real craftsmanship.

  30. so um i might be reading too much into the movie but here's what ive come up with after watching the movie twice.

    1. There are a few things that seem out of place during the movie. One, for instance, is the crazy chace in Moombasa or wherever that is…out of alll the places in Japan and France etc he got a tail in Moombasa? It looked to me like those were projections attacking the outsider.

    2. When Cobb's explaining about Inception, he says that you need to go down at least 2 levels for inception to occur, because he's done it before. I think this is a key point, since him and Mal come back only one level (getting run over by the train). This then means that THE WHOLE THING IS A DREAM and that Mal was right, she committed suicide and woke up into reality. I.e. what we are told is reality is actually completely a dream and Cobb's lost in limbo.

    3. Confirmation of point no.2 is respectively point no.1 and the fact that his kids had not aged at all and were still in the same clothes.

    4. The toten kept falling because first, it wasn't his totem, it was Mal's. Second I believe he subconciously had convinced himself that he was infact in reality –> the totem would fall.

    5. Took me ages to figure out the start/Sito related stuff. Once in limbo you forget your purpose or who you are. So Cobb stays back in limbo (thus forgetting himself his own purpose) to find Sito. When he does they both remind each other of their purposes, of the agreement and thus are able to snap out of that limbo…BACK TO COBB'S ORIGINAL LIMBO, WHICH HE BELIEVES IS REALITY.

    I dunno i might be overreading and overanalysing here, but its an idea in my head, which once planted spreads like a parasite. Bwaha couldn't help myself, needed to quote something. LEMME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! =)

  31. Cobb is the subject of the architecting of the dream – his father-in-law was the “teacher” and appears once in the “reality” which is really part of the dream / limbo that Cobb has been suspended in. The plot centers around Cobb's father in law orchestrating planting a thought (the girl who says you haven't confronted your grief) and the dream sequence forces him to deal with the reality of losing his wife. He comes to at the end – at his father in laws house which his children waiting.

  32. i personally think the whole movie was cains dream , saito was the architect and cobbs was the subject and all the rest of the characters where cobbs projections of his subconsious . because in the beggining of the movie he was washed upon ” the shore of his subconsious ” which happends to be the same scene when he went in limbo to get saito . i think ariadne was like a therapist to cobbs to get him to see he had been living in a dream powered by guilt . i think cain did inception on cobbs in order to plant the idea he needed to wake up and get home to his children so he became obsessed with it . the job that he falied in the beggining was the first dream . then the job that saito gave him was the second dream within a dream . when they started thew layers that was dreams all within the inital dream . the movie had nothing to do with cobb completing the job for saito it was about cobb letting go of the guilt that haunted hs dream which portrayed as mal . ariadne helped him realize that he had been trying to hold onto her and trap her in his dreams which he really thought was a reality . and the last scene could have been a dream or reality . i think it was reality because the mob=vie never showed what he was doing while his kids where playing . he could have been sitting the watching his kids and his dad sedated him so that was the last image he saw of his kids . so that image kept replaing itself in his sunconsious . alot of people say the kids never changed from when he last saw them til the ending scene . the kids didnt have to . if you remember that minutes in the real world could be years in a dream world . they never really gave us a time frame of how long he was gone and in his dream . so there is a possibility he was only gone for 10 minutes or 20 minutes which means he can wake up to his kids doing the same thing they were when he left . and as for the totem . that top wasnt his so its null and void . so weather or not the top kept spinning or fell over doesnt matter . his real totem is his kids , when he actually saw his kids faces is when he had finally woke up .

  33. @Chris Weimer

    Who is to say what is realistic or unrealistic in dreams? We've all had hyper-real dreams and Dali-esque dreams. Or dreams that combine elements of the real and the mad.

    Regardless, what holds true is that they seem real when we're in them, a point that Cobb emphasises to Ariadne in the workshop. That is the crux and the unique thing about the dream experience. Think of the dog that growls, whines or tries to run while asleep – ours does this daily – the clear physiological and 'real' reaction to subconscious but imagined stimuli.

    If you accept this, you can make the mental clean & jerk necessary to suspend disbelief. Anything can happen in the film's sedative-induced dreams in any way; one assumes that they are more real than abstract in this case because critically, Cobb's team need them to be convincing for the mark.

    Like you, I am not enamoured of 'unrealistic' films – but for films that deal with the real. Inception deals with the subconscious fantastic and as such, all bets are off. Just let your imagination take the weight.

    Just as an addendum; having watched the film for a second time yesterday after a gap of six months from seeing it originally, I'm convinced Cobb returns to reality. Three observational reasons:

    1. When Cobb sets Mal's totem spinning in the limbo safe, it spins with absolute rigid perfection. Not a twitch.

    2. As the film closes, Cobbs's totem (Mal's) falters. Although we don't see it fall, that it falters is sufficient to suggest true reality.

    3. In the same scene, you actually see the childrens' faces. We never see them in dream-state, ditto as above.

    For me, this is the best science fiction film since Blade Runner, the best film since Saving Private Ryan and therefore already in the pantheon of the all-time greats.

  34. Somethings I spotted in the movie was: in cobb's memories he has on a blue button up shirt with a blueish tee underneath… In reality he has on different outfits. 2. His daughter has on a pinkish dress in his memories but in the last scene she has on a white shirt underneath the pinkish dress and his son hair is much longer… Plus you can tell the girl is older. 3. I also notice every time Cobb is dreaming or in his memories.. he has on his wedding ring but when he's awake in reality he does not have on his wedding ring… He doesn't have on his wedding ring in the final scene proving he was not dreaming, that it was real.

  35. The kids are aged..if u don feel d diff in d mov watch d credits..4 kids james n phillipa…10 mnths n three yrs…3 yrs n 10yr

  36. The film was really an intellectual plot and I’m a die hard fan of nolan even though I’m a follower of Kubrick the chief.

    I can end the conclusion by saying that cobb returned to his home in reality because the kids were aged a bit and there was a little shake in the totem and as well the interview with the Mic caine he too confused when nolan gave the script to him and at last he asked the nolan regarding the script and nolan explained in simple way that ……

    when you are in a screen that is real and when you are not then it is a dream and it clearly pictures that cobb went home.

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