Inception: Explained (2010 Film)

I notice that many folks are still confused with Inception and about what those kicks in the movie were, how they worked, and what was with that spinning top in the final scene. The confusion stems from the fact that when you count the number of kicks for each person and number of dream levels, there seems to be one extra kick. Apart from this, there is even the basic confusion of how many levels of dreams there are. So, here’s the plot, kick, dreams, totems and the ending of Inception explained. This is not a movie review, so spoilers ahead.

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Oh, and if this article doesn’t answer all of your questions, drop me a comment or an FB chat message, and I’ll get you the answerYou can find other film explanations using the search option on top of the site.

If you are specifically looking to understand the ending of Inception go here – Inception Ending : Dream or Reality

For any dream sequence there is always the following:

The Dreamer – whose dream it is
The Subject – the one from which information is to be extracted, this person’s consciousness fills the dream.
The Architect – the person who designs the levels of dreams.

Names and Characters (Inception Cast)

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) – The main man who steals secrets from minds of the subjects.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – Cobb’s right hand man, helps find information about subjects and designing dreams.
Ariadne (Ellen Page) – The young girl who is the architect for the multi-level dreams.
Eames (Tom Hardy) – The impersonator in the multi-level dream.
Yusuf (Dileep Rao) – The chemist who creates the compounds to sedate the dreamers.
Fischer (Cillian Murphy) – The subject on who’s mind inception is to be performed.
Saito (Ken Watanabe) – The person who needs the inception to be performed on Fischer.
Mal (Marion Cotillard) – Cobb’s dead wife, she manifests in the many dreams.

Types of dreams in Inception

The movie has two types of dreams:

  1. The basic dream-within-a-dream, which Cobb uses to extract information from the subject’s mind. An example of this is the opening dream sequence of the movie, where Cobb’s team is trying to extract information from Saito’s head (and they fail).
  2. The more elaborate multi-level dream where Cobb’s team is trying to perform inception on Fischer. For this multi-level dream you need to be under a powerful sedative.

Time Dilation

A good thing to know at this point is that as you go into inner levels of the dream, time will stretch. What is 10hrs in the real world would become 1 week in first level of dream and 6 months in the second level and so on.


A kick is a sudden jolt that can wake the dreamer up by one level. Usually the kick is a fall. In a basic dream a simple single kick is enough to wake the dreamer up by one level of dream. E.g.: Cobb is dunked into the bathtub which wakes him up by one level – this is a kick given to the sleeping body. A kick can also be given to the dreaming self, e.g. Arthur is shot in the head by Cobb and Arthur wakes up by one level.

Simple enough?

Inception: Synchronized Kick

Now, however, in a multi-level dream you are under a powerful sedative, so it’s not that simple. A single kick is not enough to wake you up. This requires a synchronized kick. A pair of kicks, one kick to the sleeping body and one kick to the dreaming self.


A simple real world example to illustrate the kicks:

Consider this.. you are asleep on a bed and dreaming… now, if someone pushed your sleeping body off the bed, that would be your kick and would pull you out of your dream. So this situation is comparable to a basic dream where a kick is given to the sleeping body. Alternately, you could fall in your dream and this causes you to wake up – a single kick to the dreaming self. In either cases, you can wake up from a single kick.

Now let’s consider the case where you are unconscious because you have been administered anesthesia… and you are dreaming. Just pushing you off the bed would not be enough to wake you up (if it did, it wouldn’t make a pretty scene in most operation theatres). Similarly, having a dream of falling wouldn’t be enough to wake you up. So how then can you wake up?

One way is the effect of the anaesthesia wears off (This is equivalent to the timer running out on the dream machine in the movie).

The other way that the movie theorizes is – synchronizing a pair of kicks. If there was a way you could fall in your dream (kick to the dreaming self) and at the same time be pushed off the bed (kick to the sleeping body)… Bingo! You can wake up! Important thing to note here is that the anesthesia administered to you should leave your inner-ear function working so you can feel falling.

How are the kicks synchronized?

Simple, they play music into the ears of the dreamer and then provide a kick to the sleeping body. Inside the dream, the dreamer hears music, which means its time to provide kick to the self inside the dream. This will cause two kicks to synchronize.

How do you know from the movie that the pair of kicks need to be synchronized?

Remember the part when they are in the snow field, they talk about “missing the kick” ?

The kick they miss is – the van smashing against the edge of the bridge. The kick they actually catch is the van hitting the water. The falling van is unplanned for and causes the gravity problem in the Hotel Lobby. As a result of this Arthur has to improvise a plan to make the lift fall.

Inception: The Chain of Synchronized Kicks

So that’s why it’s so complicated. Cobb’s team in the movie needs to synchronize a pair of kicks for every level of the dream and for every person. They achieve the synchronizing by playing music in the ears of the dreamer. The music gives the cue to the team in the level below to perform a kick to synchronize with the level above. Remember, the synchronized kicks are not required because of the multiple levels of dreams, it’s simply because the sedative is strong.

Death In A Dream Level

Now the next catch is death. What happens if you die a the dream? Again this differs based on the type of the dream sequence.

If you die a basic dream, it simply works as a kick (to the dreaming self) and you wake up by one level (eg: Arthur is shot in the head).

However, if you die in a multi-level dream (strong sedative), you end up in Limbo.

Inception: What Is Limbo?

Limbo is a shared subconscious state where the mind might fail to tell that it’s a dream and can be lost there forever.

Now what happens if you die in Limbo? If death happens in limbo then the dreamer wakes up all the way into reality bypassing all the levels of dreams. No kicks required.

Limbo is where Cobb and Mal have once been lost for almost a lifetime (50 years). The buildings you see there are what the two of them had built. Limbo is not one person’s dream in particular. Its the common place that you end up in if you die in a heavily sedated dream.

Entering Limbo

There are two ways to get into Limbo.

  1. If the architecture of the multi level dream consists of 3 levels and if you try to go one level deeper that what was designed, you can reach limbo. In this case you will still remember how you got to Limbo and what you were doing before that (eg: when Cobb and Ariadne go from the hospital level further down to get Fischer).
  2. If you die in a heavily sedated, multi-level dream, you will be thrown into limbo but in this case you will not remember clearly how you got there and what you were doing before that (eg: when Saito dies and reaches limbo, he ends up living there for many years).

You cannot reach limbo in a basic dream. You simply cannot.

A quick table of difference between the two dream types

Inception Dream Explanation Chart

What is Inception?

Now getting to the whole point of the movie. This is a method suggested by Cobb in the movie. He says that at every level of dream there is a safe house, which gets populated with the inner most thoughts and secrets of the subject. Cobb’s team usually extracts secrets from the subjects mind from the safe. Cobb also suggests that if you insert an idea into this safe at the 3rd level in the dream or below, the subject will actually wake up believing the idea is his or hers (of course the idea should be in line with the life of the subject, inception can’t be as random as making the subject believe he’s Superman).

Cobb performs Inception on Mal by mistake

When Cobb and Mal end up in limbo, Cobb eventually realizes that they are not in reality. But Mal refuses to believe that. So Cobb locates Mal’s safe and leaves a perpetually spinning top there (perpetually spinning top is Mal’s totem that indicates that Mal is in a dream). So in the limbo, Mal gets convinced that she is in a dream and decides to die with Cobb on the rail tracks and they both wake up in their room (reality). What Cobb does unknowingly is, the idea he incepts in Mal’s mind (safe), is now with her even after she has woken up. So Mal continues to think the real world is a dream and decides to die so she can wake up. This is how Cobb realizes that inception is possible.

Here are the dream levels in an image:

Inception Dream Levels

Here’s the pair of kicks for each person in an image:

Inception Synchronized Kick Sequence

Why is Saito so much older than Cobb in Limbo?

Saito gets shot in the 1st level and is dying. There is a misconception that Cobb dies in Level 4 (Limbo) as a result of Mal’s stabbing. That is not the case. When everyone rides their kicks back up to the 1st level, they exit the van with oxygen cans. They leave Cobb there to drown. There is a specific moment that captures a drowning Cobb, left to die. The cause of death for both Saito and Cobb is in the 1st level, the van level. For Saito it’s the bullet, for Cobb it’s the drowning. A short moment of time lapses between both of their deaths. But in Limbo, due to time dilation, this is in years. This is why Saito is so much older in Limbo as compared to Cobb.

Inception Ending Explained – The Spinning Top

The ending scene of Inception leaves us with a spinning top making us wonder if it was all a dream or reality. Look at it this way. If it was all a dream at the end, then we don’t know when the dream started, whose dream it was and if there were any other “real people” or merely projections, and if projections then whose projections? If the whole movie were a dream, the brilliant concept behind the levels of dreams and kicks would all go waste. So, given that we are shown a spinning top with an unclear mention of whether Cobb is still in a dream or not, it would simply make the movie a better one to choose that the entire movie was not a dream.

There is the popular Inception theories around the ending with wedding ring (the ring is on inside dreams and is off in reality and at the airport Cobb is not wearing a ring – hence that is reality). But besides that, the top wobbles. A wobble occurs when a spinning object changes speeds, especially when it is slowing down. You would not have a wobble on a spinning top if its speed remained constant. Remember how it looked like in Mal’s safe? The top wobbles which does mean it’s eventually going to stop. This also means that there will be no Inception 2 or any such Inception Sequels.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of that last scene and how we can know for sure if it is happening inside of a dream or reality – Inception Ending : Dream or Reality

inception final scene kids

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