Inception Explained (Dreams, Kicks, Totems, Everything)

Inception is a brilliant science-fiction mind-bender by Christopher Nolan. Many remain confused with the film, the kicks, how they worked, and what was with that spinning top in the final scene. Apart from this, there is even the fundamental confusion of how many levels of dreams there are. Let’s answer every question. So, here’s the plot, kick, dreams, totems and everything about Inception explained. Heads up – this is not a movie review; spoilers ahead.

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

Here’s the Film Exploder podcast episode where we take a deep dive into Inception:

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Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

The film inception deals with a group of individuals who enter a person’s mind to steal information. Rather than extracting information, one of the clients (Saito) offers massive compensation to incept an idea into his business competitor’s (Fischer) mind. As you can imagine, the process of Inception is fundamentally far more complicated because the victim needs to believe that the idea is their own and not planted into their mind.

Inception: What idea is being planted?

paper fan what idea is being incepted?

Fischer’s father has recently passed away, and he has inherited his father’s company. Saito wants Fischer to shut down his father’s firm, which currently monopolizes the business. The idea being planted in Fischer’s mind is that his father always wanted him to be his own man, so Fischer should start something of his own and therefore shut his father’s firm down.

Inception: What happened to Cobb’s wife, Mal? Why Mal killed herself.

what happened to Mal Cobb's wife?

One day Mal and Cobb experiment on the dream machine and over sedate themselves. They find themselves in Limbo and can’t get out. Cobb realizes that the only way out is by killing themselves, but Mal disagrees and accepts Limbo as her reality. In desperation, Cobb leaves Mal’s spinning top inside her safe. This safe represents Mal’s innermost subconscious and the perpetually spinning top indicated a fake world. Mal’s mind is incepted with the idea that her world is not real, and she needs to kill herself to wake up. Both Mal and Cobb lie down on the tracks in Limbo and let the train kill them. Unfortunately, due to Cobb’s Inception, even in the real world, Mal continues to believe that her world is not real and she needs to kill herself to wake up. Mal even believes her kids are only a projection. She eventually jumps to her death and kills herself.

What is the most resilient parasite?

Once successfully planted in a person’s mind, an idea grows exactly like a resilient parasite, refusing to die. This snowballs to become the core of the person’s belief system. For Mal, the resilient parasite was the notion that her world was not real. For Fischer, it was the idea that his father wanted him to be his own man.

Inception: Why is Cobb wanted? 

Mal wanted to commit suicide (and go to what she believed was the real world) but wanted Cobb to join her. Mal believed so strongly that their world was not real that she informed the authorities that Cobb was responsible for her death before committing suicide. Unable to prove his innocence, Cobb flees from the USA and, as a result, is a wanted criminal. The kids end up staying with their grandfather. Cobb takes up Saito’s job because Saito promises to clear Cobb’s records so he can go back to his children.

Inception Process Explained

The confusion stems from the fact that there seems to be one extra Kick when you count the number of Kicks for each person and the total number of Dream Levels. We’ll break down the Inception process to its simplest form to fully understand it.

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, Characters and Dream Roles (Inception Cast)

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) – The leading man who steals secrets from the subjects’ minds.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – Cobb’s right-hand man, helps find information about subjects and design dreams.
Ariadne (Ellen Page, now Eliot) – The young girl 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 whose 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 who manifests in the many dreams.

Types of dreams in Inception

The movie has two types of dreams, and this is very important to understand:

  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, everyone needs to be under a powerful sedative.

Inception: Time Dilation

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

What is a Totem? What is Cobb’s Totem?

A Totem is an object carried by everyone to tell them if they are in a dream or real life. Each item has a secret that only the owner knows. Cobb’s Totem is a top that spins perpetually inside a dream; it was originally Mal’s. Arthur has a loaded die that would be lopsided in the real world but be evenly balanced in a dream.

What is a Kick in Inception?

simple single kick Inception

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. Also, the Kick can be administered either to the sleeping body or the dreaming self. Here are examples to illustrate the two options.

In the film’s opening sequence, Cobb is dunked into the bathtub, which wakes him up by one level – this is a Kick given to the sleeping body. 

Later, Arthur is shot in the head by Cobb, and Arthur wakes up by one level – this is a Kick given to the dreaming self.

Simple enough? Well, yes, but only if this is a basic dream. However, to perform Inception, the team needs a multi-level dream which needs them to be under a powerful sedative. Therefore, waking up by one level is not as simple anymore.

Inception: Synchronized Kick Explained

synchronized kicks Inception

Now, in a multi-level dream, people are under a powerful sedative, and a Single Kick is not enough to wake them up. They now need a Synchronized Kick, a pair of Kicks – one Kick to the sleeping body and one Kick to the dreaming self… together.

Confusing? Let’s understand Synchronized Kicks with some examples.

Understanding a Single Kick and Synchronized Kicks

Consider this. You are asleep on a bed and dreaming (this is analogous to a basic dream). Now, if someone pushed you off the bed, that would be a Single Kick to your sleeping body and would pull you out of your dream. Alternately, you could fall in your dream, and this will cause you to wake up – a Single Kick to the dreaming self

In either case, you can wake up from a Single Kick.

Now let’s consider the case where you are unconscious because you have been administered anaesthesia, and now 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 either. So how then can you wake up?

One way is that 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 using a pair of Synchronized 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! The critical thing to note here is that the anaesthesia administered to you should leave your inner-ear function working so you can feel falling.

How are the kicks synchronized in the movie Inception?

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 it’s time to give a Kick to themselves (dreaming self). This will cause two kicks to synchronize. The ear functions remain working so the music can be heard in the inner dream levels.

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

Remember the part when they are in the snowfield, and they talk about “missing the kick“?

The Kick they miss is – the van smashing against the edge of the bridge. This one kick alone is insufficient to wake them up. The Kick they actually catch is the van hitting the water. The falling van is unplanned and causes the gravity problem in the Hotel Lobby. As a result, Arthur has to improvise a plan to make the lift fall.

Inception: The Chain of Synchronized Kicks

Now that we understand why it’s so complicated, let’s go through the sequence of Synchronize Kicks. Cobb’s team needs to synchronize a pair of kicks for every dream level and for every person. They achieve synchronizing by playing music in the ears of the Dreamer. The music cues the team in the lower level to perform a Kick and synchronize with the level above. Remember, the Synchronized Kicks are not required because of the multiple levels of dreams; it’s needed simply because the sedative is too strong for a Single Kick to work.

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

Inception Synchronized Kick Sequence

Inception: Death in a Dream

Now the next catch is death – what happens if one dies a dream? Again, this differs based on the type of dream.

If one dies in a basic dream, it simply works as a Single Kick (to the dreaming self), and the person wakes up by one level (e.g., Arthur is shot in the head, waking him up by one level).

However, if one dies in a multi-level dream (strong sedative), they end up in a dream state called 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 occurs in Limbo, then the Dreamer wakes up all the way into reality bypassing all the levels of dreams; no Kicks are required.

Limbo is where Cobb and Mal had once been lost for almost a lifetime (50 years, thanks to Time Dilation). The buildings we see in Limbo are what the two had built during their stay there. Limbo is not one person’s dream in particular. It is a common area that one ends up in if they die in a heavily sedated multi-level dream.

Inception: Entering Limbo

There are two ways to get to Limbo.

  1. If the architecture of the multi-level dream consists of 3 levels and if one tries to go a level deeper than what was designed, they will reach Limbo. In this case, they will still remember how you got to Limbo and what they were doing before that (e.g., when Cobb and Ariadne go from the hospital level further down to get Fischer. The two know why they are there and what they need to do).
  2. If one dies in a heavily sedated, multi-level dream, they will be hurled into Limbo. In this case, they will not remember clearly how they got there and what they were doing before that (e.g., when Saito dies and reaches Limbo, he ends up living there for many years, not realizing where he is).

One cannot reach Limbo in a basic dream. It is simply not possible.

Inception: How to get out of Limbo?

The movie makes it abundantly clear that the only way to exit Limbo is by dying. But this is easier said than done. A person’s mind in Limbo must first believe that they are not in the real world. They must take their own lives as that would be the surest way to wake up in the real world without losing their minds.

A quick table of difference between the two dream types

Inception Dream Explanation Chart

What is Inception?

Inception is the act of inserting an idea in a person’s mind which will bloom in a way making the Subject think it was their idea. This is the whole point of the movie. Cobb states that there is a safe house at every dream level, which gets populated with the innermost thoughts and secrets of the Subject. Cobb’s team usually extracts secrets from the Subject’s mind from this safe. Cobb also suggests that if you insert an idea into this safe in the 3rd (or lower) level of dream, the Subject will wake up believing the idea is his or hers. Of course, the idea should align with the Subject’s life; Inception can’t be as random as making the Subject believe he’s Superman, that won’t work.

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 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). However, what Cobb has done unknowingly is, the idea he incepts in Mal’s mind (safe) is now with her even after Mal has woken up. So she continues to think the real world is a dream and decides to die so she can wake up. Sadly, this is how Cobb realizes that Inception is possible.

How many dream levels are there? Who dreams which levels?

There are three architected levels of dreams – The City, The Hotel, and The Snowfield. Here’s a diagram indicating the levels and who the dreamer is on which ones.

Inception Dream Levels

Inception Plot: Summary of the Mission

  • Saito buys the airlines on which Fischer has a planned journey.
  • With the crew’s help, the team drugs Fisher and enter a shared dream with him.
  • The first level is The City, where the team realizes Fisher’s mind is militarized. His mind is trained to resist attacks. We see this in the form of armed men. Saito gets shot in this level. Eames impersonates Fischer’s uncle, who has been kidnapped along with Fischer.
  • The next level is the Hotel, where Cobb poses as Fischer’s subconscious, saving him from a mental attack. Cobb convinces Fischer to go down with him to another level of dream.
  • In the next level, The Snowfield, the team takes Fischer to meet his dying father impersonated by Eames. This is the Inception level, but Cobb projects Mal, who sabotages the mission by shooting Fischer.
  • Cobb and Ariadne go down a level with Fischer, into Limbo, to save him. Mal has him captive. In the level above, Eames defibrillates Fischer and Ariadne times and pushes Fischer off the balcony in Limbo. This works as a Synchronized Kick for Fischer and wakes him up by one level.
  • In The Snowfield level, Fischer meets his father (as part of the team’s carefully planned deception) and finds his childhood paper-fan inside his safe. This step is Inception of the idea that Fischer’s father always wanted him to be his own man. Point to note – this is a lie, but Inception works.
  • Everybody rides their Synchronized Kicks back to the first level, The City. Saito dies from his wound and goes to Limbo. Cobb decides to get Saito out, so the team lets him drown in the van.
  • Cobb arrives in Limbo, dazed and confused. He meets Saito, and together, they remember that they are in Limbo and need to take a leap of faith (kill themselves) to wake back up on the flight.

Why is Saito so much older than Cobb in Limbo?

why is Saito so much older than Cobb?

Who was the old man at the end? It’s Saito. Saito gets shot in the 1st level and is dying. There is a misconception that Cobb dies in Level 4 (Limbo) due to 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 shot that captures a drowning Cobb. The cause of death for both Saito and Cobb is in the 1st level, The City. For Saito, it’s the bullet; for Cobb, it’s the drowning. A short moment of time lapses between both of their deaths. But due to Time Dilation, in Limbo, this is many years. This is why Saito is so much older than Cobb in Limbo.

Why doesn’t Fischer recognize anybody on the flight?

Once a person wakes up, their dreams are hazy, and faces can barely be remembered. All Fischer would recollect is that he had a crazy dream, and he is left with the revelation that his father wanted him to be his own man, and Fischer will now want to close down his father’s firm and start something of his own. Even if the people on the flight around him look familiar and from his dream, he would simply brush it off, thinking he dreamed about them because he saw them on the flight.

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? If the most parts of the movie was a dream, the brilliant concept behind the levels of dreams and Kicks would all go to waste. So, given that we are shown a spinning top leaving it unclear whether Cobb is still in a dream or not, it would simply make a more complete movie if the ending was not a dream.

There is a popular Inception theory with the wedding ring (Cobb’s 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, specifically when slowing down. If its speed remained constant, you would not have a wobble on a spinning top. Remember what the top looked like in Mal’s safe? Still. In the end, the top wobbles, which means 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