Inception Explained
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I notice many folks are still confused with Inception and about what those kicks in the movie were and how they worked.

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 deal...

For any dream sequence there is always the following:
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.

The names and characters:
Cobb - The main man who steals secrets from minds of the subjects.
Arthur - Cobb's right hand man, helps find information about subjects and designing dreams.
Ariadne - The young girl who is the architect for the multi-level dreams.
Eames - The impersonator in the multi-level dream.
Yusuf - The chemist who creates the compounds to sedate the dreamers.
Fischer - The subject on who's mind inception is to be performed.
Saito - The person who needs the inception to be performed on Fischer.
Mal - Cobb's dead wife, she manifests in the many dreams.

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.

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. 

Here is the crucial difference in the kick.
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?

Now however, in a multi-level dream you are under a powerful sedative, so it’s not that simple. 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:
Consider this.. you are asleep on a bed and dreaming… now, if some one 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.

Now let’s consider the case where you are unconscious because you have been administered anaesthesia... 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). 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 anaesthesia administered to you should leave your oratory functions working so you can feel falling.

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.

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. 
The synchronized kicks are not required because of the multiple levels of dreams, it’s simply because the sedative is strong.

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.

Limbo is a 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 you wake up all the way into reality bypassing all the levels of dreams. 
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.

Again there are two ways to get into Limbo. One way - 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). Other way - 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.

So a quick table of difference is as follows:
Dream Type
Basic dream within a dream
Elaborate multi-level dream
Stability of Dream
Fairly stable, requires a light sedative
Unstable and hence requires a strong sedative
Cannot perform inception
Inception can be performed, but only in deeper levels of the dream
Simple single kick.
Synchronized kicks. One from the level of the dream and the other from one level up timed using music.
Death in dream
Works as simple kick, brings you one level up in the dream.
You end up in Limbo where you might get trapped forever.
Death in limbo
Not applicable, in a basic dream you don’t ever end up in limbo.
Wakes you up all the way back in to reality.

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).

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's the dream levels in an image:

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

I believe that may have cleared some things up.


  1. In the movie they mention that they "missed a kick" .. how would you explain that in all this?

  2. the initial plan was to use the smashing of the van against the bridge as the first level's kick. But in the lower levels of the dream, the team is caught up with stuff and miss that kick. They also realize that there is a second chance. This is when the van hits the water. The first kick they miss because they dont end up synchronizing a self kick with the kick from a level above. But they catch the second one.

  3. Nice! Thanks! Good detail here.

  4. Hello!!
    So you are saying that the end is in the reality??Consider that the top didn't fall at the end..And if it was about to I think they would showed it..

  5. The wickedness is in what Nolan did 'not' show. Had it not been for the way he cut the scene, we'd go back home with satisfaction. But he makes us doubt everything that we thought we understood. We stand for the idea that the end was indeed the reality. There was a video running about showing him not wearing his ring. The theory there was inside the dreams Cobb is always wearing the ring and in reality he's not. In the final scenes at the airport you see Cobbs finger not having a ring.

    What helps us feel comfortable saying that the end was in reality and not dream is the physics of a spinning top. If a top has no change in speed (rpm) then it will stay still (like it does inside Mal's safe). Here in the last scene, they show you that wobble before cutting to credits. A wobble on a spinning object is created because of a drop in speed (rpm). Which means it's heading to a stop. It's not conclusive either ways, but we side with the wobble so we can sleep in peace :).

    Thanks for the comment.

    1. Yeah..I know..The idea that he is in reality and if he is not he just doesn't care..I think though that because Cobb had a good sense of what is reality and what it is not his own mind tricked him making reality the only possible way for him to be with his kids again..After all I think that's the point of "limbo"
      a place or state of mind where is damn hard to kill yourself because it is built in a way to make you happy..Having said that I believe Saito's real limbo is in a place where Fisher's empire is apart and with any other satisfying detail he wished in his life and movie didn't show)

    2. That is so true, in Saito's limbo you would see every dream of his coming true. That was not really shown, but good thought. Your definition of limbo is very neat.

  6. Who's the subject in Cobb's dream and if Fischer is, where are the projections?

  7. Cobb's dream is into Limbo. This does not follow the classic model of the regular "architected" dreams. There is no construct, the subject technically is Fisher. If your mind chooses there will be a projection. Mal is Cobb's projection in this level. Fisher doesn't have any projections because he is far too confused where he is.

  8. started rewatching after reading this. but as I remember the kicks are needed to go up-level (as seen in the beginning) but (i havenot reached the moment, however as i remember) in the main part of the movie they went down-level. if that is true, why is that so?

    1. You are correct. Kicks are required to come one level up.
      In the end of the movie, they go down-level using the machine in each of the levels.

  9. At the end I believe he's still in a dream, not because of the wobble, but because of the image of his kids, is the same image of his memory, the kids haven´t grown up and they are wearing the same cloth... I believe Mal is still waiting for him to wake up.

  10. Good point, sure, but that would just kill the rest of the movie then.

  11. Fizzle me this, Fizzle me that....13 May 2015 at 16:28

    None of you are right...none of you are wrong...something happened to you while you were at the cinema, you fell asleep and you are actually NOW THIS VERY MOMENT in a dream. Because of all the explosions in the movie as you were falling asleep and popcorn you were half chewing, your mind created this place; 'DigestivePyrotechnics'. The movie hasn't finished at all, the wobble is a sort of self-induced kick, but it didn't work. You fell asleep just as Fischer enters the safe. What actually happens is he realises he is dreaming and has a 'Neo' moment and is able to manipulate and control the dreamscape, what happens after that is about to happen right now but you NEED TO WAKE UP IN THE CINEMA (and before you say you weren't watching this at a cinema, that is the confusion of your unstable dream telling you that, so ignore it and follow with me so I can help wake you up). Now, in order for you to wake up, I have to access YOUR safe. You are going to key in the following and once you have pressed the publish button, this will trigger a true 'kick' and you will slowly wake back up and see the rest of Inception. But first, publish your debit card number, start and expiry date, issue number and also the three digit code on the back of the card, and publish using your name as it is written on the card. Once you press publish, you will slowly start to wake up. You will know it is working by checking your bank balance: if random and unknown transactions begin to occur from across the globe, RELAX AND SMILE!! The kick has worked!!! If nothing happens within 24(dream)hrs then we have a problem, and you will be trapped in this DigestivePyrotechnics 'limbo' until I (and 'I' am actually your subconscious trying to help you) work out another effective kick... By the way, your partner is texting their 'lover', you've suspected for a while, remember?? If you wake quick enough, you will be able to grab their phone before they delete the evidence of their betrayal, and you will finally be vindicated....

  12. What if in a 3 level dream: Level 3 within Level 2 within Level 1, you experience a kick/death in level 1 BEFORE you do so in level 3 or 2? What happens if it you experience kicks the other way around (in 3 before 1 i.e. they aren't synchronized).

    1. Sorry for the late response. You don't get woken up. It has to be in that order - inner most to outer most. When the Van initially hits the edge of the bridge (kick in Level 1), that results in a disruption in the Snow Field (Level 3). But not enough to wake them up. They mention this as "missing a kick" in the movie

  13. what do you think about this.

    its from different language but that guy have some points to make...

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Ok one thing that is annoying me is that after our leonardo convinced that old ugly guy that he is not in a limbo so..... they get out of it ( whether shot or not shot) then they should rise from their limbo at level 3 but they have already missed their level 3 kick so it means they are again in a limbo where everything is what saito and Cobb want. One more point , Cobb never wakes from the drowning van and Saito is NOT IN the van???He has to be in the van right? to get to the deeper levels and share the dream??he is just not shown coming out of the van. Please solve this as soon as possible

    1. Hi Ishan, Leornado and the old ugly guy both reach limbo by dying in some level of the dream. Once in Limbo the only way to get out of it is by killing yourself in limbo. This also means that once death happens in limbo, the person will bypass all the layers of dream and wake up into reality directly. Saito and Cobb are both in the van. Both Saito and Cobb are left back in the van because Saito and Cobb are in limbo so their bodies are of no use in the dream level of the Van. The only way for Cobb and Saito to wake up in reality is by killing themselves in limbo, which they do and join the rest on the flight.

  16. my point is how did u estimate that getting out from a limbo automatically puts u to reality???they should get back wherever the limbo started whatever may be the level. And another point that I missed. Cobb and Mal spent 50 years in a limbo but when they were getting out of it by dying in front of a moving train why were they young and why did they need to die when they have already realised that they are in a limbo???

    1. It is shown in the movie that death in the limbo brings the dreamers back to reality. Eg: When Cobb and Mal are trapped in Limbo, they kill them selves in under a train. This causes both of them to wake up in reality by bypassing any of the other levels of dreams they went down into. The same happens when Cobb and Saito kill themselves in Limbo, they wake up in the flight by bypassing all the other levels of dreams. Hope that helps.


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