Guide to Understanding Inception

Tamar McCollom

DISCLAIMER: If you are one of the six people left on the planet who has not seen Inception, do not read this article.

The Nature of Dreams

While dreaming, humans simultaneously create and perceive. This allows for the “Dream Team” to take over the creation aspect of dreams, and set up elaborate sets that they lure the targets into.

Shared dreaming occurs when multiple people enter into one team member’s dream. For instance, the rainy city dream (LEVEL 1) was Yusuf’s dream, which everyone else entered into. The subjects, those who are joining someone else’s dream, populate the dream with their subconscious minds. The subconscious is represented by people, some insignificant passerby and others crucial like Mal or Browning. If the dreamer continually changes the landscape, the subjects begin to sense the shift, and their subconscious will attack the dreamer. This is exemplified in the beginning when Mal stabs Ariadne.

Also, the human mind processes things faster in dreams, so time moves more quickly. This means that five minutes in the real world is an hour in the first level of a dream, etc. As one goes deeper and deeper, they can end up spending what feels like decades in a dream, but is actually mere hours in reality.

There are two ways to exit a dream. Route A is to be killed. If you die in a dream, you wake up. Route B is a “kick.” A kick can be defined as a jolt, or the sensation of falling. In the context of Inception, the “Dream Team” makes sure to always leave one person behind on a level, so that they create the kick for everyone. To synchronize the kick through numerous levels and provide a warning, they use the track “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf.

The Dream Team (Pun Intended)

Cobb- “The Extractor”: Cobb works as a professional thief in the world of corporate espionage, and is the leader of the “Dream Team.” His job is to steal important secrets from people by invading their dreams. Cobb used to work as the architect until his late wife, Mal, began to seep through his subconscious and sabotage their missions. If Cobb works as the architect and plans the layout, Mal knows the layout as well, and can pose a serious threat to the team’s success.

Arthur- “The Pointman”: Arthur thoroughly researches the person whose dreams they intend to infiltrate. The unofficial second-in-command.  Certified BAMF.

Ariadne- “The Architect”: Ariadne works as the architect of the dreams, and must essentially create mazes complex enough to convince the target that the dream is reality. Ariadne also serves as Cobb’s confidant, and the viewer’s unofficial guide through the complicated world of dreams.

Eames- “The Forger”: Eames impersonates those close to the target, who in Robert Fischer’s case is his godfather, Peter Browning. He also helps devise the stages of planting the idea in Fischer’s mind.

Yusuf- “The Chemist”: Yusuf concocts the compound that allows the dreamers to stay soundly asleep through multiple dreams-within-dreams.

Saito- “The Tourist”: Saito employs the “Dream Team,” and promises to help Cobb return home. Saito insists on accompanying them into the dream.

Robert Fischer- “The Target”: Fischer is the heir to his father’s energy company.

The “Dream Team” wants to use inception on Fischer to convince him to divide up his father’s legacy.


Limbo is the rock bottom of the dream world. Once you reach Limbo, you can’t go any deeper into the dream world. From what viewers are told, Limbo is completely unconstructed dream space, and when one arrives, it is completely vacant. The dreamer must create their own world out of Limbo. The exception to this is if one of the team members has reached Limbo before. In that case, for all team members, Limbo remains what the person created before.

Cobb is the team member that has reached Limbo before. Thus, when Saito and Fischer are killed, they enter into Cobb’s Limbo, and do not have to create their own.

Now, how does one reach Limbo? One can reach Limbo in two ways. Route A is Cobb and Mal’s way. One continues to create dreams-within-dreams until they cannot go any deeper, and thus reach Limbo. Route B is Saito and Fischer’s path. Saito and Fischer were both shot and killed in the dream world, but they could not wake up per usual because they were heavily sedated. Therefore, they enter Limbo, instead of just waking up.

Mal and the Idea That Destroyed Her

Mal, Cobb’s late wife and the primary antagonist in Inception is perhaps the most complicated character in the movie, not to mention the craziest. Mal and Cobb used to experiment with the concept of dreams-within-dreams until they finally reached Limbo. After spending decades in Limbo, Mal chooses to stop spinning the top to test whether it is a dream or not, and accepts Limbo as her reality. This is represented when she places her totem, the top, in a safe- “she locked away a secret, deep inside herself, something she once knew to be true… but chose to forget.” Cobb begins to realize that Limbo is not actually reality, and seeks out Mal’s totem, the top, to spin it. By spinning the top in Mal’s safe, he subconsciously reminds her to begin questioning if their world is reality or a dream. This instills in her mind “that [her] world wasn’t real and in order to get back to the reality, [she had] to kill [herself].”

However, once they returned to reality, the idea remained planted in Mal’s mind, and she began to believe that reality was just another dream. She eventually commits suicide, thinking that she will escape the dream and find reality, which is false. This was Cobb’s first experiment with inception, which obviously ends up going horribly wrong, and causes him to feel immense guilt. His guilt later manifests in his projection of Mal in dreams.

The Ending

After two and a half hours of confusion and suspense, Inception concludes with Cobb finally returning home to his children. However, Cobb’s totem, the top, continues to spin, which poses the question: Was the ending reality or just another dream?

Three conflicting theories regarding the ending have emerged. Theory A claims that the ending is supposed to remain ambiguous, and no one will ever know if Cobb was dreaming or not. Theory B states that Cobb is without a doubt awake, and the ending is reality. Theory C states that Cobb was dreaming, and the ending was yet another dream world.

I tend to side with Theory B, that the ending was reality, and Cobb finally reunites with his children. I believe that the top isn’t his totem, and thus doesn’t signify anything. Viewers are told that the top was Mal’s totem, and he only used it once she died. Cobb’s real totem is his wedding ring. Cobb is only shown wearing his wedding ring in dreams. In the real world, Cobb is shown repeatedly sans ring, and in the final scene Cobb’s ring finger is shown clearly without his wedding band. Therefore, unless the always meticulous Christopher Nolan decided to go all willy-nilly with the ring and disregard film continuity, the ending is reality.