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Inception Explained, almost.

One of the strangest lucid dreams I’ve ever had was indeed being caught inside a dream in a dream in a dream in a dream. I found myself waking up one morning, taking a shower, brushing my teeth, getting dressed, and going to school. During my first class, I woke up again. And so I got out of bed and repeated my morning rituals. This time round though, I only got as far as the bus ride to school. I found myself waking up again. That’s when I realized something strange was going on. This scenario would continue to repeat itself several times, each dream sequence getting shorter and shorter until I couldn’t get any further than stepping out of my bed before ending back to where I was. Finally, I was awake. But even then, doubts remained. How could I be sure I wasn’t still dreaming? It was only after my day had progressed well passed the afternoon that I started to relax and assume that I really had returned to reality.

Since then, I have found an easy way of determining whether I am trapped in a lucid dream or not: In my dreams, I can float mid-air, sometime two or three stories high. It’s not easy and a bit scary, but I guarantee you it’s a really cool sensation. I can only recommend it. But after seeing Inception, I may have to rethink my floating totem. For until know, I’ve always assumed my inner thoughts and dreams would always be safe from others. Not anymore.

Disclaimer: The butler did it!

It goes without saying, if you haven’t seen Inception yet, the following article will contain spoilers. Lots of them!

Now that we got that out of the way

To spin, or to topple, that’s the question. If it weren’t for the last few seconds of the film, you probably wouldn’t be here in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer whether the reality that Cobbs believes he is in is real or not. The film goes to great lengths to ensure that every point that could indicate what is real and what is not is kept very ambiguous. There is enough material for both sides of the argument, but nothing that can be used as decisive proof. So I offer you two possible interpretations of the film. The real one, and the dream version.

Interpretation one: It’s real

The top will topple over and we can safely assume that Cobb was right. This is the simplest interpretation of the two  versions and we can simply take the film at face value. He has returned to reality in which Mal unwittingly killed herself. After struggling with his guilt for losing his wife, he is finally united with his children. End of story.

Because if the whole film had been a dream? What’s the point? Why should we care if nothing is real and without consequence anyway?

Personally, I’m not too happy with this interpretation. My first impression of Inception was that it was sanitized version of eXistenz. The both play the exact same theme. But with eXistenz, instead of a dream in a dream, it used the concept of a virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game. As a result, the players themselves eventually don’t know if they are actually still inside the game or not. The difference is, even though eXistenz was weird and unbalancing, it managed to tell its story without getting lost in the complexities of its technology. With Inception on the other hand, you need a chart just to figure out who was dreaming where and when, where and why were they being kicked or killed.

Interpretation two:  It’s all a dream

For this version of the story, it doesn’t matter if the totem topples over at the end or not. Becaue everything is possible when you’re dreaming and I love solving a good movie puzzle.

The long con

This is of course is my interpretation of the film and is by no means a definitive explanation. The trick to doing this is to explain as much as possible without having to leave behind too many loose ends. So if you have a better theory, I would like to hear it.

As I see it, the film is a combination between a love story and a how-to-con-a-conman. Because when it comes down to it, Cobb and his team are nothing more than  just that: conmen. They are the Ocean 11’s of the dream world. They find a mark, observe him and then play an array of confidence tricks to gain their victim’s trust. Once they have achieved that, they can start extracting deep routed secrets from their mark.

At first glance, it would seem that Saito was the first mark, but that mission failed. Saito at one point even claims the mission was a test, but never elaborates for what. When Saito returns to hire Cobb, a new mark is set. This time it is Fisher.

However, it’s more plausible that from the beginning, the real mark was actually Cobb himself. The two missions he is sent out to do are actually a ruse. It’s a classic case of the conman being conned without him realizing it. But why? And by whom?

A leap of faith

For my theory, you’ll have to take a leap of faith. Saito is actually Mal, or at the very least, one of her projections. As a matter of fact, they both even utter those same words. The both ask Cobb to take a leap of faith.

Ok, but how can Saito be Mal? To wrap your head around that, I’ll start by explaining the events of the movie.

We know that Cobb planted the idea in Mal’s head that the limbo they were trapped in wasn’t real. But when they kill themselves, they end up in a different limbo. Mal realizes this, but it’s Cobb that now believes that they are living in reality. When Mal can’t convince him otherwise, she plans an elaborate scheme to force Cobb into jumping with her off the ledges of the hotel room windows. If he doesn’t he will not only loose her, but also lose access to his children. Unfortunately for Mal, her plan backfires. Cobb is now not only left behind and trapped in his own limbo, he is now doomed to grow old and become a lonely and guilt ridden  man.

Mal however still loves him. It was never her intention to punish him like this. So if she can’t convince him to return to reality, she can at least try to make his time in limbo as pleasant as possible. And so she plans an inception that will not only unite Cobb with his children, but also free him of his guilt. Eventually, Cobb will wake up out of his limbo and they will be reunited, but until that time comes, she simply wants him to be happy again.

So she returns. Quite likely disguised as Saito. For it’s not impossible to appear as someone else in a dream. As a matter of fact, Earns, the forger, actually pulls this type of confidence trick several times during the Fisher heist. The first time, he plays Fisher’s uncle, and the second time, as hot blond woman at the bar to distract Fishers attention. At other times, Saito is probably just a projection. For example when Saito and Mal are seen in the same room. We can probably also go as far as concluding that all the other characters in the film are projections. Some are created by Cobb, the others by Mal.

Conning Cobb and planting the inception requires several steps. The first one is making sure that Cobb cannot trust his own instincts, pretty much in the same way as the gambit used in the Fisher heist: The one where Cobb becomes Mr. Charles to trick Fisher into not trusting his own self defense mechanisms.

The Saito Heist

The first seed of doubt is planted into Cobb’s  mind during the first heist at the Japanese beach house. Cobb believes Mal is dead, so when he sees her there, he actually believes that what he is seeing is nothing more than a projection of his own mind. But because he can’t control her (the chair incident and the fact that she further sabotages the mission), he is therefore led to believe that he may be losing his mind.

The sabotage of the mission doesn’t stop there however. There is also the carpet fiasco in Saito’s love nest. It didn’t really matter what the carpet was made of. All that Saito had to do was pretend it was some kind of totem and claim it should have been made of a different material than intended. This not only sabotages the mission even further, but more importantly, it also places doubt in the abilities of the architect. Why? Because it’s actually a smart ploy by Mal to smooth the path of having Cobb’s architect replaced by one of hers: Ariadne.

When Saito claims the whole mission was a test, it not only implies he knew about it, it was also to see if Cobb could be manipulated enough for the Con to go through. And it does. The second stage of the con can now commence.

The Helicopter Scene

With the failed mission, Cobb and his team are now on the run from some anonymous global corporation. Something that Mal has probably setup in the hope that Cobb may still eventually question the reality of his world. (side note: Cobol Engineering, Cobb; coincidence?)

When they try to escape via helicopter, Cobbs is tested again. Saito has not only captured his architect, but tells Cobb he betrayed him by giving away their location. If Cobb still had any faith in his own architect, it’s now completely gone. Saito then offers Cobb to shoot him.

Cobb refuses. It proves he still firmly believes he is still living in reality. When Arthur was shot by Mal, Cobb didn’t hesitate to kill Arthur to put him out of his pain, because he know he would just end up a level higher in the dreamscape. But in this dimension, he believes that shooting anyone will actually kill them for real. Either way, Mal is now able to remove Cobb’s architect completely out of the picture.

Now it is time for Saito to reel him into the con. The bait is a job offer: one that requires an inception of an idea in someone’s mind. Mal knows this idea intrigues Cobb. He pretty much spelt it out during the Saito heist just before it went wrong. The hook that will lure him into the con is the offer that if he successfully does the job, he will be able to see his children again.


As Mal has gotten rid of Cobbs original architect, he needs a new one. Mal creates one for him: Ariadne. Her name is derived from the Greek mythology. In the myth, she falls in love with Theseus and gives him a sword to fight the Minotaur and a ball of red fleece to find his way through the labyrinth. So it’s no coincidence that it’s Ariadne’s job to design all the mazes. She’ll be responsible for luring Cobb all the way down to the original limbo.

It’s also not surprising that Ariadne picks up dream building so quickly. Being Mals projection, Mal already has plenty of experience building entire worlds.

When Cobb sets of with her in a dreamscape to test her possibilities, she creates a scene of a bridge with mirrors. A place that Mal and Cobb knew well. By placing a projection of an old romantic memory there, it further destabilizes Cobb’s frame of mind. Cobb who is clearly rattled warns her never to use elements from memory, because that is the easiest way to lose grasp of what is real and what is a dream. And there may lie Cobb’s problem. The limbo world he is trapped in now  is not one he created, but one that was subconsciously built entirely from memory. That is why he confuses it for being real


When Cobb heads off to Mombasa, he meets Eans, the forger, who introduced him to Yusaf, the pharmacist. Both of them are probably projections too, though it is not clear if they belong to Cobb or Mal. I would guess that Eans may be Cobb’s projection, because they already knew each other.  Yusaf on the other hand is Mals projection. Being that Cobb is the mark, she’ll want as many of her projections on the team as possible.

Yusaf will also be the key to luring Cobb into the original Limbo that Mal and Cobb once shared. He does this by making Cobb unwittingly changing the rules of the dream world. He can convince Cobb that by introducing a sedative, being killed in a dream will no longer return you to the higher up level, but will throw you into limbo instead.

Before that, the three ways of getting out of a dream were:

  • Time: Wait until you wake up, possibly after the sedative has worn out.
  • Externally: If someone wakes you up from your sleep, by using some kind of kick.
  • Internally: Waking up from within your dream, you have to kill yourself.

The prison of regrets

Of course, Cobb isn’t going as crazy as he thinks he is. In fact, he has managed to contain his memories and projections of Mal in a type of dream prison. It’s a place where he can store all his regrets, the very things he wants to change.

To be more precise, it’s actually not a prison. Rather, they are his deepest secrets. But unlike the others who tend to lock theirs away in a safe, he has hidden his in a different dreamscape.  At least until Mal, through Ariadne, manages to infiltrate it. It is here were she learns of Cobb’s biggest regrets:

  • That he didn’t see his children’s faces before he was forced to run
  • His real guilt however stems from a broken promise: that he and Mal would grow old together. He feels responsible for her demise.

Uniting Cobb with their children will be the easy part. The hard part will be planting the inception that will relieve him of his guilt. That is where the Fisher heist comes in to play.

The Fisher heist: Level one

The first stage of the trap is set. The goal is to trick Cobb into returning to the original limbo. That means sabotaging the Fisher heist as well. To begin with, Mal lets a train race through the middle of street full of traffic. It’s enough to convince Cobb that he’s now really loosing it. It doesn’t take much for Ariadne to convince him that he no longer is in control of his state of mind and that he has become a real threat to everyone else on the mission. Cobb must now reluctantly place his faith in Ariadnes hands. It’s here were he tells here why Mal killed herself and why he can’t see his children.

Thanks to the sedatives, the stakes have been upped. So Mal also sends out an unexpected but heavily armed attack team. Not to protect Fisher, but to have Saito shot and wounded. If he dies, Cobb will have no choice but to follow him into limbo and bring him back. Saito is his only chance of ever seeing his children again. More subtly though, after talking to wounded Saito, the idea is planted in Cobb’s mind that if you get trapped in Limbo, there is a very big risks growing old there before you can return.

The Fisher heist: Level two

As in level one, the deceptions being played on Fisher are actually the same deceptions that Mal is playing on Cobb. Mal doesn’t show up in this level though, but Cobb does start seeing projections of his children for the first time popping up in a heist.

The Fisher heist: Level three

Now is a good time to ask ourselves how Fisher’s story relates to Cobb. If Mal thought up this mission, why this mission? Well, it’s actually quite simple. Fisher lost his mother at an early age and his father was never there for him. Cobb’s children also lost their mother at an early age, and because Cobb is on the run, he isn’t there for his children either.

Mal unexpectedly reappears and sabotages the mission by killing Fisher, sending him into limbo before the inception could be completed. Cobb loses all hope and is about to give up. That is when Ariadne steps in and pulls him deeper into the maze. By convincing Cobb to enter limbo as well, they may still have a chance of saving the mission.

The Fisher heist: Limbo

Once here, Cobb confronts Mal. She tries to convince him to stay, but Cobb finally confesses that he was responsible for planting the idea that her world wasn’t real. And that he feels guilty and responsible for her jumping from the hotel room window.

From here, things start to move very fast: Cobb tricks Mal into releasing Fisher. When she does, he changes his mind and decides to leave her anyway and search for Saito instead. Mal attacks Cobb with a knife, and then something strange happens. Ariadne, an innocent school girl, all of a sudden pulls out a gun out of nowhere and shoots Mal down, Not killing her, just wounding her.

Ariadne then throws Fisher of the balcony, killing him and sending him back to the third level where he can complete the mission. Ariadne then follows him down killing herself.


After unlocking the doors of the safe, Fisher is reunited with his father. A chance to relive those last moments with him. Here, the idea is planted that his father’s biggest regret was creating an empire rather than spending time with what was most important: the time spent with his loved ones, his son. Fisher now believes his father doesn’t want him to make the same mistake.

At the same time, another inception is taking place: Cobb’s last moments with dying Mal. The lesson here for Cobb is pretty much the same. When they were still living together in the limbo world they had built, Cobb probably suffered from the creators paradox: how can you create a work of fiction, and then believe to be true? To him, once the fun had worn off of acting like gods, everything he had created felt fake and meaningless. Mal on the other hand had a different perspective on things. She loved this world, not because of the things they had built, but simply because they were together. For her, this was all that mattered and is why she hid her totem. At least until Cobb passed his idea that everything was fake off as hers.

So just before she dies again, she reiterates their promise that they would grow old together. Cobb realizes that in a way, they actually already had lived a lifetime together: fifty years in limbo is a very long time. But until that moment, they always look the same age in his flashbacks of limbo. Even when they decided to commit suicide on the train tracks. But from that point on, he now remembers her and himself as an old couple walking through the world they had both created. He finally comes to believe that they did grow old together and as a result his promise had already been fulfilled. Mal’s inception succeeded and Cobb is cured of his guilt.

The inception worked so well that when Cobb does find Saito, he too appears as an old man, despite being the last one to enter limbo. (Fisher, Ariadne, Mal and Cobb didn’t age one bit even though they all had spent a longer time in limbo than Saito).

The End

Everybody wakes up. Saito makes the call. Cobb returns home and spins his totem one last time. But he doesn’t wait for the outcome. Whether he is in reality or a dream, it doesn’t matter to him anymore. The important thing is the time spent with the ones he love: his children.

As for Mal. Cobb will eventually wake up and they will be reunited again.

The totum top

While the idea of using a totem is sound, the top that Cobb uses on the other hand has been compromised, defeating its original purpose. So as a measure of reality, it has become useless. For starters, it belonged to Mal as a way of determining if she  was still inside of Cobb’s dreams or not.

Cobb never had a totem of his own to start with. Probably because if you are the dreamer, you would already know the secret properties of your totem, leaving yourself open to being deceived by your own sub consciousness.

As Saito claimed in the beginning of the film: if you are the dreamer, you make the rules, and so you would need another way to test if you are dreaming or not. Like I mentioned before, I try floating. If I can’t, I know I’m not dreaming.

Cobb on the other hand truly believes he is in reality, so he doesn’t try changing anything in his world. In fact, he refuses to change anything. This even extends to when he does enter other dream worlds, he leaves the creation of them to others. And this despite being a brilliant architect himself. So if Cobb is the dreamer, but believes everything is real; subconsciously, he would make the top topple over to keep the illusion alive.

In fact, the only time we ever see Cobb using the top in the dream world, making it spin endlessly, is when he planted the inception in Mal’s safe. It is only after Mal committed suicide that he started using the top and only when he believes he has returned to the real world. Never during his heists or escapades with Ariadne in dream space.

Compromising the totem even further,  he at one point explains to Ariadne how it works. Doing so opens up the possibility that others can manipulate you into making you believe what they want. He did however mention that it belonged to Mal, so it’s always possible that Ariadne never assumed he himself used it, but still. It’s not really clear if the other members new about it too.

And then there is the moment when Cobb finds Saito as an old man. When he is dragged into the room, one of Saito’s henchmen places two items they found on Cobb’s body on the table. A gun and the top. Saito recognizes it immediately. Saito then gives it a spin and it does so without ever toppling over. So Saito must have known of its secret property. If Saito is Mal, that would make perfect sense. If not, then it’s clear the totem had become a public secret to all the members of the team.

And that brings us to the very end of the film. Does it topple over or not? If it kept on spinning, we would know that Cobb was still dreaming. If it toppled over, we would still be guessing anyway. Did it topple over because it really is reality, or because Cobb subconsciously still believes it to be? In Cobb’s case, the totem is nothing more than an indication of his state of mind.

So back to the final moments of the spinning top. What we actually see is the top spinning for a while, starts loosing it’s momentum as if it is about to topple over, but then all of a sudden, it regains its spin again. The table is ruled out as it is too smooth to affect it, so why does it do that?

The answer may lie with the children.

Who will think of the children?

If the whole film is a dream, then what about the children? Are they real? Or let me rephrase that: did Mal and Cobb ever have any children in the real world to begin with? Once again, the film is too ambiguous to tell either way.

It does however seem very strange that a mother and a father could break away from their children for fifty years no matter how perfect their new world surroundings could be. Most parents probably wouldn’t last 50 hours before trying to return to their children. So personally, I don’t think they ever had any real children to begin with.

Then there are the beach scenes. Chronologically, the first beach scene is of Cobb and Mal building sandcastles right after arriving in the original limbo. They didn’t have any children yet and the only time they do appear in this world is when Cobb returns to limbo to get Fisher back. But by then, he was seeing projections of them everywhere.

The second time the beach appears is when Ariadne infiltrates Cobb’s dream. He takes the elevator to the top level, and there we see Mal together with the children building castles in the sand.

After returning to Limbo and letting go of Mal, Cobb now goes after Saito. Cobb once again lands on the beach and when he looks up, the first image he sees before noticing the guard and the Japanese beach house, are his children building sandcastles. Only, Mal is no longer in the picture anymore.

These scenes may illustrate the progression of Cobb’s inner world as all these scenes are memories or at least projections of them. So what’s going on?

Cobb is convinced that inception is difficult. Unfortunately, this is not really true. There is a whole field of science dedicated to studying how false memories are formed. We tend to believe of ourselves that we are logical, rational beings and that our memories never change. In reality, we are everything but logical, rational beings and our memories are constantly susceptible to change. In fact, scientist have now figured out that every time we try to remember a memory, we risk changing it forever (and therefore makes planting false memories possible). It may be that this little oversight on Cobb’s part that makes it so easy for Mal to manipulate him.

It’s very likely that Mal planted the idea that they had children, possibly because they wanted kids or as part of her plan to blackmail Cobb into committing suicide together. And because the idea was planted, Cobb never knew what his children actually looked like.

So at the very end, when the totem is about to topple over, Cobb creates something new for the very first time in what he had believed was a reality he couldn’t control: He finally gives his children a face. And the top returns to spinning perfectly again.

If you enjoyed this, you may also be interested in: Lost Highway explained.


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Thanks for this summary. I just watched the movie for the first time (yeah, not exactly opening day) and had the “Saito=Mal” interpretation. This is the best expression of that theory that I’ve found.

doktarr  ¤ June 23, 2011 at 19:27

I’d say he was still in the dream, if only for the poor excuse used in the beginning when they’re on the train, about the dream machine and how it connected everybody. Utter crap, which suggests itself a thread of dream logic at work. In the dream, you don’t need hard scientific reasons for why stuff works. It just does!

Jason Parker  ¤ January 28, 2012 at 00:44

My question is what was on that envelope that Cobb read with confidential on it. He looked shocked. If you pause it, it says something about software programming , and something about deception…

Coop  ¤ January 28, 2012 at 06:11

I don’t really understand…. It seems a bit flimsy. Even though I read your whole opinion. How can Mal be in Cobb’s “limbo” if she’s in “reality”? Mal can’t interfere unless she’s ACTUALLY in “limbo” with him. And you said she killed herself in order to go up the level. So Mal can’t have any projections because she has to be in “limbo”. And the Saito = Mal, can it be possible that people, just coincidentally, that they speak the same lines?

Angela  ¤ June 3, 2012 at 22:07

Fascinating theory.. By far one of the most complete and well examined I’ve read. Although I’ve seen the movie several times, your theory makes me want to watch it again (and again). I thoroughly enjoyed the movie each time I’ve seen it, more each time perhaps, and although I don’t feel the need to dispel the mystique completely I can’t help but attempt to unravel it in my mind. Christopher Nolan is truly a master at his craft. Anytime a film maker can create such an allure, they are doing something right in my opinion.

ContentedlyConfuzzled  ¤ July 19, 2012 at 16:54

Well thought. However, I would argue that the real inception happens when he meets Saito. The “simple idea” planted to his mind is that “this world is not real” and this is clearly repeated 3 times in the movie. I am convinced that Saito is the master extractor performing the inception on Cobb in order to help him reach the higher levels of his dreamworld (after he has been freed from the guilt that did not allow him to see it this way). The ending could be his return to a point of the dreamworld closer to the actual reality (Cobb’s reality is certainly not “real” – there are many clues suggesting this throughout the film) where people who know his situation (like Miles or even the real Mal) could now bring him closer to waking up as he is now convinced (incepted) that “this world” (his world) “is not real”.

xmanos  ¤ April 4, 2013 at 20:49

Cobb’s totem was the faces of his children. Why would he care about the spinning top at the end of the movie when their faces told him all he needs to know. And them spinning tops are capable of physic defying feats regardless of a real/ethereal constitution.

The film was very enjoyable to watch, but Christopher Nolan is not David Lynch (except, maybe, in his dreams), and I don’t think the film stands up to the scrutinies demanded of some of Lynch’s more “peculiar” titles.

Josef K.  ¤ April 9, 2013 at 20:54
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