Inception isn’t the most straightforward cinematic experience, especially when it comes to the various dream layers – here’s a breakdown of each level. Released in 2010, Christopher Nolan‘s Inception remains a celebrated modern classic, and a landmark in terms of visual and storytelling ambition. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a thief who steals information from the minds of the rich and powerful, and is damn good at it. In the tragic aftermath of a dream experiment gone wrong, DiCaprio’s character became a wanted man in the U.S., and hasn’t seen his children in years. He’s offered one last job by Ken Watanabe’s energy mogul, Mr. Saito, with freedom the tantalizing reward.
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Alas, Saito isn’t seeking to extract information from a competitor’s mind, he wants to plant something – an idea that will force Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer to dissolve his father’s assets, thereby assuring the prosperity of Saito’s company for generations to come. Accompanied by Ariadne the architect, (Elliot Page), Yusef the chemist (Dileep Rao), Eames the forger (Tom Hardy), and his long-time partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb hatches a plan.
To commit inception, the group need to burrow as deep as possible into Fischer’s mind – the maximum three levels. A dream within a dream within a dream. Where dying in a dream usually means waking up, this risky mission requires such heavy sedation from Yusef that death will pull the infiltrator into a near-inescapable state of limbo. Because one cannot simply awaken from multi-layered dreams, the thieves will also need a “kick” to bring them back to the surface. The structure of the dream is complex by design, but each layer serves a distinct purpose in the overall goal of convincing a man to give up his fortune.
To differentiate dreams from reality, Cobb and his team use totems – unique items that no one else’s dream could possibly recreate in exact detail. Thanks to this handy mechanic, the audience can be sure Inception‘s ambitious heist begins in the real world. Using his wealth and influence, Saito engineers a situation whereby Robert Fischer must fly first class instead of taking his usual private plane. Cobb’s gang occupy the seats around him and bring an air hostess in on the con. Fischer is a slipped a sedative and all seven hook up to the shared dreaming apparatus.
Over the past decade, film fans have repeatedly argued over whether Cobb returns to reality at the end of Inception or not, with Christopher Nolan giving absolutely nothing away. Inception only shows Cobb waking up on the plane, and infamously ends before revealing whether his spinning top totem ever stopped twirling. If Cobb is still dreaming, then Inception‘s final glimpse of reality comes when the six thieves and Fischer simultaneously hit their complimentary airline pillows. In an alternate timeline, Arthur and the others would’ve awoken from a successful mission, and are forced to either leave a slumbering Cobb on the jet, or smuggle the sleepyhead through immigration.
Level 1: Raining City
The opening level of Inception‘s dream takes the form of a sprawling city. As with all three levels, the layout has been designed by Ariadne, who taught each team member her designs before the mission began. Everyone involved should already know their way around the dreams, with the exception of Fischer (who’s the mark) and Cobb (who’s scared his subconsciousness will betray him with a angry version of his dead wife). The dreamer of this city is Yusef, and because the chemist needs to pee, the weather is rainy.
To successfully execute inception, Cobb can’t simply tell Fischer to break up his father’s company – the idea needs to grow organically in the target’s mind. Consequently, the purpose of Level 1 is gently introducing the core concept Saito has requested. Eames impersonates Fischer’s Uncle Peter, the one trusted figure in his life, and reveals a secret last will and testament residing in a safe that can disassemble the company if Fischer so chooses. Eames also drops the suggestion that Fischer’s father did love him, setting up reconciliation in a later level. The second will is a complete fabrication by Cobb’s group. During the interrogation, Fischer is also forced to generate a random 6-digit number that will act as the password to this imaginary safe on Level 3.
The city level doesn’t completely go to plan. Like many rich folks, Fischer’s mind has been trained to detect and defend against infiltration, which manifests as armed soldiers following Cobb’s group wherever they go, and Saito is hit in the firefight. To make matters worse, Mal (or, more accurately, the guilty projection of Mal in Cobb’s subconscious) is already wreaking havoc, sending a freight train to attack the invaders.
When the city part of the heist is done, Fischer is sedated again (within the dream this time) and everyone apart from Yusef (he’s needed to keep the city level active) plugs into another shared dreaming machine. There is no machine, of course, but the process takes everyone down to the next layer. When it’s time to exit, Yusef will play music to count down the upcoming kick, then drive off a bridge to jump everyone out of Level 2.
Level 2: The Hotel
The second layer takes place in a fancy hotel, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s Arthur the dreamer on this occasion. Facing unexpected resistance from Fischer’s projections, Cobb wheels out the risky Mr. Charles stratagem. This particular ploy involves Cobb putting on the facade of “Mr. Charles” and pretending to be in charge of Fischer’s mental security. Cobb tells the businessman he’s dreaming to earn his trust and plays the role of a projection designed to keep Fischer safe. The tactic works, and Fischer comes to trust Cobb’s team, mistakenly believing them to be part of his inner security system.
The point of Level 2 is to convince Fischer that the rainy city is reality and that his dad’s secret will might not be so bad. Cobb leads Fischer to the “enemy’s” room, then Eames walks in pretending to be Uncle Peter again, framing Fischer’s godfather as a traitor. Eames (as Uncle Peter) tells Fischer that the will is a challenge, taunting the son to create something of his own instead of following his father. Eames even hints that Fischer could build a better company if he started afresh. Fischer is now starting to believe that forging his own path could be a good thing. Finally, Cobb tells Fischer that the only way to know what Peter had planned is to enter his dream. Fischer willingly plugs in and the others follow, leaving behind Arthur this time.
At each level of the dream, the time dilation multiplies. The exact formula is difficult to decipher, but 10 seconds on the city level is 3 minutes for the hotel, which translates to an hour down on Level 3. Because of this, Yusef starts his kick before Arthur is ready, and drives off the bridge on Level 1. Originally, Arthur’s hotel kick was going to be an explosion that drops his sleeping allies from the fifth floor into the room below, but with Yusef’s van in freefall, Level 2’s gravity has been lost. Improvising, Arthur rigs the hotel elevator to provide a kick instead, then relies on the van from Level 1 hitting water to provide another makeshift kick.
Level 3: Snow Fortress Hospital
The last of the three dream layers that Ariadne designed is generated by Tom Hardy‘s Eames, and comprises a snow-covered hospital guarded like a fortress. A projection of Robert’s father lies inside next to the safe containing his fabled secret will. Fischer believes he must discover what’s inside to understand Uncle Peter’s plot against him. Cobb’s gang want him to reach the center of the maze because that’s where the actual inception will finally happen.
After fighting off more tenacious opposition, Fischer enters the well-guarded room containing a projection of his dying father. The old man tells Fischer he was only ever disappointed that his son never tried to be his own man, and gestures to open the safe at his bedside. Not only does the locker contain the second will (which Fischer now thinks was written with love, not malice), but there’s also a paper windmill. This toy comes from the one wholesome childhood memory Fischer has of his father – a memory his dream self carries a photograph of at each level.
Fischer finds solace and catharsis in his father’s words, and this harks back to Cobb’s suggestion during an earlier scene. In order to make Saito’s idea grow naturally in Fischer’s mind, it must be attached to strong emotions. While the gang could’ve played on the rift between father and son, Cobb believed positive emotions would be more effective. Therefore, the purpose of the hospital level is to give Fischer a subconscious sense of healing around breaking up his father’s business empire. Upon waking in reality, Fischer won’t suddenly start believing a second will exists, but he’ll begin to question whether he really wants to live in his father’s shadow until the idea eventually becomes impossible to ignore. Subconsciously, he’ll believe the act will bring the same sense of catharsis he experienced on Level 3. More importantly, he’ll believe the idea was his own. The fortress kick is simple enough – blow the place up.
Another dream layer exists in the world of Inception – Limbo, the place no one wants to go. With enough sedation, digging deeper through the levels will lead shared dreamers to a world described as “raw subconscious.” Any of the dreamers can alter this level, and if a member of the group has already visited, the remains of their Limbo will still be present. So appealing is the freedom and creativity Limbo offers, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish reality from illusion, and the time dilation is so extreme, decades pass in a mere fraction of real-time.
Initially, Cobb refused to know Ariadne’s layouts, hoping to prevent his subconscious projection of Mal wrecking the mission, but as time gets tight on Level 3, Ariadne is forced to reveal a secret path. Mal then gets the jump on Fischer and kills him, while Saito succumbs to his wound from Level 1, consigning both men to Limbo. Ariadne and Cobb voluntarily descend into Limbo to retrieve them.
Once Cobb finally lets go of his guilt, “Mal” releases Fischer, allowing Ariadne and the businessman to kick back up to Level 3. Meanwhile, Cobb tracks down Saito, who has since become an old man due to the slow passage of time this deep in dreamland. As Inception warned would happen, Saito has no grasp of what’s real in Limbo, but Cobb’s familiar words trigger a realization. The Japanese entrepreneur glances towards the gun, suggesting both men shoot themselves in Limbo and are returned to Inception‘s reality… probably.
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