Inception Explained! (As Best As We Could)

Posted by Grey Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's affirmative. Inception has topped the US box office for a consecutive third weekend, relegating new releases like Dinner For Schmucks, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore and Charlie St Cloud to the backseats. The film is indeed a masterpiece that successfully invoked and stimulated the minds, both viscerally and intellectually, and an exercise in perfection of the exceedingly delicate art of balancing the art house and the summer blockbuster demographics. But it is also one piece of work that kept you thinking long after leaving the theater, with numerous questions on your minds. Therefore, The Daily Zombies duly attempts the impossible: Explaining Inception.

While we still maintain that the film is surprisingly comfortable to follow (this is by no means to the detriment of Director Christopher Nolan, but rather, a compliment, given how most people I came by react to his previous works such as Memento and The Prestige), Inception is one movie that is intended to keep the audience mind-fucked. Ultimately, Nolan sure as hell does not meant to settled down on a clear-and-concise narration, but rather, prefer to create a handful of red herrings, unreliable narratives, and one deliciously ambiguous ending on an epic scale.

Ever the generous and intelligent undead we are, The Daily Zombies is here to help those puzzled by the twist-and-turns of the plots and the logics behind the dreamy science. We looked around online and have put together some of the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) about the film, in an attempt to explain Inception.

However, do bear in mind that we don't have all the answers, and we believe nobody does, and by that, we meant Nolan himself. As mentioned earlier, Inception's intrigue lies in its ambiguity, plot points are intentionally left open for interpretation. We are here to piece together probable answers out of our very own analysis based on our personal opinions, and we welcome any rebuttal, debates, alternate theories, commentary on our views, or even ask new questions that have yet to crossed our mind, in a quest to further our understanding on arguably, the best piece of science fiction film we have seen in a decade.

So before we move on, we would suggest that in order to better comprehend the plot, one has to take a leap of faith to some extent, to suspend their disbelief. Obviously, expect major spoilers ahead, and for those who have not watch the film, get out of here and catch it now.

How can such far-stretching technology possibly exist?
As much as this is one helluva stupid question to ask while viewing an obvious science fiction film, we do see enough people asking this one. What did they said about there's no stupid question but stupid people?

While the concept of dream exploration is relatively nothing new, he actual realization for it to turn into actual technology ain't as much of a far shot as one might thought. Experiments on lucid dreaming (a dream in which one is aware that he or she is dreaming) and dream incubation (a practiced technique of learning to "plant a seed" in the mind, in order for a specific dream topic to occur, either for recreation or to attempt to solve a problem) has been well-documented since the late '60s, although the concept has been kicking around as far back as several centuries ago. Purportedly, religious techniques from the East was taught to induce a lucid dreaming state.

In Inception, drugs are being used to allow the users to shared their dreams. However, in the final mission, sedatives are being prepared by "The Chemist", Yusuf (played by Dileep Rao), to ensure that users remained in a prolonged state of deep sleep in order for the dream to proceed uninterrupted.

How did Mal, despite her demise, continued to be involved in the missions (both the earlier extraction mission and the final inception mission) depicted in the film?
It would seemed that Cobb, "The Extractor" (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) heavily grieved and tortured with regret over Mal's suicide, deliberately created Mal as a projection from his actual memory to keep her alive inside his subconscious (perhaps through unseen dreaming process), in a tragic attempt to relive his memories repeatedly. He did specifically instructed Mal to ": never replicate real places, or real memories, lest you lose sight of the boundary between reality and dream". But he just can't let his own memories go. Which is the reason why he cannot be the architect as Mal (the projection) would show up to sabotage the mission.

What is the never-ending staircases all about?
When Arthur was orientating Ariadne in Dream Architecture: 101 in his own dream, he utilized a never-ending staircase to illustrate his point.

The staircase, officially called the "Penrose stairs", is an impossible object created by British psychiatrist, medical geneticist, mathematician and chess theorist, Lionel Penrose and his son Roger Penrose. The point of of the lesson was illustrate to Ariadne how to disguise the boundaries of the dreams she build, in an effort to further prevent the dreamer from the realization of being in a dream state.

If they are not the actual dreamer, how can the Architect (in this case, Ariadne) build and control someone else's dream?
The Architect designed the dream while in reality, and then impart the design to the actual dreamer before commencement of the mission. Which is the reason why Ariadne was originally left out in the actual final mission as her participation is not necessary. This is distinctly different to the earlier mission when the rogue Architect, Nash (played by Lukas Haas) dreamed and designed simultaneously.

How does the Forger actually operates?
Eames, the quick-wit, sharp-tongue forger (played by Tom Hardy) is a forger in two ways. In the real world, Eames fakes his identities by forging documentation, and in the dream world, he can change his appearance and impersonate the rspective personalities based on the the research he did. This latter ability should be pretty much along the same line where buildings and scenarios are constructed in the dreams. It is just that due to his brilliant forte at impersonation, he was given the role. Others might also have the means to do so, but lacked the keen sense of observation required.

In the final mission, who were the respective dreamers for the different levels?
In the breath-taking prolonged final set where the actual inception took place, there are a total of four dreams. Only three were planned as the final one occurred out of an impromptu scenario. The dream within a dream within a dream within a dream happened in the below order:

Level one, with the spectacular car chase scene, was dreamed by Yusuf, "The Chemist". This is evidently so, from Yusuf's urge of peeing after taking too much champagne, which in turn, caused the heavy rain. This further supported by Yusuf staying behind to guard the team.

Level 2, set in a hotel, was dreamed by Arthur, "The Point Man" (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While I believed you will have no doubt about this point, the fact that the lighting in the hotel is similar to the first scene where Saito confronts both Arthur and Cobb definitely lends more credit to this theory. Remember how Mal mentioned how she perceived the dream to be Arthur's, judging by the decor?

Level 3, with the stretched-out battle in the snow fort was dreamed by Eames. Cobb clearly mentioned to the team that he is deceiving Robert Fischer, "The Mark" (played by Cillian Murphy) that they are entering Peter Browning (played by Tom Berenger)'s subconscious in order to find out Browning's motives, but the team are in fact entering deeper into Fischer's. I believed it has be a code of conduct or something for these extractors to never allow themselves part of their mark's dream, for obvious safety situation should the mark realized that he is dreaming and turned on them.

Level 4, AKA the final level was Limbo and are thereby dreamed by no one as Limbo is a place of shared consciousness.

For anyone still having problem grabbing with realities here (no pun intended), do check out New Jersey based 3D modeler Dehahs's inforgraphic (embedded below for your convenience) that details the timelines of the film, complete with the different levels of dreams and its respective kicks. Painstakingly nifty stuffs, I would say.

Did the team somehow came to be aware of the numbers Fischer would come up with, or else how did the hotel rooms #528 and #491 existed, and coincidentally situated at the same spots but different floor?
This is one of the easier ones to answer. While one cannot never confirm if the numbers, 528491 came to Fischer on a whim, or actually represented something, it would seems pretty impossible for the team to know the number in advance. In my opinion, this is one of the many improvisations they went along as the mission proceed.

What happens if you die in the dream?
According to the film's logic, in-dream death results in a return to reality. However, in the final mission, due to the heavy sedatives used to allow the team to travel deeper (three dreams level deep) into Fischer's subconscious, dying causes the user to be mentally stuck in Limbo, and reduced to a vegetative state for his/her physical self in the real world.

What was the cause of the loss of gravity in Level 2, AKA the hotel dream?
Strangely enough, this is just like how it is in real life. When someone dreams, their dream will be directly affected by things happening in the real world. Ever have the dream where you were suddenly alerted by sirens coming from all corner when in fact you have just been awaken by your alarm clock? Or anything along the lines of that.

When the van in Level 1, AKA Yusuf's dream, fell off the bridge, the motion of falling is immediately felt by Arthur, who is guarding the team along in Level 2. Based on what is observed in the film, in a situation where a dream lies within a dream within a dream, the effect does not seem to extend any further than one level, which explains why it never impacted as hard on those in Level 3.

What was Arthur doing, working on the elevator and putting everyone up in a bundle?
In a chain of intricately shot sequences, Director Nolan elaborated on how Arthur created a Kick in a state of zero gravity. In summary, he disconnected the elevator from the cables and utilized an explosion to propel the elevator to the ground, in order to ensure that everyone gets the Kick simultaneously.

If the team can revive Fischer by resuscitation, why wouldn't they save Saito in the same manner?
This is one of the most debated ones. Saito was shot on Level 1 of the dream and only died on the third. Should resuscitation were to be done on him on the third level, they can only bring him back to the second level where he was still slowly dying. And should they have the chance to revive him there and then, they can only bring him back to the first, where he was dying any moment soon.

On the other hand, Fischer was only shot on the third level and despite the fact that he was immediately sent to Limbo, he is doing perfectly well on the first two levels. As they have happened to timed the Kick from the defibrillator perfectly with the falling sensation he experienced after Ariadne pushed him off the building in Limbo, he was able to return to Level 3 intact just so that the mission can be completed. It might be arguable that if Ariadne shot Fischer instead, he might just wake up from all levels of dream, and the mission failed. The falling sensation logic remains to be applicable here.

Now that we have touched on the single most mystifying element of the film, let's face these questions head-on, as we take on this intriguing concept of Limbo.

What is Limbo?

Limbo is a shared dream plane not limited to a single subconscious. Limbo contains nothing, with the exception of whatever remnants that might have been built by any of the shared dreamers who has been there before. In the case of the film's dreamers, as Cobb and Mal were there before, the buildings that were created by them during the fifty odd years they spent there are still there.

How did Cobb and Mal ended up in Limbo and stranded there for fifty odd years?
The movie implied that it was an experiment went wrong, in parts due to Cobb's intention proceed deeper and deeper into the dream until a certain point of no return, that is the Limbo. This might be due to a similar case of over-dosage of sedative or something along the line of that.

What happens when one dies in limbo?
As mentioned earlier, due to the heavy sedatives used to allow the team to travel deeper into Fischer's subconscious in their dreams, dying causes the user to be mentally stuck in Limbo, and reduced to a vegetative state for his/her physical self in the real world. So what happens when one dies in Limbo?

In short, you will escape Limbo and return back to the real world. The problem with Limbo, is that one tends to forget about reality there. By realizing the truth (that the Limbo is fabricated and not the real world) and taking one's own life, one can escape back to reality. As a matter of fact, Cobb, Mal, Ariadne and Saito (arguably) demonstrated the point that deaths functions as a Kick back to reality. However, things are always more complicated than this. More on this later.

If by killing yourself ensures a return to the real world, can't Cobb just kill Mal outrightly in order to save her, instead of the tragically utilized Inception?
That is one interesting question up for interpretation. But seeing how Cobb unable to shoot an obvious projection of Mal at the snow fort scene, one can imagined how after fifty years of sole existence together, he wouldn't be able to bring himself to kill the real Mal.

Why did Cobb perform Inception on Mal?
A: Lost in Limbo for 50 years, both Cobb and Mal were unaware that their world wasn't real. While Cobb eventually discovered the truth, Mal stubbornly refused to accept it. In order to get Mal to kill herself and return to the real world, Cobb performed Inception on her, planting the idea that this world wasn't real in her mind. The plan worked perfectly as they committed suicide together (a most gruesome one, though) and successfully escaped Limbo. It is most unfortunate that the Inception worked so perfectly that the idea remained in Mal's mind even in the real world as she continued to think that the real world is but a a dream and that the only way out is by killing themselves.

In Cobb's Inception on Mal, he left a spinning top inside the safe. What does that mean?
As explained by Cobb, a safe in a dream usually indicates that it is a creation of the subconscious where all secrets are stored. Every dreamer in the film carries a totem, as an indication of whether they are in a dream. In the case for Mal, her totem is a spinning top. If the top spins indefinitely, she will know that she is in a dream; if it slows down and eventually stops, in accordance with the laws of physics, then she is not. She had determined that the Limbo is her real world, obstinately refusing all other suggestion by Cobb. (Perhaps addicted to playing God in a world belonging to herself?) By placing a constantly spinning totem in the safe, Cobb is placing an idea, and in this case, a cleverly simple one, inside her subconscious. It's not that she saw the totem spinning, but that it was always spinning in her subconcious mind. Unfortunately, it never stop.

Isn't one supposed to be alone in limbo? Why are Cobb’s projections of his wife and kids there?
In the Limbo scene, Cobb explains hat the projection of his wife has been something he has repeatedly tried recreating over time. That might be indication that she is not just a projection but instead an actual intentional creation of his. By the same logic, Saito also created the guards which populate his limbo.

If the world where Ariadne retrieved Fischer and Cobb had his final confrontation with Mal were Limbo, what is the place he ends up in with Saito?
In short, one and the same, they are the same place. They are likely on two separate parts on the same Limbo. More on this one with the answer for the next related question...

Why has Saito aged so much while Cobb looked exactly the same in Limbo?
While it is more likely than not that both Cobb and Saito were in limbo for the same amount of time, the fact that Cobb instinctively understands that he is in limbo is perhaps the reason that he was kept from aging visibly. On the other hand, Saito has, as Cobb earlier predicted, forgotten the real world (much like the first time Cobb and Mal was like), which is likely why the passing of time struck him hard (the concept of time in Limbo sharply differs from that of the real world as decades could have pass by then. Likewise, During Cobb's first visit in Limbo, both him and Mal aged because they have similarly forgotten where they really are and accepted the Limbo as their reality. Which brings to us a side question...

If both Mal and Cobb had really grew old together in Limbo (as seen in the final revelation), why are they still looking young in several other scenes depicting thir times in Limbo, for example, the suicide scene on the railroad tracks?
A: The earlier scenes where Cobb narrates his times in Limbo are eventually revealed to be a slightly embellished delusion of Cobb. This is understandably so as in real life, we tend to glorified the moment and save what seemed best in our minds. What Ariadne saw earlier in Cobb's dream is how he perceived the past. Both Cobb and Mal had indeed aged as indicated by the film's final revelation. A stroke of genius by the way.

What is the actual effect of falling into Limbo? Didn't someone mentioned that your mind are supposed to burn out in there? Both Cobb and Saito survive the Limbo experience intact, anyway.
There might be some exaggeration to the phrase uttered by either Arthur or Eames (I can't remember who even after my second viewing), and the term, "burn out" might also be open to interpretation. As we understands, the actual obstacle in escaping out of Limbo is the realization that you are in one. All it takes for Saito to escape would be an appearance by Cobb to remind him that his world isn't real, and presumably, it was implied that Saito shoots himself to escape.

Finally, the one killer question that is spinning on everyone's mind:
The final shot of Cobb’s totem spinning. Will it stop spinning or not?

Obviously, Nolan deliberately wants the ending to be ambiguous, just so that we can keep guessing... to no end. But here at The Daily Zombies, in the spirit of all's dead and undead, we can't do such a shoddy job, can we?

I opined that the totem kept spinning. And here’s why: In the final scene, Cobb’s kids haven’t aged at all. Hell, they are even wearing the same clothes in his visions of them. Surely, Cobb must has been away fro months if not years from them, and they would have looked differently by now. For a plot point that just can't be resolved, I'm afraid that's the best we have to offer, however stretching it might seemed. Maybe this is just a psychological test that Nolan conjured to determine your inner optimist or pessimist.

If the totem does indeed continue spinning at the end, indicative that Cobb’s reality is really just another a dream, when did the dream begin, or rather, is the entire film a dream?
Assuming that that Cobb is indeed still in the dream in the ending scene, it does not necessarily mean that the entire film is a dream. First, let's look back at the several scenes where Cobb spins his totem to test reality. There's the scene where he held his gun in one hand, and spin the totem in another, followed by his children's phone call in the hotel. It stopped. Then there's the where Cobb hooked himself up to test out Yusuf's sedatives. He tried to spin the totem but was interrupted by Saito halfway. This could prove to be the beginning of his dream, should the totem does indeed spun non-stop in the end.

However, there's perhaps one theory to overwrite every others: As mentioned earlier, every dreamer in the film carries a totem, as an indication of whether they are in a dream. In the case for Cobb and Mal (they shared the same totem), the totem is a spinning top. If the top spins indefinitely, then they will know that they are in a dream; if it slows down and eventually stops, in accordance with the laws of physics, then they are not. This works as the functionality (weight, spin patterns, etc.) of one's totem can only be known to him or herself, in order for the individual to know that they are not in someone else's dream, as the particular architect would not be able to replicate the exact same spinning and for some reasons, it will not stop. But let say you spin it in your very own dream?

That's it for now, do send in your questions, alternate theories, rebuttal, arguments, whatever, if you have one. To close this one with a somewhat brighter spirit after the depressing commentaries, we take another alternate look at the ending shot which in itself is bound to be a classic scene, courtesy of the wacky folks at CollegeHumor. (embedded below for your humor)


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