Jul 19, 2010  •  In Geek, Infographics, Movies

The 5 Levels of ‘Inception’

If you haven’t watched Inception yet, GO WATCH IT NOW. It is by far the best movie I have seen in years — a mindf*ck of which keeps audiences guessing until the end, only to leave the theater with even more questions. It is The Matrix (the original) of this decade.


I admit it — I’m a nerd. As soon as we returned from the theater, I looked up the web’s interpretation of Inception and read up quite a bit on the theories regarding the movie.

What I could gather is that there are three possibilities:

  1. At the end of the movie, Cobb is still dreaming and/or in limbo.
  2. Cobb gets out at the end, and the audience is left with a happy ending.
  3. Cobb has been dreaming all along — the entire movie is a dream.

And although there are discussions brewing left and right with heated debates analyzing every little nuance of every scene, no one has yet to provide a solid interpretation of the film. There are facts that support and disprove each theory.

However, I believe that the movie ended perfectly. Christopher Noland has left it up to the audience to decide what happened, and I believe that’s where the true genius of this movie lies.

And for the infographic geek in all of us, here is Cinema Blend‘s interpretation of the 5 levels of Inception:

The optimist inside me likes to believe that Cobb got out at the end, and that he was happily reunited with his children. (Some people swear that if you listen carefully after the credits start rolling, you can hear the top topple.)

However, the idea that he was dreaming all along with Mal using inception on him to wake him up sounds pretty interesting too.

Have you watched Inception yet? What is your interpretation of the movie?

And for a more thought-provoking question…what would be your totem?

You may also like:

20 Responses to “The 5 Levels of ‘Inception’”

  1. Megan says:

    I’ve seen it a few places on-line that the snow fortress level is Eames’ dream, and I don’t know why people think that. In the hotel, before they go under, Ariadne asks who’s dream they are going into, and Cobb tells her they are going into Fisher’s, though they told Fisher that it would be Browning’s. Maybe that’s the confusion, since Browning is Eames and people didn’t catch this question-answer? They HAVE to go into Fisher’s for this level because they need to plant the idea into HIS mind, not someone else’s.

  2. Megan says:

    Dileep Rao (Yusuf) clears up the snow fortress level in this interview: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2010/07/inceptions_dileep_rao_answers.html where he points out that they are in Fisher’s dream, though Fisher thinks they are in Browning’s (Eames) dream.

  3. Geek in Heels says:

    @Megan — The Snow Fortress scene is one of the most confusing in terms of how it is constructed: Ariadne created it, Eames forged it (and added shortcuts to the original design), but the projections are Fisher’s. So technically, you can argue that it was dreamt by any one of them. From what I’ve read, there is still some debate on this topic…and all the actors have their own interpretations too.

  4. Mark Harrill says:

    I loved the movie and am in the camp of dreaming/limbo. My main reason for leaning this way is because the children never really seemed to change. I am going to see it again this week to look for clues.

  5. Mark Harrill says:

    Oh and I would carry a Black Chip from the Venetian as my totem.

  6. Laura says:

    Awesome movie, I love how he is making the audience stretch and follow with him, maybe assuming that we are smarter then we are but still, its better then assuming were dumb and can’t handle it, right?

    I’m starting to fall into the camp that believes it was a dream and an inception meant to get Dom out of his lack of reality. I think Saito being old at the end but Dom not being old kind of goes with this. Plus the totem was Mal’s so if she was part of the inception on Dom she could control that then, right? Since only one person is suppose to know the totem as their grip on reality?

    And I’ve just thought myself into a corner again. 🙂

  7. Geek in Heels says:

    ***Let me preface this by saying I’m not trying to argue for any particular theory. I just want to give the commenters pieces of information that they may not have noticed. Like I said in the post, arguments can be made for AND against each theory.***

    @Mark — If you look at the film’s credits, there are two children used for each of Cobb’s kids. Now this can be due to the studio trying to get around child labor laws (because children can only work a certain amount of hours per day), but some claim that the children were of different ages, and that the children at the very last scene are older and physically larger than previous scenes. In addition, they never mention how much time has passed since Mal’s death and the start of the movie. For all we know, it could be just a couple of months or even days.

    That being said, the fact that the children ARE wearing the same clothes can’t be ignored. Some people say that Nolan chose to clothe the kids this way (even while casting older actors for the last scene) so that the argument CAN be made for either theories. And who knows? They children may have the same clothes of different sizes and happened to be wearing them on that particular day.

    One last piece of information that may support your theory is that in the last scene, Cobb spins the top but does not wait for it to stop. Many who support your theory say that this is a sign of his accepting his new "reality" and finally succumbing to it.

  8. Geek in Heels says:

    @Laura — Saito being so much older than Cobb in this scene can be explained by the fact that time flows a lot slower on deeper dream levels. Since Saito died in the third dream level 5-10 minutes before Cobb followed him via his own limbo, as many as 40-50 years have passed for Saito during that time.

    As for Cobb using Mal’s totem, yes it can be interpreted that way…but on the other hand, one can also say that since Mal is dead, Cobb is free to use it as his own and still be the only person who knows its shape, weight, and use.

    Again, I’m not trying to argue. Just rehashing the stuff I’ve read online. I’m just as confused as anyone else. 😛

  9. Carol says:

    Ahh… I was waiting for you to blog about this. =) I’ve been in discussions with my friends ever since we watched it (I was in freaking 4th row and my eyes were googley, but it was STILL GOOD!)

    Everything that was questioned already has been discussed here, but my two cents are that:

    1.) i think the train scene was incredibly moving and dramatic, 2.) Cobb’s reaction to Mal’s fall to death was SO heartbreaking! Leo’s SUCH a great actor!! 3.) i LOVE how there wasn’t any cliche, stupid & ridiculous love affair that took place during all the action!! i hate when they do that! 4.) My take is that everything that happened up until the plane was real, but I do think that the ending is a dream. As much as I HATE to admit it, but the kids’ clothes can’t be ignored. ALSO, Christopher Nolan direction isn’t really prone to happy cliche endings like that. That’s why it’s so fantastic!

  10. schmei says:

    I need to watch this at least one more time, if not several, as my DH and I have been discussing it for two days now.

    Regardless of what’s "really" going on, the ending was soooo well done. I can’t remember when else I’ve been in a theater and the whole room shouted, "augh!" when the screen went black. Amazing.

    DH said he read somewhere that in reality, Cobb’s not wearing a wedding ring. But in all the dream levels, he is. I noticed him wearing the ring at the very start of the movie (in limbo) but didn’t think to check for it when scenes changed.

    Did anyone else notice the nice parallel to "Titanic" when Cobb tells Mal, "I have to let you go… I have to let you go"? Besides the parallel, I think it’s also an illustration that he’s going to re-join reality. Their children have always kept him grounded in the real world – they’re a reason why he went back to reality the first time with Mal (who couldn’t handle it), they’re the reason he gave her to stay alive (which indicates that they’re why HE stays alive), and they’re why he’s trying to get back in to the US. Not seeing their faces when he left was one of the biggest source of his guilt.

    And several folks have said the kids are too young at the end. Is there any indication of how much time has actually passed since Mal died? Cobb’s been spending all his time in dreams – it could only have been only a few months, or even weeks, that he’s been out of the country. The kids still sound very young on the phone, and they’re asking when he’ll be home (knowing little kids, that tells me he hasn’t been gone all THAT long).

    I think it ends in reality. But I recognize that I’m a sappy girl for wanting that to be the case.

  11. Brandon says:

    With your theory Cobb and Saito only received one kick if Saito did really shot both of them. We are unaware that he did because the film cuts that part out. For Cobb and Saito to both return to reality they would have needed 4 kicks. The thing is they missed the kick during the snow, the hotel, and the river because they were still in limbo during all those kicks. This makes it so if they were shot during limbo they would have been stuck in the 4th level. Even if they made it back to the second level they would have drowned.
    For everyone who is talking about his wedding ring and because he isnt wearing it that makes it seem that he is in reality but it could also mean that he isnt wearing it because he has finally removed Mal from his dreams and the ring is just another connection to Mal that he has removed from his mind.

  12. Geek in Heels says:

    @Brandon — The other three levels have already collapsed by the time they’re ready to leave the fourth, so there are no levels for them to return to.

    And while you have a good point about the wedding ring, it once again only supports one of the several theories. Like I said, there really is no RIGHT answer.

  13. Sharit says:

    Loved Inception, like everybody else who partially or didn’t clearly understood the movie. Maybe that’s the main charm of the story, the complexity of the reality and viruality deeply interwined, that’s what we all fell in love with… isnt it?

    My interpretation is similar to the author, that Saito offers the handgun to Cobb and they both use it to kill their limbo consciousness to wake up. I was more sure of it when the kids at the end scene, looked at Cobb and showed their faces for the first time in the whole movie… and the totem, though spinning, shook slightly, trying hard to balance, unlike the dreams.

    Maybe, Christopher Nolan deliberately wanted us to be thinking over the spinning top, even after we have walked out of the theatre! Mr. Nolan, you rock!

  14. Megan says:

    Just wanted to come back and say that you were right about the snow fortress dream level. Upon second viewing, it was made more clear that the dream was Eames. Ariadne asks who’s "subconscious" they are going into, which if Fischer’s, as it has been for all levels, but the dreamer was Eames. Thanks for the clarification. 🙂

  15. jonah says:

    Interested in a review of the dream phenomenon represented in Inception, from the perspective of a lucid dreamer??


  16. Linda says:

    As a theater host who has seen the movie countless times, I can't believe noone has mentioned the ending credits and suggested that the song at the end is the audience's "last kick" to let them know that the entire movie was a dream!!

  17. liza says:

    i think the film ends in reality and thats because dicaprio has as his totem his kids and not mal's totem.mal's totem is just something he keeps for sentimental reasons and that's why he doesn't care in the last scene to see if it falls or not.the fact his kids show their faces is a proof he's back in reality.in his dreams they never show their faces and that's the proof that he's dreaming.by not seeing their faces he's never confused and realizes he's in a dream.also i think it was mentioned in the movie that everyone should have his own totem so he cant have the same with mal even though she's dead.

  18. The Wolf says:

    Though there is no clear evidence to point squarely at one theory, I believe that, at a minimum, the end of the movie is a dream. The 4 arguments for that opinion are:

    1) Throughout the entire movie (with the exception of the beach scene in the elevator) James is wearing a plaid shirt and grey shorts while Phillipa is wearing the same pink dress. At the end of the movie, yes the kids are older (played by separate actors) however, the likelihood of the kids wearing the exact same outfits together and are playing in the exact same postions is too slim to ignore.

    2) The scene where Mal jumps to her death she is a building across from the honeymoon suite. Dom pleads with her to come inside and motions towards him. Being across the street makes no sense yet Cobb, and we the audience, accept it. Why is she across the street and why would he motion to come towards him, towards the direction of a suicide jump, instead of back into her room? Her room across the street has the exact same setup (white couch, brown lamp table, white door with molding) as the honeymoon suite too. It doesn't make sense, just as a dream doesn't make sense but we accept it. These details are too unusual to neglect.

    3) On the hospital/Snow Fortress level, Dom and Ariadne go first into limbo. Saito goes later. So why then is Saito an old man and Dom is young when in fact is should be the other way around. The only explanation is that there are seperate limbos but if that were the case, how does Dom move from one limbo to another. This kind of stuff answer wasn't explained in the movie.

    4) Once Saito was shot he could not go back to the 747 reality because the sedative was too strong. His death would send him to limbo. So I am guessing this means a "kick" such as throwing him out of a window is out of the question as well otherwise the team would have do it. If the team had to ride the sedatives out how did they go back after less than a day transpires in that first level of dreaming? They left the warehouse in a van and drove the van off a bridge. Maybe 6hrs or so transpired? The full 10hrs were spent asleep on the plane. So this would require a week of existence in the first level of dreaming. The team can't go back to the 747 reality after less than a day yet they do? It doesn't make sense which is indicative of dreaming.

    Some other oddities that can be interpreted either way:

    1) The professor says, "Come back to reality Dom" and, "So you want me to let someone follow you into your fantasy."

    2) A totem should be an object that is so unique, someone who hasn't held it could not know all of its properties yet Mal's totem is not unique. Everyone knows the property of a gyro. A gyro eventually topples over. Any dreamer in this case could make a top eternally spin or fall after a period of time. They could not, however, know how Arthur's die was loaded. The idea that if Mal's totem falls over, she is not dreaming doesn't fit the explanation given in the movie.

    IMO 1 of 2 theories is possible. Either Saito and Dom died and are permanently living in limbo because their deaths were not sequenced properly on each of the levels (meaning the end was a dream) or that the entire movie is a dream where Mal reached reality, and is waiting for some sedative to wear off on Cobb. The latter is what I prefer to believe because it is a happier ending where Cobb will eventually return to reality with his wife and kids.

  19. Nice theories! I never thought of the possibility that Cobb has been dreaming all along… It was interesting to read, and I think I should watch the movie again 🙂

  20. Skiffleboom says:

    You notice just how many questions Ellen Page/Ariadne asks? The video edit “88 Questions with Ariadne” shows all of them – it’s like a distilled version of her character’s function as audience surrogate:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *