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Inception's Most Confusing Moments Explained

When "Inception" was released in 2010, it immediately wowed viewers with its stunning visuals and engrossing ensemble cast. Yet, at the same time, it also received heavy ridicule from shows like "South Park" and "The Simpsons" for its increasingly convoluted and hard-to-understand plot. The basic premise is that Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, which includes associates Eames (Tom Hardy) and  Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt), enter into people's dreams and manipulate them to gain information.

However, Cobb is tortured by the death of his wife Mal Cobb (Marion Cotillard), which police hold him responsible for, making him unstable and causing him to hire Ariadne (Elliot Page) to help him complete a deal that will allow him to regain his freedom. The team must enter into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), so they can plant an inception, or idea, into his psyche that will cause him to split up his father's business empire.

To call the movie confusing is an understatement, to say the least, as the team finds themselves ascending and descending into different levels of dreams, unable to wake up due to the effects of a powerful sedative. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, with Cobb's fate being left to the imagination. While we probably could have counted just about every scene, these are "Inception's" most confusing moments, explained.

The film's opening sequence

It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise, but one of the most confusing parts is the very first scene of the movie, which is pretty bewildering when you first watch it. The film starts out showing waves crashing on the shore, and then we see Dom Cobb wake up from being face down and seemingly unconscious on the shoreline. There are brief images of kids playing, and Cobb is prodded with a gun before being taken to see a very old man wearing a suit. He is given a bowl of food to eat, while the old man starts having a cryptic conversation about someone he used to know who was "possessed of some radical notions," before the scene abruptly ends.

When you first watch, you have absolutely no idea what's going on or what the man is talking about. It's not until you watch the ending, where a fuller version of the scene is shown, that it makes sense. During the scene, both Cobb and the old man — who is revealed to be his associate Mr. Saito — are actually in a dream state known as limbo. 

Limbo is a state of "unconstructed dream space" where they are not inside any one dream, but rather in a shared subconscious space that any dreamer can make changes to but is hard to escape from. Cobb is there to rescue Saito, who is trapped in limbo, and bring him back to reality.

The first totem appearance

Following Dom Cobb and his team's first dream sequence with Mr. Saito, where they unsuccessfully attempt to extract information from his mind, the second that Cobb is alone he does something seemingly peculiar. He takes out a metal top and spins it on the table, while also taking out a pistol and holding it near his head. After a tense few seconds, the spinning top falls on its side, and Cobb relaxes and puts the gun down.

While at first, it appears that Cobb is potentially having suicidal thoughts, later in the movie the significance of what is doing is revealed. The spinning top is a totem, which is something used to tell if one is in reality or in a dream. No one besides the dreamer is supposed to ever touch their totem, that way only they know its weight and feel. 

This familiarity allows Cobb to use the spinning top as a totem (it used to Mal Cobb's) because it's something that no one else would be able to perfectly recreate in a dream. If Cobb spins the top and it falls over, that means he can be sure he's in reality. But, if he spins the top and it keeps spinning, that means he is in a dream and not reality — hence him taking out the gun. Dying in a dream wakes you up in this film's complicated lore. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Recruiting Ariadne for the team

After accepting a job offer from Mr. Saito to infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer, Dom Cobb turns to his father Professor Stephen Miles (Michael Caine) for help getting in touch with an architect to create a dreamscape. He is introduced to Miles' student Ariadne, and he immediately subjects Ariadne to a series of tests, like making a maze design in two minutes that takes one minute to solve. Afterward, both Cobb and Ariadne are sitting in a café talking, when Cobb reveals that they are actually in the middle of a dream.

While at first, it's confusing as to why Cobb is having Ariadne do the maze, or why he's even recruiting someone at all, by the end of the film it makes sense. Cobb was challenging Ariadne to come up with a complex series of mazes so he could see if she was capable of designing a complex enough dreamscape that would work for Saito's job.

The reason that he needs Ariadne to create a dreamscape, instead of himself or Arthur, is that his subconscious projections of his deceased wife Mal keep coming through in his dreams. Cobb needs Ariadne to design the dream so that he, and by extension, Mal through his subconscious, do not know the layout and thus can't pop up at random points and ruin everything.

Mal stabbing Ariadne

When Dom Cobb and Ariadne are in the middle of their second dreamscape session, things start to fall apart when Ariadne changes too much too quickly. Cobb's subconscious starts to catch on to what she's doing, and his subconscious projections begin targeting her by sensing she does not belong. After things become more and more chaotic, Mal Cobb shows up and stabs Ariadne in the chest, killing her in the dream and immediately waking her up to reality. After waking up, she sarcastically chides, "That's some subconscious you've got on you Cobb; she's a real charmer," to which Arthur replies, "Oh, I see you've met Mrs. Cobb."

At the time, it's not clear why Mal would be acting out in such a way, and why she and Cobb are on such bad terms, as she had previously sabotaged his earlier job with Saito, too. But later, we learn the tragic circumstances surrounding her death, which Cobb feels partly responsible for. Cobb's guilt and inability to reconcile the loss of his wife slowly lead to his loss of control of his own subconscious. Mal's recurrent appearances are the manifestation of the deterioration of Cobb's subconscious, which keeps getting worse and worse.

Going into Cobb's subconscious

While they are preparing to do the Robert Fischer job, Ariadne spots Dom Cobb in the middle of a dream, and she decides to join him by covertly sneaking in. She finds Dom and Mal Cobb talking, and Mal is immediately incensed that Ariadne is there and becomes aggravated and upset. Then, Cobb and Ariadne take a tour through the levels of Cobb's subconscious, and eventually, Ariadne finds herself in the basement, which is a destroyed hotel room that Mal is seemingly trapped in. 

It's revealed that Cobb is locking Mal in the depths of his subconscious, but it's not clear why he is keeping her there or why she is so aggressive whenever she sees Ariadne. Later in the movie, we learn that the hotel room was the scene of Mal's death. She died by suicide in the presence of Cobb, thinking she was in a dream and not realizing she was in reality. 

Her death constantly tortures Cobb, and he keeps her alive in his dreams through his memory of her. However, his practice of just keeping her locked in the basement of his mind is not working, and she is constantly breaking through — a sign that Cobb is trying to emotionally let go of her but just can't.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Fischer's dream starts falling apart

When Dom Cobb and his team first enter Robert Fischer's mind while on the airplane, things seem to be progressing okay at first. Then, out of nowhere, a massive train appears in the middle of the street and starts bulldozing its way through traffic. Seconds later, Cobb and his crew find themselves under fire from a paramilitary group equipped with automatic weapons who are trying to kill them. Mr. Saito ends up getting shot, and the rest of the crew barely escapes unharmed with Fischer after an intense gun battle.

At first, it's completely confusing why everything is falling apart, and it seems like it might be Cobb's subconscious losing control. However, it's soon shown that the train and the paramilitary force are actually part of Fischer's subconscious. At some point prior, Fischer had his mind trained to fight off potential invaders to his psyche. The paramilitary group is a security force composed of Fischer's subconscious projections, who are protecting him against any unwanted infiltrators — which happens to be Cobb and his crew.

A dream within a dream within a dream

One of the most confusing parts of "Inception" is the plot to plant an inception into Robert Fischer's mind. Dom Cobb and his crew are hired by Mr. Saito to plant the idea of Fischer breaking up his father Maurice's company, which would financially benefit Saito. However, the problem that Cobb has is that it's impossible to plant an idea in someone's mind without them being able to trace it back to its original source.

In order to implant inception in Fischer's mind and make him believe it came from himself, Cobb and Eames devise a plan that involves going into three levels of dreaming. In the first level, Eames disguises himself as Peter Browning, Fischer's godfather and his father's confidant, to give Fischer the idea of dissolving his father's company, and also to try and convince him that his father truly loved him. In the second level, they turn Fischer against Browning, by making him think that Browning has kidnapped him.

Then, on the third layer of dreaming, after Fischer has been turned against Browning and pushed towards his father, he is supposed to give himself the idea of splitting up his father's empire through his subconscious projections. This way, the role of Eames as Browning giving him the original idea is disguised, leading Fischer to believe the idea was genuinely his, thus leading to a successful inception. 

Following Fischer into limbo

Another massively confusing plot point in "Inception" is how the group responds to Robert Fischer's death at the hands of Mal Cobb. They are all in the third layer of dreaming when Mal suddenly appears and shoots Fischer because Dom Cobb hesitates to take her out himself. With Fischer dead, the entire plan collapses; if he does not reach a catharsis with his father, he won't break up his business empire. If the empire isn't broken up, Mr. Saito has no reason to protect Cobb, who will then be arrested as soon as the plane lands.

Due to the heavy sedation they are under, when Fischer is shot he does not kick back up to another dream level like normal. Instead, he enters limbo, or "unconstructed dream space" consisting of an infinite subconscious. In order to rescue Fischer's mind from limbo and to ensure he will meet with the projection of his father, Cobb and Ariadne have to themselves go into limbo to rescue him. It's incredibly confusing at the time, but once you think about it after the movie it begins to make sense.

Cobb's guilt over Mal's death

Throughout "Inception," Dom Cobb constantly struggles to deal with the memory of Mal Cobb, his dead wife. What's clear is that he is having trouble working his way through the grieving process, but what's unclear is why he feels so guilty for her death. And while it's hinted at when Cobb explains the circumstances surrounding Mal's death to Ariadne, it's not completely understandable until the very end of the movie.

Cobb feels guilty about Mal's death because he thinks he is responsible. After they had spent decades living in limbo, Cobb wanted to return to the real world, but for Mal, limbo had become her new reality and she was unable to leave. In order to convince Mal to leave, Cobb used inception to implant the idea that they were dreaming and not in reality. Mal had kept her spinning top totem locked in a safe, on its side not spinning, but Cobb found the safe and spun the top — thus making it seem to her that they were not in reality.

However, once they woke up to reality, the inception was still in her mind. She became convinced that actual reality was a dream and tried to wake up. Her death causes Cobb extreme anguish because he was the one who planted an inception in Mal in the first place. Cobb feels that if he had never planted the idea of not recognizing reality in her mind, she would still potentially be alive.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Cobb letting go of Mal

While inside of limbo to rescue Robert Fischer, Cobb and Ariadne track down Mal, who has Fischer kidnapped. Cobb and Mal have a conversation with each other, and Cobb is finally able to come to terms with the fact that he caused her death by implanting inception into her mind. He realizes that their dreams of growing old together had actually happened because they had spent every single day together for 50 years while they were living in limbo.

Unfortunately, the inception caused Mal to end her life, but Cobb is finally realizing that he has to acknowledge his responsibility for that reality and live with it. They still have kids who are real, and he needs to be able to get back to them so they will have a father again. The only way he can do that is if he enters completely back into reality, which he can finally do after he forgives himself. Ariadne shooting Mal is the final nail in the subconscious coffin, and he is free from her after.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Fischer escaping limbo

After going into limbo to rescue Robert Fischer, Ariadne and Dom Cobb have to track him down because he has been kidnapped by Mal Cobb. After finding him tied up, Cobb and Mal have a conversation, where he reveals the depths of his guilt over planting inception in her, at which point Mal stabs him — causing Ariadne to shoot Mal dead. Ariadne then pushes Fischer off the roof, where he gets kicked out of limbo and up to the third layer of dreaming.

It's all pretty bewildering and confusing at first and takes a few watches to truly understand. The reason that Mal has kidnapped Fischer is that she entered into limbo when Cobb did as part of his subconscious. Once they confront each other and Cobb explains his guilt, he is finally able to let go of Mal, and Ariadne kills her before she can stab Cobb to death.

Ariadne then throws Fischer off the building so he can experience freefall, which kicks him back up to the third layer of dreaming. Meanwhile, in the third layer, Eames uses a defibrillator on Fischer to restart his heart. That way when Fischer is kicked up he will go to the third layer, where he can meet his father, instead of up to a higher layer where catharsis wouldn't happen. Without the catharsis, Cobb's freedom upon landing is in jeopardy.

Fischer's catharsis explained

Once Robert Fischer is kicked back to the third dream level, he immediately goes to see his father Maurice in the next room on his deathbed. For Robert's entire life, Maurice has shown a stunning lack of interest in him and has completely avoided showing any meaningful emotion as a father. However, in the first layer of the dream, Eames disguised as Peter Browning, Robert's godfather, put the idea in Robert's mind that Maurice did in fact truly love him, he just did not show it outwardly. Eames also implanted the idea of splitting up Maurice's business empire into separate entities.

When Robert sees his projection of Maurice on the third layer of dreaming, he opens the safe and finds a paper wand he had made as a child, which his father had supposedly kept, showing that he did have affection for him after all. Robert embraces his father, who has just passed, and wakes up deciding to split up the business empire.

Importantly, none of this is real and is based on the inception that Eames planted into his mind. In reality, his father never cared for him or had any plans about breaking up the company. That was completely invented by Eames and Dom Cobb to pull off the job for Mr. Saito, who financially benefits from Maurice's empire splitting up. Fischer's projections make it seem like he is giving himself the idea to split up the empire, and the catharsis makes it stick.

The confusing and ambiguous ending

The ending of "Inception" is one of the film's most confusing parts. After implanting inception into Robert Fischer's mind, Mr. Saito is able to clear Dom Cobb's legal problems so he is free to go home again. Once home, Cobb takes out his totem and spins it, but goes to hug his kids instead of waiting to see if it will fall over. The movie abruptly ends with the top still spinning, though it does make a slight movement as if it's going to fall over.

The big question is where Cobb is and if he is in reality or not.  Many people will point to the slight movement the top makes as proof that it will fall over and that he is in reality. However, the possibility that he is still in a dream cannot be dismissed. 

For one, the top is spinning for a very long amount of time, nearly a full minute, and well after he has gotten up from the table and walked outside — far longer than any normal top would spin. In addition, previously Cobb had said to make sure one's totem is never touched by anyone, but while in limbo Saito is seen spinning the top himself, indicating they could possibly still be in a dream space of Saito's. In the end, Cobb's fate is ambiguous, and cannot be determined with complete certainty.