I Think I Figured Out How Inception Works

The movie Inception was fantastic. I recommend everyone see it if they haven’t already. I just watched it a second time. It’s finally clear why I was confused before. I’m still confused, but now for different reasons.

The first time I watched it, the audio quality was bad. It was hard to pick up all of the important dialog. Lots of important parts were whispered. This time I had subtitles! Yup, there’s an app for that.

Inception is primarily confusing, because even the characters in the movie are confused. They’re constantly explaining the mechanics of how Inception is supposed to work. I was confused because I didn’t even understand how those rules worked. Now I understand them. The second reason it’s confusing is because Inception definitely doesn’t work by the rules they described.

Initially, we’re told that Inception works by having one person dream, and another person jump into the dream. The first person supplies the subconscious, which manifests itself as random bystanders. The second person supplies the conscious control of the dream. They are called the Architect because they design the layout of buildings and rooms. Ideally the Architect designs the dream before jumping in, although they can do it on command as needed. The risk of doing it on command, is that it alerts the initial dreamer’s subconscious that they are in a dream, which makes it unstable. In an unstable dream, the random bystanders will try to murder the Architect. The death of anyone except the initial dreamer, will make those people wake up. If the Architect dies in the dream, they wake up in the real world, and the initial dreamer continues to dream until they wake up naturally. If the initial dreamer dies, everyone sharing the dream, such as the architect, will be woken up, including the initial dreamer.

Otherwise dreams only last about 5 minutes and then everyone wakes up. No problem.

Except that there are two problems. The first problem with this method of waking up from within the dream, either by death or by waiting, is that dreams are so believable, that it’s hard to tell if you are still dreaming. It would be an easy mistake to wake up from a dream, imagine that you are still dreaming, and then kill yourself in a a futile attempt to “wake up”.

The second problem is that dreams feel like they are a long time, even though they are a short amount of time in real life. We are told that 5 minutes of dreaming is equivalent to 60 minutes in a dream. If you are dreaming for 1 hour, but for some reason you need to move your body out of the area (such as you are about to be caught using this stolen technology), then you need a way to get out of the dream before that hour is up (equivalent of 12 hours in the dream world). Since you aren’t aware of threats in the real world, you need someone who is awake to watch over your body while you sleep. These people can give you a “kick” which will instantly awaken you from your dream. A kick is a feeling of falling (such as out of your chair), a sudden impact, or a sudden drowning feeling from a bucket of water to the face.

All fine and good. Some easy rules and easy exceptions.

Then they attempt to go 3 layers deep (a dream, within a dream, within a dream) on the antagonist. For some reason, they needed a heavy sedative to keep all 3 layers “stable” aka no staby staby. Apparently, if you die while under this sedative, you go into what’s called “Limbo”. As far as I can tell, Limbo is not on the chain of dreams, It’s not the 4th layer of dream within a dream. It’s a sideways location. I think you can go infinitely far down, and Limbo would still be a sideways direction. The main character has been in Limbo before, but he didn’t have the sedative before, so I’m not sure how.

One side character, and both antagonists die in the third level of the dream, and go to Limbo. Then the main character, Cobb, and his sidekick, Ariadne, go into a 4th level of dream, which is apparently also Limbo, where Cobb is the initial dreamer and Ariadne is the Architect again. Ariadne kills one antagonist, and then kills herself. Ariadne and that antagonist both go back to the third level of the dream, and eventually get a series of kicks which brings them back to the awake state. Cobb and the side character get lost in Limbo for what appears to be 30 years, and eventually kill themselves and wake up again in the real world.

Now that I’m writing this out, it’s unclear how to get to Limbo or how to get out. I just don’t know. Is it the 4th layer after all? Here’s a diagram I made that explains it as best as I can understand. Let me know if you think I missed something.