Monday, February 7, 2011

Inception Explained and Unravelled - Interpreting the Confusion

After watching Inception four times and starting to dig a little deeper I have developed a theory about Inception, I checked online a bit to see if someone else had already come up with my idea, but I didn’t see it anywhere so I felt compelled to share it with the world.

Disclaimer: Spoiler alert! If you have not seen Inception, this is not for you, stop reading and go watch Inception. If you have seen Inception and are still trying to work out if it was all a dream or not and you are prepared to dig a little deeper then read on!

Once you have seen Inception and wondered whether the top at the end keeps spinning or not and if Cobb is back in reality or if the whole thing was a dream, you begin to see deeper into the plot and realise how intricate it is.

Reality or not, the bigger point that many people missed was that Cobb didn’t care to find out if it was reality or a dream, he was just happy to be home and see his children again. He left the top spinning and ran out to see his kids.

Cobb: I need to get home. That's all I care about right now.
Ariadne: Why can't you go home?
Cobb: Because they think I killed her.
Ariadne: [silence]
Cobb: Thank you.
Ariadne: For what?
Cobb: For not asking whether I did.

My theory is that Saito and Mal were lovers. Mal famously says ‘Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole?’ Mal killed herself on the night of her anniversary by jumping off the balcony. You don’t kill yourself on your anniversary if everything is fine in your relationship. Mal could have picked any other day of the year to leave what she thought was a dream.

Yes she was deceived into believing reality was a dream, but she also couldn’t handle being in a relationship with two different men. This is where Saito comes in, Cobb got to Saito by discovering his ‘love nest’ the apartment that had a green carpet which wasn’t replicated well enough in the dream to convince Saito.

So how did Cobb learn about this ‘love nest’ – a married woman was involved. The married woman that Saito and Cobb are talking about is Mal.

Conning the Con Man

Cobb used Mal to get to Saito, but infact Saito was already aware of this dream invasion and was highly skilled at protecting his secrets from Cobb. How can Saito be so skilled? Cobb was propositioning Saito that he could teach Saito to protect his mind from people like Cobb himself – the expert at dream invasion – yet Saito managed to outplay Cobb by keeping information from him while he was in a dream state. Does this make Saito more skilled than Cobb?

Arthur: Saito knows
Cobb: It doesn’t matter, I can get in here, trust me.

When Saito is in the helicopter and performs inception on Cobb, he entices Cobb with the notion of going home to America. He makes Cobb change his mind and accept this job as a way of redeeming himself so that he can go home.

Saito further shows his skill by joining the team and going as a ‘tourist’ into the three levels of dreams with them, he wasn’t needed, but he talks his way into Cobb by telling him he needs to be there to witness inception. However he does not witness it, he is dead in the ice fortress dream level where it takes place. So he knows they are trying to accomplish the task, but he never witnesses the actual idea take hold. So what was the point of him going into the dream with them then, is there a deeper darker secret?

A key point to notice is the age of Saito when he is in Limbo, he is far older than everyone else in Limbo, Cobb looks the same age when he is in Limbo. Why is that? Because Saito has been in Limbo longer than everyone else. Yet how can this be, as Saito only recently went into Limbo and Fischer died shortly after, then Cobb and Ariadne followed them into Limbo and Mal was there as well. So he was there first, but there is no apparent difference in age between say Fischer, Cobb and Ariadne, even though they all arrived at slightly different times.

A side note: Fischer and Saito reached limbo by dying, whereas Cobb and Ariadne reached limbo by going into a further dream – is there some significance here that I am missing? Is this not actually Limbo but a further dream level?

To escape Limbo do you need to die? If so what’s the big deal about being trapped in Limbo, you die and you go up a level in the dream world. The only problem arises if you don’t know you are in Limbo and think you are in reality so you don’t want to die and stay in Limbo forever.

However in the earlier dream levels, dying or being killed pushed you deeper into the dream world and dropped you down another level.

Now remember Mal and Cobb’s words about the train coming, the ones they both said as they waited for the train to kill them (committing suicide). They were trying to escape Limbo and like the words:

Mal: I'll tell you a riddle. You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don't know for sure. But it doesn't matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you?

Now Mal liked being in limbo and didn’t want to leave, Cobb convinced her to leave by performing inception. What if she didn’t want to leave because she was happy with Cobb there, she did not want to go somewhere else where Saito would be, she had chosen to forget Saito. She did forget Saito and didn’t care where she would go as long as she would be with Cobb. However when she got out of limbo she couldn’t handle being a lover and wanted to go back to how things were in Limbo, she tried to do this by jumping off the balcony on her anniversary.

Cobb: Eventually, She tells me the truth that she was possessed by an idea, just one simple idea that changed everything, that our world wasn't real and in order to get back to the reality, We'll have to kill ourselves.
Saito could have been Mal’s lover, and Cobb was her husband. She wanted to grow old with Cobb, and the visions we saw in Limbo of Cobb and Mal being old together and holding hands were visions they didn’t happen.

Mal: We'd be together forever. You promised me.
Cobb: I know. But we can't. And I'm sorry.
Mal: You remember when you asked me to marry you? You said you dreamt that we'd grow old together.
Cobb: And we did... I miss you more than I can bear... but we had our time together. And now I have to let go...

Mal and Cobb committed suicide when they were both still young, Cobb may have deluded himself into think that they grew old together, but Mal was angry that they didn’t grow old together. Cobb promised they would grow old together, and Mal reminded him of his promise as though he hadn’t kept it.


Maybe redemption is the only way to escape Limbo.
Killing yourself doesn’t work, but being killed may work – the difference is that someone else has to be there to kill you, or you have to be creative and think of a way to be killed.

Notice at the end when Saito was an old man in Limbo, He asked Cobb when he is brought into the conference room: “have you come to kill me?” – the way of escaping from Limbo. I don’t think he was afraid of dying at that age.

Saito: So have you come to kill me? I've been waiting for someone to come for me...
Cobb: Someone from a half remembered dream...
Saito: Cobb? Impossible - He and I were young men together, now I'm an old man.
Cobb: Filled with regret...
Saito: Waiting to die alone...
Cobb: I've come back to remind you of something... something you once knew...
[Sees the top spinning without end]
Cobb: that this world isn't real...
Saito: To convince me to honor the arrangement.
Cobb: To take a leap of faith yes. Come back, and we'll be young men together again. Come back to me...
[Saito reaches for the gun]
Cobb: Come back...

When Cobb and Mal committed suicide by putting their heads on the train tracks, they may not have know where they were going, they just hoped it would be some place new. Where it actually took them is unclear, we are led to believe it took them back to reality, but what if it didn’t? I don’t have an answer to this one, my alternative theory is that maybe they weren’t in limbo - maybe Saito was in the real limbo, or he was in Limbo with them as well all along, hidden in his fortress by the beach.

Now if Saito is older than everyone in Limbo for a reason and if you need to be killed to escape limbo, then Saito was Mal’s lover and was also in Limbo.

Cobb: She locked away a secret, deep inside herself, something she once knew to be true... but chose to forget.


The truth that Mal had chosen to forget was not that she was dreaming, but she wanted to forget Saito and her relationship with him. She also kept this a secret from Cobb, he thought he had found her secret and performed inception on her by spinning her top in the safe. However, Cobb had been conned by Mal, she managed to keep her deepest secret from him – she also loved Saito.

At the beginning we see Saito and Mal working together, both are pointing guns at Cobb.
Cobb: There's no use threatening him in a dream, right, Mal?
Mal: It depends on what you're threatening. Killing him will just wake him up. But pain...
[shoots Arthur in the knee]
Mal: Pain is in the mind, and judging by the decorum we're in your mind, aren't we, Arthur?

Cobb tries to control her when she sits on the chair so he can jump out the window on a rope, but she leaves him hanging – literally.

Saito and Mal were in collusion and Mal betrayed Cobb.

[as the dream collapses]
Mal: [to Saito, handing him his secrets] He was close. Very close.

 Saito knew about the relationship between Mal and Cobb, that’s why he tricked Cobb into trying to extract information from himself. Remember Saito is not surprised when he says it is a dream within a dream, he is still unimpressed by Cobb’s so called skills.

Saito knows about Cobb’s desire to go home and see his children, so he uses that against Cobb to get him to perform a bogus inception on Fraiser.

The end goal of Saito is to free himself from Limbo.  Saito does through Mal his lover who influences Cobb her lover and then Saito is able to perform inception on Cobb. Eventually he earns redemption by not being jealous of Cobb and Mal’s relationship and letting Cobb earn peace by returning ‘home.’

While doing the job, Cobb is surprised by the freight train and the fact that Fraiser has been trained and is not a novice at all this dream stuff. Arthur on Cobb’s team was supposed to have done his research, but he didn’t know that Fraiser had been trained already.

Ariadne: Trained? How could they be trained?
Arthur: Fischer's had an extractor train his subconscious to defend itself. It should have showed in the research I'm sorry.

Is Arthur also an ally with Saito? He didn’t do his job very well for Cobb.

Arthur: And you! You knew about this and went along with it!
Yusuf: I trusted him!
Arthur: You trusted him! What, when he promised you half his share?
Yusuf: No, his whole share. Besides he said he'd done it before.
Arthur: You've done it before? What, with Mal? 'Cause that worked so good!
Cobb: That has nothing to do with it. I did what I had to do to get back to my children.

This leads to a further development or twist in the plot, what if Saito and Fraiser were not infact competitors, but rather allies working in collusion, with Saito being the mastermind. The inside information about Fraiser all comes from Saito. Saito tells Cobb and his team about Fraiser and his father’s empire. Saito buys the airline, and knows about the flight Fraiser will take. Everything comes from Saito as it is his mission that Cobb is trying to accomplish to gain redemption and be able to go ‘home’. However Saito performed inception on Cobb by planting the idea in his head about being able to get home in the first place. This took place when Saito was in the helicopter and draws Cobb back as he is leaving the helicopter.

Cobb’s first architect (Nash) is found by Saito and then used to betray Cobb and finally killed. Ariadne is recommended to Cobb by his father in law (Michael Caine) the Professor – The Professor is the one who introduced Cobb to dreaming in the first place.

Cobb: I'm just doing what you taught me.
Professor: I never taught you to be a thief.

Ariadne gains Cobb’s trust and wiggle’s her way into joining the team.

Ariadne: Cobb, I'm coming with you.
Cobb: I promised Miles...
Ariadne: The team needs someone who understands what you're struggling with. And it doesn't have to be me, but then you have to show Arthur what I just saw.
Cobb: [to Saito] Get us another seat on the plane.

Later in the ice fortress it is Ariadne’s idea to go down another level and rescue Fraiser and Saito, she persuades Cobb to go deeper – very clever if she is working for Saito.

Note how Michael Caine is never seen in a dream, he is at the university and also at the end of the film picks Cobb up from the airport.

Professor: Come back to reality, Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio)

The professor also knew about Saito as Saito had a relationship with his daughter Mal. Saito could also be in collusion with the professor and therefore have planted Ariadne. Notice now how Cobb’s team is made up of more and more people on Saito’s side. The people on Saito’s side are also the ones that go deeper into the dream world (further down the levels with Cobb). Ariadne is there at the lowest level as is Fraiser and Mal.
So now Saito has performed inception on Cobb, conned the conman and brought him down to Limbo so that he can rescue Saito.

Another point to note is the top – Saito saw it in the bathroom when Cobb was spinning it, he saw it again at the end of the film when Cobb rescued him. Saito said he saw it many years ago, now what if as the lover of Mal, he knew about the top, he taught her about dreaming and about totem’s. Saito could have been in Limbo all along and even given the top to Mal and then Cobb got it from her. 
The last point is, was it all a dream masterminded by Saito, well the children seen are always the same age and look to be wearing the same clothes every time they are seen in the film. This could mean that yes, Cobb may think he is in reality, but is actually deceived by Saito all along, but in the end Cobb doesn’t care anymore, he just wants to see his kids. 

Eames: Do they come here to sleep?
Thin Man: [Looking at Cobb] No, They come here to be woken up. Dream has become their reality! Who are you to say, otherwise?

Cobb: The moment's passed. Whatever I do I can't change this moment. I'm about to call out to them. They run away. If I'm ever going to see their faces I've gotta get back home. The real world.

Another clue to it all being a dream:

Mal: No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces, the way the projections persecute the dreamer? Admit it: you don't believe in one reality anymore.

I don’t have all the answers, I am still figuring it out like you are, so if you have thought of something that I haven’t then tell me in the comments :)

Cobb: [about a shot Saito] How's he doing?
Ariadne: He's in a lot of pain.
Cobb: When we get down to the lower levels the pain will be less intense.
Ariadne: And if he dies?
Cobb: Worst case scenario? When he wakes up his mind is completely gone.
Saito: Cobb. I'll still honor the arrangement.
Cobb: I appreciate that, Saito. But when you wake up you won't even remember we had an arrangement. Limbos gonna become your reality. You're gonna be lost down there so long you're gonna become an old man.
Saito: Filled with regret.
Cobb: Waiting to die alone.
Saito: I'll come back. And we'll be young men together again.

A couple of things to leave you with that will really mess with your head:

Arthur: Nah, I can't let you touch it, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know the balance and weight of this particular loaded die. That way when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt you're not in someone else's dream.

A totem doesn’t tell you that you aren’t dreaming; it only tells you that you are not in someone else’s dream - unless they know your totem.

Follow the wedding ring on Cobb’s left hand ring finger to learn when he is in a dream and if it’s not there he is in so called ‘reality.’

The true mastermind is Christopher Nolan, he has made Inception so open to interpretation that theories abound and everyone can interpret it as they please - this is my two cents worth.


  1. i cant believe no one has commented on this .. its really opened an entire new perspective on the movie .. saito before reading this was not of much significance to me in inception more like a tag along .. but now .. he is definitely one to look out for .. truly credit your theory and thankyou for making me extra confused :) .. i love it!

  2. It's an interesting theory but there's a lot of flawed reasoning based on your understanding of how the dream levels work etc. But it would be cool idea if were true.

  3. I don't see any reason to think over something which is happening in dream as we all are in a dream state of another's dream. Its a kind of very-2 systematic pattern where every object infulence another object which takes former in its dream consideration and infulenced by some other object.

    Redemption is only possible when we just look all these dream levels as a spectator witout get cought by any one or more levels otherwise limbo is inevitable.

    Mind can only find rest in heart which results in Peace.

  4. Cobb's kids do change at the end, their shoes are different

  5. When you say "Fraiser", I hope you do mean "Fischer".

  6. wow, you really really reeeeeally wrote alot there, it reminds me very much about some tinfoil conspiracy, but hey lets bring them out, you never know when those green fuckers are gonna eat your brains

  7. Lots of good ideas, lots of flaws aswell! The idea of Mal and Saito being lovers is a bit too radical as it is not mentioned or hinted to at all. Anyways good article

  8. Very interesting take on the movie and a wonderful contribution to a possible conclusive truth about Inception.

    Mal and Saito absolutely have some kind of relationship - Mal "helps" Saito at the beginning of the movie. Why? What's up with that? It's not random, it can't be dismissed. There's definitely something more to it.

    The idea of redemption with respect to the events of the film is one I'll have to think over.

    To the other commenters - I think it's interesting how you'll point out that there are a lot of flaws in a theory but you won't cite them. Do so, please, it helps expand the discussion.

    P.S. - What's up with the repeated use of the name "Fraiser" in place of the name of the character Fischer?

  9. Hahahaha some of u people are insane with this ridiculous theory. Im not even going to address most of it because of how insane most of it is. You completely missintepreted so many things in this movie to come to this wildly absurd theory. The only thing im even going to touch on is the fact that one of you said that Mal and Saito had somw kind of relationship. The only reason that mal helps saito in the begining is the same reason that mal shoots and kills fisher at the end. Mal is simply a projection of cobbs subconscience that tries to sabatoge cobbs efforts, plain and simple. So the fact that mal helps saito is irrelevent. She only did so to screw over cobb. Thats it. Stop trying to ind meaning where there is none.

  10. How can Saito have gone back to reality when he is stuck in limbo? Is the first level reality or is it perhaps also a dream? But how can Saito be in ANY level, if he is stuck in limbo?

    Is Saito someone elses projection perhaps?

    Projections act the way the dreamer expects them to. (thats why they follow browning at some point, to see if Fischer believes Browning is holding something back) Who would expect Saito to act the way he does? A lot of what Saito does can be because it could have been suggested (if he is a forger in the beginning when offering the job for example) or he could be a forger all the way untill limbo, but it is nowhere suggested he will be old in limbo, is it? Isnt that be something the dreamer must have known then?

  11. I have now watched Inception at least 20 times. I know it seems like a lot, but only a few movies have captivated me the same since it came out. I enjoyed reading your thought process here and hope you have been able to come back to read some of the responses in the comments.

    I don't see any rational logic for Chris Nolan to create a potential love interest between Mal and Saito. It really seems to messy of an idea. I do believe that your thought process here is definitely a product of how Nolan wrote the story and produced the movie.
    I am one person who would really like to see a sequel to this movie, so maybe using Cobb as the subject instead of someone like Fisher might be the way to go. Maybe after the first movie Fisher needs someone to help him, and then they would need to go the other direction towards Saito as the subject and be required to navigate around the initial job on Fisher to complete the new job. Those are the things that I'm curious about now.