What It Tells Us About The Multiple Dream Layers


Christopher Nolan’s hand-drawn plot map for his 2010 film Inception has gone viral on the internet, more than a decade after its release.

The map was shared on Twitter by a user named Julian Shapiro. The source of Nolan’s hand-drawn map is ‘The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christophe Nolan’, a book by American film critic Tom Shone. 

The Leonard DiCaprio-starrer science fiction action film is set “within the architecture of the mind”. Written and directed by Nolan, the movie revolves around the concept of lucid dreaming, a type of dream in which the dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming. 

DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a professional thief, or “extractor”, who performs corporate espionage (a form of spying conducted for commercial purposes) using dream-sharing technology. Cobb’s partner Arthur conducts the required research before any mission. Together, Cobb and Arthur use the dream-sharing technology to infiltrate their targets’ subconscious and extract information. 

How Does The Dream-Sharing Technology Work?

The dream-sharing technology was developed by the military to facilitate a training programme for soldiers in which they could practise killing each other without dire consequences. In the movie, Arthur explains the dream-sharing technology to Ariadne, an architect who Cobb hires to design the dreams in an important mission.

During dream-heists, the extractors enter into the subconscious of a person to ‘incept’ an idea. 

Cobb and his wife Mal had used the dream-sharing technology to spend decades in limbo, an unconstructed dream space that exists within the subconscious. Time within the dreams moves slower than that in the real world due to gravitational time dilation. Cobb and Mal spent over 50 years in Limbo, while in the real world, only one night had passed.

When Cobb told Mal that they should return to the real world, Mal could not accept the fact that her world in limbo was not the reality. To convince her to return to the real world, Cobb performed an ‘inception’ in her mind. Even after escaping limbo and “waking up”, the idea remained in Mal’s head, and she continued to believe that she was still dreaming. In order to “wake up”, she jumped from a high rise building, but this ended up killing her as she was in the real world. 

Mal framed Cobb to force him to kill himself because she felt that this would help him escape the dreamscape. As a result, Cobb had to flee the United States, leaving his children behind. 

Saito, an immensely powerful and wealthy business magnate, learns of Cobb’s skills to perform dream heists, and presents him with an offer. Saito asks Cobb to perform an inception on Robert Fischer, the heir of a rival conglomerate. 

Saito wants Cobb to plant an idea in Robert Fischer’s mind to dissolve his father’s company. In exchange for Cobb’s help, Saito promises to free Cobb of all criminal charges so that he can return home to see his children. 

Cobb accepts the offer, and assembles a team. His teammates include Arthur, who manages the mission, Eames, who is the shapeshifter as he can forge an identity as a physical manifestation in a shared dream, Yusuf, the chemist charged with manufacturing a mixture of sedatives to keep Fischer and the team unconscious long enough for the inception to be successful, and Ariadne, the architect responsible for designing the dream.

Cobb himself does not design the dream because that would make his subconscious projections of Mal appear, which would sabotage the mission. Cobb considers himself responsible for his wife’s death, and this is what makes Mal appear in all his dreams. 

Cobb decides that the dream heist will include three levels of dream sharing. At each level, there must be a dreamer and a subject. The role of the dreamer is to construct the world in the dream. Meanwhile, the subject populated the dreamscape with subconscious projections. Sometimes, these subconscious projections can act as dream intruders and attack others in the shared space.

Also, the subject is mostly the target for dream heists in inception. The subconscious of the subject is on display in the dream. In Inception, most of the members in Cobb’s team act as the dreamer. Meanwhile, Fischer is the constant subject, because the inception needs to be performed on him.

The team needs to go down three dream levels in order to ‘incept’ Fischer. To make sure that Fischer remains unconscious long enough for the inception to be performed, Yusuf added a heavy sedative. This means that if one dies within a dream, he or she will not wake up in the real world, but will instead enter limbo, the pure unconscious dreamscape. 

First Dream Sequence Is Yusuf’s Dream

In the first level, Yusuf is the dreamer. He memorises the design created by Ariadne to construct his dream. The team kidnaps Fischer, but is attacked by the subconscious projections of Fischer’s mind. The attack wounds Saito badly, who should be saved and not allowed to die because otherwise, he will enter limbo. 

Eames projects himself as Peter Browning, Robert’s Godfather, in order to spark the idea in Robert’s mind that his father wanted him to destroy the empire. After this, Cobb and his team, disguised as kidnappers, throw Fischer into a van driven by Yusuf. 

This dream sequence can also be seen in Christopher Nolan’s plot map. Nolan has labelled Yusuf as the dreamer, and marked the sequence as the Kidnap/Chase mission. He also mentioned details of Fischer and Browning’s kidnapping. 

Everyone except Yusuf will enter into the second dream level. Yusuf stays awake to provide the necessary “kick” to wake everyone up from a particular dream level and bring them back to the previous dream level. 

Second Dream Sequence Is Arthur’s Dream Within A Dream

In the second level, Arthur is the dreamer. Since each dream level gives the team 20 times the length of the previous layer, Saito gets a bit more time in Arthur’s dream inside a hotel. 

However, Fischer’s subconscious projections continue to act as obstacles for Cobb and his team. Therefore, Cobb tells Fischer that they are in a dream, and that the former is an implanted projection. 

Cobb takes Fischer to a hotel room where they see Fischer’s subconscious projection of Browning.  

Cobb and his team convince Fischer to use the dream-sharing technology to enter Browning’s mind and know if he is hiding something. But, this is just a trick used by Cobb and his team to enter the third dream level, along with Fischer. Arthur does not enter the third dream level, and stays behind to make sure that he can provide the kick by blasting the floor. 

In both the first and second dream levels, Cobb and his team ask Fischer about a locked safe. Browning tells Fischer that the safe may contain an alternate will in which Maurice Fischer, Robert’s father, has mentioned his desire for his son to destroy the empire. 

In the map, Christopher Nolan has written ‘Locked Safe?’ inside the space for Arthur’s dream to signify the fact that the mystery behind the will inside the safe is yet to be unveiled.

Third Dream Sequence Is Eames’ Dream Within A Dream Within A Dream 

Cobb and his team reach a snowy mountain in Eames’ dream sequence. Saito must take Fischer to a safe inside a fortress where the inception can be performed. 

Despite getting extra time within the dream level, Saito is dying. Since the team is running out of time, Ariadne tells Cobb that they should reach Fischer through a shortcut she built in Eames’ dream. 

Ariadne tells Cobb about the shortcut. However, Cobb knowing the shortcut means that Mal also knows about the shortcut. 

Cobb’s subconscious projection of Mal appears, and kills Fischer, sending him into Limbo.

In the plot map, Nolan has written that Fischer entered Limbo while he was in Eames’ dream. 

Since things go haywire, Cobb and Ariadne decide to enter Limbo, in order to rescue Fischer.

Rescuing Fischer From Limbo

Both Cobb and Ariadne enter Limbo, and see the city Cobb had constructed with Mal when they were trapped in it for decades. The landscape of Limbo remains consistent with Cobb’s experience there because he is the only person to have been in the dreamscape. 

Cobb and Ariadne find that Mal has held Fischer captive in Limbo. The reason why Mal appears in Limbo is that she is a part of Cobb’s subconscious, and a reflection of his desire to stay in the dreamscape with Mal. However, Cobb decides to accept his guilt in Mal’s death.

Meanwhile, Ariadne throws Fischer from a high balcony to throw him out of Limbo. At the same time, she jumps off from the balcony to escape Limbo. As a result, both Fischer and Ariadne enter the third level, which is Eames’ dream. 

Fischer discovers the planted idea in a safe. He finds that his father wanted him to create something for himself. The inception is successfully done, but the mission is far from over.

Cobb Rescues Satio From Limbo

Since Satio dies in the third level, he enters Limbo, and gets completely lost there. Satio recreates the Japanese castle seen earlier in the movie. Also, he has grown into an old man because he entered Limbo unconsciously, making him believe that this is his reality.

Cobb finds Satio, and reminds him of their agreement. He tells Satio, “Come back, so we can be young men together again”. When Satio was badly wounded in the first level, he had said, “I will come back. And we will be young men together again”. 

After this, Cobb takes out his gun, presumably to kill Satio and himself, so that they can be back to the waking world. 

Multiple Dream Layers And Synchronised Kicks Deciphered From Nolan’s Map

Cobb killing Satio and himself in Limbo served as a kick. In order for Satio to wake up in the real world, it was important to ensure that the kick in Limbo, and the kicks performed by Eames (in level 3), Arthur (in level 2) and Yusuf (in level 1) are synchronised. 

The kick to bring Fischer to the third level from Limbo did not have to be synchronised because he was shot only in the third level. This means that subsequent kicks will bring him to dream levels where his bodies are totally fine.

However, Satio was wounded in the first level, and died in the third level. They did not resuscitate him in the third level because that would have brought him to the second level where he was still dying. If he was resuscitated in the second level, he would have been brought to the first level, where he was severely injured. This would have reduced his chances of waking up in the real world, as a result of which he could have permanently been trapped in Limbo. 

In the plot map for Inception, Nolan has drawn a straight dotted line connecting the kicks performed by Eames, Arthur, and James in the three dream levels, and the kick performed by Cobb in Limbo, to depict the fact that all the kicks are synchronised. 

After this, Cobb, his team, and Fischer wake up in the plane where the first step of the dream heist was carried out. Satio makes a phone call, and after this, Cobb is cleared of all charges. As a result, he is able to return to the US, and meet his children.

He spins his top to confirm whether he is in the real world or still dreaming. However, he does not wait for the results, and instead, joins his children. This is a powerful ending which means that Cobb has accepted his reality, whatever it be.





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