Inception is a 2010 science fiction action thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It works like a "reverse-heist film" (instead of taking something from the target, the main character's team must leave something behind), and features an All-Star Cast consisting of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Ken Watanabe.
Dominic "Dom" Cobb (DiCaprio) works as a freelance "extractor": using a specialized set of drugs, Cobb and his team share dreams with their targets (usually individuals with lots of power and money), which allows Cobb to find and open the safes and vaults within said dreams that contain secrets he can sell to his clients. Cobb's skills in understanding the human mind make him one of the world's best extractors, but his job has turned him into an international fugitive who can't return home to his family in the United States. When an attempt to extract information from a Japanese business magnate named Saito (Watanabe) goes wrong, Cobb goes on the run from his current employers.
Saito catches up with Cobb and makes the extractor an offer: he'll arrange to wipe Cobb's criminal record (which would allow him to go home) if Cobb can manage to perform an inception on one of Saito's rivals. Whereas extraction involves stealing ideas or information already in somebody's head, inception involves the insertion of an idea into someone's head in a way which convinces the target that they independently conceived the idea. Cobb accepts Saito's proposal, even though he knows it has a catch: nobody has ever pulled off a successful inception, as the targets always realize that they didn't come up with the inserted idea.
To attempt the impossible, Cobb assembles a Badass Crew of experts: longtime extraction partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), dreamworld-building architect Ariadne (Page), expert forger Eames (Hardy), and chemist Yusuf (who devises the specialized sedatives that make extraction possible). The task requires them to perform a very risky "dream within a dream within a dream" scenario which will allow the team to bury the idea deep enough to leave no trace of their influence. As Cobb's group works their way into the target's mind, a complication Cobb failed to warn them about arises: inside the dream world, Cobb's subconscious demons makes for a worse enemy than their target's subconscious security — and if they die in the dream? Well, the sedatives can assure that they simply don't wake up...
Inception extracted the following tropes from the minds of humanity:
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The technology to enter another person's dreamscape is only used by a small number of people and the military, to the point that Fischer has been trained by an extractor to defend himself against this kind of attack, something that comes to bite The Team in the ass about 2 minutes into the operation.
- 90% of Your Brain: Cobb tells Ariadne that when awake, people use only "a fraction" of their brains, but when sleeping, their whole subconscious is unlocked. This makes sense, to a degree. When you are conscious, immense resources are used to process sensory data. When dreaming these resources are known to be co-opted for other purposes.
- Accidental Suicide: Mal and Cobb spent an entire life in Limbo together, growing old together, only to wake up back in the real world where it was just a few minutes. This distorted Mal's perception of reality so bad that she became convinced that they were still dreaming, despite both of them being very much awake. She decides she and Cobb need to wake up and since in dreams the only way out is through death if your sedative hasn't run its course, she leaps out of a window and plummets to her death. While she did intend to kill herself, she didn't think doing so would actually mean she'd be dead given the logic of dreams.
- Acoustic License: After dropping them off at the airport, Saito and Cobb are able to have a meaningful conversation amid the former's helicopter engine still running without shouting at each other.
- Action Prologue: The opening mind theft mission on Saito.
- Actor Allusion:
- As in The Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan makes Cillian Murphy wear a bag on his head.
- Cobb mentions in one scene that extradition between America and France is a bureaucratic nightmare. In Catch Me If You Can, one of Leo's previous roles, he played an American conman who was extradited from a French jail.
- When the team realizes they need control of the first-class section of a plane in order to pull the heist, Saito announces that he's bought the airline. In The Aviator, when DiCaprio's character wanted to get into aviation professionally, he did the same....It seemed neater.
- Leo encounters his love interest early on as she stands by a railing and contemplates suicide. Leo also washes up on a beach shore, as mentioned below.
- This isn't the first time Leo's been washed ashore.
- Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for La Vie en Rose, a biopic of Edith Piaf. Piaf's song "Non je ne regrette rien" plays throughout the film; this allusion was non-intentional, the song was always to be in the film (Hans Zimmer wove it deeply into the score) and Cotillard's eventual casting just made it an odd connection.
- Leonardo DiCaprio is also haunted by causing his wife's death in Shutter Island, released around the same time.
- Advertised Extra: Despite prominent billing, Michael Caine's character has just three minutes of screentime.
- Air-Vent Passageway: Exaggerated. In the final maze, there were air vents large enough for a full-grown man to stand upright. Makes sense in the dream; they were only there because Eames deliberately had Ariadne install them.
- Alien Geometries: One of the architect's tasks is setting up Escheresque loops in the dream world, in order to confuse and trap the projections if they become hostile.
- All Just a Dream: Played with. From the perspective of one level of the dream world higher, whatever happens in each dream layer is All Just a Dream, but things that happen while you're dreaming can have very real results in the real world. Also, the ending plays with whether part or all of the film has been in Cobb's head, or from a meta-textual level the film itself (as a creative work merely approximating a "reality") is a bit of inception being performed on the audience themselves. The film establishes that in a dream, Cobb's top will never stop spinning, and the final shot of the movie has both Cobb walking away before seeing if his wobbling top actually will stop spinning, and the film itself cuts before the audience sees what will become of the top either.
- Ambiguous Situation:
- Mal and Cobb, who keep taking opposing standpoints on This Is Reality versus All Just a Dream.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.
- The movie ends with Cobb being so happy to see his children again that he forgets to check if his totem stops spinning or not. Will it stop spinning shortly after the scene? If so, the ending is Happily Ever After. If not, it's kinda a Lotus-Eater Machine.
- Word of God seems to indicate that it's not a dream. Specifically, Christopher Nolan explained to Michael Caine that any scene where his character is in happens in reality, and his character appeared in the ending .
- Mal and Cobb, who keep taking opposing standpoints on This Is Reality versus All Just a Dream.
- Amoral Afrikaner: Cobol Engineering is a South African Mega-Corp with a very thuggish and unscrupulous reputation, which in part explains their presence in Kenya. This is further highlighted in "The Cobol Job."
- Anachronic Order: Not to the level of previous Nolan films, but the beginning chronologically takes place near the end.
- And I Must Scream:
- Limbo, though it's not so much Limbo as it is the effects that Limbo has on the mind. Since, once there, you are a Physical God, you have decades worth of time in a single afternoon... Limbo is, in a way, a Lotus-Eater Machine version of the perfect world, one that bends to the will of the people experiencing it. Leaving it is likened to a drug-addict off their fix... you can't just up and leave, you'll always want to go back. You'll "need" to just to have some sense of feeling. And that is the grand fear of limbo, because once you tasted it... you never want to leave, even if the door is right in front of you. Mal and Cobb didn't seem to mind it.
- The whole caper, if you judge by the events in the first layer of dreaming, lasts no more than 10 hours tops. This means that it took most characters a maximum of 30 minutes of real-time to get through the movie. Meanwhile, the flight is 10 hours real-time, which leaves Cobb with 9 hours 30 minutes to find Saito – multiplied by 20, by 20, by 20 and by 20 again. That's 1 and a half million hours. So Cobb and Saito were rotting in Limbo for more than 170 years. On realization, it would make even the viewer scream if the film forced them through the whole ordeal, to say nothing of these fellas.
- And Starring: The headline credits at the end of the film end with "and Michael Caine".
- Applied Phlebotinum:
- Somnacin, the drug that enables dream-sharing. Side materials note that it was first created for military applications as a training simulation. However, the PASIV Device which administers it is a Schematized Prop.
- The specialized sedatives. The one used when Cobb and Arthur enter Saito's dreamed dream on the train at the start of the film leaves the dreamers able to feel water, but does not appear to have any sensory gaps aside from a vague sense of hearing. Yusuf makes one so potent that the dreamer is effectively insensate save for inner-ear functions, so the dreamer can perceive the sensation of falling.
- Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Saito uses his to buy the entire airline for the single airplane they're infiltrating. Purchasing an entire airline in under a month, without attracting attention, would require a staggering amount of money. Then again, who knows how long Saito was planning this, he could just be Crazy-Prepared.
- Arc Number: 528-491. Amusingly, it means absolutely nothing, being just the first six numbers Fischer Jr. thought of. As they go deeper and deeper into the dreams, though, Fischer's subconscious starts giving them importance, because hey, he was thinking about those six numbers.
- Arc Words:
- "You're waiting for a train..."
- "... an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone."
- "We can be young men together again."
- "...take a leap of faith"
- "Non, rien de rien / Non, je ne regrette rien..."
- "This world is not real." or some variant of the phrase.
- "You said you dreamt that we would grow old together."
- Cobb's comparisons of an idea to a virus only really hit home in Act III.
- Astral Checkerboard Decor: The snow fortress in the third level has floors with this pattern.
- As You Know: Cobb to Arthur back at the hotel after the opening caper (along with the implications of their failure):"We were supposed to deliver Saito's expansion plans to Cobol Engineering two hours ago."
- Avengers Assemble: Cobb traveling around the globe to recruit Ariadne and Yusuf as new members for his "Inception team".
- "Back to Camera" Pose: This◊ poster sees Cobb stand with his back to the audience as he looks out at a skyscraper-filled city being flooded, hinting at the epic and amorphous nature of the dream worlds.
- Badass Boast: Ariadne has a subtle non-verbal one. Cobb hands her a notebook and tells her to quickly draw a maze he can't quickly solve. She draws one, but he solves it quickly, rips the paper out, and tells her to try again. She does, he solves it, rips the paper out, and tells her to try again. She gets a look in her eye, snags the notebook back, and draws the next maze on the cardboard of the notebook, as if to say, "You won't be ripping this page out." And he doesn't.
- This action has a second layer of importance in that while she was drawing the mazes on the lined sheets, she was using the lines as guides to structure the maze on; by using the cardboard (which doesn't have any printing on it) she's issuing her non-verbal Badass Boast while simultaneously demonstrating her ability to improvise and think quickly and out of the box.
- Bad Vibrations: Throughout the dream levels, vibrating objects or ripples in fluids are indicating the arrival of kicks. A prime example is the close-up shot on the coffee cup in the Paris level with Cobb and Ariadne.
- Barefoot Suicide: Played With. Mal, trying to get her husband to commit suicide with her, slips off one of her shoes while sitting on the ledge and lets it fall, to demonstrate she's serious about jumping and that The Apple Falls Far.
- Batman Gambit: "Mr. Charles" — In the second layer of the dream, Cobb tricks Fischer Jr. into participating in the inception plan by convincing him that his godfather Browning is the one that's really invading his dream. This plan would only attract attention from the hostile projections once they become aware they're in a dream, thus increasing the danger for everyone involved. Indeed, Arthur makes his opposition to this plan known to the others: the last time they tried this, it backfired horribly for Cobb, Arthur, and their crew.
- Battle in the Center of the Mind: Quite a few because most of the movie takes place in a dream and The Plan involves going very deep into someone's mind.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Cobb pretending to be Fischer's security expert in the bar scene, which leads to Come with Me If You Want to Live.
- Better than a Bare Bulb: In-story. The Mr. Charles gambit: when Fischer starts to near an awareness of the artificial nature of the world, Cobb assumes the role of Dream Security expert Mr. Charles to call attention to the fact he's being dream-hacked in an effort to gain his trust and continue the hacking. It works.
- Beyond the Impossible: It's clearly stated that two levels deep is the maximum stable level. Subverted the first time: The group uses Applied Phlebotinum to tweak the rules and reach a third. For the fourth, they just go for it. Overall justified, because Cobb disagreed with other dream experts and was a pioneer in the technology.
- BFG: The grenade launcher Eames uses in the dream when Arthur fails to hit his target with an assault rifle.
- Big Damn Heroes: Saito rescues Cobb in Mombasa with a Toyota Tripwire to take out a Cobol gunman and asking Cobb if he cares for a lift.
- Bigger Is Better: As Eames demonstrates to Arthur in terms of in-dream weaponry.
- Big "NO!": Cobb screams one as he watches Mal jump to her death.
- Bilingual Bonus: The French song used as a signal to wake up is about letting go of the past. Although that part may not be audible in the film, the song famously goes on to say "(I don't regret) any of the evil/hurt inflicted to me" with the word for "evil/hurt" being... Mal.
- Billed Above the Title: Leonardo DiCaprio (makes sense, as he's the lead). In a fair move, the rest of the principal cast (minus Dileep Rao) are all billed in accordance to their screen time below the title.
- Bizarrchitecture: The further down into the dream world you go, the more bizarre it gets.
- Bizzare Dream Rationalization: Played for Drama. Main character Dom Cobb's wife Mal is revealed to have killed herself this way, by accident. When experimenting with "dream-sharing", the two entered a state known as "Limbo", where they could warp and manipulate their subconscious into impossible scenarios, also experiencing subjective time at an extremely dilated pace. Mal is unable to think rationally after the incident, so Cobb surreptitiously shares a dream with her one more time and implants an idea that her mind is not experiencing reality properly. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect: Mal thinks that one more "kick" (a method of awakening a dream-sharing individual) will finally bring herself into true reality, but, as she is already awake, she does not realize that it will actually kill her. To Cobb's horror, he watches as she jumps out of her high-story apartment window to her death.
- Black-and-Gray Morality: No major character is perfectly morally upstanding in these movies. The "good guys" are very manipulative, deceptive, and arguably even downright cruel at times in pursuit of their goal of brainwashing their target on behalf of a business rival. On the other hand, they are helping the guy get over his deep-seated father issues and getting him to forge his own path. Then there are the good guys' targets (or "bad guys" if you think they are bad enough to be distinguished from the "good" ones) who are considering maintaining a dangerous corporate monopoly, which is part of what drives the other side to resort to such ethically questionable methods in the first place.
- Black Screen of Death: The ending, which never reveals whether the top falls or not.
- Blank Book: After Cobb is caught stealing the envelope representing Saito's secret knowledge, Saito takes it back, but when he opens the envelope it's full of blank pages, revealing that it's not the real envelope but a decoy Cobb was shown with earlier.
- Blind Alley: Averted. Cobb runs down an alley to try and ditch several agents that are chasing him. They notice him stuck in between the two buildings at the other end of the narrowing alley and he barely escapes them.
- Blood from the Mouth: Saito. Justified, as he is dying of a punctured lung in the dream.
- Bloodless Carnage: There is almost no blood at all in the entire movie. The notable exception is Saito, whose injury is a critical moment in the plot and for a fatal wound it's still just a very small hole that barely bleeds. In the snow level Fischer and Mal get shot, but show only a small red dot on their white jackets to show that they have been hit. Like so many other tropes, justified by the fact that most if not all characters have never been in an actual firefight and would only know them from movies, so that's how they'd expect gunshot wounds to look.
- Bob from Accounting: Cobb introduces himself as "Rod Green, from Marketing" when setting up the Mr. Charles gambit.
- The movie's opening and closing scenes involve a shot of Cobb's kids playing together.
- Also the early scene with Saito as an old man is repeated. It is only at the end that we understand.
- …But He Sounds Handsome: Saito sees Browning, who he assumes to be Eames in disguise. He walks right up to him and says, "I see you've changed." Browning gives him an odd look and Saito sees Eames behind him. Saito quickly says, "I mistook you for a friend of mine." Browning smirks and says, "Must be a good-looking fella."
- The Can Kicked Him: In the second dream level, Cobb leads Fischer into a men's room and hides him while two projections follow them in. Cobb uses one of their guns to kill both projections.
- The Caper: You could say that again. Inside the world of your subconscious. Played with in the beginning of the movie and later as the group is attempting to place something in Robert Fischer's head, rather than take something out as was the case with Saito.
- Caper Rationalization: Saito tells the team that his corporate rival will become a dangerously powerful monopoly unless they brainwash their target. Eames agrees with this sentiment after doing his research.
- Captain Obvious: At the end, right after the first kick:Eames: Cobb? Did we miss it?
Cobb: [who just saw the huge avalanche, as did everyone] Yeah, we missed it.
- Car Chase: Fischer's projections chasing Yusuf's van in the first dream layer.
- Casting Gag:
- Some of the actors that previously appeared in The Dark Knight Trilogy appear here with their situations changed. Cillian Murphy is the one being mind raped, starting with a dose of drugged water, Ken Watanabe again "dies" in an exploding fortress atop a snowy mountain, and Michael Caine plays the mentor/father figure to the main character.
- An inadvertent one. Nolan cast Marion Cotillard, who played famous French singer Édith Piaf in the biopic La Vie en Rose, in a film that heavily features Piaf's song Je ne regrette rien. Christopher Nolan considered taking the song out of the movie when he cast Cotillard, but ultimately decided against after Hans Zimmer insisted — he had already built quite a bit of score around it.
- Casual Danger Dialogue: Saito intervenes as Dom is being chased by Cobol assassins, knocking out Dom's last tail with a Toyota Tripwire then quipping, "Care for a lift, Mr. Cobb?"
- Chained to a Railway: Mal and Cobb lay their heads onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train so they would get run over and return to the real world.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- The top comes back with a vengeance.
- The Penrose stairs that Arthur demonstrates during Ariadne's training come in handy during the actual caper.
- The dollhouse is pictured very briefly near the beginning and turns out to be where Cobb planted the inception in his wife's mind.
- The train makes a few appearances before it gets any context. Cobb mentions early on that he doesn't like trains. Ariadne also briefly sees a freight train in his memory. In the first level of the inception job, Cobb's subconscious rams them with a freight train. Turns out it's the train he and Mal killed themselves with to get out of Limbo.
- The large butcher knife Mal is seen fiddling with.
- A literal one. Cobb's Beretta PX4 Storm handgun which he dramatically loads in the elevator up to Mal. Ariadne gets a hold of it and uses it to kill Mal once and for all.
- Subconscious security. In Cobb's first interaction with Saito, he mentions being able to teach his mind to protect itself from Extraction. This comes back to bite them in the ass when they try to pull the job on Fischer but not when Cobb has to retrieve Saito from limbo later, because this time his subconscious knows Cobb is doing the best thing for him.
- The picture of Robert playing with his pinwheel.
- Cobb's wedding ring. It's one of the biggest hints that the ending is real.
- A lot of the tricks of the trade of extracting show up in the earliest scenes of the movie way before they are explained - the kick, using music to time waking up, having a dream within a dream, etc.
- Chekhov's Skill: Arthur demonstrates to Ariadne paradoxical architecture, namely the Penrose steps, and then uses it himself to get behind someone who is chasing him down a stairwell.
- Chekhov's Time Travel: The "limbo" subconscious level of dreamworlds (if counting as a functional alternate dimension) that is brought up quite early on is exploited come the climax of the film, becoming a dramatic device with Cobb and Ariadne deliberately killing themselves to get there to save the lives of Saito and Fischer. It also gives Cobb closure with Mal.
- Chess Motifs: Ariadne handcrafts her totem into a Bishop chess piece.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Dreamers when inside the dreamworld have this power. While you can literally do just about anything, doing so to someone else's dream is a VERY BAD idea since the more you mess with their dream the more likely their projections will catch on to the dreamer and force them out.
- Clear My Name: This is Cobb's motivation for most of the film.
- Close on Title: The movie doesn't have a title card until the end credits. Where it is displayed three separate times.
- Collapsing Lair: The building in the opening mission starts to fall apart as the dream collapses.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience:
- The dream layers are tinted differently to help the viewer discern between the switching scenes. The top dream layer is blue, the second is brown and the final dream level is white.
- In the snow level of the dream, Cobb's crew carry guns and/or wear goggles that have all been colored white, and the mooks defending the fortress cover their faces in black while carrying black guns without winterized camouflage. Helpful since everyone is wearing winter combat gear and would be otherwise indistinguishable. Possible Justified Trope: Eames may have made this adjustment as the dreamer for the snow level, or Fischer may be influencing the projections because the Mister Charles gambit worked and he wants the Inception team to win.
- Come with Me If You Want to Live:
- Saito does this to Dom when he's being chased by Cobol's agents.
- In a subversion, Dom (as Mr. Charles) does it to Fischer, albeit it's "if you want your secrets kept safe."
- The Constant: Played straight with the "totems." Inverted with everything else in the world around them. Furthermore, if you believe the entire film was a dream the totems have no meaning, and everything is nonconstant.
- Conveniently Timed Attack from Behind: When Mal tries to attack Cobb with a knife in the last level, Ariadne shoots her from behind him.
- Cool Car: The Hummer with treads used by the guards of the snow fortress.
- Cool Gun: Highlights include Eames Milkor MGL grenade launcher, Arthur's FN SCAR assault rifle, as well as Cobb's suppressed Beretta PX4 Storm handgun and custom suppressed Blaser R93 Precision sniper rifle (done up in white camouflage, no less).
- Cool Train:
- The Shinkansen at the beginning.
- For fans of American freight trains, the train from Cobb's dreams.
- Corrupt the Cutie: Ariadne. Michael Caine's character even refers to Cobb as wanting to "corrupt" one of his best students. Cobb openly tells her the job is not legal, but he, Arthur, and Ariadne herself each admit that after tasting the power of dream architecture, she would never want to go back. She willingly joins the team.
- Crashing Dreams: A dreamer getting wet, being physically jostled, etc. results directly in events occurring in their dreams (such as a sudden flood, or gravity ceasing to function normally) which reflect whatever their body is feeling.
- Cyberspace: Subverted in that this movie hits every cyberspace trope it can without computers.
- Death Is Cheap: Being killed in a dream merely leads to the subject waking up, although if it happens while they're deeply sedated, it can lead to the dreamer being sent to limbo for subjective decades.
- Death Is the Only Option: If the sleeping agent hasn't worn off and you don't have a kick prepared, then the only way to wake yourself from a dream is by dying.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: The projection of Mal in Cobb's arms.
- Disproportionate Retribution:
- In a bizarre case of dream logic, Cobol Corp. sends assassins after the heroes the very minute they find out they've failed to infiltrate Saito's mind, then sends two dozen more when the heroes are spotted in Kenya. This is somewhat less disproportionate if you take into account the prequel comic "The Cobol Job." The Arthur/Cobb/Nash team had failed to retrieve information on Proclus Global (Saito's company) twice by the start of the movie. Then again if it's just a dream, Cobol Corp's assassins may be just projections.
- Extraction is technically industrial espionage, which is illegal. Getting rid of Cobb after Saito's rumbled him would prevent Saito from discovering who hired Cobb and having Cobol either sued or prosecuted. Extraction is particularly illegal after "what happened" (which isn't explicitly said to be related to Cobb's previous inception).
- There's also the risk of Cobb, Arthur or Nash being arrested or turning themselves in and talking to the police, and implicating Cobol in the process.
- Distracted from Death: In the third layer of Robert Fischer's dream, he looks away from his dying father just long enough to open the safe and see the contents. He then turns back to find his father dead.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The people in the Mombasa basement who come every day to share the dream, because the dream has become their reality. After a while it starts to sound like they're people addled to drug addiction or alcoholism, trying to escape from the real world.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: Early on, Mal has Arthur at gunpoint and pulls the hammer to make Cobb confess.
- Dramatic Shattering: Used a few times, twice in the trashed anniversary hotel suite by someone stepping on a wine glass. When Ariadne does it, it creates an Oh, Crap! moment when Mal appears.
- Dream Apocalypse: There are two or three variations: To a lesser extent, the projections who attack any foreign entity in the dream when the host starts to realize he's dreaming; played much straighter, however, is Cobb's projection of Mal, particularly at the end within limbo and inverted with the real Mal, who was convinced that what Cobb thinks is the real world is a dream, and that she needed to die to return to "reality."
- Dream Emergency Exit: Being killed in a dream leads to the subject waking up, although if it happens while they're deeply sedated, it can lead to the dreamer being sent to limbo for subjective decades, making it unlikely for the dreamer to perceive it as a dream.
- A kick is another way to forcibly wake yourself up from a dream, however kicks have to be prepared ahead of time as it involves jolting the dreamer's physical body enough to wake them up. Falling or being dunked into a body of water are the main ones shown in the film.
- Dream Land: Basically almost the entire setting for this movie, or even all of it.
- Dream Reality Check: The totems that The Team carries are supposed to be personalized ways of doing this; if the totem doesn't behave as you know it's supposed to in the real world, then you're in a dream. But Cobb points out to both Ariadne and Fischer that you can also tell you're in a dream by trying to think about how you got to where you currently are, noticing any impossible geometries and phenomenon, or other inconsistencies like rapid weather changes. The infamous ending focuses on Cobb's spinning top totem with the film cutting to black before the audience can see whether or not it stops spinning (Cobb's awake) or if it spins forever (Cobb's still in a dream).
- Dream Walker: Technically anyone in the film's universe can do this if they have access to the technology. But obviously all of the members of The Team who go into Fischer's dream are this.
- Dream Weaver: Extraction/inception teams, and architects in particular, are a sci-fi variant.
- Dream Within a Dream: You can basically create any object you want when you're dreaming. This includes another copy of the dream-share machine to create deeper-level dreams within the dream.
- Driven to Suicide: Remember how Mal killed herself in order to wake up as she was utterly convinced that she was still dreaming? Well, that idea got into her head because Cobb, in his desperation to get Mal to leave Limbo with him when she chose to make it her own reality, incepted it into her.
- Dwindling Party: Because of the story's metaphysics, every time the party enters a Dream Within a Dream, one party member must stay behind on that level to safeguard the others while they sleep; the farther into The Heist Cobb goes, the fewer people he has at his side. Downplayed in that those accomplices are never gone for good — everyone can, and does, wake up — and those left behind continue to influence the heist because the "host" of the dream LAN is affected by what happens to their slumbering body (hence the need to leave someone behind to guard it).
- Earn Your Happy Ending: For Cobb.
- Eldritch Location: The dreams, especially the second dream Ariadne entered where she plays with the laws of physics thereby tilting a portion of the town and messing up the gravity. Cobb's deepest dream level also qualifies here.
- The Ending Changes Everything: It's entirely plausible that almost all of the events in the film actually take place in one character or other's dream.
- Enemy Rising Behind: When Fischer is inside the fortress, we see Mal climbing down into the room behind his back.
- Enemy Within: Mal, or more accurately Cobb's projection of his guilt from injecting an idea into Mal's mind that ended up driving her to kill herself in Limbo to return to reality, only to believe that reality was just another dream and kill herself again.
- Epic Movie: An all-star cast. Years and years in the making. Large nonuple-digit budget. From the director of The Dark Knight. This fits the trope to a T.
- Epiphany Therapy: At the climax of the film, Cobb finally summons up the courage to confront his projection of Mal and accept the fact that she is dead.
- Everyone Lives: A Foregone Conclusion, since it's all a dream. But dying isn't really what they're afraid of.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: If you meddle with someone else's dream too much, all the nice not-real people (and architecture) start getting feral. And they always know who's doing it. And sometimes, what's effectively Pyramid Head finds her way in.
- Excuse Me, Coming Through!: Multiple times during the chase scene in Mombasa.
- Existential Horror: The workings of the dreams in the film in general, but especially the fate of Cobb's wife, Malorie. What if you had a dream so vivid that you couldn't tell it apart from reality, and reality therefore ends up seeming like yet another dream to you? So much so that you start viewing death, not as the end of your existence, but as the only way you could truly escape from the dream?
- Exotic Backdrop Setting: Mombasa. There are no named Kenyans.
- The Faceless: Cobb's kids. Justified, since they are the projection of Cobb's memory — specifically, his last memory of them, when they didn't turn around to look at him. He vehemently refuses to make them turn around in the dreams because when he sees his children again he wants it to be for real. In the end, Cobb finally sees his children's faces. Or does he?
- Fake-Out Make-Out: Arthur asks Ariadne to kiss him to keep Fischer's subconscious from detecting them.Ariadne: They're still looking at us.
Arthur: Yeah, it was worth a shot.
- Fantasy Keepsake: The totems.
- Fate Worse than Death: Limbo. It's an unformed dream state where you go if you die in a dream but are too sedated to just wake up. The time dilation is so pronounced that a few minutes of real time is experienced as years. You're going to be there for a very long time. If you've got 30 minutes to go before your kick hits, or if you've missed the kick and are gonna be under for hours until the sedative runs out you'll be in limbo for an effective eternity.And then subverted when it's shown you're also effectively God there. So no, it isn't that bad.
- Fauxshadow: Ariadne's and Arthur's totems. Nothing really comes of them apart from establishing that both people are ready to enter dream worlds. Subverted in that those are examples of people using their own totems; whereas Cobb's top totem isn't actually his totem, but Mal's, though there's no definitive verbal confirmation of it.
- Film Noir: Christopher Nolan has effectively mixed Noir chocolate with Cyberpunk peanut butter, and it's as tasty as it sounds.
- Fire-Forged Friends: By the time he rescues him from Limbo, Cobb and Saito seem to share a deep bond and trust.
- First-Name Basis: We never find out the surnames of Arthur, Ariadne, Yusuf or Saito. However, given Japanese naming conventions, it could be Saito's first name we never learn.
- Flare Gun: In the third level, Eames manages to draw the security's attention by firing a flare gun into the sky.
- Flipping the Bird: Done by Yusuf to a projection when he sets off the kick in Fischer's first dream layer.
- Forced Friendly Fire: Cobb kills two projections in the second dream level by getting hold of one of their guns and killing them with it.
- An interesting variation, as most examples feature characters discussing events they already know about, but the audience does not; the characters may be calling back to an event in the chronological past we have yet to see, or predicting the future using information we have yet to learn.
- An example calling back to the characters' past: Mal asks Cobb in one of the first scenes whether she will die from jumping off the building. She had committed suicide already by this point, and this is Cobb's projection of her haunting him. If you look at the room behind her on the ledge, it's identical to the one he's in, but you might not notice if you were focused on the characters.
- An example of a conversation that does foreshadow future events, but which the audience does not know what they are speaking about (in this case, Cobb's projections of Mal sabotaging the mission):Arthur: And you. What the hell was that?
Cobb: I have it under control.
Arthur: I'd hate to see out of control.
- A few elements of the Mombasa chase set up the elements of the inception job, such as the maze-like layout of the streets and alleyways Cobb runs through, and constant danger from the Cobol men, like the projections he and the team will be up against later.
- Ariadne realizing that Cobb can't build dreams anymore, because if he knows the dream layout, he could bring Mal in and sabotage the mission. Acts as both a Call-Back to the Action Prologue, but also foreshadows Mal appearing in the third dream layer and shooting Fischer, forcing Cobb and Ariadne to follow Fischer into Limbo to rescue him.
- A variation. Saito being shot in the first dream. His wounds eventually cause him to die and send him to Limbo, forcing Cobb to have to rescue him. In the third dream, Mal appears and shoots Fischer, and Cobb and Ariadne follow him down to Limbo to save him. Played straight in the fact that both characters are shot and sent to Limbo, but subverted in the fact that they end up in Limbo at roughly the same time.
- In the second dream level, Fischer picks up the gun in the bathroom, thinking he will wake up if he kills himself. Cobb warns him not to, knowing he will drop into limbo if he dies, and convinces Fischer to give him the gun. He gets killed by Mal in the third dream level, forcing Cobb and Ariadne to follow him down into limbo to rescue him and finish the job.
- Fischer says to Saito after the avalanche "Couldn't someone have dreamed up a goddamn beach?" Later, he dies and goes to limbo which starts on a beach.)
- In Ariadne and Cobb's second session, Cobb's subconscious starts to get aggressive:Ariadne: Mind asking your subconscious to take it easy?
Cobb: I can't, it's my subconscious.
- Taken into context with Mal and Cobb's repeated projections of her, as revealed later, this line suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
- In the beginning after Cobb wakes up he mutters:I hate trains.
- Four Lines, All Waiting: The movie transitions between the various dream levels in rapid succession.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: When Cobb looks at Fischer's passport (after Eames pickpockets it on the plane), pausing will reveal that Fischer's full name is Robert Michael Fischer, his date of birth is September 17, 1975, he was born in Sydney, and the respective date of issue/expiry dates are August 9, 2005 and August 9, 2015 respectively.
- From Bad to Worse: Mal infests Cobb's brain to the point where he can barely focus on the mission. The team's employer gets shot and ends up on the verge of death. Then of course there's the ending, which may or may not be this trope. And pretty much everything in between.
- Genre Mashup: Film Noir meets The Caper with a dose of Post-Cyberpunk.
- Genre Throwback: To 1990s Cyberpunk/Post-Cyberpunk movies that had the Platonic Cave idea and Cyberspace. Similar to movies like: The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Strange Days and eXistenZ.
- A Glitch in the Matrix: The movie spins on it. With what the individual weirdness of dreams, and the weaponized one that is the top.
- Gone Horribly Right: Cobb's first inception was on Mal, the idea being to convince her to wake up from being stuck in Limbo. Mal accepted the idea, never realizing it had been induced. However, the idea that she needed to wake up from the dream persisted even after waking, causing her to become delusional and believe that the real world was also a dream that she needed to wake up from. She ended up jumping to her death, and just to twist the knife, she ruined Cobb's life before doing it in a misguided attempt to help him do the same.
- Gravity Screw:
- Cobb and Ariadne walking straight up a wall in the "Paris folding" sequence.
- The hotel corridor fight sequence between Arthur and the projections while the van in the next dream level is flipping over.
- Grow Old with Me: Part of Mal's anger with Cobb stems from his promise that they'd do this. They did in 50 years of Limbo.
- Gun Struggle: Arthur and a dream Elite Mook get caught in one. Results in an Instant Death Bullet for the baddie.
- Hallway Fight: The film features a hallway fight between Arthur and a nameless mook. Because they are inside the dreaming mind of a person in a rolling vehicle, the two men end up grappling as the hallway rotates and they flop this way and that.
- Sometimes, the ordnance The Team needs will simply be there, and will frequently appear just out of the viewers' field of view. Lampshaded by Eames during the grenade launcher scene.
- Near the end of the film Eames manages to pull a copy of the PASIV, about the size and shape of a metal briefcase, out of a tiny first-aid kit.
- Hand Wave:
- Many when it comes to the Applied Phlebotinum that drives the plot. For example, making the dreams mostly realistic instead of bizarre abstractions.
- The "characters" do it all the damn time, as per Real Life lucid dreaming. Except as they're doing it to other people's dreams, the more they do it, the more likely these "projections" who populate the dream will notice the discrepancies, then hunt down and kill the intruding dreamer.
- Hellevator: Cobb has constructed such an elevator for himself in his dreams. On top levels it is beautiful and peaceful (the beach) and hellish at the bottom (Mal screaming at Ariadne).
- Hollywood Glass Cutter: In the opening caper, we see Cobb gaining entrance to a building by cutting a hole in a window.
- Hollywood Silencer: Used in the beginning. Oddly enough, it's paired with fairly realistic stealth techniques — catching the bullet casing and gently placing the body on the ground as not to make too much noise. Possibly justified by the action taking place in a designed dream.
- Hostage for MacGuffin: In the first dream operation, Arthur is captured—apparently by Mal—and held at gunpoint in an attempt to force Cobb to give up Saito's secrets.
- How We Got Here: The story opens In Medias Res with Cobb going to retrieve Saito from the dream that the latter is trapped in at the end of the movie.
- Hypocritical Humor: Arthur dryly points out how often Dom does things he tells everyone else not to do.
- I Am Not My Father: Cobb's plan is to invoke (incept) this trope in Fischer so latter would break up his father's company and start a business of his own.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Cobb's justification for everything throughout the film, from his illegal activities, to deceiving his crewmates, to incepting Fischer and doing the same to his wife. Usually in these Exact Words.
- Idiot Ball:
- In the opening caper, Cobb seats his nemesis Mal in a chair which he uses as an anchor for the rope he's using to climb out the window. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?.
- The biggest example is Dom demanding Ariadne tell him about the bypass in the snow base. He says there's no time, and demands that she tell him, but he doesn't even relay it to the team; he tells her to tell them. All he's doing is adding a step while she tells him, thus wasting time, and more importantly making sure that Mal knows the bypass as well.
- Cobb refusing to shoot the evil projection of Mal before she shoots Fischer, dragging him down into limbo, despite having known for years that she is just a projection, making his "How do you know that?" to Ariadne pointing this out to him making him look even more stupid.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy:
- The mooks from the Cobol Corporation who hunt Cobb and Arthur in what is allegedly the real world absolutely live by this trope. Two of them are equipped with semi-auto handguns and can't hit Cobb while he is running just a few feet from them in the alleyway in Mombasa. On the other hand, they're also running instead of stopping to aim properly.
- A nasty subversion occurs in the first dream level (the rainy city). Apparently in the world of Inception, executives and other people with secrets to guard can receive dream security training — Cobb poses as such a trainer early in the movie. Fischer has apparently had it, and as such has military projections who can shoot quite straight. They fatally wound Saito and send the entire team scrambling.
- Implied Love Interest: Arthur and Ariadne develop a camaraderie over the course of the film that is mostly kept in the background, culminating in a brief scene where Arthur gets Ariadne to kiss him under the guise of hiding from projections. She does not rebuff him even after figuring out it was a ruse, implying that she might return his interest, but the kiss is not mentioned again and their interactions from that point onward carry basically no change in tone.
- Impossible Mission: Though it's a very original variation on it, the film basically uses this standard plotline beat-for-beat.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Played straight-ish. Cobb's crew can fire from uncomfortable positions and awkward locations and still drop plenty of mooks... in dreams, where they can also produce grenade launchers out of thin air. It's possible their aiming skills have more to do with skill at dream manipulation and preconceptions as to how hard it is to hit a target than actual ability with firearms. Something similar probably explains how the basement-dwelling chemist is adept at driving in a high-speed chase through a crowded, rainy city, and how the crew happens to be skilled at rappelling down an icy mountainside.
- Improvised Weapon:
- When Cobb is fleeing from the Cobol agents in Mombasa, he grabs a bat-like object from a stall and whacks one of his pursuers with it.
- When the variable-gravity fight moves into the hotel room, Arthur clocks his opponent with the room's phone.
- Incomprehensible Entrance Exam: Cobb interviews Ariadne for the role of team architect entirely without warning and without actually telling her what the job is, reasoning that he has to know she can actually do it before he can give her the details. Over the course of the impromptu test, he challenges her to draw a maze in two minutes that he can't solve in one minute. She gets it right on the third try.
- In Medias Res: It's made more relevant by dialogue about how no one ever remembers how they got somewhere in a dream, they just start in the middle of things.
- Insanity Defense: Inverted. Mal had herself declared sane by three different psychiatrists, so as to prevent Cobb from being able to explain the nature of her madness, as part of her plan.
- Instant Costume Change: With switching between layers of dreams.
- One at the end of the film during a panning shot of Robert Fischer. He's talking about the Aesop he's learned to "Browning" (Eames-in-disguise), whose form is briefly blocked from view by Fischer's body. On one side it's Browning; on the other, it's Eames.
- Instant Death Bullet:
- The mooks tend to die this way. In the opening caper, they drop dead instantly after getting shot by Cobb, and in the second level of the Fischer job, the baddie that Arthur combats in free fall dies instantly from a shot as well.
- When Mal shoots Fischer in the snow fortress.
- Following that, when Cobb shoots Mal in what appears to be her shoulder.
- Averted with Saito, who spends roughly a third of the movie with a fatal gunshot wound, and Mal, in the final dream level after Ariadne shoots her.
- Instant Sedation: When injected with a sedative, it takes only seconds for Ariadne to fall asleep.
- Intangible Theft: A crew of thieves steals ideas for a living. Justified, since they do this by reading the subject's mind. In a situation like that, all you can steal are ideas.
- Investigator Impersonation: The "Mr. Charles" plan implemented by Cobb. By making Fisher believe Cobb was a projection of his subconscious, Cobb managed to make Fisher think someone was trying to steal information from his dreams. In reality, Cobb himself was the thief of whom he spoke.
- Ironic Echo: When Cobb is resisting having Saito along during the caper, Eames says they have "no room for tourists". Saito repeats this to Eames when they turn out to need his help on the last dream level.
- Journey to the Center of the Mind: Taken in the most literal way imaginable.
- Jump Scare: In-Universe and out: the freight train in the first dream level appearing out of nowhere, as no one (characters or audience) expected it.
- Just in Time: Everything, thanks to Year Inside, Hour Outside and it being a heist, albeit a darker version than most where Your Mind Makes It Real.
- Kill It with Fire: The grenade launcher scene.
- Last-Name Basis:
- Cobb is almost always referred to by his surname. Only two people, Miles and Mal, call him by his first name, Dom.
- Eames is implied to be the character's surname as well, and we never find out what his first name is.
- We never find out Nash's first name, either.
- Fischer is referred to as Fischer by almost everyone, with only his father and Browning calling him Robert.
- Saito could be a case of this as well, as Saito is actually more popular as a Japanese last name than a first name, at least for men. In addition, in Japan, unless you know the person really well, it's much more common for people to use the last name in addressing you.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "How did we get here?" This is a Wham Line meant to alert Ariadne that she is in a dream. However, this can also apply to the very scene they are in. The transition from the previous scene is a simple cut, and if it were a normal scene, the audience, like Ariadne, would not question how she and Cobb got to the tea shop or how the conversation began until he draws attention to it.
- Locked Out of the Loop: The inception job is compromised by three inversions of this:
- Arthur is the only one of the team who knows that Fischer's subconscious is militarized, and no one else knows because it didn't show up in the research. It got Saito critically wounded. To say the least, Cobb is not happy when he finds out.
- Cobb and Yusuf neglect to let the others know until after the above example that because of how strong Yusuf's sedative is, dying in the dream will not cause them to wake up. Instead, it will cause them to end up in limbo. Everyone save for Yusuf gives Cobb a What the Hell, Hero? for keeping it quiet.
- Only Cobb and Ariadne know how guilty Cobb is about Mal's suicide and how she keeps showing up thanks to his subconscious. Ariadne tells Cobb the others have no idea the risk they've taken going under with him. It's not until the end of the film that Ariadne finds out why Cobb knew inception was possible in the first place: he did it to Mal so they could escape from limbo, but it worked too well and Mal, believing her world still wasn't real when it in fact was, committed suicide.
- Lotus-Eater Machine:
- Yusuf runs one of these as a day job.
- The deep levels of the subconscious, especially being no easy way to wake up.
- Cobb warns Ariadne against constructing her dream world out of real-life memories, lest it becomes this. And then he proceeds to completely ignore his own advice. He should know — that's exactly what happened to his wife. He was only able to pull her out by implanting the idea in her mind that her world was All Just a Dream, and getting her to kill herself with him so that they could wake up. It worked, but the idea stayed in her mind, and she started thinking that the real world was a Lotus-Eater Machine as well.
- Magic A Is Magic A:
- The rules of the dream world and extraction are continually elaborated upon throughout the movie; the movie makes more sense when you take notes.
- While the protagonists can alter dreams however they wish, in order to successfully steal or plant information they have to keep attention away from themselves long enough to do so. That means limiting in-dream special effects to subtle paradox trickery and convenient firearms, a la Mage: The Ascension/Mage: The Awakening.
- Magic Is a Monster Magnet: Changing dreams too much causes projections to attack you like anti-bodies.
- Malevolent Masked Men: Cobb's team don ski masks while pretending to be violent kidnappers interrogating Fischer Jr. in his dream.
- Massive Multiplayer Scam: The twist is that the whole plot happens inside a dream world, and multiple times, at that, in order to become more convincing.
- Meaningful Echo:
- Dom's repetition of Saito's words about dying alone as an old man, filled with regret.
- The entire You're waiting for a train speech given by Mal was originally said by Cobb, when he and Mal were stuck in Limbo. He says this as they lay their heads on a railroad track, so a train could run over their heads to wake themselves up.
- Meaningful Name:
- "Cobb" was the name of a gentleman thief in Following, Nolan's first feature film.
- It sounds like "khwaab", which means "dream" in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.
- It's also an old English word for "spider" (hence the word "cobweb"). Fitting, for a man who weaves webs and traps others in them. And who, depending on how you look at it, may have indirectly killed his own mate.
- Dom means "home" in Polish.
- "Ariadne" is a very unusual name these days, but an appropriate one for a woman who leads a man around a maze.
- "Mal" is a word in French, Spanish, Portuguese and other Romance languages, which can be used in different contexts to mean "bad", "evil", "hurt", "pain" or "sick".
- Yusuf is the Arabic variant of Joseph (the one who famously interpreted Pharaoh's dreams in The Bible).
- "Eames" is the last name of architects and designers Charles and Ray Eames.
- Fischer's name may be a reference to the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, whose kingdom physically changes to parallel his wounds and suffering; this is appropriate given that much of the film takes place within his troubled mental landscape. Also, Robert "Bobby" Fischer is the name of one of the most famous chess players in history.
- "Cobb" was the name of a gentleman thief in Following, Nolan's first feature film.
- Cobol Engineering is Absurdly Powerful. They have dozens of assassins in, say, Kenya, waiting to be activated in a strangely dream-like plot development (though we are warned beforehand that Cobol operates heavily there).
- Even more powerful are Proclus Global - Saito's corporation whom Cobol was trying to steal secrets from - and Fischer-Morrow, who will have a monopoly on the majority of the world's energy concerns if Fischer Jr. decides to continue the empire instead of dissolving it.
- Memento MacGuffin:
- Cobb's totem, the spinning top, which was actually Mal's totem before she died.
- Also, the picture of Fischer Jr. as a kid with his father as well as the pinwheel in said picture.
- Memory Palace:
- Cobb stored his most intense memories of Mal inside levels that he can access via an elevator.
- An involuntary example with the dream levels. Trained memory extractors build dream constructs for their targets, who automatically store their secrets and memories in them. The extractors then infiltrate the construct and steal the information they want. The palaces are designed to be complex locations, everything from houses to hotels to a fortified mountain fortress.
- Mental Story: Almost the entire film is set in someone's head.
- Mental World: One after another.
- Mercy Kill: There's a non-fatal version in that killing someone can be used to snap them out of a dream if it's going badly. Cobb does it for Arthur in the introductory sequence, and later it's discussed after Saito gets seriously injured during the caper.
- Mexican Standoff: Downplayed when Cobb and Mal direct guns at each other in the opening mission. Mal quickly turns her attention away and towards Arthur whom she gives a warning shot in his foot.
- Mind Rape: From a Certain Point of View. This is basically the entire point of inception itself — to plant an idea in someone's head that will consume them. Cobb did it with the best of intentions, and it went horribly right.
- Mind Screw:
- Take notes. Better than most, due to Magic A Is Magic A. There are several different kinds.
- The most obvious mind-screw is keeping track of how many levels of dreams they take Fischer into. It's stated that beyond two is too unsafe to attempt, and three is what the characters are aiming for all along, but they go into at least four. They go from the plane to a rainy city (first level) to a hotel (second level) to a snowy mountain fortress (third level) as planned, but when From Bad to Worse, they're forced to go into Cobb's crumbling wasteland (fourth level). And the beach where Cobb meets the aged Saito (may or may not be a fifth level). Alternately, the wasteland and the beach may not be "levels" at all - one or both may be limbo. And depending on your interpretation, there may even be some question as to whether the plane is "real" and not itself a level of another dream Cobb spends virtually the entire film in. One theory is that the film itself is a symbolic representation of the movie-going experience, essentially making the audience itself another "level" of the dream.
- The movie starts In Medias Res and most scenes do as well, jumping straight from one bit of dialogue or action to another without establishing shots of people introducing themselves, walking up the street, etc. Coupled with the observation that dreams often work that way, it forces viewers to question either the nature of the scenes in this movie that supposedly aren't dreams, or the nature of movies in general.
- On two separate occasions, Cobb doesn't check his top to see if it stops spinning. The obvious one is at the end, when the movie ends and credit stops with the top wobbling but not actually fallen down. A more subtle example is right after Ariadne discovered Cobb's wife locked in his subconscious. He never checked that he was in reality when he started the whole heist mission.
- When Cobb is in Mombasa, he goes under to test the new sedative. He is then interrupted by Saito after he "wakes up" from his dream. However, he drops his totem, picks it up, and doesn't spin it afterwards. It's very possible that he could still be in that basement.
- The whole thing becomes tragic considering that it's possible for Cobb to have been guilty over nothing (and the entire 'heist' to have been pointless since Mal technically was never wrong about it all being a dream and them needing to wake up, and could possibly BE still alive.
- Cobb always uses Mal's totem, and has been since he found it in their limbo dream. We never see what his was and Adriane was warned not to use another persons' totem or let them use yours (though this is probably to avoid them tricking you). It is possible that Mal was right and Cobb never woke up, but thinks he has because he is dependent on a totem that isn't really his.
- The Mirror Shows Your True Self: Within a dream, Eames can copy other people's appearances, but almost always has his own reflection. On one occasion he was, when in disguise, seated in front of multiple mirrors. Some reflected his true face, others reflected his disguise. Which mirrors reflected his true face and which reflected his disguise changed (almost certainly deliberately) between cuts.
- Possibly Justified, since in a lucid dream, the reflection in a mirror is that of your self-image.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Dom being charged with murdering his wife. Maybe.
- Mistaken for Transformed: In the second level, when Saito bumps into a projection of Browning, he assumes he's actually Eames in disguise and greets him - only for the real Eames to appear from around the corner and silently warn him off. Catching on instantly, Saito sheepishly backs away, claiming to have mistaken Browning for someone else.
- Mooks: Plenty of mental-antibodies to oppose the heroes; Dream mooks are mookier than most mooks.
- More Dakka:
- After Arthur's firing proves ineffective, Eames pulls out a grenade launcher to deal with the mooks.Eames: You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
- The machine guns on the jeeps in the third level seem to have Bottomless Magazines.
- After Arthur's firing proves ineffective, Eames pulls out a grenade launcher to deal with the mooks.
- More than Mind Control: In order for inception to work, it's necessary to manipulate the subject into finding the idea that is to be implanted emotionally appealing on a subconscious level — otherwise the mind will reject it.
- Mortal Wound Reveal: After the shootout/car chase in the first level, it's revealed that the only character who didn't escape unscathed was Saito.
- Mountaintop Healthcare: The third level of Robert Fischer's dream is a heavily-guarded hospital complex atop a snowy mountain, created by the heist team to get him to think about his recently-deceased father. The goal of this last mission is to escort Fischer to the heart of the complex and allow him to discover what lies behind the vault doors: a recreation of Maurice Fischer on his deathbed, exactly as Robert last saw him; it's here that the team are finally able to plant the idea they need. It's also a homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
- My Parents Are Dead: Ariadne nonchalantly asks Arthur if Cobb and Mal are still together and is stunned when hearing about her death.
- Neuro-Vault: A more metaphorical example. In the first dream layer, Browning suggests that Fischer Sr. may have subtly implanted the combination to his safe in his son's head in this way. Plus, according to the universe's rules, a person's subconscious mind often places hidden desires, secrets, etc. inside literal vaults in the person's dreams.
- Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: When Yusuf presents his sedative to Cobb and the latter asks what's it used for, Yusuf doesn't reply but heads for the basement to show Cobb his "sleepers".
- Never Trust a Trailer:
- The early trailers seemed to imply that the "folding up a city block" thing would be much more crucial to the plot than what it was, basically a party trick. They also cut together dialog to use "inception" as the name for stealing an idea from a dream, but that is "extraction." "Inception" is the film's actual plot of planting an idea within a mind.
- Mal appears on the posters labeled as the Femme Fatale. The implication is that she's part of some rival organization working counter to our antiheroes. In a sense, she is one of our heroes. Also, she's dead.
- Trailer three seems to indicate that Mal is Cobb's wife, and is still waiting for him back at home. Well, one out of two is right...
- Saito was advertised as the main bad guy. He really isn't. In fact, there is no Big Bad at all. The closest people are Mal and Fischer's dad, and they're both dead before the real conflict starts.
- The trailer made the movie look like a lot more of a Mind Screw than it actually was.
- N.G.O. Superpower: The protagonists are trying to stop Fischer's company from becoming this.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
- If Cobb were just more honest with the people around him about his unresolved guilt and trauma surrounding Mal's death and would learn to forgive himself and let her go, she would stop appearing in their dreams and ruining their plans.
- Cobb incepting the idea in Mal's head that their reality isn't real and that they need to kill themselves to wake up while they were in Limbo. Incepting that idea is the direct cause of Mal killing herself and framing her suicide as a murder in order to drive him to kill himself and join her.
- No Flow in CGI: Wardrobe made sure that Ariadne had her hair up for the level in the hotel. As their character floats in zero gravity for that level, it would have been a nightmare for the SFX crew to animate Elliot Page's hair if it had been down.
- Non Sequitur Environment: Despite taking place mostly in dreams, the film largely avoids this, as futzing around with the dreamworld will result in the dreamer's subconscious becoming aware that something is amiss and getting violent. However, Cobb is revealed to have created a prison for painful memories inside his dreams in order to keep Mal's shade from causing trouble: when Ariadne pays a visit, she finds herself stepping out of an elevator into a hotel room, Cobb's house, and even a beach.
- Noodle Incident:
- Every aspect of the dream-sharing technology is kept purposely vague. There are a few interviews online that set up the plot. Cobb's father-in-law is noted as the inventor of the technology. Apparently, the technology was outlawed or regulated some time ago because of some unspecified incident.
- Cobb references "The Stein Job", in which he had previously used the "Mr Charles" gambit. Arthur points out that it didn't work.
- There weren't a lot of legal opportunities for extraction after an incident which may have been Cobb "killing" Mal or maybe something else entirely.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Averted and played straight. In the third layer, just before going into Limbo, Eames says that they're going to go once the kick comes, whether Cobb and Ariadne are back or not. A few moments later, Cobb stays in Limbo to find Saito.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Fischer Jr., who's supposed to be Australian (according to his passport), speaks with an American accent. Cillian Murphy, the actor who plays Fischer Jr., is Irish in real life. It is possible that Fischer Jr. was raised in America, or that his mother was American, which would help explain, but none of these things is explicitly stated.
- Not My Driver: In the first dream level, the protagonists kidnap Fischer this way. Possibly justified in that they designed the place, so they could make sure theirs was the only cab available.
- Not So Similar: What allows our protagonist to finally overcome the figure in his head that's trying to kill him, is realizing it isn't the person it appears to be and confronting it over the issue.
- Oh, Crap!:
- Cobb and Ariadne in the Paris dream when the projections start mobbing them. Cobb then has another one when Mal appears.
- Ariadne in the trashed hotel suite when she steps on a champagne flute and sees Mal.
- Everyone in Arthur's cab in the first dream level when two cars block them in and the projections start to attack.
- Cobb and Ariadne in the first dream level when the train suddenly appears out of nowhere in the middle of the street.
- Fischer has one in the second dream level when Cobb tells him he's in a dream.
- Cobb's expression in the second dream level when he hears broken glass which brings to his mind the night Mal killed herself which results in the projection of his children showing up during the Mr. Charles gambit.
- Cobb has one in the second dream level's men's room when he sees Fischer holding a gun to his head, knowing he will drop into limbo if he kills himself. He manages to get Fischer to give him the gun.
- When Cobb is forced to reveal what happened the night Mal died, he saw the hotel room trashed just as he came with flowers, and Mal sitting on a ledge outside. She tells Cobb to jump with her and enter the "real" world again. Cobb attempts to reason with her. She then says that she sent a letter to a trusted psychiatrist saying she was fearful of her life. Realization hits Cobb as he looks back at the hotel room, that it will look like he pushed Mal to her death after a violent struggle.
- Once More, with Clarity!:
- The final scene with Saito as an old man. Indeed, this scene makes absolutely no sense when it is first shown in the film, and it is only at the end that we understand.
- When Ariadne is investigating Cobb's locked-away levels, she comes across a trashed hotel room, meeting Mal. Cobb later explains the full circumstances of what happened when Mal is holding Fisher hostage in the third level: Mal trashed the hotel room after luring Cobb there, making it look like they had a violent domestic struggle and that he pushed her off the ledge.
- One Dose Fits All: The Caper depends on six people with a fairly wide range of body types reaching the dream state within a couple seconds of one another, and staying out cold for the same length of time. Justified by the PASIV Device being a Schematized Prop.
- One Last Job: Cobb tells Miles that Saito's job will be his last, and that he's only taking it on so that he can see his children again.
- Only a Flesh Wound: No characters show injury or bleeding from the blood vessels in their wrists. And at the beginning of the movie, one character yanks the tube off like it's not even sticking out of his body, going against the guidelines of the PASIV manual.
- Opinion-Changing Dream: The title and concept of the movie involve attempting to engineer one of these in another person's mind (and without them realizing you've done it, to boot).
- Out of Time, Out of Mind: Defied. Getting trapped in limbo can mean experiencing a near-eternity of subjective time. Cobb makes it clear that if this happens to any of them, it will utterly destroy their minds.
- Saito promises Cobb that, even if he succumbs to his wounds, he will uphold his end of the agreement. Cobb grimly answers that if he falls into limbo for too long he won't remember that promise, or any of his waking life. He's right. When Cobb descends to limbo himself, Saito appears as a wizened old man who barely remembers him. He's not too far gone though and, like Cobb, Saito recovers after waking.
- Cobb and Mal don't seem to be profoundly affected after they spend a lifetime together in limbo. It later becomes clear how deeply they, or at least Mal, were changed.
- Outside-the-Box Tactic: Shown during Ariadne's audition. Using a pad of graph paper, she has to design a maze in two minutes that Cobb can't beat in one minute. Cobb beats all her mazes too quickly until she turns the pad over to a blank surface and designs a circular maze instead of a square one.
- Pants-Positive Safety: Cobb keeps a pistol in the waistband of his trousers, as seen in the beach scene.
- Paranoia Gambit: Cobb pulls one of these halfway through the film that involves telling Fischer that his mind has been infiltrated and posing as the true head of Fischer's subconscious security detail. Doing so with the hope that it would turn Fischer's subconscious against itself as it did not know who or what to fully believe.
- Personal Horror: In The Reveal we find out that Cobb planted the idea that her reality isn't real in his wife's head when they were stuck in a dream. This resulted in her suicide to wake up. It's unclear if she died or woke up.
- Perspective Magic:
- The Penrose Stairs work this way.
- In a meta example, a lot of the film's special effects were accomplished through perspective magic: the zero-gravity fight in the hotel corridor (using a rotating set) and the water meniscus levels going all weird (using a tilting set). Both times, the camera was level relative to the moving set.
- Pineapple Surprise: When Eames throws a hand grenade at a mook in Level 4, the guy catches it but is too baffled to do anything with it and gets blows up together with his truck.
- Pin-Pulling Teeth: Saito does this during the final assault.
- Please Wake Up: Used multiple times, sometimes in the "dying" sense, sometimes in the "wake up from sleep" sense.
- Plot Armor: The team (and Fischer, to some extent) seem to be wearing this during the shootout in the rainy city. Their cab is riddled with bullet holes, all of the windows have been shot out, and yet only Saito is hit—once. The car chase in the van with the sleeping heroes is even more egregious.
- Plummet Perspective: When Mal sits on the ledge of the hotel window, ready to jump, she sheds one of her shoes first and the camera is briefly following its path down.
- Post Cyber Punk: It has some of the hallmarks of cyberpunk — a burned-out protagonist and the powerful Japanese Corrupt Corporate Executive who hires him to brainwash a business rival — but the Japanese guy turns out to be not so bad and is actually trying to prevent a monopoly, the protagonist gets better (sort of), and the brainwashing plays out as Epiphany Therapy. Extraction/inception itself is simply a different take on hacking in Cyberspace, only with dreams instead of computers. Inception mostly achieves post-cyberpunk status by avoiding the '80s-influenced look of cyberpunk, not the story and feel thereof.
- Potty Emergency: Yusuf drank too much and then forgot to go to the bathroom before falling asleep, so in his dream, Los Angeles is rainy.Eames: Too much free champagne before we went under, eh Yusuf?
Yusuf: Ha ha bloody ha.
- Precision F-Strike: After Arthur explains to her that you can't wake up unless you die in the dream, Ariadne mutters "What the fuck?".
- Prefers the Illusion:
- This is the one danger of falling into Limbo. Because the time dilation causes a dream to last for decades, the mind will live out an entire lifetime that becomes the dreamer's new reality. By the time the dream ends and they wake up, they'll have either lost touch with reality or have lost all mental faculties.
- Early on, we're introduced to a group of people who, dissatisfied with the real world, have chosen to live the remainder of their lives in a dream.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Arthur says "Paradox" before pushing a mook off the Penrose Stairs.
- Prequel: "The Cobol Job", the story leading up to the events of the movie.
- Pretty Little Headshots: When Cobb shoots Arthur in the head at the start of the film so the latter can escape from the dream.
- Previews Pulse: The most famous! Its trailer featured a distinctive sound that quickly became memetic.
- Properly Paranoid: All dream extractors keep a special "totem" with them that's supposed to help them determine whether they are in someone else's dream or not.
- Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Cobb's incepted idea into Mal's head that her world isn't real and she needs to wake up is what causes her to commit Accidental Suicide.
- Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Played straight and then promptly subverted in the beginning. Cobb puts the gun down when Arthur is brought in at gunpoint, then makes a grab for the gun to snap Arthur out of the dream.
- Race Against the Clock: Played with; it's a race alright, but it's different clocks for different characters. Essentially, clocks within clocks within clocks: the "kicks" that wake people one stage closer to reality, but don't work more than one level deep.
As each dream level has a timed kick, and time slows down further with each level downward, the twist is that if you don't make one kick, you're stuck having to possibly wait what feels like years in the lower level. Stuck there while everyone is trying to kill you, as someone the level above you arranges another kick — if they can do it before being taken by a higher kick themselves. Therefore, the reward the characters get for beating one clock? Beating several more clocks.
- Real Dreams are Weirder: Downplayed; in order for extraction (or inception) to work the target can't know he is dreaming, so a convincing 'dream architecture' designed and controlled by the Caper Crew is created that appears just like the real world. When things do get weird, it's a sign that something has gone badly wrong. However the skill of the protagonists lies in their ability to adapt this weirdness to their advantage.
- Reality Warper: The whole point of having an Architect on the team (in this case, Ariadne) is that they can make the dream world act in ways contrary to reality, such as Escher-esque looping stairs. Ariadne really goes all out in her first attempt, folding the world onto itself. The catch is that the mind of the dreamer, already sensitive to potential intrusions, becomes even more so if the world is actively altered, so the Architect has to build such alterations in advance to avoid tipping off the projections.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the dream limbo, Cobb finally tells "Mal" that she doesn't have the perfections, imperfections, or complexity of his real wife and that she's just a shade. She doesn't take that well.
- Recursive Reality: Recursive Simulacrum subtype, as well as, let's face it, every other mind screw trope. This is an interesting play on the Matrix Hypothesis, since due to Magic A Is Magic A, for some reason the chemical cocktail works the same inside every level of the dream, presumably because Your Mind Makes It Real. Never has a more logical dream been dreamed; presumably Fischer has a very organized subconscious, while Cobb does not.
- Remote, Yet Vulnerable: The heroes have to be guarded in their sleep.
- Rescued from the Underworld: For those trapped in limbo.
- The Reveal: The cause of Mal's death.
- Rewatch Bonus: So much of the early movie, especially the scenes with Mal, makes far more sense once you have more information about the universe and rules of dream travel and know the big twists.
- Riddle for the Ages: Whether or not Cobb is dreaming in the final scene.
- Rule of Symbolism: With in-universe justification, no less - that's how dreams work. For example; why is Fischer Sr. lying on a hospital bed inside a bank vault inside an Arctic fortress? Because he has a big secret, of course. Indeed, for a typical extraction, the architect will place a vault in the environment. The dreamer's subconscious will instinctively hide all important/secret information there. Then you just need a good team to extract it. Think of the other things that can be added to the environment to aid or hinder a heist and it's easy to see why Nolan thinks the movie has potential as a game.
- Scare Chord: When Ariadne is looking into Cobb's dream and sees Mal in his "house." Mal suddenly looks up at her (and directly at the audience), and BAM! Out of your seat! In this case, the cause of the scare chord is a cute French lady, thus proving that this trope makes anything scary. Considering that this is Mal we're talking about here, and the wide-eyed look she gives Ariadne is not surprised but murderous, the scare chord may not have been entirely necessary..
- Scenery Gorn: Paris exploding near the beginning and the dream city collapsing into the sea near the end.
- Scenery Porn: Near on everywhere. Tokyo, Paris, the snow fortress, the final dream city...
- Schematized Prop: The Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous (PASIV) Device, a briefcase containing apparatuses, wires, and a big yellow button, is essentially an automatic anesthesiologist ensuring One Dose Fits All of an extraction team's needs. As is essential for film, it's a brushed-aluminum Zero Halliburton.
- The Schlub Pub Seduction Deduction: In the second dream level, Eames poses as a gorgeous blonde and hits on Fischer in order to distract him while he steals his wallet - and in order to make Fischer more trusting of Cobb's "Mr. Charles" gambit.
- Schrödinger's Butterfly: The characters take great pains to avert this. The ending takes great pains to leave it ambiguous.
- Scotty Time: Eames complains about his lessened time to forge Peter Browning's identity.Cobb: You're on, you've got an hour.
Eames: I was supposed to have all night to crack this!
Cobb: And Saito wasn't supposed to be shot in the chest.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!:
- Saito is rich/powerful enough to have Cobb cleared of his murder charge, so effectively that Cobb is cleared through customs less than an hour after Saito gives the final confirmation.
- When The Team is discussing how to be left alone with Fischer for ten hours during a flight...Arthur: But you'd have to buy out the entire cabin. And the first class flight crew.
Saito: I bought the airline.
[Everyone looks at him incredulously]
Saito: [awkward] It seemed neater.
- Secret Test: Saito's test of skill, which the team (and Cobol) mistook for a job. In level 2, they succeed in getting the documents (though key info is blacked out), but fail in Saito's eyes because the deception was obvious (or so he thought at the time). In level 1, they fail because of the carpet mix-up, but succeeded in impressing Saito. The architect is removed from the team for screwing up basic details and being willing to sell out the team, leading to the team recruiting Ariadne.
- Shared Dream: All of the dreams shown in the film in which more than one member of The Team shows up is a shared dream as this is the way they are able to infiltrate someone else's dream. This gets taken to bonkers levels when they need to go to an even deeper level, sharing dreams within dreams.
- Ship Tease: A small one between Ariadne and Arthur after the Fake-Out Make-Out.
- Shoot the Hostage: In the opening mission, Saito takes Arthur hostage to press the envelope from Cobb. Mal notes that killing Arthur is pointless and threatening to do so holds no weight as he will simply wake. But pain is certainly real and she shoots him in the leg to force Cobb to submit. He manages to shoot Arthur in the head to free him instead.
- Shout-Out: Has its own page.
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Yusuf, despite being a key player in the dreamscape, doesn't appear much in the promotional material, certainly not as much as the big stars. Mal isn't in much of the trailers either, though she does make it to the posters. In fact, on the main theatrical release poster that shows the entire team, Yusuf is pictured despite the fact his actor isn't among the sizeable billing list of actors; even Pete Postlethwaite and Tom Berenger receive a mention in the billing despite appearing just a few minutes apiece in the film, but poor Dileep Rao is left out.
- Slow-Motion Fall: The van in first level is going off the bridge in slow motion.note
- The Slow Path: Cobb and Saito being trapped in limbo state.
- Smart People Play Chess: There are several chess references in the film, including Ariadne's totem (which is a bishop), the black-and-white tiled floor of the fortress, and the character name Robert Fischer, after Bobby Fischer.
- Smash to Black: Done at the end of the final scene.
- So Much for Stealth: What happens if you tip off the "projections" to your presence.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Je ne regrette rien. The rather upbeat melody already fits the trope to a T, but for added bonus, the title means "I regret nothing", and the lyrics are about starting a new life without any remorse or remaining attachment to the past, in a film where the struggle against remorse and regrets is a major narrative theme.
- In addition, the Epic music for the later parts of the movie are just Je ne regrette rien slowed down substantially, as it could be expected to be heard by the crew while several layers down from the source of the music.
- Spanner in the Works: Several.
- Cobb's projection of Mal in the extraction at the beginning and almost again later when she kills Fischer in the snow level. It takes Cobb and Ariadne going into limbo to retrieve him to save the mission.
- Level 1 holds two spanners. First the train that unexpectedly smashes through the streets and almost sabotages the kidnapping of Fischer. Later the mooks force Yusuf to drive the truck off the bridge prematurely. The kick comes too early, but the team members in lower levels adjust to this hiccup by aligning their kicks to the next kick in Level 1 (truck hitting the water).
- Spectacular Spinning: Possibly the single most awesome fight scene ever to appear in anything ever, when Arthur takes on the man in the spinning corridor. Made even cooler with little CG necessary for said fight. The hallway was a giant rotating set, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did all of his own stunts in the sequence.
- Spiritual Successor: Word of God says this movie is Nolan's homage to Dark City. He came up with the idea for it after seeing that film, which is the lesser-known rival to The Matrix. It then spent ten years in development while Nolan wanted experience working on big-budget films. Meaning that The Dark Knight was a warm-up.
- Spotting the Thread: In the prologue, Saito figures out that he's still dreaming by recognizing that the carpet in his love nest is inauthentic. So it's not so much spotting the thread as spotting the thread count.
- Stealth Pun: They spend much of the movie talk about "training your subconscious" ... and then they bring in an actual train.
- The Stinger: At the end of the credits Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" plays at normal speed, then slows down to the speed it was at the beginning of the film during Hans Zimmer's score and throughout the movie. Then we see the title stop in the center of the screen as the song ends.
- Storming the Castle: The fortress assault.
- Stuff Blowing Up: The fortress in third level being blown up to great effect. Also a few cars during Nash's dream in the film's opening scenes.
- Surprise Car Crash: The Jump Scare when the Surprise Vehicle Cool Train t-bones Cobb's car in the first level.
- "Your mind is the scene of the crime."
- "The dream is real."
- Take Our Word for It: The "horrific" ramifications of Limbo. Once it's introduced, Limbo is sold as a Fate Worse than Death; a place one's mind will be trapped for eons until it turns into "scrambled egg." Despite this we never get to see the full extent of this. Of the five characters who go there, the one who went the most insane (Mal) got that way because she was incepted. Cobb, the next most problematic, only got that way because he incepted Mal and drove her crazy. Saito becomes an old man, but Cobb rescues him before any lasting damage (seemingly) occurs. Ariadne and Fischer both get out pretty quickly and with seemingly little consequences. The implication is that Limbo itself doesn't drive you crazy, it's just that unless you know and are willing to take the way out, you'll be there for a very, very, very long time.
- Talking Down the Suicidal: In a flashback we see Cobb trying to talk Mal down from The Precarious Ledge, when she is about to commit suicide. It doesn't work.
- Talking in Your Dreams: Dreams are not only a way to communicate with other people, but also to steal or implant ideas.
- Thanatos Gambit: Mal commits suicide, but makes it look like Cobb murdered her so he'll be compelled to do it with her or lose custody of the children. Of course, like the many characters who kill themselves in dreams in this movie, she doesn't believe she's really dying.
- There Is No Kill like Overkill: A rare nonviolent example.Arthur: But you'd have to buy out the entire cabin [of a 747]. And the first-class flight attendant...
Saito: I bought the airline.
- This Is Gonna Suck: Arthur before he tells the team in the first dream level that Fischer's subconscious has militarized, and knowing he's in trouble for not having let the others know because it didn't show up in the research. Cobb REALLY lets him have it for that mistake.
- Three-Act Structure: After the short How We Got Here and pretty much like most heist movie, you get the exposition of what Saito wants (later, what all main characters will come to want, except Fischer Jr.), then, starting at about 20 minutes, their plan and preparation to do it, and then, starting at about 1 hour, the execution of it. But even better, the execution itself has three acts, represented by the three levels of dreams. So it's a Three-Act Structure within a Three-Act Structure !
- Token Romance: Surprisingly averted.
- Too Dumb to Live: In the third dream level, Eames gets his gun knocked over a railing by a projection. The same projection then throws Eames over the railing. This allows Eames to retrieve his gun and shoot the projection.
- Torn Apart by the Mob: In first dream we see it is implied that the projections in Saito's dream ripped Nash apart in the opening dream sequence.
- Toyota Tripwire: Saito appears and knocks out the last mercenary chasing Dom in Mombasa with this.
- Trapped in a Sinking Car: Invoked as part of the kick process in dream level 1. Though the team is equipped with oxygen devices, Cobb and Saito had to be Left for Dead.
- Transformation Discretion Shot: Eames always demonstrates his shapeshifting powers via cutaways; in the first level of the dream heist, he's seen preparing to impersonate Christopher Browning in front of a dressing room mirror, with his reflections appearing identical to Browning in cuts, until at last, Eames turns around and is suddenly Browning in the next cut. In the next level, an attractive blonde woman flirtatiously approaches Saito in an elevator... only for a cut to the mirrored walls behind her to reveal Eames among the multiple reflections of the woman; cut back to Saito irritably pushing a smirking Eames away.
- Trash the Set: Most dreams fall apart at the end, leading to some spectacular special effects.
- Treacherous Advisor: Fischer's godfather. Or at least the team decides to play up that angle to prevent him from getting control of the company.
- Trust-Building Blunder: When Mal appears in his dream, Cobb seats her in a chair which he uses as an anchor for the rope he's using to climb out the window. Mal quickly shows her treacherous nature by standing up the moment Cobb gets out of sight.
- Undisclosed Funds: It isn't outright stated how rich Saito is, but he seems rich enough to buy an entire airline for the operation, plus have enough connections to clear Cobb's murder charge.
- The Unreveal: Whether or not Cobb is still dreaming at the end of the movie. Cobb spins the top, but the movie ends before the audience sees whether it falls or not.
- Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Eames, Forging a woman, does this to Saito. Thankfully, Saito's reaction is mostly "Oh, quit screwing around."
- The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: Cobb's deepest dream world, which consists of a decaying city full of skyscrapers collapsing into an ocean shoreline. The thunderstorm that happens later on definitely adds into the mood here.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The first published review by Rolling Stone suggested that the film is quite ambitious in this regard.
- Virtual-Reality Interrogation: Most of the protagonists are professional Virtual Reality Interrogators. The method they use allows them to snoop through the subject's subconscious mind, usually by pretending they are on the subject's side in some way. Sometimes it works, but being too bold with this tactic can easily arouse too much suspicion and expose them.
- Vision Quest: The mission becomes this for Cobb when Ariadne tells him he has to confront Mal, or rather his unresolved subconscious feelings about her. Also, one interpretation of the entire movie is that it's a Vision Quest Cobb is being put through so that he will wake up in reality.
- The Walrus Was Paul: Christopher Nolan provides enough conflicting evidence to keep everyone arguing over the ending (or the whole film); anyone looking for a theory that satisfactorily addresses every point is going to have a rough go.
- Wasn't That Fun?: Yusuf after rolling the van and landing it upright.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Fischer Jr. has a distant relationship with his father, who has never acknowledged his achievements. Cobb and the team use this to their advantage.
- We Need a Distraction:
- In Mombasa, after Eames points out that he's being followed, Cobb asks Eames to distract the tail to give him a chance to get away, and Eames obliges.
- Eames' role in the snow level is to keep the defense forces away from the fortress. Eventually the mooks catch on and are about to return to the fortress, at which point Cobb asks Eames to buy them more time. Eames goes on to take the mooks out one by one.
- What Happened to the Mouse?:
- What happened to Nash, the apprehended architect from the opening caper after he is captured?
- The Opening caper also has a Japanese man on the train who stays awake and watches the sleepers, taking a roll of money from Cobb then parting ways from him; he is never mentioned again, with there being no sign that Saito ever realized his role in the job, and Arthur and Cobb never considering him for the Fischer job's crew.
- What Measure Is a Mook?: In-Universe; Cobb snipes the guards in Fischer's dream because they are not real, just projections of his subconscious. Then a projection of Mal appears and he's unable to shoot her until after she shoots Fischer.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Cobb is furious with Arthur and yells at him for not having revealed that Fischer's subconscious is militarized, especially as they were just attacked and Saito has been fatally wounded. Arthur and the others then give Cobb one for not telling them that if they get killed, they'll drop into Limbo and may be trapped there indefinitely.
- Winter Warfare: The setting of the third dream level, where the team has to fight off baddies in a winterly high mountain environment.
- A Wizard Did It: As with having all the enemy mooks consistently miss when they fire at the heroes, the unique premise of the movie allows Nolan to employ a normally cheesy element of Hollywood blockbusters — in this case, action sequences that would be physically impossible in real life — in a way that not only makes sense, but enhances the story's believability.
- World of Badass: In dreams, everyone has Improbable Aiming Skills and mad paramilitary training, even business executives.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Mal planned to kill herself (though only to "wake up"; she thinks she's dreaming) and convince her husband to go with her, and she used a Wounded Gazelle Gambit as part of the means of convincing him of that. She told her lawyer that she was fearing for her life, and then trashed the room Cobb was in, just so that if she died and he didn't agree to go with her, everyone would think he killed her. She threatened her own husband with false incrimination on murder, and actually followed through on that threat when he didn't agree to go with her. Because of this, she manages to come across as the most manipulative character in the movie, which says a lot in a movie where even the good guys are manipulative.
- Wrestler in All of Us: During a zero-gravity fight, Arthur grapples a projection mook and chokes him with a cobra clutch with bodyscissors. More than pro-wrestling style, however, he performs it in a very MMA/Brazilian jiu-jitsu feeling manner, engaging him frontally and closing guard around him before doing the move.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: Dom states that Arthur has "a couple of minutes" on level two, and that they have "about twenty minutes" on level three. Unless Yusuf suddenly started using a different chemical compound, if Dom and his team have twenty minutes, then Arthur would have one minute. Also, if Arthur had even a couple of minutes, Dom would have at least forty, and the van would have to be in free-fall for six seconds or more, which is a much longer drop than what was shown in the film.
- Write What You Know: Discussed in-universe. Ariadne argues that the best way to design realistic dream levels would be by drawing from personal experience. Cobb warns her of this approach since it's a sure-fire way to lose your grip on what's real and what's not.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: As the initial plan continuously veers off course due to unforeseen roadblocks like Saito getting shot and Fischer being trained in subconscious protection, Cobb modifies the plan on the fly to ensure that they don't fail.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: Subjective time stretches in a dream compared to the layer above, with the exact amount of time depending on the sedative used. For the dreams earlier in the movie, time stretches by 12 times per level, for the inception operation, time stretches for 20 times per level.
- You All Look Familiar: If you look closely, you'll notice that Cobb's team keeps fighting the same projections over and over.
- You Cannot Kill An Idea: As seen in the top quote, an idea is the most resilient parasite. Moreover, we're told that subtle as inception must be, it will relentlessly grow into an obsession that can change everything about the target, so it's more like "Don't even dream of killing an inception."
- You Can't Go Home Again: Cobb cannot return to America or step foot in any country with an extradition treaty with it because he's accused of killing his wife. The main reason he agrees with Saito's request is to have a chance to return home.
- You Have Failed Me: Never get hired to do corporate espionage for Cobol Corp because they will outright kill you if you fail.
- Your Mind Makes It Real:
- Zig-zagged. The film initially subverts the typical "if you die in a dream, you die in reality" idea as dream injuries, regardless of circumstance, never reflect upon the dreamer. In fact, death is the easiest way to escape from a dream. In the climax however, the characters are so heavily sedated that dying doesn't kick them out of the dream but instead drops them into Limbo, which isn't fatal but is effectively the same as being rendered comatose while being trapped inside your own mind for near-eternity.
- Played straight with pain, for it is a function of the mind anyway.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: The Team was literally a few steps away from the final vault when Fischer Jr. was shot, and they were forced to travel into another level of the subconscious to finish the mission.
- You Wake Up on a Beach: The first scene the audience is shown is Cobb being washed up on a beach in Limbo.
- Your Worst Memory: Cobb keeps his most painful moments locked away in a mental prison complex so they don't bother him during the mission; in keeping with the trope, Ariadne pays a visit and witnesses the moment when Cobb had to leave his kids behind to go on the run.
- Zerg Rush: Non-militarized projections are limited to this, forming enormous crowds of hostile people who overwhelm intruders through sheer numbers. Militarized projections are more controlled, better-armed, and come in fewer numbers, but no less suicidally relentless.