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Inception: What is Limbo?

with 37 comments

What is Limbo?
According to one of the Catholic theologies, Limbo is described as periphery to hell. People who are not assigned to hell and have died in original sin, have to bide their time in Limbo. In the movie it is explained as a state in the dream where dreamers end up while trying to go too deep into dream levels or by getting killed in the dream under heavy sedation. It’s an unconstructed dream space of raw infinite subconscious which seems more real than reality itself. Here time runs fast enough for one to lose his/her mind.

What happens when one dies in a dream?
If one dies in a dream, he wakes up to the level above (wakes up to reality if dies in a single level dream). In the opening sequence Cobb shoots Arthur while on an extraction mission and Arthur wakes up on the 1st level. This is true for any normal sedative induced dream. Since the Inception involved going to the 3rd level of dream, it required a special strong sedative, with possible side effects. One such side effect was, if a person dies in the dream, he would end up in Limbo.

Is Limbo like being in Comma?
No, limbo is not a state ad infinitum (comma). One gets out of limbo as soon as the sedation wears off. But since in limbo time runs very quickly, mind tends to burn out, even couple of hours of real time would seem like eternity and one might end up insane.

Is Limbo a shared state?
Limbo is indeed a shared state. As stated in the movie, Limbo would be empty except for the things left by someone who had already been there. Hence near the end of the movie, when Adrain and Cobb went to Limbo they found the world which Mal and Cobb had created there earlier. It does not mean that people in two different dreams altogether, will share the limbo. Only the people physically connected by the PASIV device, sharing a single dream will share the Limbo.

How to reach the Limbo?
1. By getting killed in the dream under strong sedative.
Saito and Fischer got killed and reached Limbo.

2. By trying to go deeper and deeper and states getting unstable
a) Cobb and Mal tried going deeper and deeper and reached Limbo where boundaries between reality and dream vanished.
b) On the snow fortress level, Cobb and Adrian tried going deeper from an already unstable state and reached Limbo. (rememeber, the sedative they took could just take them to Level 3, which too seemed unstable). Adrian explained to Cobb that they needed to go deeper to get Fischer back. They found Mal there (Cobb stated that he had created her projection in Limbo over the period of time from the memories he had of her) who was keeping Fischer captive. They also found the world created by Mal and Cob in Limbo as explained earlier.

How to get out of Limbo?
1. If you kill yourself, you wake up to the real world. (Mal and Cobb committed suicide on the railway track and woke up to reality).
2. Get your own kick in Limbo (free fall for Fischer and Adrian) with the kick on any level above (like using the defibrillator in snow fortress for Fischer). These two synchronized events will take you to the level from where the kick was engineered. Fischer and Adrain got out of it this way in the end.

Why didn’t they try to bring Saito back from Limbo just like Fischer?
Saito could have been brought back just like Fischer with synchronized kicks. But it would have been worthless to the mission. Fischer was important and time was running out. So Adrian and Cobb first found Fischer. He was easy to spot since Cobb knew that Mal’s projection would have captured Fischer to force Cobb to come after her. He went to the place in Limbo (their own apartment) where he could find Mal and thus found Fischer. Meanwhile the kicks started taking effect. There was not much time for them to find Saito. Adrian and Fischer went back and Cobb stayed behind to look for him.

How did Cobb end up again on sea shore and hadn’t aged a bit?
One wakes up on the sea shore when arrive in Limbo. Cobb and Adrian woke up there when they got to Limbo to rescue Fischer. Adrian and Fischer left, leaving Cobb behind to find Saito. Considerable time would have passed during his search for Saito. He should have aged in accordance that time runs pretty fast in Limbo. However he ended up again at the sea shore, un-aged. What happened was, Adrian left Cobb in Limbo and came back eventually to Level 1 where Saito and Cobb were left in the drowning car. Saito was already dead by then but Cobb was alive. He died again due to drowning and his new projection entered Limbo (re-entered). Hence he ended up again at the shore un-aged.

P.S: Queries and Discussion Invited

37 Responses

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  1. Coma is a state of unconscious. Comma is a punctuation mark.
    So one cannot be in a comma.


    September 11, 2018 at 1:57 pm

  2. […] arpitgarg. (2010, Augustus 4). Inception: What is Limbo? Opgeroepen op April 2, 2016, van arpitgarg: […]

  3. Awesome! I like the thoughts here, they are the way I understood them too. There is one difference in my understanding though. There are two ways to get into limbo – consciously and unconsciously. When Cobb and Ariadne go to Limbo, they know why they are there and know where they have come from, this is consciously. When Cobb get to Limbo to get Saito, he has no idea what he’s doing there, he struggles and then remembers, this is unconscious. If you use the machine to go down to limbo, then you reach with awareness. If you die to get to Limbo, you reach without awareness. Without the machine the only way to leave limbo is to kill yourself to wake up into reality. I know a link which explains this in an illustrated manner. I would request your permission to post the link. I don’t want to be spammy, do let me know. But I love the depth of your thought around Limbo.


    January 26, 2016 at 10:10 am

  4. hi, Arthur should have awaken from dream when the van was starts to free-fall. It is shown that in order to wake up from a dream while sedated your body in the dream above must be experiencing free-fall while you are asleep. No one wakes up because they are into a deeper layer of the dream and thus need synchronized kicks in order to wake up. Arthur does not need that however. He is not in the 3rd level. So, it is impossible for Arthur to stay asleep in the 2nd layer. how u explain this?


    August 16, 2015 at 3:52 am

  5. When cobb went to Yusuf. He was taken to the place where several people came to dream. when cobb dreamed there and woke up he tried to use the totem but it fall in the washroom and saito came in.. so my question is Was He still dreaming or he was in real world and also In the climax the totem he used in his home was stopped or was it revolving??


    April 29, 2015 at 2:43 pm

  6. Why were kobb and mal young when they committed suicide if they allready ??grew old toggether


    December 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    • In the scene shown at first they are shown young when in fact they had grown old.

      Cobb during the end when talks to mal, explains that “we did grow old together” and then scenes are again shown where they are old and hold wrinkled hands when waiting for the train to commit suicide.


      December 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      • So why when they were lying on the rail tracks waiting for the train they were young when acctually they were supposed to be old?


        December 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm

        • See there are couple of theories surrouding this.

          1. The Earlier visuals which were shown (of them being young and lying on the tracks), were from point of view of the listener and not the narrator. Cobb was telling his story and the impression of them being young was created by the listener.

          Later in the climax when Mal fails to remember that they did live together and grew old, Cobb explicitly makes her remember the visuals of them being indeed old.

          2. There is one more theory which is not quite straightforward. It says that the entire movie was about performing INCEPTION on Cobb himself (that he was responsible for his wife’s death) and let him attain catharsis. It was he who was not ready to admit that they lived to grow old, but in the climax he breaks down and admit the same and set himself free of Mal and fictitious organisations that he created in his own mind. With this he was finally able to return back home.


          December 11, 2012 at 11:32 am

  7. How did Cobb get to “stage 1” where he was drowning? If you die in limbo, you get to real life? That means he had to get the kick to get him first to the mountain dream, “stag 3” and then eventually to stage 2 in the elevator. But was it not to late for him?


    July 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  8. Your post refers to “Adrian” but I think you mean “Ariadne”.


    June 11, 2012 at 3:06 am

  9. When someone is in limbo like Cobb and it is just him, why arent there any people populating limbo since its his subconcious? Shouldnt there be many people but it is just him.


    December 26, 2011 at 5:25 am

    • Saito had ppl in limbo (his guards), Cobb would also have, just not shown…bt the projections in limbo are not related to real life…totally diff and disconnected


      December 30, 2011 at 12:46 pm

      • Why doesn’t Fischers projections that died from the 3rd lvl in Limbo?

        Daniel fer

        July 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm

  10. You just mentioned it that one can leave limbo by killing himself (Adrian and Fischer jumped down from the building and Cobb and Mal comitted suicide). But why did Saito not do that. Why did he waited for Cobb to take him. And if Saito was like Mal who didnt wanted to go back to the real world why did he killed himself with Cobb when he came.

    Laelang Tage

    December 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    • It required a leap of faith…someone to remind coz ppl stop feeling that it is limbo…time move at break neck speed and brain burns out…so when cobb came, he also took some time to realize that it’s limbo and then recoznised Saito, reminded him and brought back.

      It could very well have been the case that Cobb himself would have got lost in Limbo.


      December 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm

  11. and another thing that eludes me: do the rules of other dream levels apply to Limbo? In there a Dreamer (the one who creates the setting and intrudes into one-s dream) and a Subject (who fills the dream with his subconscient projections)? … how does this work?

    Oana DARIE

    February 8, 2011 at 12:47 am

    • Hi Oana,

      As far as I can say, Limbo is an unconstructed space which you fill by your own when u reach there. For example when Cobb and Mal reached there first, they found nothing at all. They created everything from scratch, the buildings, the neighborhood etc.
      The unconstructed space can be understood in the context as land and ocean (they rise at the sea side when they reach limbo).

      During the climax when Cobb and Adrian go there, they find the buildings which he and Mal created earlier. Also when Cobb re-enters Limbo he finds the place which Saito had built during the years he was stuck there (Limbo time). Along with the projections of the servants that Saito wanted.

      And there is noone who could act like an architect for you, coz he too would forget that he is Limbo over time. It happened with Mal. The boundaries b/w dream and reality becomes in-distinct.


      February 8, 2011 at 12:56 pm

  12. At the start cobb was lying in sea near saito’s fortress, and at the towards the end, the same scene was repeated.
    did the scene at the start of the movie has any relevant meaning ?


    November 29, 2010 at 1:12 am

    • Hi Harneet,

      The same thing perplexed me too. Maybe that’s why I avoided it in the article. Well to be frank I think it makes good cinema to give the viewer a sense of deja vu. Start and End seems in continuation with whole movie thrown in between. Nolan is known for exactly the same things in other movies too.

      Some people have interpreted it as a maze in which Cobb might have gotten into. Saito kills him again and again, He comes back again and again till the sedation wears off…but it seems a remote possibility…


      November 29, 2010 at 7:27 pm

      • I took a good look at this repeated scene and there are differences between the two instances.
        Firstly, they have a different conversation (more dialogue towards the end) and secondly, there is a change in cinematic approach: although the two seem identical in a first viewing, when you watch it carefully you can notice that there are shots and framing which differ… I was wondering why they did that.
        I-m a film student, I may not know much but I know this wasn-t random.

        Oana DARIE

        February 8, 2011 at 12:14 am

        • This one has becomes a bit tricky, now that you have pointed that both scenes are diff. I need to watch it closely again. 🙂


          February 8, 2011 at 12:58 pm

  13. […] need a kick to jolt us back into a waking state. If we miss the kick, we could get caught in limbo and be stuck here for the next 100 years – slowly turning into soulless zombies, mindlessly […]

  14. The explanation was pretty good, especially the last part was helpful for me.
    Now the meeting between young Cobb and old Saito makes sense 😛

    Just one thing:
    “[…] time runs pretty fast in Limbo.”
    Actually, if one second in dream just uses up the fractional amount of real time, time runs _slower_ in limbo and each further level of dream than in real life.
    (Cobb and Mal for example lived an entire life together in limbo (50 years), but when they woke up in reality only a few minutes had passed and they found themselves at youth again.)

    Aside from that, great blog!


    August 21, 2010 at 6:50 am

    • Hey Mode, thnx pal
      u r probably right “time runs pretty past in Limbo” in itself is incomplete if not entirely wrong. We need to define where the point of reference is and which clock are we talking about.

      I assumed the point of reference to be the real life and I was talking about the clock in Limbo.
      Say if u r in real life and see a clock in Limbo. What would u see. You would see a clock (time) running very fast (faster than real life clock) The person in the Limbo getting old, faster than you.

      Similarly for the guy in Limbo, time in real life seems to run very slowly. He sees (from Limbo) real life clock which is slow as per his own clock.
      Real life person getting old, pretty slowly as compared to him.

      To add to it, “time runs slow at each subsequent level” I think you are inferring it from Adrian’s statement that “We will have time down there (when going to rescue Fischer)” it seems time runs very slowly at each subsequent level.

      It would be better if I do away with “time” and use “life”. Life runs pretty fast in Limbo. It solves all the issues. 🙂


      August 22, 2010 at 1:23 am

      • well, but if you say “life runs pretty fast in limbo”, it sounds as if a person in limbo would experience the quickly increasing age (like looking at one’s hands and see them getting wrinkly), which is not the case. i know what you mean, but i’m afraid you’ll still be left with the same problem^^

        the trick is that when just regarding any level of dream or limbo, time appears to pass for the concerned person just as fast as in real life.

        i think it would be best to simply point out that your comparisons refer to real life time.


        August 28, 2010 at 6:46 am

        • Glad to see such an in-depth analysis on the movie. I have been criticizing the movie on lines of bending laws of science, but still rate it as the 3rd best movie 2010 had to offer.

          I unlike you do not feel that the concept of relativity could explain the time flying faster, dream being longer etc. To me it appears a faster cognitive thinking is at disposal, our mind works faster. Since, all the objects, architectural elements in the dream are projections, constructed and seen by our mind, they are bound to work, run and coordinate on the similar level as our mind, but indeed in lesser time. That’s how I understand it.


          April 20, 2011 at 3:41 am

          • I think u’r is a better explaination to the process. “Faster cognitive thinking”. Also goes to show mind is always faster and stronger than the body.

            True, it often tries and deviate, but from ‘Existing laws of science’, which are themselves bound to change wid time 🙂


            April 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  15. Thank you very much for sharing this. I have subscribed to your RSS feed. Please keep up the good work.

    the Success Ladder

    August 9, 2010 at 10:27 pm

  16. Nice one theke!


    August 4, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    • Hey…thnx yaar.
      Where r u currently? In India or US?


      August 4, 2010 at 7:23 pm

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