In Inception, why do the kicks on the different levels have to occur simultaneously, rather than one after another?

  • 1
    Is it to do with the time difference gained by going to a further level of dream? if they only kicked to one level enough time would pass that they would miss the opportunity at a higher level and become trapped?
    – user1417
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 11:55
  • 1
    i think it was not simultaneously, but synchronized. One after another in a very small time frame.
    – oers
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 11:25

7 Answers 7


I love the question. Here's a summary from a very tight explanation (with some drawings):

Inception and Kicks

There were two types of dreams. The simple construct with a mild sedative and the more complex construct with a strong sedative.

In the simple construct, one kick is enough. Kick can be either to the self (eg: Arthur shot in the head) or a kick from above (eg: Cobb dunked in bath tub). The sedative is light so there is no synchronization required. In real life this can be equated to sleeping and dreaming about falling, the fall in the dream wakes us up. Alternately someone wakes you up by pushing you off the bed.

In a strong sedative, complex construct dream - a single kick is not going to be enough. A person needs two synchronized at the same instant. One kick to the self and one from the level above. The synchronization is done using music. In the real world, this can be equated to being under total anesthesia. Neither would a bad dream fall wake you up nor would pushing you off the operating table. The reel part here is that if some how pushing you off the table can be coincided with the fall in your dream, you can wake up.

Now, in the act of inception on Fischer's mind, they are in a complex heavily sedated dream. The only viable kick here is falling because death will take you to limbo. As mentioned in another answer, waiting it out is not going to work because weeks and months would need to pass in the lower layers. Waiting it out is a possible option only in the first layer because there is limited time dilation. Also a single kick from a level above or jumping off a cliff in the current level wont work as a kick. The dreamer is far too sedated for that. A person needs to fall in the current level and the level above simultaneously so so they plan. The following kicks (falls) are planned:

Level 1 : Van Falling
Level 2 : Falling by one floor (blowing up the floor)
Level 3 (inception level) : Falling from the building (blowing up the structure)

Of course, things don't go as plan. Hence they improvise on the kicks. Here is the set of synchronized kicks that each one receives per level of dream. Point to note, no two people receive the same two kick pairs.

Here's the image from the link: Kick Pairs
(source: thisisbarry.com)

So, other than dying in limbo, everything else needs a pair of synchronized kicks. For more details, read the link.

  • 4
    You love the question and I love your answer. Pity that only one upvote is possible!
    – trejder
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 20:44
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    You seem to have a good grasp of this so let me ask a related question. why didn't Arthur wake up and leave the rest of them stranded when the first kick went off? We're led to believe a kick will ALWAYS wake you, yet he doesn't and instead does some anti-gravity kung fu Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 11:47
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    At the hotel level of the dream, the original plan for the kick was setting charges to drop them one floor. This kick needed to be synchronized with the van smashing off the bridge (Which was the kick from the upper level). But due to complexities they take too long and hence miss the kick provided by the Van smashing off the bridge. However, the Van will now hit the water (alternate kick). They can sync with that. But the Van's freefall removes gravity in the level below it, I.e. the hotel. Now Arthur sets charges on the lift to simulate a fall. Before he can get to the lift, some kung fu.
    – John
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 15:32
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    This answer contradicts the movie. At no point is it suggested that you can kick yourself awake inside a dream, and we see many instances of people falling in various ways inside dreams without waking up. When Mal is first introduced, for example, she lets Cobb fall quite a distance by getting up from the chair his rope is tied to. Also, Yusuf explicitly states that the custom sedative he created for their mission leaves inner ear function unimpaired, and they demonstrate and test it on Arthur several times, waking him up by tipping his chair.
    – Egor
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:37
  • This does not explain why all kicks are synchronized. They could have planned a Snowfield/hotel pair, a hotel/van pair and a van/plane pair. Looks like a much less stressful plan. Commented May 22, 2022 at 11:54

There are three ways to wake up from the dream: wait for the timer to run out; die; or receive a kick from the next level up. Because of the sedatives, dying wasn't an option; they'd just end up in limbo. And because of the multiple dream levels, waiting for the timer to run out wasn't an option, because they'd all be killed by the projections in the time involved. Kicks were the only way out.

Now, it was clear from the movie that there was a definite problem with kicks coming too soon. I don't think the exact consequences were made clear, but we can deduce some things. If it's a two-level dream, in the first level is one awake guy (the first-level dreamer) and some number of sleeping people who are in the second level dream. If a kick comes in the first level, the first-level dreamer is definitely going to wake up. We can assume that, at least under the sedated dream we saw in the movie, the remaining dreamers don't also wake. Otherwise there wouldn't be a problem; the top-level kick would have woken them all the way down the chain! So for the kick to wake you from the first level, you have to be awake in the first level. This may be a consequence of the sedative, and not a general rule of dreaming. Or it may be a function of the differing time scales; if time is moving subjectively faster on the lower levels, what would seem like a sudden acceleration one level up might subjectively be too slow for you to notice.

What happens if the first-level kick comes while you're still in the second level? The guy dreaming the first level just woke up, so if you wake up from the second level after that, what are you waking up to? Limbo seems the most likely consequence.

So the kicks needed to be as late as possible, to have as much time as possible to complete the mission. But they still needed to come in a definite order, to avoid limbo. Thus the tight synchronization required. But they are definitely not simultaneous, as the question asks. We see characters waking up from level after level, in sequence.


I found the following dialog that I think answers my question:

Ariadne: So, do you use a timer?

Arthur: No, I have to judge it for myself. While you're all asleep in five-two-eight, I wait for Yusuf's kick.

Ariadne: Well, how will you know?

Arthur: Cause music warns me and then when the van hits the barrier of the bridge that should be unmistakable, so we get a nice synchronized kick. If it's too soon we won't get pulled out, if it's to late I won't be able to drop us.

Ariadne: Well, why not?

Arthur: Because the van will be in free fall. Can't drop you without gravity.

I believe the "we won't be pulled out", means that the kick from the level above won't pull them out before the fall kills them and they end up in limbo. I've also heard another theory that the kicks need to be synchronised because this is the only way to wake them up with the strong sedative, but I don't believe that this is well supported.


It's probably to avoid limbo. One enters limbo if they die in a dream while being heavily sedated in reality. One other concept to grasp here is that when a higher level dreamer cuts out the dream, the lower level starts collapsing/the other dreamers in lower level might get killed by projections. The second part of this concept is however, my own one.

Let's say we are in second level. If one among the dreamer dies while dreaming, he/she gets the kick to the higher level (and goes to first level). But the people who are still dreaming will experience (in second level) things such as the dream collapsing, and also may be the projections (of the dreamer who exited) trying to kill them.

When Arthur was killed while Cobb was trying to extract Saito, the dream started collapsing, because Arthur was its architect and he woke up in the higher level. Now, Arthur didn't have his subconscious projections in the dream space in that level, because afterall he is just an architect. The subconscious was Cobb's and Saito's.

This leads to a chain of questions which answer themselves.

Now, if Arthur wasn't the Architect of that dream, or instead Cobb was killed in that level - what would have happened to Mal and Arthur in this dream? Would Mal have tried to kill Arthur because he was the dreamer? Could she/ other projections killed Saito and Arthur instead? Would Mal exist in such a scenario? What would happen to Cobb's subconscious that existed till then in that level? Did the dream start collapsing only because Arthur was the architect and does that mean what you've created only will get destroyed? One thing we should know is that when you see other persons subconscious in your dream, it automatically becomes your subconscious too, but you know that it doesn't belong to you. Does that mean the person's projections still exist and due to the heavy disturbances created by you, the dreamer, the projections will start to kill you too?

Taking into account the possible answer to those questions, let's assume the worst case scenario that even the projections (of the person who exited) would also try to kill the dreamers (who are still dreaming) in this level. However, this wouldn't change my answer.

In the movie, what happened to those people who didn't get the kick as planned? Saito and Cobb - they entered limbo.

And because the dream will collapse and may be the projections might kill you at a lower level, you have to get out of it as soon as possible. So, all of them got their kicks at the same time to ensure no one dies, and to ensure no one enters limbo. At the first level (van ride one), they probably would have kicked Fischer in such a way that he would wake up a little later after they wake up - so that no one doubts anything has happened. We have to assume that they didn't let the security kill them in the first level and they kicked themselves to wake up in the aeroplane, assuming you want to take the ending for reality.

I think that much explanation settles it. Hope that helps!

  • "If one among the dreamer dies while dreaming, he/she gets the kick to the higher level (and goes to first level)" - don't they end up in limbo due to the sedative? Also, I'm interested in why the kicks on different levels had to occur simultaneously, rather than one at a time
    – Casebash
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 1:31
  • @Casebash: Obviously, they will. The quote you quoted was in the first part of my answer where I was talking about the dynamics of dreaming - my real answer to the question is in the first line and in the last two paragraphs. I was talking about what you are interested in all the way, on different levels and not on the same level. I still think the answer to this question is that some of them might end up in limbo if they are still dreaming while others exit from that dream, which is why they made them all synchronized on all levels. Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 19:50

I think the idea is that they need tranquilizers on drip to be able to maintain such a complex hierarchy of dreams, and while this is pumping into them, you need two kicks to wake you from a dream. One in the dream, one on the layer above.

For example: in the hotel. Arthur kicks the rest of the group (and himself) using the elevator, and simultaneously the van hits the water. In the snowy mountains, Ermes kicks everyone by dropping the whole building, and simultaneously the elevator kick happens. Given how dangerous it is to hang around in the lower layers of dreams, it makes sense to kill two birds with one stone, and use the 'wake people from the lower level' kick as the 'wake us up in the layer above' kick by synchronizing them.

This simple plan is complicated by them missing the first drop from above (the van going off the bridge) meaning gravity was lost in the hotel.

It's also important to note that the dreamers have no way to communicate with the layer above, and no way to impart the kick in the the above dream. so once they've agreed to this schedule, they have to follow it. As far as they know, the dreamer of the above dream will wake up on schedule, and of they aren't awake (/waking up) in that dream when the time comes to wake up in the above dream, they'll fall into limbo - hence all the rushing around to stick to the schedule.


If the dreamer and architect of a level wake up/die, one of two things happens:

those left behind/alive either

1) go into limbo (since they die [?] as a result of the level crumblind down [?]), or

2) wake up.

If they go into limbo, they can just kill themselves and wake up, right? So why take the trouble to synchronize jumps, if all they had to do was shoot themselves? It wouldn't make for an interesting movie, true, but it still is a viable solution, isn't it?

  • Its because they don't know that they are in limbo. People wouldn't dare to commit suicide as they seem to be living a life in limbo. Remember Saito lived in limbo and aged until Cobb convinces him to die.
    – ashveli
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 10:01

In the movie the plan is to enter Robert Fischer's mind while he is flying. So they only have a limited time. One member stays behind to "kick" they to the next level. They have to go deep so they can plant a idea that seems like it comes from Robert Fischer's own mind which is planted idea: that his father wishes him to be his own man and that he must split up the conglomerate.

Cobb has done this before (which one finds out near the end who and what he did). The reason for the multi-level kick is so they can rapid ascend the levels and in theory wake up and hide everything before Robert Fischer wakes up.

  • Sorry, but that just summarizes the plan in the movie and does not really answer the question why the kick needs to be synchronized.
    – iandotkelly
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 15:50
  • 1
    Because they need to rapidly wake up once the idea is planted so they can avoid alerting Fischer to other people being in his mind and screwing the plan. Other to wake up to get rid of the evidence (i.e. the devices and wires they had all over 1st class, and to unlock the doors before the crew came in). Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 15:54
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    Not entirely convincing (IMHO) - sorry. The kick is not even started from the 'real world' of the aircraft - it is started from the first dream level with the van dropping from the bridge. They have a whole week at the first level of the dream, and have only used a few hours. There is no rush to get the cabin cleared up.
    – iandotkelly
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 16:03

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