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Sorry for the possibly confusing title, I'm not exactly sure how to word the question.

Towards the end of the movie, in the deepest level of dream when Cobb confronts Mal: How is what Ariadne did (jumped off the building i.e. died) different in effect to what Cobb did (stayed in the building, I assume he then died)?

In other words, how did Ariadne manage to 'ride' the kick by killing herself in-dream, thereby staying alive and awakening, whereas Cobb just fell into limbo by staying in the building and thus dying? Or are my assumptions wrong?

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Ariadne rode the kick; Cobb didn't. The "kick" isn't death, or even remotely related to death in a dream.

You know that feeling you get when you're walking up a staircase without paying much attention, and lift your foot expecting another step - only to find empty air? That split second of panic is the kick. Any sudden fall will do it.

This isn't solely a movie thing, either - even the dream part is based off of reallife experiences. Ever have a time where you're half asleep, you imagine something like that happening - your dream-self stumbles, or falls, or something - then your body jerks and you're suddenly wide awake? You just experienced a kick.

Cobb did not fall, and did not experience a kick. The exact mechanisms of Limbo weren't too well defined, as mentioned in other answers, but that is one thing we do know for sure.

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I can think of two potential answers to this:

  1. Motivation. Ariadne wants to get out of the dream. As far as she is concerned successfully completing the mission is good, but fundamentally she wants to get back to the 'real world'. Cobb on the other hand does not want to get back to the real world without suucessfully completing the mission, thereby earning his payment of being somehow released of the charges against him of murdering Mal. At this point he wants to stay in Limbo to search for Saito.

  2. Falling. All the dreamers have been given a sedative designed by Yusuf - which specifically has been engineered to excludes the operation of the inner ear. By falling from the building Ariadne may be able to trigger a waking up in the layer above more easily than Cobb.

Finally, the kick exhibits itself in Limbo as thunderstorms and as you say 'crumbling buildings' but its not clear that the impact of this is enough to 'kill' Cobb, if he just stays put.

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This is largely based on the essence of Limbo vs all other layers of the dream world. Limbo functions by deception. You die in a dream, you wake up on the shores of consciousness. You don't realize what is going on. If you break free of that, most optimally by killing yourself, you reject that reality and pop back up. You can't go any further down.

An interesting note: in Inception and Philosophy, they address that when you "die" in Limbo you are supposed to pop one level up. In that event it is 100% possible that we are three levels down in Cobbs dream from when he freed himself from limbo the entire time. There is a lot of interesting evidence to back this up.

Regardless, Cobb is proven to be an "unreliable narrator" when it comes to teaching us the rules of dreamcrafting. The rules are poorly defined, even by the members of the team. Any 'rules' about limbo stated by the characters were pure speculation.

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