At the end of the movie:

Cobb and Saito are both stuck in limbo, and according to someone on the team (can't remember who said it) limbo is a place you don't want your mind to be in... but some how Cobb and Mal once managed to get out of it without returning back to the real world as "vegetables" by killing themselves in the limbo world.

But my question is:

How did Cobb and Saito actually manage to get out of limbo and return to the plane? maybe I missed something, but didn't they miss the kicks? and wasn't Cobb drowning in the van and Saito had been shot and killed? so they'd fall back to limbo again? Or is this just a dead give away that they are still stuck dreaming (in limbo?)

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    @Giles - I don't entirely agree with your edits, however I do see where you are coming from. I don't read the meta site very often, but seems like a topic/question that should be covered there rather than commenting here. Just saying though :)
    – Jared
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 2:38
  • I always thought that the ending implied that they didn't leave. Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 4:22
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    I always thought it was implied that they shot themselves.
    – Jakob
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 20:18

14 Answers 14


The implication is that once you are in unconstructed dream space, you lose track of reality over time, and time passes really quickly. It wasn't that they wouldn't have the ability to wake up- the drug in their system would wear off no matter where they were. But once they were in Limbo (1) time would be passing at a greatly accelerated rate, and (2) they wouldn't even know to wake up, since the kick doesn't work there.

So, once the time passed that the drug was out of their system and they could wake up, they could wake up at any time. But they had to realize that they needed to wake up and take steps to do so.

The first explanation of this is when Cobb explains what happened to him and Mal to Ariadne.

From the script:

COBB: "A truth that she had once known, but had chosen to forget...That her world was not real. That death was a necessary escape."

So then, the same thing happens when Saito and Cobb confront each other after years.

First he has to convince him- it is very apparent that he has forgotten.

From the script:

SAITO: "Cobb? Not possible! he and I were young men together. And I am an old man..."

From the script - a note on what we see after that:

The top IS STILL SPINNING PERFECTLY, AS IF IT WILL NEVER TOPPLE. Saito looks at the top. Then back to Cobb.

Then, the final nail:

SAITO: "You came to convince me to honor our arrangement?"
COBB: "Yes. And to take a leap of faith."
As Saito-san listens to Cobb, he looks at the GUN on the table between them...
COBB: "Come back and we'll be young men together again."

Thus it's implied that this is how they get back, and the Cobb, having spent so much time in Limbo and having done it before, is able to still distinguish reality from the dream.

The shot from before brought Saito to Limbo, but he is now hale and whole. His mind would have been lost if he had died in Limbo is my assertion. Coming back before living your whole life just makes it hard to adjust to being young again.

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    Just realized: To exit limbo, Cobb told Saito that this world wasn’t real. But this is how he did the inception on Mal! Will Saito disbelieve the real world is real after coming back?
    – merwok
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 19:00
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    @ÉricAraujo The inception Cobb performed on Mal was different; he didn't tell her that that world wasn't real, he planted a symbol of that idea in the secret area that represented her inner mind. Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 19:51

Cobb and Saito got out of limbo by waiting until the sedative ran out (and they were normal-asleep) then they shot themselves, thus waking up. Just like how Cobb and Mal got out by lying on the train tracks.

I think the reason why Cobb is still young while Saito is old is because Cobb managed to catch the kick and wake up from limbo to the snow world. Remember that limbo and the snow world have a big time-speed difference so Cobb surely had the time to have his last interaction with Mal and then jump off the building (like Ariadne did), before the snow world building was done collapsing. Back in the snow world he either hooked himself on to Saito (like they did with Fisher when he got shot) or simply died in the explosion, and went back to limbo.

We see him arrive in limbo at the beginning of the movie, lying in the water. Saito's guards come pick him up. In the brief second or minute he was back in the snow world Saito has aged 20-40 years in limbo thus making him older. They talk for a bit, figure out when it is safe to assume that the sedative has stopped working and shoot themselves.


From what I remember, They realized they were in limbo and they needed to get out. Saito grew to be an old man, and Cobb reminded them they had a mission. That could have woken them from the limbo state.

And from what they showed of limbo and how it works, it didn't seem like they were still there when they returned to the plane.

They still might have been in a dream, but I doubt they were still in Limbo mainly because of how the rest of the world was working.

  • This doesn't explain why Dom and Mal stayed in limbo until Dom had to make Mal CRAZY.
    – dkuntz2
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 5:50
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    @DKuntz2 - Actually it does. Dom realized that they were in Limbo, and had to return. Mal wouldn't accept it. So Dom went into her psyche to place the idea that this reality wasn't real. She actually wasn't crazy at that point- she lost her hold on reality when in the real world that idea wouldn't go away.
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 20:33
  • @wraith808 Mal was aware they were in limbo, but went crazy because she couldn't stand being in there for as long as she was. Placing the totem in the box meant that Dom was hiding the fact that they were in a dream from Mal. You don't hide a fact if it's that fact that can get you out of a situation.
    – dkuntz2
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 23:17
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    @DKuntz2 - From the script - Cobb: "You can lose track of what's real." and Cobb: "She accepted it. At some point...she'd decided to forget that our world wasn't real." and Cobb: "This simple little idea that changed everything...That our world was not real." She did lose track of the fact that Limbo wasn't real. And he did put the thought in her mind that this reality- 'Limbo'- wasn't real." He didn't hide her totem. She did. He had to find it, and the inception was when he started it spinning perpetually again, i.e. you are in a dream.
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 1:28
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    @DKuntz2 - The part about forgetting? If you forget you want to leave, aren't you stuck? At first they were playing around, experimenting. Sometime during that, she forgot what was real, and accepted Limbo as her reality. That effectively trapped her. It takes a lot of conviction to kill yourself. That's why Saito later talks about taking a leap of faith as he looks at the gun.
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 12:55

Well in the end the top spinning didn't matter, if you notice Cobb walked away before it stopped spinning because he didn't care. The top wasn't the totem anyway, that was Mal's totem and her perspective would have the influence over the totem. If you do notice all through the movie the kids have on black shoes, the end scene they have on white shoes, and also they are older, on IMDB it shows two different sets of kids play Phillipa and James. Also if you try to see if he is wearing a wedding band, it seems DiCaprio is purposefully keeping the wedding band out of sight, it's hidden behind water glasses, his pocket..etc.. But that is not the totem either, the real totem is his guilt. So whether it's a dream or not a dream the whole point is that he is seeing his kids face and that they've aged about two years,and that he's not going around the never ending staircase anymore, even if he's created a new dream, and that's all that matters to Cobb. That's why he didn't look at the top.


Ah I wouldn't be too sure that they managed to escape limbo. At the very end of the movie:

Cobb is at "home" and sets the top spinning, at which point his kids run toward him and he asks them what they're doing. The daughter exclaims, "We're building a house on a cliff!", after which the camera pans to the spinning top aaaaannnd cut.

Anyone see the significance of that? It's the last line of dialogue in the movie, after all. Here's a hint:

The movie starts off with a house on a cliff. It ends with a house on a cliff. The limbo sequence with Mal also features that unbelievably familiar house on a cliff. It would seem that houses on cliffs are associated with the dream space, and we see that multiple times throughout the movie. And in any case, why would a kid in real life build something as specific as "a house on a cliff" with toy blocks? May be that's not the most valid point, but definitely something to think about :O


I think it's because the dream ended.

I mean, we're told that in limbo time is multiplied by several large factors. We're also told that there are three ways to leave a dream: it ends, the kick, or they die in the dream.

The implication is that after the dream ends, they leave limbo.

If it were as OghmaOsiris says, they feel like it's time to leave, than the major plot point of Mal wouldn't occur, Mal wouldn't go crazy in limbo because she could have left at any time.

  • But Mal thought it was reality. Which is why she didn't want to leave and when they got back, all she wanted to do was go back. Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 6:32
  • @OghmaOsiris Mal thought it was reality because Dom hid the fact that it wasn't from her, so she would more readily accept that they were someplace real (to her). She wanted to leave before Dom hid the totem, after he hid the totem, she didn't want to leave. If it was all about wanting to leave, why wouldn't Cob have left after being shot in the beginning, wouldn't he have wanted to leave the pain?
    – dkuntz2
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 23:22

I think the other answers do a fine job of answering the question of how they would go about leaving limbo, but I think it's important to mention that the end of the film purposely leaves the question of whether they did leave limbo an open one.


Dom got himself and Mal out of limbo before by dying on the train tracks. Therefore, we understand that death was also needed to bring Dom and Saito back to reality. I think the movie ended the way it did because he stated that his regret was not calling out to his children so he could see their faces one last time. He wished he could have that exact moment back. In a poetic way, it did get it back. The spinning top in the end is to leave us wondering. It is easier to believe he made it back in reality. I think he is back in reality because Mal is not in the ending scene (she is dead in reality). It all gives me the creeps.


Nolan has created a movie which creates a great deal of ambiguity - whether by mistake, through story driven fast edits, or intentional dream state fast edits to allow the viewer to decide for themselves whether he has made it back to reality or not. By the end of the move we can see that Cobb is no longer interested in his totem, he is convinced that all the decisions and actions he has made have lead him back to reality. But we, as the viewers, now have the decision based on our interpretation of preceding events as to whether he has made it back. The first time I watched this movie I left the theatre feeling as though I was playing "catch-up" with the storys complexity, but having seen multiple viewings my personal take is that he is still in a dream state. The mombassa maze, the spinning top totem which both Ariadne and Saito know about and could recreate, the fact that Cobb wants to believe in the last reality also renders the spinning top completely worthless, hence, he ignores whether it continues to spin, or falls over.

Along with these points we have a number of scenes that occur, both in reality and the dream states, that further push the ambiguity:- Early in the film, Dom Cobb's phone conversation with his son and daughter include ambiguous dialogue, where his son asks "is mommy with you?", to which Cobb responds "mommy's not here any more". His son responds by asking "Where?". This in itself is a strange question. A normal response would be "Where is she?". Asking just "Where?" tends to infer that the question is aimed at where in existence is she.

Nolan himself points out that one of the most important pieces of dialogue in the movie is when Mal suggests to Dom - "admit it, you don't believe in one reality anymore". We have already seen proof of this multiple times - any moment where he sees his children, or hears breaking glass, or sees Mal, he momentarily loses his grip on reality. The most notable scene is in the third level dream where he has her in his sights but won't shoot, even Ariadne cannot convince him by this stage. He only takes action after he sees her shoot Fischer in an attempt ruin the plan and then drag Cobb into limbo to be with her.

Cobb also has a tendency to create dream memories, something he warns others NOT to do due to the fact that it is the quickest way to lose your grip on reality. He thinks he has it under control and wants to be able to fix these "regrets", but can he really do that in the real world? Or would it take a dream state to allow him to "regret nothing". As the "wise-old-geezer" in Mombassa states - "they come to be woken up, who are you to say otherwise". Any dream state can be created to allow a person to experience catharsis or happiness.

Another point that has already been mentioned:- Cobb's son - As stated previously, the movie jumps around as much as your typical dream state might. Why does the film open with the limbo scene, where we first see Cobb's son building a sand castle on a cliff, to then switch to Cobb inside Saito's "house on the cliff", then to be shown all the events that lead us back to the same moment in limbo at the end, in the same "house on the cliff". We see Saito reach for the gun, but we are not shown whether this gun is capable of bringing them back to reality, or leaving them in a further limbo state, one where Cobb has re-created a dream life with his family. A clue to this is the residual memory that his son says in the very last scene whilst we, the viewers, are concentrating on his spinning top. The son says "look what I've been building, it's a house on a cliff"!


They missed the kick so they had to wait out the whole rest of the time on the dream machine thing they were hooked up to for a couple of hours in real time which would have been many decades in limbo.


They are still in a dream. Simple answer, at the end if the film the kids are playing in exactly the same way as they do innthe dream with EXACTLY THE SAME CLOTHES ON! Surely if it were reality they wouldn't be in that same spot outside with different clothes on and maybe look a bit older???


I think Dom is in reality because when 1st got into limbo he refused to see his children's faces. So why at the end of the movie would he decide to see his kids' faces. Also, Ariadne tells Dom to not get lost. Dom said he wouldn't get lost.

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    – numaroth
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 19:51

Saito promised cobb that after the job is done, he able to return to his home, which cobb always think he can't go back home (because of his feeling of guilty of her wife).. Mal's death, and cobb after saito to keep his promise.. He did honor it, saito giving cobb an idea to return home.. The thing he cannot do to himself, that is why he accept it. Cobb's is in trauma, and like anyone who's in a trauma, they can stress an go limbo.. They cannot have clear vision and accept the fact.. And need somebody to ring their bell and help them out of there. Most people do this.. Breaks up from relationship really hurts, and mostly other people will cure the pain.. Giving them new idea of love, happy thoughts.. And forget their bad memories..

So.. Cobb also cannot face reality.. But he is being offered the world he can accept, go home and see his children faces, which in reality he cannot accept.. He stay in the idea that only saito can give

Cobb doesn't care anymore of the totem after he can see his children.. He accept it what ever it's real or not.. But the truth is not.. Why don't his children go to airport to see him if they know they will see his daddy?.. Because cobb is wishing to see their face from the last time he saw them..


Only one thing that I would like to mention here is that in the end when the top is spinning at that instant if you watch the screen composed enough to the minutest detail of the screen display and sound, you would come to know that the top started toppling little and the sound also support its toppling.

No need to go ahead with the debate and a conclusion quite clear can be made that the state of reality was achieved.

  • 3
    It'd help if you posted screenshots Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 11:28

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