Those of you who haven’t seen the movie: That headline is not actually a spoiler — though the rest of this article is.
In the dream worlds of Inception, death is the quickest way to wake yourself from dreaming. Unless, of course, you’re so heavily sedated that your “death” just sends you into the unconstructed dream space of Limbo, where your (real) mind will become mush. But wait: You can free yourself from Limbo if you remember that you’re dreaming and — yes — kill yourself. Needless to say, this means that the many dream-within-a-dream levels of Christopher Nolan’s film practically require our heroes to die multiple deaths — an admirable gambit, we think, for a summer blockbuster. (And don't forget Mal, and the subconscious projection of Mal, who together suffer multiple iterations of "death.") We did the grim business of tallying up the carnage, and here’s what we came up with.
Mal (Marion Cotillard)
1. A train runs over her head in a flashback that reveals how she and Cobb got out of Limbo back in the day.
2. Jumps to her death in reality, in Cobb’s flashback to their tragically derailed hotel-room rendezvous.
3. We see her jump to her death from the hotel room again in one of Cobb’s dreams. (This could be considered a flashback, but we actually think it’s part of a dream, so we’re counting it as a death.)
4. Shot by Cobb in the ice-station hospital in Dream Level 3, after she shoots Fischer.
5. Shot by Ariadne, who is “improvising” in the hotel room in Limbo.
6. In this same hotel room, she actually then comes back to "life" again, after Ariadne bails. At which point Cobb reveals to her that the two of them did grow old together in their period in Limbo. At which point, she just quietly expires — presumably for good.
Saito (Ken Watanabe)
1. Crushed by a collapsing ceiling in the opening fortress dream, after Arthur’s “death” brings the whole place crashing down.
2. Shot by Fischer’s dream goons on Dream Level 1, then dies slowly across the two deeper levels. He finally expires after blowing up a bunch of dream baddies with a dream grenade in the ice-station hospital in Dream Level 3.
3. We see his old, withered hand reaching for a gun in Limbo, after Cobb comes and tells him that they’re dreaming. It is implied that he kills himself and brings himself back up.
Fischer (Cillian Murphy)
1. Shot by Mal in the ice-station hospital on Dream Level 3. (Although they manage to bring him back with a defibrillator, it is implied that he did in fact die on this level and went to Limbo. Once he comes back from Limbo, though, he’s able to live again and enter his father’s hospital deathbed vault.)
2. Thrown off a balcony by Ariadne in the Limbo hotel room, after she shoots Mal.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)
1. We see a flashback of him putting his head on the train tracks with Mal, to get out of Limbo.
2. [?] When Saito reaches for the gun as an old man in Limbo, he presumably also shoots Cobb to get him out of Limbo. Or does he???
Ariadne (Ellen Page)
1. Stabbed by Mal during her initial Paris dream with Cobb.
2. [?] She throws herself off the balcony of the Limbo hotel room — though she could just be synchronizing with the “kick” in Dream Level 1.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
1. Shot by Cobb (after being wounded by Mal) in the opening fortress dream.
Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Eames (Tom Hardy)
Thanks, presumably, to Yusuf’s brilliant driving and Eames’s dry British wit, neither of them appears to die in any of the dream levels, or in reality.