Some people seem to be coming to a consensus here, so I decided to register and prove you all wrong
Indeed, from what I've been reading on this site regarding the kicks, it seems like many people are overthinking it. The push/pull theories, the ability to resist or choose to "take" a kick, the necessity of synchronizing 2 kicks at once... I really believe it's much more straightforward than that.
That said, I haven't read every single post on the matter in this forum, so I don't pretend to be the first or only person to think of it this way.
How it works:
The only ways we see a dreamer exit a dream level in the film are through death or free fall in the dream
. Not in the level above the dream, not in real life. Period.
It's also implied in certain intances that a character can simply run out the clock, but I can't remember if we see it happen on screen. Maybe when Cobb is testing Yusuf's sedative? At any rate, I assume that's how they wake up from level 1 to the plane because they wake up just as they are descending in L.A.
Since you have to fall in the dream
, if you are asleep in the dream level you are falling in, you will not wake up. That is why Arthur does not wake up when the van is falling. To wake up in the van, he has to fall in the hotel.
Don't believe me?
During the Cobol job at the beginning of the film, Cobb doesn't wake up when they push over his chair. He doesn't wake up when he hits the water. He wakes up when the waves come crashing down on him within the dream
. There is no "pull."
During the sequence at the end with the multiple kicks, all are initiated by free fall within the dream. At level 4, Ariadne and Fischer fall (or die, depending on the actual rules of limbo which will not be discussed here--either way my theory is intact). Level 3: The supports of the tower are blown up, dropping everyone at the same time, and just in time for Ariadne to wake up and experience the fall. Level 2: Propelled by the explosion set by Arthur, the elevator hits the bottom of the shaft and everyone falls from the cieling to the floor of the elevator. At that moment they awake from the previous level just in time to experience the feeling of free fall, where they awake in level 1, in the van, which has already hit the water (despite the original plan presumably having been to awake as the van was still falling so they could wake up on the plane--it was necessary as a plot device for Cobb to drown in the van so that he could end up in Saito's limbo).
of the kicks is not a simultaneity
of kicks. Free fall at each level must be simultaneous, but they only experience one kick at a time, one level at a time. This method was necessary to suck them from the bottom level back to reality because orchestrating a kick for everyone at each individual level would have been messy and time consuming for both the audience and the characters in the film.
We see Ariadne as she rides the kicks: Fall (die?), wake up in free fall, wake up in free fall, wake up in van. Simple as that.
Possible holes in this theory debunked:
The most obvious contradiction to this idea is the montage sequence that shows the discussion of kicks, Yusuf explaining how the sedative allows inner ear functioning so that they can use falling in order to kick, and finally shots of Arthur getting pushed off his chair. Now obviously, if someone is sleeping and you push them over, they will wake up. But I still can't explain why Nolan would use that as a visual explanation of how kicks work, especially when they are preparing for the heist in which kicks function in a completely different way. For the record, it's my opinion that the way we see kicks work during the heist overrides this inconsistency, not the other way around merely because the chair scenes take place first.
Another possible contradiction that I can reconcile was in the scene following the avalanche caused by the van running into the rail as it drives off the bridge. Cobbs states the avalanche meant that they "missed the kick," and refers to the van hitting the water as "the next kick." It's confusing, and I think that it has misled many of you into thinking that physical impacts in the first level serve a kick-like function. I believe he means that the "first kick" is the free fall of the van, signified by the van hitting the rail. They need to get back before
the "next kick," by which Cobb probably means death inside the submerged van, so that they can catch the van in free fall. The impact of the van hitting the water has no function, as seen by the fact that they are already underwater when they wake up. They are not "pulled" by the impact, they simply fall in the elevator in the level below to wake up. When they say the "first kick" of the van falling was "missed," it makes me think that they planned to wake up during the van's fall and the oxygen used underwater was a contingency.
The last inconsistency that I can think of is that Yusuf should have woken up when the van began to fall. I would have just assumed that he did, but I read somewhere that he can be seen swimming to shore later on. I didn't notice that myself during either of the two times I saw the film, but I plan on looking closely for that, among other things, when I see it a third time hopefully in IMAX
I'm not trying to show up and appear a prima donna. I have been lurking this forum since before the film came out and many of your posts have contributed to my understanding of the film and I appreciate that.