I think it’s fair to say that the most talked about film of the summer has been Inception. Currently it sports a very healthy 87% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Undoubtedly, people walk out of the theater and feel an irresistible urge to break down what it was all about. Part of the response stems from the ambiguous ending. But I suspect the even more salient factor is its cluttered narrative that leaves the audience in suspense, not by design, but by default.
My favorite commentary on the movie so far comes from David Edelstein. He writes, “For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. But I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself.”
In the first of a series on bad screenwriting, let’s examine various mistakes Nolan made in writing Inception, and how they might have been avoided:
#1 Unclear Action
Let me begin by pointing out that unclear action might just as easily be the fault of the director. With out having a script in hand, it’s hard to know where to lay the blame when the action becomes muddled on screen. But in this case, since Nolan is both writer and director, we can ignore the distinction.
Do you remember the fight scenes in the original Tim Burton Batman? There was a certain balletic quality to watching Michael Keaton dip and swerve as he climbed his way up the bell tower to his final rendezvous with the Joker. The fights may not have been realistic, but they were fun to watch, and the audience knew exactly what was going on.
Compare that climactic scene to a scene in The Dark Knight. Christian Bale employs some vaguely defined echolocation technology that allows him to use cell phones to discern the difference between the Joker’s henchman and the hostages. As Batman goes on the offensive, the audience never has a clear picture of the action, what with all the darkness and quick cutaways. It’s just random gunfire and shots of Batman taking out the bad guys.
Herein lies a filmmaker’s dilemma: it is very difficult to stage a realistic fight scene where one individual takes on multiple foes. You could have something like a Bruce Lee movie, where all the bad guys stand around in a circle, with only one or two attacking at a time, always in a steady succession, allowing Lee to take care of them in order. Or you could go the campy route, as with the Adam West Batman. Both offer a certain appeal in their own way, but both are very clearly fantasy. And neither of those situations involve automatic weapons. That’s why so many of today’s filmmaker’s rely on rapid fire editing that prevents the audience from ever having a clear overview of the action.
There’s no easy solution. It’s not easy staging a scene like the bank robbery in Heat, where DeNiro and the gang escape from a platoon of police officers, and make it look realistic. It takes a ton of planning, foresight, and imagination. So it’s no wonder that even in 160 million dollar productions such as Inception, you end up with scenes as in arctic dream layer. Everyone is dressed in heavy white coats, making it nearly impossible to identify the characters. The cuts come so quickly, you really have no idea what’s going on. It’s all pomp and circumstance, noise and gunfire. How can their be any tension if you don’t even know who is who? It truly is the MTV style of film making.
Lesson: Unless you are trying to capture the chaos of battle by filming trench warfare at night, make sure you plan any action sequences very carefully. Even the Normandy Invasion in Saving Private Ryan was easier to follow than some of the scenes in Inception.
#2 Unclear Narrative
Quick, someone explain to me how shared dreaming functions? What are the rules that govern multiple layers of dreams? What happens to you if you die in a dream within a dream? How does a kick work? And once you’ve clarified all that, please explain to me how it ties into the last hour of Inception, because I’ve seen the movie twice, and I’m still confused.
The irony is that Inception, two hours and forty minutes in length, spends at least a good hour and a half setting up how inception works. Yet for all of that, as the movie builds to its climax, its hard to say exactly what is happening. Here are some more questions I still have: Why is it necessary for Fischer to go into the final dream layer? How does limbo work? What was the original plan for inception (prior to learning the Fischer was prepared to defend himself from intruders)?
Normally when you have an unclear narrative, you can bet that there’s a whole slew of plot holes being covered up. I expect you can already find plenty of websites and blogs dedicated to pointing them out for Inception. I’ll leave it to Google to handle most of them, but I can’t help but mention one that strikes me as among the most unforgivable.
The timing of the different dream layers is made very clear. They will be in the first layer for a matter of hours, in the second layer for a matter of months, and in the third layer for a matter of years (I forget the exact figures). So they expected to be in the third layer for years and years. Yet for this third layer of dreaming, they concocted the simplest architecture, a guarded fortress in a frozen wasteland. They were planning to spend decades there? What were they going to do with all that time?
In truth, they should have planned the most elaborate possible setting for this layer. And think of all the possibilities. Nolan could have created a great drama by centering the movie around this third layer of dreaming. The characters could have fashioned new lives for themselves, especially Ariadne, who did not have much experience with dreaming yet. Most of the interactions with Mal and Cobb could have taken place at this level. As the years went by, the characters could have lost track of their objective, creating endless opportunities for heightened tension and conflict. Plus, all of this action could have been parallel to the events on the second level, which needed to cover several months, and the first layer, which would elapse over a matter of hours. The characters on each level would need to coordinate their efforts to match the other levels. All kinds of tension would be possible.
Instead, in the last half hour of the film, the events in layer 2 and 3 seem to happen in almost the same time frame. Not only are the opportunities for an elaborate narrative lost, but the movie as is can’t even follow its own rules.
What we get instead is Superman’s Fortress of Solitude guarded by a host of faceless projections. I just can’t realistically believe that this is what these expert dreamweavers would have come up with for the deepest and most enduring dream layer. It would be worse than limbo.
Lesson: If you can’t keep track of your plot, rather than try to fool the audience by covering it up with confusion, start over. Especially if you spent ten years on writing the script!
#3 Lack Of Motivation For Characters
It’s Screenwriting 101. Characters need to have motivation for their actions. Otherwise, they are just pawns being pushed here and there. Now, losing a few pawns will not cost you the game, but a good player will make sure every one of her pieces count, even the least important. So let’s look at the characters in Inception and figure out how they fit in.
Cobb His motivation is very clear, to return to the United States to be with his family. Complicating matters even further, he must also come to grips with the guilt he feels for his wife’s death.
Saito His early motivation is subtle, but if you listen to the dialogue carefully, you know that in the first dream sequences he is testing Cobb to see if he’s good enough to carry out an inception. It is later revealed his main motivation is to convince Fischer to break up his father’s company.
Fischer His motivation is to come to terms with his relationship with his father.
Miles His motivation is less easy to discern, but we can approximate it as concern for Cobb’s and his grandchildren’s well being. (One theory is that he instructed Ariadne to help bring Cobb back to reality.)
After that, the motivations start to break down.
Ariadne Her motivation is presented simply as she really gets a kick out of dream architecture. Then, apparently, she grows attached to Cobb and/or scared of Cobb, and wants to help him for altruistic purposes, or because she’s trying to save herself and the others.
Josef We are told that he is taking part in the plan because of Cobb’s extra share, as that is the only way the dangers would be worth pursuing. Except he already knew about the dangers involved with three layers of dreaming. When he is first introduced, it is specifically made clear that his job will be to provide the sedative to make three layers of dream possible. So apparently he had agreed to take part even before he was offered a double share.
Eames We can infer that he is taking part because he needs the money.
Arthur Despite being one of the main characters, no credible motivation is given for his character. Is he acting out of concern for Cobb? Is he greedy? Does he just love what he does? Is he in love with Ariadne? There’s nothing. Arthur is a completely blank slate.
Mal Because she is only seen as a projection of Cobb’s psyche, her motivations are necessarily suspect (which is fine). It seems that the projection of Mal wants Cobb to stay with him in limbo.
That’s it. I think I’ve right and properly summed up every bit of character motivation in the whole movie. I would think that if you want to have a serious psychological thriller, you would need to have characters with some measure of depth. Yet that’s not the case.
My take on the movie is the reason it seems so ambiguous isn’t because it was so well constructed as to allow multiple interpretations. Rather, it was so poorly constructed as to never be clear what it’s about. The majority of the movie is empty action or exposition. Only a small percentage of the dialogue is devoted to character. Most of it takes place between Cobb and Mal, or Cobb and Ariadne. The subplot with Fischer and the relationship with his father is completely straightforward, unoriginal, and I think very transparently in the movie only so there is a reason for inception in the first place.
Lesson: If you want to write a decent script, create strong characters.
Here’s what is especially galling about Inception. Nolan has proven himself a very creative, original screenwriter. Compare Inception to both Memento and The Prestige. These earlier Nolan movies both revolved around a mystery. Memento has the main character searching for his wife’s murderer. The Prestige (screenplay by Nolan, but based upon the novel by Christopher Priest) has two dueling magicians trying to figure out how the other managed their ultimate illusion. Both stories fit together like a puzzle. In both, the ending sends the audience back multiple times to assemble all the pieces.
Both movies have interesting, complex characters that evolve over the course of the narrative. Both create confusion for the audience, but make everything clear upon the ending. Subsequent viewings do not create a steady stream of plot holes for the viewer, but reveal tiny clues and hints that were missed the first time. Compared to these previous Nolan efforts, Inception is a cluttered piece of junk.
Perhaps the line I find most representative of the movie as a whole comes right after the crew enters the first dream layer with Fischer. His subconscious has started to fight against them, and they are in danger of being killed and trapped in limbo. They decide they have no choice but to keep charging forward. It’s the same with this movie. It charges forward like an out of control locomotive. It manages to keep building suspense, not through the conflicts of the characters or the intricacies of the plot, but simply through the momentum created by the question of what is dream and what is reality.
I went into my second viewing armed with a clue. I was to watch out for Cobb’s wedding ring. He is always wearing it inside a dream. He’s not wearing it “in the real world.” It is exactly the kind of detail that helped add nuance and depth to Memento and The Prestige. Unfortunately, for Inception, the wedding ring merely points out what should have already been clear anyway. After the first time I saw Inception, I walked out of the theater suspecting it would be one of those movies that doesn’t hold up upon later viewings.
My second viewing proved that surmise was correct.
Please note: this blog is entirely a dream within a dream.
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