Screenplay Analysis by:
Petros L. Ioannou
Inception is a 2010 film written by Christopher Nolan to be directed by him.. It was released hot on the heels of the film that hurled Christopher Nolan from “good director” to “this director can do no wrong”, an adaptation of the Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight”. The Dark Knight grossed over a billion dollars making it at the time the fourth highest grossing film of all time. As such Nolan became so well received as a director that he was given a virtually unlimited budget to create a completely original concept film. Now as far as I can find, this has only happened once previously in history, with James Cameron, who after Terminator racking $500m at the box office got $175m to make Titanic and then after that smashed the box office to the point that is made well over double Jurassic Park, the top grossing film of all time, he was given the money to make Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time to this date grossing nearly a billion dollars more than even Titanic. So you can imagine the faith that Warner Bros had placed in Christopher Nolan after his success with The Dark Knight. Inception was an original concept that could either turn out to be the next Titanic or Avatar or it could be a complete flop.
Well, it didn't make the kind of money that Avatar or Titanic, in fact it didn't actually even reach the box office gross of The Dark Knight. It reached similar critical acclaim, with Inception being nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, both of which it lost out to The King’s Speech. It made $825m at the box office, a huge success also but still not quite as much as The Dark Knight, a film that’s often considered one of the biggest Oscar snubs in history. Now I will make often comparisons to The Dark Knight in this analysis; the reason being is that both were massive budget action films, written and directed by the same man with similar critical and financial success. On a basic screenplay basis Inception is unusual for Christopher Nolan as he usually co-writes his screenplays with his brother Jonathan Nolan, even adapting Memento a short story by Jonathan. This is Christopher Nolan’s first solo attempt at an original screenplay for a bigger budget film, his first and only other attempt was “Following” a British Neo-Noir, so obviously a much smaller scale movie. I find it quite interesting to compare and contrast the screenplays of Inception and The Dark Knight to see the differences; the first of which is obviously that Inception is an original screenplay and The Dark Knight is an adaptation of an existing work.
Inception is a very good film; it’s also a film which, much like Avatar, was hyped to shit before its release and very much during and as such as received something of a backlash for not living up to many people’s hype. However this does not detract from the fact that Inception tells and interesting story with some interesting characters, even with the flaws it has. Just as with Avatar I will defend this movie to my dying breath as I believe both are good films and certainly not ‘bad’ as many people seem to have developed the opinion of, Inception being a great one perhaps.
Dom Cobb is an expert at going into people’s dreams using an unspecified device. He’s an expert at reading people, all their subtle movements, which in this case are thoughts. He’s made a career of stealing information from people’s minds by subtly influencing their thoughts and by proxy their dreams. He mentions secrets and the “dreamer” will automatically fill a safe full of their biggest secrets. He’s also made a large number of contacts in this ‘industry’ over the years. All of this is in Cobb’s character introduction in the first five minutes of the movie. He’s also very smart and has a ‘reputation’ for being the best as he not only goes into a dream but a dream within a dream, which becomes further complex later on, as a trap to get rich businessman Mr. Saito to reveal his secrets to him that a private company has asked him to get. Cobb however is not a bad guy, despite his criminal activities it’s soon revealed to us that he’s been wrongly accused of a crime and can’t return. He’s a family man who loves his kids and his dead wife so much that she’s stuck in his subconscious mind. Mal his deceased wife is a character only inside the dreams. She now representing his doubts about reality and self-loathing for everything he’s done. We eventually learn that Cobb is accused of the crime of murdering Mal, despite the truth being that she killed herself. We learn that Cobb and his wife were experimenting with dreams and in the process ended up stuck down in “limbo” a shared dream space of nothingness for decades as time moves slower more dreams within a dream you’re in and limbo is a dream state four stories deep as it were. Mal became obsessed with the idea that her world wasn’t real and even when Cobb and his wife got out of limbo that idea, “the most powerful thing in the world”, is stuck in Mal’s head and she becomes driven by the idea that the world they live in is not real either and as such she kills herself trying to escape the dream. However the twist is that Cobb planted that idea himself; he is technically speaking responsible for her death, not in the literal sense that he murdered her with his own hands as the police believe but in the sense that he planted the idea that Mal’s world wasn’t real in an attempt to try and bring her back to reality. The idea of creating an idea inside someone’s mind is called Inception.
Inception is considered impossible to do as the subject is always slightly aware they’re dreaming and as such planting an idea inside someone’s mind can never be real as they’re always aware of it. Unless you go deep into their subconscious by going from a dream into a dream into another dream. Three levels down if the scenario is engineered well enough an idea can be planted even an artificial one and the dreamer will believe they came up with this idea themselves. Inception is also, as the title would show, the plot of the movie. Cobb is given a chance by Saito to have his record expunged and the chance to return to his children in America for the first time since Mal died. All Cobb has to do is go into the mind of a businessman who soon will control pretty much all the world’s energy supply and plant the idea of breaking up his father’s empire. He must perform an Inception, something that the last time he did it; cost him his wife.
So this is Cobb and his dilemma that will drive the plot; Cobb is an extremely well thought out character, he has an interesting past and over the course of the movie he will develop and learn to get over the death of his wife and the guilt that plagues him as he gets the job done for Mr. Saito. The supporting cast however are well set up but not very well developed. Arthur is his friend, confidant and possibly even protégé given their age gaps, he’s the ‘point man’, he’s smooth, he’s smart and he’s efficient with a unique class of taste as we see based on the design of both his created dream spaces. There is also Ariadne, the cute young college student who becomes a dream ‘architect’, who even develops a five second sub plot of romance with Arthur. She also acts as something of an audience surrogate, the person to whom all the information about this complex plot is exposited to. There’s also Yusef, ‘the chemist’ and Eames ‘the forger’, who is quite fun and cocky with something of a minor rivalry with Arthur. Fischer is the subject of inception; he goes through some development as he is incepted with the idea to break up his father’s corporate empire.
So what’s wrong with the cast? Well Cobb is really the only character is goes through any form of an arc, Fischer does also but that’s only because there’s a subject. Everyone else is really very superficial; any character that has minor development is almost discarded and never really looked into. Arthur and Ariadne’s relationship is dropped upon during the plot as they kiss but then never expanded upon. Arthur and Eames’ rivalry has a few comical moments such as the one with “dreaming a little bigger” and the grenade launcher but again is never really questioned or brought up. Let’s look at The Dark Knight for a second. We have Bruce Wayne; a man who lost his parents to a desperate thug with a gun, wrapped by guilt because of his fear and inability to act he travels the world learning how to fight, be a detective and upon returning to his home city of Gotham, takes on the symbol of the thing he fears most Bats. As such, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman; possibly one of the most complex and well written characters in literature and often not given the credit he deserves because he’s an adapted character from comic books. He develops in The Dark Knight as he tries to find a way to end his crusade and become a normal man with a normal life but slowly realises that’s never going to be possible when the love of his life is murdered by The Joker. As such Batman becomes an eternal symbol of fear for criminals in Gotham being not a man by a symbol who can be accused of murder and take the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes. There’s The Joker, a psychopath who we never truly understand his back story but know he’s a psychopath who goes from robbing mob banks to finding his true purpose in tormenting Batman. Alfred, Wayne’s butler, goes from loving friend and confidant to hiding secrets from Bruce to protect him. District Attorney Harvey Dent; the white knight of Gotham who becomes the evil murderous Two Face after watching that same love of his life die literally seconds after agreeing to marry him. Finally there’s the incorruptible Lieutenant James Gordon who learns from Batman to do what is necessary, faking his own death to bring down the Joker, receives a promotion to Commissioner and learns that his actions in trying to bring down the mob have consequences, like the death of Rachel and the change of Dent. This is an amazing supporting cast and better written and developed than the Inception cast.
Now here’s the interesting question; is the lack of development in Inception’s supporting cast intentional? It could just be bad writing as some assume and shows that Christopher Nolan whilst a man with a talented set of ideas might need his brother Jonathan in order to full crystallise his ideas into more cohesive screenplays. Or it could be intentional based upon the ending. In the ending Cobb spins his spinning top “totem” but we never see if it topples or not leading us to wonder if Cobb is in a dream. Now if Nolan wants us to believe that Cobb is in a dream then the supporting cast don’t matter, as that’s what it’s like in a dream, you’re the focus of attention and no-one else really matters beyond the minor details. In this case it’s probably an amazing case of writing and huge risk; he’s intentionally letting the audience think the characters are underdeveloped to leave the hints that Cobb is dreaming. There’s also a ton of times that it’s hinted in the movie from Miles saying out of context in a conversation “Come back to reality, Dom.” To when he wakes up from using Yusef’s compound and tries to use his spinning top but it’s interrupted and we never find out and never see him use it again. This scene also comes right after someone saying ‘why would you care if it’s reality’ referring to a dream. His kids at the very end are exactly the same age as before as though no time as passed. It’s all these little hints that aren’t really noticed until you watch the film or read the screenplay a second or third time. Could he even be inside Mal’s dream and Mal has woken up by killing herself? Did she incept him? Afterall the spinning top’s exact weight and spin was known by her also and a cardinal rule is that no-one should ever know your totem or else its effects could become redundant in that person’s dream. It’s hundreds of little hints throughout the movie or the screenplay. They might even be a double bluff designed intentionally to make us feel like it’s a dream but actually reality.
Overall the question about the ending for me can be answered in one way. Does it even matter? Cobb is happy, he no longer cares, if it’s a dream or reality and really just Nolan screwing with us as I believe, Cobb is happy and no longer cares about dreams and reality, just that he gets to be normal again and I find that ending almost romantically beautiful in that sense. Inception is a movie much like The Dark Knight and whilst I favour The Dark Knight personally and think it’s a better film overall, Inception created an opportunity in Hollywood to create interesting science fiction films with original concepts that have high octane action as this and The Dark Knight do. It’s an excellent film really any way you look at it and even if it never quite reached the success of The Dark Knight, it’s certainly a film to be remembered for quite a long time.
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