“If Nolan”…

… Or How I could learn to make Inception a better movie

Dang. My first blog post and I’m asking how a movie that earned a gazillion dollars by one of the (in my opinion very rightfully) most respected filmmakers of Hollywood, could be better.

So. Let me get some stuff clear first: I love Christopher Nolan. He hasn’t made a
truly bad movie and he has made some very good stuff. I adore Memento. I love The Dark Knight. I have a big passion for Interstellar. And I enjoyed Inception. So why this blog post?

I have spent the last few years writing scripts and working on my own stories. Trying to get my stories to work on a structural level is no easy task, but one you learn by doing it.

Script-writing is hard.

I have a lot of respect for screenwriters. Its a matter of banging your head long enough against the wall until you have the right solution for your story

– Ridley Scott-

Ridley Scott is a wise man and I think he hit the nail on the head with that one.

So the other day I was watching Inception while doing some research. And I started to wonder, as a mental exercise for my own screenwriting: “How could I make this movie, that I’ve always enjoyed but at the same always felt a bit lacking, better?”

Trying to figure out why a scene or a sequence doesn’t go to it’s full potential is a good exercise. Trying to figure out a better alternative is often much more difficult. But it’s still much easier to criticize a movie that costed it’s makers blood, sweat and tears than to fill in your own blank page and create the magnum opus you’re sure you have in you.

I think both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises are among Nolan’s worst movies, script-wise. But they have a lot of other impressive stuff going on, so you don’t notice it upon first viewing (I didn’t)

So why this blog post? As a mental exercise to make my own writing better. And as I was wondering what to put on my website as a blog post anyway, this seemed as good an entry as any.

A couple of disclaimers

  • I’m keeping the technical aspects to a minimum, because I’m focussing on the structure and story-aspects of the movie. As always with Nolan, the technical aspects are top-notch.
  • English isn’t my native language. I apologize for smaller or bigger mistakes.
  • Some stuff in the movie works really great, and sometimes I will mention it. But most of the time I will try to focus on what I thought could have been better choices. This maybe paints a more negative image from the movie than my own opinion about it. Keep in mind I do think it’s a good movie, just not a great one. This post is also not meant as a review of the movie.
  • I’m expecting the reader to know something about screenwriting and story-building methods. As a consequence, I will use some terms like set-up and pay-off and building stakes into a story, that should be well-known. If you don’t know what they are, there are great online places or books to teach you, but I will refrain of explaining these terms or mechanisms.
  • I try to work with the names of the characters in the movie. Sometimes I will break this rule, though.
  • The post is of course full of spoilers. I expect readers of this post to have already seen the movie.
  • There is also a *very, very very* small spoiler about Interstellar. But probably you won’t understand it if you haven’t seen the movie anyway, so I consider this a minor spoiler.


Lets start!

Nolan has a tactic of immediately throwing you in an action scene and it always works as an opener. Explaining the whole dream-within-a-dream mechanism with a heist underway is a great sequence that keeps the blood pumping.

But already at minute 13 some problems start. Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio), in the second dream-layer says: “The company that hired us doesn’t accept mistakes. We wouldn’t last for 2 days.” It’s a strong planting of tension and stakes to build. That’s why it is so difficult to accept that Nolan doesn’t give a great pay-off to this idea. Cobb is waiting in his apartment when Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) comes to pick him up and says their ride is ready. The man in the helicopter appears to be Sato, the guy they were trying to rob in the heist. In the helicopter is Cobbs injured partner, Nash, the architect of their gang. Once Cobb is in the helicopter we just see Sato’s men carrying the architect away and Cobb asks if they will hurt his partner. Sato responds that they won’t, but he cannot promise that the people from Cobol won’t harm him. (Cobol being the company that Cobb works for, of which they said they wouldn’t last for 2 days if they had a failure).

And with that, Nash completely disappears from the movie. Huh? What if the movie here put in an action or thriller scene, where Cobb and Arthur found the dead body of Nash, being horribly mutilated.

Then the filmmakers would have SHOWN the audience to which means the Cobol-cooperation is willing to go and we would have been afraid in Leo’s place. We would have been in much more fear if later in the film, those men are chasing him. Now we are seeing Nash being carried away, and we are TOLD that Cobol MIGHT hurt him. It never delivers to that set-up of a cooperation so powerful and ruthless that even a very experienced gang of thieves (Cobb and his men) would not last for 2 days.

Some details that maybe could be better: When the door of the helicopter first opens, Sato tells Cobb what happened and gives Cobb a gun telling him he has the chance to kill his partner, Nash, for giving up his partners. If he had first given the gun to Leo without further explanation, there would have been this split second where the audience would have wondered what had happened. Before Sato explained. Like a super small mini set-up/pay-off.

Also: Cobb just leaves his partner here behind. It’s subtle, but I think it unconsciously doesn’t build a lot of sympathy for Leo’s character – even if Nolan tries to counter that with Leo asking what they will do to this partner. What if Sato had pushed Cobb a lot further in that scene into killing his partner, with a risk of his own life? Then Cobb’s stand about “not wanting to deal with these things in that kind of matter” would have made a much stronger impression. It would have said much more positive stuff about his character. Or even a more elegant simple solution – if they didn’t have the time to do a much longer scene: if Cobb would have simply said he would only get into the helicopter if Sato made a promise to not hurt his old partner, Nash. To maybe even protect him from the Cobol Company. A small change, but an important nuance.

It does work that in the chopper Cobb says Inception is possible, although Arthur seems convinced it isn’t. Nolan builds up a question here. Nolan implies Cobb has experience doing it. But which kind of experience? Nolan withholds it for us, the audience, and we want to know.

It reminds me of one of my most favorite quotes I read in Dan O’ Bannon’s book about screenwriting:

The secret to being a bore is to tell everything

                           -Dan O’Bannon-

Sato just drops Cobb with the helicopter again. It seems like a bit of an small anti-climax on a sequence that had some set-up (The powerful guy that Cobb tried to perform a huge heist on, does him a business offer). Maybe I’m nitpicking.

Anyway, we get to bigger problems when Sato asks Cobb: “Do you want to go back to America?”, Cobb tells him ‘nobody could ever fix that.’ What Nolan is doing again, is setting up another question. Later we learn that authorities THINK he maybe committed a murder on his wife.

Who is this guy Sato?

The filmmakers tell us Sato is a very powerful businessman (although we never get to see how rich or powerful, and maybe a bit more showing here would have worked better).

But if your main character who doesn’t seem to be very stupid, says very clearly that NOBODY can  get him to America, I’m expecting a better pay-off for that set-up than just a rich businessman making a quick call (which is what ultimately happens).

Here the movie would have been better if it had built up more impossible stakes. If they had clearly made a set-up where Sato specifically is the ONLY guy who can fix that for Cobb. Maybe they could have planted something on the news that Cobb is seeing in his apartment. Now it seems that everybody that is just very wealthy can help Leo by making a phone call. A far cry from Leo’s “nobody can fix that”.

If you want to build tension with Cobb accepting this last, VERY dangerous mission, then you have to make sure it is worth it. Now Nolan asks us to just accept it. He even acknowledges this with Cobb asking Sato how he knows he can trust his word. And Sato responds with: “You don’t. But I have that power.” I felt it was lazy screenwriting. “I’m sorry, I didn’t brainstorm long enough to come up with a decent alternative of why ONLY Sato has that power, but you just have to accept that he’s rich enough that he can do it.”. If every *very* rich businessman has that power, why would Cobb accept such a difficult, life threatening mission? Why doesn’t he go to another rich guy?

Because if Sato has competitors of who he’s afraid of (and he needs Cobb to be victorious over them) he clearly isn’t the most rich or the most powerful. I think this whole problem unconsciously lowers the stakes of everyone that watches the movie and makes the whole story less intense.

Then, still at the helicopter, a bit more information is given about the mission. Sato says he has a very old competitor who’s sick and he wants the heir of the company to split it up.

Now. That seems very sympathetic. NOT.

You want to create a bit of sympathy for the mission and what Sato tries to accomplish? For instance, in the news program Cobb watches, SHOW a piece of this world in which that the company of that old competitor is very evil and abuses it’s power on the energy market. Show that there are rumors of the company wasting chemical dump that poisons innocent children in the neighborhood but the company is so über-powerful nobody can do anything about it. Show a 15 second television debate on the background. Or Sato showing Cobb a video report in the helicopter.

If they would have SHOWED how the company abuses that power, then I will understand why Sato wants to break it up. I also will want Cobb to succeed, next to him seeing his own children again. At this point in the movie, I just have to kind of trust my main character to step into this plan of a rich guy wanting to cheat by planting false ideas into his competitors head and thereby making himself even richer. Uh? Why should I care about these guys again? Yeah yeah, Leo’s kids, but this stuff really hurts the movie and sympathy I’m supposed to have for the characters.

And yes, I realize later in the movie Sato tells them if they don’t break up the company, the company will have a monopoly. But at that point you are already too far into the movie for that too work, and secondly, SHOWING it to the audience always has a bigger effect than telling. One image, thousand words, you know the drill.

In the short discussion following that between Miles (Michael Caine) and Cobb, again Nolan gives some set-up that he very poorly pays off. Miles saying that the US and France would find a way to work together for extraditing Cobb. This goes again to those stakes. If you have 2 countries that have a nightmare working together for extradition, I can imagine that they would do it for a very high-level terrorist that killed a lot of lives.

I know it’s a joke from Caine’s character, but it also builds up expectations for what it now is that Cobb did wrong. And being suspected of the murder on one ‘normal’ woman (while in itself would be a gruesome crime) doesn’t seem to be in relation to the build-up Nolan gives to Cobb’s crime.

Corrupting a brilliant student

Also, considering that Miles is Cobb’s father-in-law, the father of Cobb’s deceased wife and considering how Mal (Cobb’s wife, played by the always intriguing Marion Cotillard) got to be crazy, Nolan doesn’t build any complexity in the relationship between Cobb and Miles. Considering their history, there should be more dramatic tension between them, even if Miles has forgiven Cobb. Now it’s just the surface:  Michael Caine is the sweet mentor again that doesn’t have the slightest of harsh feelings towards Cobb. Do I believe that? Sure. But I think it could work better dramatically if his feelings were more ambiguous.

Then Miles tells him Cobb will corrupt one of his best students. Nolan gives a set-up: this is going to be a genius-student. Not something Nolan will ever show the audience in a short introduction of Ellen Page’s character, Ariadne. And something, after seen the movie, we also never really see. The dreamworlds Ariadne makes aren’t at all that genius, except for maybe the short segment with the optical-illusion stairs bit where Arthur is having a fight later in the movie. And even that doesn’t show the genius of Ariadne, because it was Arthur who showed Ariadne the museum with those stairs. (you know, Arthur, the same character Mal said in the opening that he didn’t have a lot of imagination… while the movie shows him and not Ariadne showing her the museum). It doesn’t seem to be very consistent character behavior.

What if the movie had introduced Ariadne by showing her in the museum with fellow students. And while they all go to see more tradition architecture expositions, you show her being ‘different’ and going to see those stairs on her own. While some students berate her for it. It would have showed that she had the character to follow her own thing and she’s not afraid to be different than her fellow students. And if then later, in the fight Arthur is having, the optical illusion of the stairs saves his life, it was THANKS to Ariadne! It’s something SHE came with. Not something Arthur showed her and she just replicated in the dreamworld. How genius is the latter supposed to be? Mmm…

A surrealistic scenario

Speaking about dreamworlds: it’s also here that Nolan does some high set-up, building high expectations, but giving a rather anticlimactic payoff. Cobb says: “if you work in my team, you can reach the highest thing! Build cathedrals, complete cities that never could have existed in real life!” And what do we see throughout the movie?  A dream layer in a generic hotel. A dream layer in white snow that seems more of an James Bond design? The most surrealistic designs came from Cobb’s Limbo and that wasn’t even designed by Ariadne!

Nolan hints to those great stuff by having a city fold together (nice!) as a kind of set-up for the *real* great stuff Ariadne will build together and what we see later feels very anti-climactic in comparison with that. Never does Ariadne build things that look like a living painting from Dali.

I kind of get Nolan’s problem here though. In a way he had written himself in a corner:

his story demands that the dream worlds look very real, so the subject doesn’t really know he’s dreaming. But I do think that:

  1. Nolan sets expectations very wrong if he intended to keep it so real (and frankly a bit boring)
  2. Cobb himself says in the movie that it always seems real and normal in a dream and that even though stuff can seem crazy in a dream, it’s only *afterwards* stuff seemed a bit ‘off’. So I think the movie could ‘bullshit’ itself out of this.

And, I think it could even give more story-possibilities: what if the first surface dream-layers are very surrealistic, but the deeper you go, layer by layer, stuff gets more realistic because they want the target to think he’s being in the real world. To plant the deepest idea in there. But as you go deeper, the audience is more and more doubting if they are in the real world or just in another dream layer. This is something Nolan does a little bit with the epilogue of the movie at this point, but maybe this could have worked if it was more part of the mission.

You could go for the opposite: the deeper they go, the more surrealistic it becomes. I think this would have the advantage of the movie getting more impressive for the audience as it gets more surrealistic, but story-wise maybe it would have proven to be difficult.

Whatever you may think, I think Nolan over-sold and under-delivered in this regard. He also doesn’t really play with the idea that in a dream a location can be half of one thing, half of another thing. Like how in The Matrix their escape route (a window) suddenly gets blocked and changed into a brick wall. Nolan shows this is his set-up (Ariadne’s first shared dreams with Cobb where he teaches her about the dream world – where we see a bridge and stairs going up while they walk) but never pays it of during the heist itself.

In Search of Solid Characters

Maybe another nitpick, but I’ve always found it strange that Michael Caine’s character, being the grandfather of Leo’s children and who’s allowed to be in America, is teaching in Paris. As if it isn’t enough that the father isn’t there, the children also have to miss their grandfather. And at the end, Michael Caine is coming to pick Cobb up in America. Maybe Nolan just didn’t have time to explain the logic behind all this.

Now we come to Ellen Page’s character, Ariadne. She’s such a superficial character, which is a shame because everything we learn of this world, we learn trough her. But we don’t know anything about her. And Nolan could have made much better choices in how to introduce her character. I already made the comment above, about having her been in the museum alone going for the optical illusion exposition while her fellow students berate her for her strange taste.

You don’t have to make her character very extreme (to give more breathing room for the characters around her), but at least somewhat of a personality. Enough to give us a little bit of admiration for this so-called ‘genius’ and follow her trough her journey of this 150-minute movie.

Then I’ll believe it that Michael Caine recommends her as his best and most talented student. And Nolan could have made small variations to the existing scenes now to get that kind of results.

Now, rather short, Miles introduces Cobb and Ariadne to each other in the hallway. Suddenly Cobb and Ariadne stand on a porch and he gives Ariadne her first test: “Draw me a maze in 2 minutes that takes me 1 minute to solve.” I admit, it seems like a nice and original test. But what’s at stake for Ellen Page’s character? She’s already been picked by Michael Caine as the best student. In the movie, she first makes 2 mistakes in which she draws mazes that are much too easy for Leo to solve, and with her 3rd try, she makes a circle-formed maze that convinced Leo. But what if Leo had put 4 of Caine’s best students in front of each other (of course those same students that berated Ellen Page in her introductory scene in the museum, in ‘my’ version) and had given all of them only one chance to make that kind of maze? The only one chance, would have made it a bit more exciting.

All the other students then drew a squarely formed maze, like Inception shows now in Page’s first 2 attempts, but Page being the only one thinking about a circle formed maze. Now she would have won our sympathy because she doesn’t only think differently from her fellow students (which we then had already set-up at the museum) but she was also smarter, and her different way of thinking put her very much in front of the other students. We had SHOWN the viewer, not told him. And because of ‘our’ introduction scene where she seemed laughed upon by her fellow students, she would have had more urgency to succeed. To prove that she’s better. And as a viewer, we would have wanted it also, because we always like the outcast underdog.

At one point during Ariadne’s training, Cobb tells her they will try to go for another 5 minutes. “5 Minutes?!”, she screams. “We must have been there for over an hour!” To which Cobb tells her the whole system of dream-time. Couldn’t Nolan have done this a bit more visual? Worked with a clock? Worked with a pizza that was in the oven and when she woke up, the pizza still wasn’t baked enough yet? And if Ariadne then wonders why the pizza isn’t ready yet, and if the oven is broken, they tell her the whole dream-time concept. Just thinking out loud here.

Seeing the city fold together looks impressive and beautiful. No wonder it was used in every trailer and tv-spot. Pity they never used it in the middle of a car chase to intensify the excitement. Could you imagine in the middle of a car-chase the city folding, and seeing some stuff upside down? It would have multiplied the chaos and could have been a stand-out action set piece. During the mission all these tricks that they hinted at, were never used.

In The Matrix, this was done a lot better. There was a logic behind all the tricks you saw during the main character’s ‘training’, and what they learned was used to great effect to intensify how the good guys could beat the bad guys. The Matrix also had a very smart logic in building tension and making every set-piece a bit more impressive or different than the previous one.

Spectacle and excitement builded very clearly in that movie.

(disclaimer: I’m only talking about the first Matrix-movie)

Cobb tells Ariadne she can never use perfect replicas of existing locations for the dreamworld, because you would lose the ability to know if you are dreaming or not. It’s an interesting concept that Nolan could maybe used even more by deeper in the dream level repeating stuff we see in the so-called real world. So we, as an audience, much more would have been doubting about what was real and what was not, instead of only letting it depend on a close-up of the spinning top (although it was a nice way to end the movie). Ignoring to do this is of course a perfectly legit artistic choice that maybe would have taken the movie far from the heist-movie structure Nolan now went for.

After Mal stabs Ariadne in that second shared dream, Ariadne tells Cobb that his subconscious is completely crazy and she doesn’t want to put her fate in Cobb’s hands, and leaves the team. What if Nolan had chosen to do things a little bit different here… What if he had hinted in Ariadne’s introduction scenes that for instance, her parents died in a car crash and in the dream Mal would let all kinds of cars crash around them, and pick dead bodies out there, that all seem like her parents? Have their subconscious meet, and Mal being the evil one taking ‘advantage’ of it? Now, just the pushing of people and Mal stabbing her is a very ‘light’ way of showing the danger of Mal.

If it was more personal and harder, we would have much more sympathy for Ariadne leaving the team but we would also felt more pity with her and wanted her to come back much sooner. Now, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

And again, Nolan makes some false promises to the audience. When Ariadne walks away, Cobb says: “She’ll come back. Reality won’t be good enough for her anymore.” What’s so unreal about the freeway, hotel or ski-park we see later in the movie?

Then, Leo has to go into the ‘backyard’ of the organization that wants to kill him to find a forger, named Eames (Tom Hardy). Wouldn’t it have worked better if Nolan first SHOWED how heavily guarded the place is? Or if Cobb arrives, and only *then* notices all the guards? Now, all this information is being verbally exposed to the audience (and I repeat: it would have been scarier if the audience would have seen the Cobol cooperation kill Nash, the previous architect, in the beginning of the movie).

As with Ellen Page’s character, Tom Hardy’s character doesn’t get his own proper introduction. This could work if Eames didn’t know Cobb, and it was a surprise for them both. Let the surprise be HOW Eames presents himself to Cobb. But no. Apparently Eames and Cobb already know each other, and Nolan doesn’t even try to put an interesting spin on their previous relationship (for instance, as a forger, has Eames in the past deceived or scammed Cobb? It would make their relationship more complex and the whole Eames character more ambiguous. Making the forger much more opportunistic so you never really know if he will still side with your main character at the end of the ride or run away with money. Something like that would have brought extra tension in the story.

But if Cobb already knows Eames, Nolan could have built in a small introduction scene FOR US, the audience. For example, Eames is a forger, and someone who can disguise himself. We see Eames now playing a kind of poker. Nolan just lets Leo enter the frame, invite Hardy for a drink and he repeats the whole mission. No!

What if you would have shown Hardy’s character entering a casino and not completely belonging there. He sits as a small table and just observes a much richer customer. He observes the guys small manners, the way he seduces people around him, holds their attention, etc. …

Just in a couple of quick looks you see him picking this all up and then using the same manners to get into a much higher poker game then where they normally would allow him. It would only take a couple of minutes of screen time, and it would have shown 2 things: that he’s very good at impersonating people, forging and cheating, and making a good impression on people under false pretenses. Additionally, it would have showed him as an opportunistic character. Which would have made him a much more complex, ambiguous but also interesting character.

Then Eames says at the table that the inception of an idea is very well possible, just not that easy. Allright. Hey, Nolan, if you want to bring out more tension to us, the audience, about the impossibility of their assignment, then have Eames, just like Arthur,tell Cobb how impossible he thinks it is to implant an idea in the mind of someone. Me, the audience, would then be wondering much more how the hell they will able to succeed in doing this, building up stakes and tension. He still could have presented the (interesting and important) angle of Eames saying you should then distillate  the idea to it’s simplest form: the relationship with the father.

The sequence stops with the action scene where Cobb finally is caught by the Cobol people, and he has to run for his life. Please someone, give this action scene to Spielberg! This is shot so quick and without a lot of tension. Spielberg would have made his action scene progressively worse and worse for the main character. Now it’s just some random running and shooting without build-up.

There’s so many possibilities  with the car filled with vegetables and fruits. That could have come rolling down from the truck, he could have used it to throw to them, etcetera. But nothing.

Okay, the moment where Leo seems to push himself trough a narrowing hole of a street that seems to be closing in on him is the only part that really works very well. And it’s one of the very few images of the movie that REALLY gives you a dream-atmosphere.

The whole chase also just stops with a Deus Ex Machine and without any special cleverness from Leo or Hardy.

Ow, and there is Ellen Page again. Ariadne just returned. Why? Because the act of ‘pure creation’. Yeah. Just say it verbally. Instead of showing us what could have been a 15-second  intermezzo of Ariadne being back in normal classes, very bored, drawing stuff on a small paper that you cannot build in the real world, while the lessons are about structures that need to be functional in real life. Then just show here in front of Arthur, putting the note in front of him. Bam. Show. Don’t tell.

She could have just added some words to Arthur like: “I couldn’t stop drawing.” Maybe something more subtle than what we have now. (“Cobb told me you would be back.” – “I tried not to come, but there is nothing quite like it. It’s just pure creation.”)

And by not showing the Paradox-stairs here, but in the small introduction scene of Ellen Page in ‘our’ script, the use of the stairs in the action scene with Arthur later would have been a much bigger surprise (with a much bigger effect on the audience).

When we get introduced to the Yusuf character (Dileep Rao) we don’t know anything about him except that he makes very powerful sleeping potions. We know that he feeds it to people that can’t separate dream and reality anymore. But we are never told WHY they are there. I get that Inception is a very exposition-heavy movie already and these kinds of things would have lead to even more exposition, but this kind of exposition would have told us more about this character’s motivation. That’s important stuff. What if you made clear these were all old crippled or mutilated veterans from the war so it’s very understandable that they rather live in a dreamworld. It would have upped some sympathy for Yusuf too, giving these people comfort they seem to need.

During a quick conversation scene, Sato (only now! 44 minutes into the movie!) tells us that only the competition he provides can make sure Fisher doesn’t become a superpower with half of the energy market in his hands. It’s much too late into the movie to introduce that stuff, and it would have worked a lot better if Nolan SHOWED what that kind of corruption that power brings. We would have rooted for the whole mission a lot more.

That being said, on the other hand I like the fact that Nolan didn’t make Cillian Murphy’s character into a villain.

Inside the Dream

At a certain point Ariadne secretly connects her to a dream of Cobb, where he tells out loud that he uses these dreams to change painful memories. Now it’s all being very verbally told without any subtlety. Wouldn’t it have worked more powerful if Ariadne was being a secret voyeur to all these perfect moments in Cobbs dream and in the climax she saw all the ‘real’ versions of those moments? I agree that’s just a vague brainstorm, but still.

Considering all the possibilities of the dream-world, I think Mal isn’t built up enough as SUCH a threatening character.

Haha, the big rain sequence because Yusuf needs to pee. Gets me every time.

The big train in the middle of the streets is still a beautiful enchanting image. Pity there aren’t more of those into the movie but an even bigger pity the train just disappears so quickly again and no action scene at all is built around it.

Can’t these mental projections have a more specific visual unity than just guys in costumes and guns?

Here we arrive at the (by far) weakest scene of the whole movie. A lot of the ‘improvements’ I’m suggesting in this post are stuff that I only thought about after trying to analyse some stuff. But this scene ruined a lot of my suspension of disbelief even when I saw it for the very first time on the big screen. Inception asks a lot in this regard, but this scene almost ruins it all. The whole ‘limbo’ thing *really* comes over as such a big artificial-outoftheblue -stakes-raiser (yes, that’s one official word) it’s not even funny. You enter ‘raw consciousness’? I think the big reason I’m not buying into this stuff is because it feels like a pay-off of something I never got to see a set-up from.

If Nolan had already shown a small dialogue between Yusuf and Cobb where they hint to putting something extra heavy, dangerous and secret into the sleep-drug, hinting to ‘a big risk that the addition of these chemicals may add to the mission’, without telling the audience exactly what they were talking about, then I would have been curious and now finally gotten an answer to my question. With a small explanation about those chemicals, I would have been willing to believe the whole limbo-thing.

But now it comes out of nowhere that, even upon first seeing the movie, I could see right trough the scene and see a writer having difficulty with having to explain an artificial story-mechanism he put in to up the stakes. It threw me completely out of the movie and it still does.

 I’m not saying the idea of the limbo could not work. But the whole way Nolan sells this to the audience is pretty bad from a script-technical angle. A pure monologue, like a bad guy in a B-movie explaining his whole plan at the end before killing the hero. That kind of feeling.

The whole idea of Cobb living with his wife in a constant dream-world until his wife woke up with the idea that she was still living in a dream (and the idea to kill herself if she wanted to wake up from that dream), is in my opinion probably the most powerful idea in Inception. It’s a very strong concept that speaks to your gut. The simple idea that Cobb had put in her mind that “this world isn’t real.”

In my opinion, he could have put the idea much more to the foreground of the story instead of only using it as a back-story for the main character (and the villain, in a way). But it’s genius, IMO.

That being said, the story-mechanism in which Mal just left a letter with a lawyer that Cobb had threatened her and how he had to suddenly run feels very cheap and artificial. I get it: Nolan needed a way so Mal could have killed herself but Cobb was suspect so he had the whole set-up for the story (the guy wants to get into the country to see his own kids, but needs to do this mission to do it). But it wasn’t that believable and came over as a bit lazy: “oh, btw, I left a note at a lawyer.”

Talkies in the climax

I’ll always think the snow-landscape dream-level was very disappointing. Visually it’s rather boring, it looks like a James Bond movie, and action-wise we don’t see a lot except some people shooting at each other. This seems much less inventive than the hotel dream-level where the whole hotel seemed to turn upside down because in the layer above there were some bumps on the road. The way how Nolan shot that hotel-hallway action scene deserves a lot of respect and praise, btw. Just as his general attitude to shoot as much as possible in-camera and only rely on CGI for what you can’t capture on celluloid. This mano-a-mano fight was a lot more exciting in comparison with the anonymous shooting you saw on all other dream-levels.

During the snow-fight, Ariadne reminds Cobb that it’s all designed like a maze. Again this is a false promise from Nolan’s part, because (like the false set-up of Ariadne drawing the maze as a test to get the job) the movie doesn’t do ANYTHING with the fact that it’s a maze. Nobody’s getting lost in the level, no one has trouble finding the way. No, just tell them via the walkie-talkie there’s an air-vent system and that’s it. Nolan again makes this false big set-up (a very difficult mission with mazes!) and delivers a poor pay-off (just pass some information trough a walkie-talkie). On first viewing Inception made a big impression because of all the concepts it works with, but on second viewing I feel mightily cheated on.

We see a big chase trough the snow without any idea of space between the guys who are being chased and the chasers. Although that’s exactly the elements you should work with when building tension in a chase and when you want to cash-in on the possibilities of working with a chase within a so-called maze.

But visualizing action-scenes with a clear choreography and sense of space and a clear build-up and worsening of stakes has always been one of Nolan’s biggest weaknesses. A Spielberg for instance is *great* at that. (For a great video essay trilogy on the anatomy of Nolan’s action scenes I refer to https://vimeo.com/28792404 and https://vimeo.com/28957441 and https://vimeo.com/29129274, by Jim Emerson)

The challenge wherein Arthur, on the hotel dream-layer, needs to find a way to let the team-members fall to give them a kick, while they are floating into the air, still holds up great. It’s one of the occasions in Inception where Nolan gives you a difficult set-up (how to ‘drop’ people on whom gravity seems to have no control) and gives a fitting, ingenious pay-off that surprises and delights the viewer (putting them in an elevator and cutting the cable). He also doesn’t explain it in words, like he does with almost everything else in the movie, he SHOWS Arthur putting his team into an elevator without you, as the viewer, knowing exactly what the plan is.

It’s visual storytelling as it should be.

Seriously, Nolan? You see Cobb explaining himself to Ariadne? in the snow bunker that he’s ‘only’ shooting projections, and when he sees Mal barely 1 minute later, he doubts to shoot her because suddenly NOW he doubts if it’s not reality. That feels almost stupid to me. I know you want to give Leo’s character some complexity with having him doubt between reality and dream, but this is a very unbelievable way to present it. And the scene where he explains it to Page is so ill-placed. He already told Page 10 times about projections, we are very deep into the mission and they have been trough this for 20 times already. Now he repeats it, in the middle of the action?

Limbo, like a giant sandcastle, is finally a scenery that comes to close to having dream-like qualities again. But well, it still gets ruined of it’s dream qualities with Leo not stopping to give verbal exposition, even if we are already in the climax of the movie. Even Mal is still verbally explaining what’s happening during the climax while the climax of a movie should be almost pure emotion and action (even if it’s verbal action). All her dialogue when they enter Cobbs house could have been replaced with only “Choose me. We can be here forever.” The climax is too late to still be giving so much exposition.

If Cobb talks about entering Mal’s mind to plant the idea, he’s in front of a house. And then in front of a small doll house. It’s beautiful, but wouldn’t it be a more visually impressive image if it was a more surrealistic house within a house within a house? That would seem like the kind of wonderful surrealistic imagery Nolan DID show us, when we saw the tesseract in Interstellar’s 3rd act (which I *really* loved)

And what an anti-climax again on Limbo-level. Cobb turns down Mal, she stabs him with a knife and Ariadne’s character shoots Mal, all in the fraction of a second.

The climax between Cillian Murphy and his father worked a lot better in my opinion. The chamber looks a lot more dream-like. But also emotionally. Cillian Murphy’s character thinking his father being disappointed  about him not being like his father, while his father suddenly surprising us and Cillian with the twisted notion that he was disappointed because Cillian TRIED to be like his father. It was a beautiful touch in the movie. It didn’t feel artificial and really works well on an emotional level.

But an anti-climax again in Limbo between Sato and Cobb. They are in front of each other, talking for a minute. Not a lot of last-minute obstacles for the main character to win over or to gradually build some extra tension. The ending scene works because of Zimmer’s pounding score and a very nice last image, much more than because of the story structure itself. It feels a bit like a cheat in this way. It felt like the movie didn’t completely earn that kind of big emotions it’s aiming for.

It’s nice that Nolan implied the spinning toll was going to tip over, but still cut away just enough so you don’t quite see it. Although I think the movie didn’t earn it completely, leaving it a bit open to the public in how far the end was a dream or not was a nice touch.

Pfieuw. That was that. When I write something like this, I cannot help thinking about a great quote out of one of my favorite movies, Ratatouille:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer their work and their selves to our judgement. The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

– Anton Ego-

A script is like a clockwork. You cannot change a small piece on it’s own, or the whole thing would stop working. I’ve learned this the hard way with my own scripts. If you would make the changes I wrote about in this post, you would have to change everything, so the clockwork could tick again. And it would have been a completely different movie, if you would have finished that process.

In the end we have Christopher Nolan’s version of Inception, and he’s the only one that made it. It’s out there for us to watch, to criticize, to talk about and to enjoy. For that I’m thankful.

I hope you enjoyed the blog post! Feedback is always welcome.




4 thoughts on ““If Nolan”…

  1. Very nice analysis, M. It makes me realise why the film, like many of Nolan’s, left me cold, although it was visually stunning in places and I ‘liked’ it at the time. I guess I would say that, overall, Inception is a brilliant idea boringly told! Also, your comparison with Spielberg is a very illuminating one, I think, as he made some of the most brilliantly crafted ‘commercial’ movies. The way the story unfolds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, is a near-perfect build-up of tension that, even now, makes you forget the quite limited special effects available at the time, particularly through the various perspectives on events via the different characters, which keeps the multiple story lines going while always heading towards the climax.


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