This is Nolan Theme Week, where we'll be breaking down Christopher Nolan's five most popular writing-directing efforts in hopes of learning something about how he crafts a story. Monday Roger reviewed The Dark Knight. Tuesday I took on Batman Begins. Wednesday was The Prestige, which surprisingly has garnered some of the more heated talkback, Thursday was the film that put Nolan on the map, Memento. And today, to finish it all off, I'm of course reviewing the script for his most recent film, Inception!
Premise: (from IMDB) - In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption which involves executing his toughest job till date, Inception.
About: Inception came out in the summer and is currently the 5th highest grossing film of the year behind Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, and Eclipse. It cost 160 million dollars to make, opened with 62 million at the U.S. Box Office, finished with 290 million, and has made over 800 million worldwide, unheard of in this day and age for an original property (unless your name is James Cameron of course). Nolan is said to have worked on the script for ten years. When asked if he had done any dream research for the script, Nolan had a surprising response: “I don’t actually tend to do a lot of research when I’m writing. I took the approach in writing Inception that I did when I was writing Memento about memory and memory loss, which is I tend to just examine my own process of, in this case, dreaming, in Memento’s case, memory, and try and analyze how that works and how that might be changed and manipulated. How a rule set might emerge from my own process. I do know because I think a lot of what I find you want to do with research is just confirming things you want to do. If the research contradicts what you want to do, you tend to go ahead and do it anyway. So at a certain point I realized that if you’re trying to reach an audience, being as subjective as possible and really trying to write from something genuine is the way to go. Really it’s mostly from my own process, my own experience.” For some further Nolan reading, there's a nice profile on him at the New York Times.
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Details: 146 pages – shooting draft
Okay, if you’re a big fan of this film, you might want to steer clear of this review. I’m about to get into it with Inception because after watching Nolan’s five most popular movies this week, I’ve concluded that Inception is by far the weakest of the bunch. The attention to detail – the care he put into those other films – isn’t there in Inception. Things feel rushed, smooshed together, as if Warners gave him gobs of money with a note attached that said, “as long as you give it to us quickly.”
As I pointed out yesterday in my Memento review, Nolan was so careful and clever in how he slipped his exposition into the film. Here, it’s like he doesn’t even care, spraying it around like gang graffiti. This is the heart of my problem with the film, but there are plenty of other things to talk about so let’s quickly recap the plot.
Inception follows Dom Cobb, a “dream thief” who travels into people’s minds to steal information. Early on he’s approached by Saito, a man who owns one of the largest energy companies in the world, to break into his biggest competitor’s mind (a man named Robert Fischer) and plant a piece of information (an “inception”) in him that will eliminate him as a competitor. Cobb initially resists until Saito promises he can reunite him with his children, who he lost after being accused of his wife’s murder.
Cobb recruits the perfect team to complete the task and constructs a multi-layered dream within a dream within a dream approach to get to the center of the mark’s subconscious. Complicating the mission is Cobb’s wife, who has died in the real world but who still lives inside Cobb’s dreams. If he’s going to succeed with the inception, he’ll need to reconcile his relations with her first.
Okay, so I’ve seen Inception twice now and read the script once. While the most important viewing of any movie is the first, Nolan’s films are constructed to be viewed multiple times, in my opinion not only to make for a richer viewing experience, but to make him and the studio richer. On that front, compared to the rest of his films, Inception is a failure.
One word. Exposition.
One of the reasons we’re repeatedly told as writers to hide our exposition is because bad exposition is one of the quickest ways to alert an audience that what they’re watching isn’t real. If you hear someone say, “We gotta go here to do this and then we gotta go there to do that and we only have 3 hours to do it or we all die unless Joey can somehow deliver the money to Frankie in time,” you say, "Oh yeah, this is a movie." Why? Because people don't talk that way. Because it’s not real life. It’s the mechanics of the plot translated into words in order to condense key plot points for the audience’s benefit.
So what you do is two things. You hide it as much as you can. And you only tell the absolute minimum of what you have to. Now there are a lot of ways to hide exposition. Back to The Future is pure exposition, but it’s hidden in comedy. We’re more focused on these two bickering back and forth than we are on that everything they say is so the audience knows what’s going on.
But that first rule, keeping exposition to a minimum, that doesn’t require nearly as much skill – just discipline. You’re simply looking to keep things short. That’s it. Nolan completely ignores this rule here, spending not one scene, not two, not three, but a full one hour of scenes on exposition. And he doesn't stop there either! We are getting exposition all the way into the 120s! For that reason, when you try and watch this movie a second time, you are bored to death during the opening hour of the film.
I mean I’m just shocked at how sloppy it all is.
Now the script definitely picks up, and all of that explanation enables us to enjoy the complicated second half of the story, but I don’t think you ever really feel immersed in this movie the way you do in Memento or Batman Begins because the opening hour is essentially Christopher Nolan onscreen reading you the rules of his universe from a notepad. There’s no subtlety, no attempt to suspend your disbelief, and that’s probably why Inception feels less satisfying than his other films.
Having said that, it’s interesting to note that all the classic Nolan-isms are at play here, particularly his patented triple-crossing narrative opening to the film. This time we’re cutting between Cobb visiting an older Asian man, Cobb asleep in a hotel room with an approaching group of rioters, and Cobb asleep on a train. What I find fascinating here is that Nolan’s taken this device to its extreme. The opening of Inception is so confusing and so weird that we absolutely have to pay attention to keep up. It’s proof positive, as he’s done this now 5 times, how effective the device is.
Another thing I find interesting about Inception is that there’s no villain and there’s no love interest. In fact, what Nolan tries to do is insert both of these into a single character, Cobb’s wife. She’s this kind of fucked up love interest as well as a villain - the biggest obstacle to him achieving his goal. All the other “bad guys” in the film are essentially faceless. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, as Mal’s character in general is more of a confusing idea than a well-formed character.
The fact that our main character does not encounter these two dynamics (love or hate) in the story, is the reason I believe the film lacks any emotional resonance with the audience. And it seems like it shouldn’t be that way because Cobb himself is feeling SO MUCH emotion during this story. But since we never see him have someone to love, since we never see him have someone to hate, we never feel any of that emotion ourselves. The emotional core of the movie is limited to Cobb trying to find closure with this woman who, for all intents and purposes (at least from how we see her), is kind of a bitch. Am I supposed to be emotionally connected to that?
In fact, this gets into a much deeper issue, which is that Cobb is the only character Nolan has put any effort into. We know barely anyting about Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s character. We know barely anything about Ellen Page’s character. Tom Hardy and the Indian Guy? I still don’t even know why they were in the movie! We’re talking about a 150 minute movie here, and only a single character is being explored on a deeper level. There’s no other reason to HAVE a 150 minute movie than to use that time to explore a bunch of characters!
So how did this happen? I’ll give you a guess. That’s right, because Nolan wasted the first hour of his film having his characters spout exposition! We can’t learn about characters if their only function is to explain things or ask questions!
Look, I enjoyed this movie. Nolan does enough right here to make the film work. The score alone is worth the price of admission (easily the best of the year - maybe the last five years). And as long as I’m bashing some of his writing mistakes, I have to give him props for how he wrote the dream within a dream within a dream climax. I can imagine how complicated that must have been and yet it definitely holds our interest. But when you read this script on the page, you really start to see its weaknesses. When it's all said and done, I’d say this is his second worst film (behind Insomnia).
Although I can't share the script, it is available, with concept art storyboards and handwritten notes by Nolan.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The biggest lesson I learned after watching Nolan’s films this week is to challenge the audience. There’s a misconception out there that the audience is dumb, that you need to serve them everything on a platter. Audiences are smarter than you think and they want to be challenged. Just know that there is a skill behind this and that skill is built through a ton of writing and a bunch of trial and error. You have to find out what works for you. You can’t just say, “Well Nolan cuts between 3 different storylines so I’m going to cut between 5!” and assume you’ve created a masterpiece. Being different, pushing boundaries, has great rewards, but it also means failing a lot bigger and more frequently. If you’re okay with that, then it may be something you want to try.