Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?
In order to break things down a bit, I decided to follow Nolan as he traveled down the screenwriter’s oft-cited two tracks of want and need. What does our hero want? What does he need? The first is a question of plot. The second refers to the character’s internal journey over the course of a script. Dom Cobb, Inception’s hero, wants to complete one last job so that he can get home to America and his children. Cobb needs to come to terms with the wife who, though dead, still haunts him.
The link between want and need turns out to be inception, or the planting of ideas, resilient, highly contagious ideas, in another’s mind. Much hay has already been made of the fact that, stripped down to its basics, Inception is a reversal of standard heist films. Our story begins with Cobb and his team performing extractions, or stealing secrets from a safe. So far, it’s a typical heist plot, albeit with the funky twist of taking place in someone’s mind.
The technique of extraction is then flipped on its head. After testing Cobb’s powers, a Japanese businessman, Saito, asks Cobb to plant an idea in a rival’s son’s mind instead. The idea, which the son, Robert Fischer, must come to himself, is to break up his father’s empire. The remainder of the movie’s plot is then governed by this reverse heist. We watch as Cobb and team push deeper and deeper into Fischer’s unconscious, trying to plant Saito’s idea and ensure it will take hold. If Cobb succeeds, Saito will ensure Cobb’s safe passage back to America. Along the way, the team must battle Fischer’s defenses, literalized as security forces (or projections) that try to shoot them down.
These battles play out over three levels of Fischer’s subconscious, as planned by the team: the first level where Fischer accepts that he will not follow in his father’s footsteps; a second where Fischer decides he will create something himself; and a third where he discovers that his father wants him to be his own man. Each level is “guarded” by a member of the team. So there is reality, where Cobb’s team (Eames, Arthur, Ariadne, and Yusuf) are, along with Cobb, Fischer and Saito, asleep on a plane. There is the first level, where Yusuf, the chemist drives a van and tries to keep everyone inside alive as hostile forces follow. There is the second level where Arthur safekeeps the sleeping team in a hotel as the remaining crew continues to dig deep into Fischer’s subconscious. And there is the third level, the hospital complex where Eames, Saito and Cobb (accompanied by Cobb’s personal safekeeper, Ariadne) must fight off the militarized forces of Fischer’s unconscious and ensure that Fischer gains access to his father’s second will, the legacy that will give Fischer the final push to follow his own path and break up the company.
Nolan guides us from level to level with ease, devising obstacles that keep each guardian (Yusuf then Arthur then Eames) busy and that block the team as they try to complete the inception. Nolan’s technique of using continuous crosscuts between the dangers of each level, much of it typical action fare involving gunplay and explosions, keeps the tension high. The crosscuts also ensure that our attention never flags as we try to unravel the puzzle of what exactly is happening at any one time.
But one level of plot, even a plot that entails three levels, is for ordinary action screenwriters. Nolan’s determined to do more than that. As the film proceeds, we realize that complicating the Fischer plotline, there’s actually a second inception that must take place before Cobb and his team can get back to safety. [Spoiler alerts follow.] Saito, the team’s employer, must be convinced that the team has successfully planted the idea in Fischer’s head for the team to achieve its goal. But at the midpoint t wist Saito is shot. Shooting someone in an extraction wakes them up, but shooting someone in an inception means they’ll be lost down below. So now on top of convincing Fischer to dismantle his father’s empire, Cobb must convince the older Saito who is trapped in the netherworld that he lives in a half-remembered dream. Saito must be convinced to come back to reality so that Cobb can get home.
And because screenwriter’s rules require threes, there’s a third inception: one that Cobb must perform on himself. Cobb’s wife is dead. And Cobb feels tremendous guilt. Cobb needs to forgive himself—and to let go. Can Cobb, with his new dream architect, the ever trusty Ariadne, succeed in planting all three ideas: for Fischer that he must become his own man, for Saito that he must take a leap of faith and come back home, and for Cobb himself that letting go of the person he promised to be with forever is okay?
But there’s another kicker to come.
If this were just an action movie, perhaps the gunplay in the three levels could resolve all. But this is a movie of psychology and ideas as much as action. And so, when it turns out, there aren’t just three levels, there are four, we understand we’re in for a whole new twist. Underneath all three dream states lies limbo, where Saito, Fischer and Cobb become trapped. What’s the key to getting out of limbo? As with the triple level plotline, it relies on the uncovering of a fourth aspect of a sequence we had been led to believe was a triple—in this case uncovering a fourth inception.
What’s this fourth idea that was planted? To find out, we go beyond the reverse heist to unravel a mystery. Early on, we understand that we are going deeper and deeper into not just Fischer’s unconscious but, as Ariadne points out, into Cobb’s. What we don’t understand is exactly why Cobb is so wracked with guilt. And it’s in the solution to this mystery that the movie works—or doesn’t--for many of its viewers.
Cobb wants to get back home. This drives him to actions that are the stuff of a standard action movie plot, albeit one complicated by three levels and three inceptions, or dives into the recesses of mind that make the movie fun for the intellectually oriented, Kaufman-freaks like myself. But Nolan, like all good screenwriters, realizes that a movie’s experience ultimately succeeds or fails based on the hero’s need. It’s Cobb’s need, not his wants, that raises the emotional stakes. And rereading this script and rewatching the movie I was surprised by how deeply involved I felt in Cobb’s quest to get home to his children, his quest to acknowledge his guilt and responsibility for his wife’s death, his quest to achieve catharsis.
When we’re clued in early that the key to Cobb’s freedom lies not in Fischer’s reconciliation with father or even Saito’s reconciliation with reality, but in Cobb’s reconciliation with his wife, Mal, excitement builds. The standard heist movie’s been wrapped in an enigma. We’re asked to unravel maze upon maze. For some it’s too much. Yet, by the time we get to Cobb’s catharsis of telling his wife, Mal that he feels at fault for her suicide, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one moved.
As others have suggested (See Scott Meyers’ wonderful blog Go Into the Story for a complete analysis) there a strongly Jungian strain to Cobb’s journey to rid himself of his “shade”—or that which blocks him. Cobb's psychological trajectory has many parallels to Fischer's. Unlike Fischer, however, Cobb isn’t an innocent. Rather he’s responsible for Mal’s death. Mal’s suicide is based on a false idea that her reality was no longer real, an idea that Cobb implanted. Here is the elusive fourth inception. And it’s to this point of the fourth inception, the one that Cobb can barely admit to himself, the one that killed his wife that the whole movie has been building. As the pieces click into place, we, like Cobb, feel a powerful relief. We understand the mystery. We too can let go. We forgive Cobb as he forgives himself.
Like The Matrix, the movie asks the question: what’s real? What’s not? What do we the audience want? To be stimulated by great action sequences and provoked by interesting ideas. What do we need? To achieve emotional catharsis. And though Nolan’s construction of Cobb’s “want” through line is multiply-layered, Nolan never for a moment ignores Cobb’s “need” through line. And that’s what makes the film so emotionally powerful.
Finally, a word on the ending. In my view, Cobb's reconciliation with his children is real as is his return to the present day. Others have suggested, however, that Cobb may still be lost. There is support for this take in the opium den scene. Perhaps Cobb never wakes after he's given the sedative and the entire job is another dream. But to believe that Nolan wanted us to walk away with this ending requires a fundamentally cynical loss of faith.My suspicion is that, to the contrary, Nolan wishes us to depart believing in Cobb's rebirth. Nolan understands that the audience’s need is strangely akin to Fischer’s—and Cobb’s. We need to feel the redemptive power of movies. And we need not to lose our faith in the intellectually and emotionally provocative even as we enjoy our action fun.
I delighted in the screenplay’s complexity even as others found the movie overly dense. Breaking the script down by lines of want and need, the symmetries of plot and throughlines are clear and intricately woven. And I remain spellbound by just how much Nolan sticks to screenwriting’s rules, even as he breaks practically all the molds in the book.
This article is part of the The Screenwriter's Craft series. The next post in the series is True Grit: Rewriting the Western. The previous post in the series is Writing the Antihero: Zuckerberg and the Social Network.