My reaction to the theatre version was definitely mixed. In spite of this, I jumped at the opportunity to read the script when that opportunity presented itself.
Which means: this review constitutes my third passage through Mr. Nolan’s story.
My initial impressions have been blunted by repeat exposure. I am now more impressed with the story than disappointed by it. I also think it a fascinating object for aspiring screenwriters to study, for many reasons. The main one, though, might be surprising.
Offhand, I’d say the script is AT LEAST 70 percent exposition.
Before re-reading Inception I would have laughed at the idea that a script could be 70 percent exposition AND work fairly well. I have been led to believe, by my own experience, that such a creature is impossible, by definition. It turns out, impossible is too strong a word.
Whatever may [or may not] be original in Christopher Nolan’s story for Inception, the script itself is, undoubtedly, a paradox about the craft of screenwriting. Let’s see if a review can tell us why?
Can “we see” the description? A.) Are the images clear and appropriate? B.) Are the sentences free of typos and grammatical errors? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) Here are our opening images:
DAWN. CRASHING SURF.
The waves TOSS a BEARDED MAN onto wet sand. He lies there.
A CHILD’S SHOUT makes him LIFT his head to see: a LITTLE
BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watching the tide eat a SANDCASTLE. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL joins the boy. The Bearded Man tries to call them, but they RUN OFF, FACES UNSEEN. He COLLAPSES.
There are several things to like about this description. My two favorites center on the “human” verbs that describe the action of the ocean.
The waves “toss a bearded man”. Later, they “eat a sandcastle”. By writing the action from the point of view of the waves, the resultant images become fresh. We’ve all seen the ocean doing these things before. But reading CAN BE different from seeing when an author is willing to try.
How much less forceful would these images be as:
A bearded man washes up on wet sand…
…. a LITTLE BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watches a SANDCASTLE slip into the tide.
Those words have the same meaning, but they don’t carry with them the same gravity. Without taking the discussion too far, I don’t mind saying that the WAY the sentences are written implies something about the environment. Namely, that the environment is all powerful. Exactly what you want to imply, if you’re building a dreamscape.
[For the record, I am not a fan of random capitalization.]
One more, this one from page 127:
Ariadne lies in the SURF, STARING up at a CLOUDLESS SKY. A
tremendous BOOM prompts her to look around her- URBAN
BUILDINGS PILED right down to the water. The buildings are
DECAYING, falling into the ocean like a GLACIER calving. Cobb WADES towards her through the shallow water. Ariadne looks up at the crumbling city around them.
Again, I choose this one because it makes the familiar into the unusual.
I love that the buildings are “PILED right down to the water”. I’ve been in big cities before, and I know what this image means. I would not have thought to describe it in this way. In addition, I’ve been to big cities before and in no sense of the word, do the buildings pile right down to the water. That is ALMOST what they do, but not quite—another effective way of intimating the dream environment.
Of course, I also love that the buildings are “calving”, like a glacier. I wouldn’t go overboard with similes and metaphors but, by all means, if you’ve got a perfect one up your sleeve, lay it on the reader. If they are anything like me, they will appreciate it.
Part B) There are a moderate amount of typos. I imagine this is because Mr. Nolan was jealous with who, and how many, got to read his script before it was finalized as a film. Whatever the cause, I won’t be easy on him just because he is, you know, The Christopher Nolan.
Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.
Part A) The dialogue is almost entirely exposition. I want to go on for about 10,000 words about this because I think it is miraculous that there is so much exposition and the script is NOT flat out unreadable. I’ll resist and try to summarize, first by just listing the exposition by page numbers.
SCENES OF ONLY EXPOSITION:
Pg. 9 — When Cobb has “to kill” Arthur to wake him up.
Pgs. 18-19 The phone call that first begins to give us Cobb’s family backstory.
Pgs. 25-40 This is NONSTOP exposition. That is seventeen pages of the stuff. Unreal that it works at all.
Pg. 42 Between Cobb and Eames about Inception.
Pgs. 47-49 Carry on the Cobb backstory exposition, and also introduce a new thread: Why it’s okay to do Inception on Fischer.
Pgs. 52-53 Expo about how Yusuf’s formula works.
Pgs. 55-60 More about Mal and more about Fischer.
Pgs. 63-65 About the Kick.
Pgs. 78-80 About the Limbo.
Pgs. 87-92 The end of Cobb and Mal’s backstory.
Pgs. 107-108 Arthur and Ariadne and The Kick.
And although there is more, there I will stop. This is when I realized why all these notes I was making about the pages and pages of exposition were not destroying the reading of the script. For me, the exposition “worked” because each time a new piece was entered into evidence, it made it LESS LIKELY that Cobb achieves his goal. Sure we are being spoon-fed, but the product is an ever increasing likelihood that Cobb never sees his children again. That, at least for me, is the explanation for why the script is palatable.
Of course, on a more technical level, it doesn’t hurt that each instance of exposition comes with its own pope in the pool or ignorant stranger moment.
Part B) There is more than enough subtext to give all the points.
From page 9:
No point threatening him in a
That depends on what you’re
threatening. Killing him would just
wake him up… but pain? Pain is in
Mal LOWERS the gun and SHOOTS Arthur in the leg- Arthur
drops, SCREAMING- Mal looks at Cobb, cold.
And, judging by the decor, we’re in
your mind, aren’t we, Arthur?
This works as subtext on two levels. Very soon, Cobb is going to shoot Arthur “right between the eyes”. He has “to kill” Arthur in order to save him from the pain. That makes Cobb a good friend, right?
Except, why is Mal here putting Arthur into real pain? Because Cobb, won’t “kill” the unreal Mal. This makes Cobb a bad friend.
From page 29-30
She hands Cobb the pad, a touch pleased. Cobb solves the
puzzle instantly, as before. Her smile falls.
You’ll have to-
She GRABS the pad, frustrated… but this time she FLIPS it
over and starts drawing on the BLANK CARDBOARD of the back.
Cobb watches, surprised. He smiles as he sees that she’s
drawing CIRCLES, creating a maze based on concentric rings.
Ariadne hands back the pad, defiant. Cobb takes the pen,
starts the maze. This time he gets stuck. Nods.
(working the maze)
More like it.
Cobb’s found his architect, right? Yeah, of course. He’s ALSO found the one person that can force him to deal with Mal. That is the subtext of this “test”.
One more from page 124:
Cobb TENSES to fire.
Come on… a little lower… a
COBB FREEZES- IT IS MAL IN HIS SIGHTS. Ariadne puts up her
binoculars. Spots Mal. Fischer is climbing out of the vent…
Cobb, that’s not really her-
Cobb turns to her-
How can you know that?
On page 9, Cobb had no problem popping one right between his best friend’s eyes. Here, he can’t “kill” the one thing that keeps preventing him from seeing his children—his MEMORY of Mal. He can’t “kill” her because he doesn’t want to lose her.
[Cobb’s “How can you know that?” is distracting and confusing. It should probably be omitted.]
Part C) I found all the characters to be well done except Ariadne. I have no handle on her inner character at all. Maybe I can buy her desire to be a part of Cobb’s team, but her continual neglect in mentioning to Arthur and the others the dangers of Cobb, seems forced.
Do we have a hook (the first 2 pages)?
Without a doubt, the first two pages draw you in. A bearded man of indeterminate (but definitely not overwhelming) age on a beach, and an elderly Japanese man who knew each other a long time ago. On the strength of that seeming impossibility alone, I would have kept reading.
CLEARLY, though, this is a cheat. This cheating is made even worse because it is barely explained in the sluglines. (Add to that how we’re not clued in to the age of the bearded man—which is, in my opinion, taking cheating to new heights.)
When, in the middle of page 2, we cut to a DIFFERENT scene with the notation (YEARS EARLIER) and we’re now sitting with a young Japanese man, we know this can’t be right. There is no corresponding feeling of being far in the future when we sit with the elderly Japanese man. Yet, we DO feel we’re in the near present at (YEARS EARLIER). I’ll have more to say about this cheat later.
Is the hook effective (the next 8 pages)?
Yes, if you like the effectiveness of your hooks to be as confusing as possible.
I want to be on board with this because, at this point in the script, Nolan is doing a great job with his iceberg exposition. Yet, you can’t mess with the timeframe this much in your opening 10 pages and expect that the reader won’t be confused.
Here are our DISTINCT sluglines:
INT. ELEGANT DINING ROOM, JAPANESE CASTLE – LATER
INT. SAME ELEGANT DINING ROOM – NIGHT (YEARS EARLIER)
FILTHY BATHROOM – DAY (FEELS LIKE DIFFERENT TIME)
INT. BULLET TRAIN COMPARTMENT – DAY (FEELS LIKE DIFFERENT TIME)
EXT. ROOFTOP TERRACES, JAPANESE CASTLE – NIGHT
(In this last case we’re not even told WHEN we’re supposed to be. You might say we should infer the previous time, except we’ve been given TWO previous times for this location.)
I’ve now experienced the story three times, so I get the story and it doesn’t confuse me. I ALSO think that the story IS so confusing because Nolan didn’t know what to do to make his ambiguous spinning top ending work. So, he cheated.
He OPENS with the ENDING. Saito and Cobb in Limbo. Nolan thinks this lends that top at the end the possibility of an infinite spin. I don’t think it does. In my opinion, there is no other way to interpret the information in the story other than: That top WILL stop spinning sometime during the credits.
More on this in the next question.
Except for this timeframe confusion, the rest of the story in these 8 pages had me hooked.
Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook?
Before I get back to the unresolved discussion from above, let me dispense with the one lone reveal this script has up its sleeve.
It comes on pg. 134:
How could you know it was a lie?
Because it was my lie.
Because you planted the idea in my
Because I performed inception on my
own wife, then reaped the bitter
This is very good. All along we’ve been reading under the delusion that Mal caused all her own problems. I found it exceedingly poignant that, in fact, Cobb IS responsible for her death. He actually did kill her. This makes all his guilt, and his inability to just “kill off” Mal in the dreamworlds, legitimate. Again, I always thought this was a great twist.
Unfortunately, Nolan goes for more. He wants us to literally be in doubt over whether or not that top is spinning at the end. And I say literally on purpose because, metaphorically, the top can be interpreted to still be spinning.
We could interpret the whole movie as an instance of Inception being perpetrated [accidentally] on Cobb’s character. The idea that must be planted in the “third level” of his dreaming subconscious is: “I am not responsible for the death of my wife”.
Under this interpretation, the metaphorical Inception on Cobb has been completed. He could then live with his children in a limbo world and never know it was all a dream.
The problem, though, is that Nolan tells us too many times that Limbo is not a place for happy endings. This is the place where people wait in regret. They wait in regret in order “to die alone”.
Here is the conversation from pages 1-2 and pages 144-145 joined together in their proper time:
He was delirious. But he asked for
you by name. And…
(to the Security Guard)
He was carrying nothing but this…
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
Bring him here. And some food.
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
Are you here to kill me?
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
I know what this is.
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
I’ve seen one before. Many, many
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
It belonged to a man I met in a
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN
A man possessed of some radical
So… have you come to kill me?
I’ve been waiting for someone to
come for me…
Someone from your half-remembered
Cobb? Not possible-he and I were
young men together. And I am an old
Filled with regret?
Waiting to die alone, yes.
I came back for you… I came to
remind you of what you once knew…
You came to convince me to honor
Yes. And to take a leap of faith.
Come back and we’ll be young men
This is not what is described at the end, when the camera fades out on that infamous spinning top.
It is my opinion that any doubt about whether the top is literally still spinning at the end is a result of cheating with the timeframes, and interpreting limbo in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of its description in the script.
Rating: Worth Reading (1)
1. Even though I had some problems with this script, I still enjoyed reading it closely. It is amazing that the pages turn as fast as they do given how much the script relies on the contrivance of exposition for its propulsion.
I also admire the author for going for broke. He set his sights very high with this script, trying to pull off a genuinely mind-quaking twist. Although I think the attempt falls short, it is rewarding to see an author spending his Hollywood capital in such an ambitious way. So often, you hear these authors saying things like, ‘I only agreed to write “Insert Franchise of Your Choosing Here” in order to write this other script which means something to me, personally”. At least Nolan put his reputation on the line with Inception. It could have been a colossal failure.