One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard leveled at Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) is that the characters are weak. There is some validity to that, at least as far as the minor characters. I would argue that the lead, Cobb is actually fairly dimensional.
In my earlier post on the three act structure of Inception, I identified Cobb’s want as, “To ‘incept’ an idea into Fischer.” He’s doing this in return for help clearing up a legal issue that is preventing him from seeing his kids (the stakes of the film). And I identified Cobb’s need as, “To let go of Mal.”
Cobb’s longing to see his kids and his guilt over what happened to Mal provide the emotional underpinnings to the complex caper plot. In other words, they are why we care whether Cobb succeeds or fails. Cobb is a professional dream thief – Nolan could’ve just made this another job. But Nolan makes this the most important job of Cobb’s life in two ways: first, inception is thought to be impossible; and second, if he succeeds he will be allowed to see his kids again.
The kids also help us to root for Cobb. He is, after all, a criminal. There is a somewhat lame stab at making the job seem moral when Saito says that if Fischer doesn’t break up his father’s company, they will soon gain an unhealthy dominance of the world energy market. But let’s face it; the real reason we root for Cobb is that he’s a father trying to get back to his kids.
Mal offers another emotional/psychological component to Cobb. He is quite literally haunted by her (or really his guilt over what he did to her) – something that could endanger the crew as they maneuver in the dreams. Ariadne’s unraveling the secret of Cobb’s guilt provides an ongoing emotional subplot. And it’s great that the source of this internal arc is tied to inception, the premise of the external plot.
Fischer also offers us some good psychological complexity with his father issues. I think it was smart of Nolan to make Fischer fairly sympathetic, and then to have the ending be a resolution to his biggest emotional issue. Ultimately, this allows us to feel good when Cobb succeeds in the caper. Even though Fischer has been manipulated, we believe he’s better off. Yes, making Fischer evil would have also allowed us to celebrate Cobb’s success, but then we wouldn’t have the quiet, final moment between son and father to counterpoint all the action.
The other characters are a little more one-dimensional. Ariadne particularly seems to draw criticism. There is little information about who she is or what she wants. Mostly, as the newcomer to the team, she serves as a device to get out exposition. Likewise, her poking into Cobb’s relationship with Mal gets the exposition out about that subplot.
I think maybe it’s gender politics that draws attention to the thinness of Ariadne’s character. Mal is actually a pretty complex and compelling female character – except she’s not on screen that much, so we focus on Ariadne and think of her as the female lead. And we expect more character development for the female lead. The truth is, the other male members of the team (Eames, Saito, Yusuf and Arthur) are not well developed either, but since we see them as secondary it doesn’t bother us much. Ironically, if Ariadne had been male people might have accepted her one-dimensional role more easily.
We might ask why so many supporting characters? The answer is that Nolan simply needs bodies to make the multi-level dream caper work. Someone has to stay behind on each level to keep those levels alive on screen as the team goes deeper. And someone has to die to force Cobb into the final level. There is a certain minimal number of team members required to build the story Nolan has in mind.
As is typical in caper movies, each character is given a specific skill and task. And it’s interesting to note that they are all physically distinct: there’s one woman; one Asian; one Arab; a big, grungy guy and a small neat guy. This allows us to keep track of them visually.
Next post I want to take a closer look at how Inception reveals its characters and dramatizes the internal story.