There’s a collection of screenwriting concepts I gather under the heading “Elements of the Future.” It essentially encompasses those things we put in a scene to set up something later in the script. As I mentioned last time, Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) keeps us involved in complex plotting by creating a strong through-line. And it keeps us focused on the through-line with these elements of the future. So let’s look at how the movie uses some of those elements.
Advertising is when you tell the audience about something that’s going to happen or is at least possibly going to happen. It serves two purposes: giving the audience something to look forward to, and setting expectations about upcoming events.
One of the biggest things advertised in Inception is the mission itself. Early in the movie Cobb accepts the job that is the core of the movie. From there on, the audience is looking forward to seeing how that job comes out. That stays in the back of our mind through the training and character and planning scenes. We know this is all going somewhere – the infiltration of Fischer’s dream.
Another smart use of advertising in Inception comes when characters talk about how inception is “impossible” or at least very, very difficult. Cobb is in the business of infiltrating dreams, but we’re told that this job is a much bigger challenge than anything he’s done before.
This justifies why the movie is focused on this particular mission and builds suspense. If inception had been common in the story world, the movie would be a lot less exciting. If you’re doing a story with a caper like this you want to explain why this specific caper is the biggest the character has ever undertaken (this is true of sports movies too – why is the last game/match bigger than all the others?)
There’s also a lot of advertising of Mal – discussions where various characters talk about her and the potential damage she could do on the mission. Just one example is when Arthurs says, “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” after the opening extraction gig. And of course Ariadne frequently expresses her concern on this point. This sets us up to fear Mal’s appearance in Act III. We know she’s a significant threat.
Planting and Payoff
Another “element of the future” technique is planting and payoff. This is critical for any caper style movie. We need to set up all the tools and obstacles for the final job. Inception is no different.
For example, Arthur shows Ariadne how to create an endlessly looping staircase in one of the training sequences, then he uses the impossible physics of just such a staircase to get rid of a pursuer later in the hotel. By establishing the staircase earlier there is no need to explain to the audience what is going on in the middle of the action scene.
More interesting is the way Inception creates motifs with objects, images and dialogue. Several motifs are planted, referenced, paid off and then paid off again. One example is the totems/top. We see Cobb spin the top before we even know what it is. Then the purpose of totems is explained to Ariadne – that they let the user know whether they’re dreaming. But she’s warned not to let anyone else touch her totem or it won’t work.
Then later we learn that the top Cobb uses belonged to Mal, and he manipulated it in Limbo to convince her they were in a dream. This is done with an image – Cobb breaking into a safe and spinning the top. Because of all the plants, he doesn’t have to explain directly what he did. And this of course pays off at the very end of the movie in the famous shot where he spins the top and the film cuts to black, making us wonder whether the whole thing might have been a dream!
Another motif is the image of Cobb’s two children. The image first appears when Cobb washes up on the beach in the first scene. It recurs several more times until Cobb final explains the significance of the vision to Ariadne. And Mal uses it against him in Limbo. This image serves multiple purposes. It can serve as a warning that Cobb’s subconscious is starting to intrude, as when the kids appear in the bar during the Mr. Charles gambit. Mal also uses it against Cobb in Limbo, a scene we wouldn’t understand if the children hadn’t been planted. And their repeated appearances continually remind us what Cobb has at stake on the mission.
Some other examples: the pinwheel, seen repeatedly in a photo in Fischer’s dream wallet, and then appearing in the safe in the dream hospital. It comes to symbolize his feelings for his father.
And then there’s the train motif. A train appears in the elevator dream and another interrupts the action on the first level of Fischer’s dream. There’s dialogue references in a mantra Cobb and Mal share that begins, “You’re waiting for a train…” Of course we later learn Cobb and Mal committed suicide by train to escape a prior Limbo dream.
These motifs serve not only to remind us of the stakes or to represent Cobb’s subconscious slipping into the dreams, they also bind the story together and help us stay in touch with the through-lines of plot and character. Plus, they build subtle confidence that everything is present in the movie for a purpose. Even if we get a little confused or lost in the multi-level dream world, these touchstones give us comfort that everything will ultimately make sense.