One of the main reasons I wanted to analyze Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) was to examine how it handles the enormous amount of exposition required for the story. Like any story with magic, super powers or sci-fi technology, the audience needs to clearly understand the rules of the world. And the rules of the dream-infiltrating technology are particularly complex.
I already mentioned one of the techniques the movie uses: Ariadne. In the opening sequence of the movie, Cobb loses one of his team members, the architect, and has to replace him. So he recruits someone completely new to the business. She becomes the stand-in for the audience. As Cobb explains how things work to Ariadne, we get to learn about it as well.
There are several training scenes where big chunks of exposition are delivered. The first is the exploding café scene where Ariadne learns the basics including how time works differently in dreams. Soon after is the folding city/footbridge scene where Ariadne learns about the flexible physics of dream reality and the source and danger of subconscious “extras,” and is warned not to build architecture from memory.
A couple of things to note about these scenes: First, they happen well into the movie. The concept of dream infiltration is introduced in a dramatic thriller scene at the opening. This is important – early in the movie the audience is figuring out the world of the movie, so we have to introduce our big conceits quickly. In the opening sequence, we get some of the rules and concepts of the main conceit – the dream-within-a-dream, how things in the real world manifest in the dream world, and that when you die in a dream you wake up but pain feels real.
That exposition is important, but many of the rules are not really explained yet. And because we’re hooked in with character and action, we want to hear the explanations. By the time Ariadne has things directly spelled out for her, we’re happy to tolerate a rather dull scene that answers our questions.
Second, these training scenes are an excellent example of “wallpapering” – the technique where you place a boring scene in a visually interesting setting. The dream world conceit of Inception makes this easy. The action in the scenes is really just Cobb explaining stuff to Ariadne, but the visuals include a café blowing up and a city folding in on itself, making them far more interesting than their story content warrants.
Wallpapering also comes into play in some of the character exposition scenes I mentioned last post. Most notably, when Ariadne slips into Cobb’s dream to find out what he’s hiding – we get an elevator that opens onto a beach, a train and various settings from Cobb’s past.
There are more of these sorts of scenes – Arthur showing Ariadne how to make a stairs that is an impossible loop, for example. Eventually they move from training scenes to briefing scenes where the team plans the job, laying out more information we’re going to need in the final half of the movie. But the same techniques come into play.
Another trick to revealing exposition elegantly is to do it in conflict. What you want to avoid is having characters say things they have no reason to say. Here Inception uses a second character: Arthur. Arthur is Mr. Negative, constantly doubting and questioning Cobb’s plans.
This is how the concept of inception itself is explained. When Saito asks if it’s possible, Arthur says no. Saito wants to know why not, which leads to a verbal analysis of a concept that everyone in the conversation already understands but the audience does not. If Saito had simply said, “I’d like to hire you to perform an inception,” and Cobb and Arthur accepted, the plot would move forward just fine but how would the audience know what they were talking about?
Look at the way we get the explanation about how, in the triple-dream plan, when you die you don’t wake up but end up in Limbo. Cobb doesn’t tell them this detail before the mission. Arthur’s pissed, but Cobb says he didn’t mention it because the dream wasn’t supposed to be dangerous – Arthur failed to discover that Fischer had been trained in dream defenses.
The story would work just fine if Arthur had discovered the defenses and Cobb had told them about the wrinkle with the sedative before hand. But creating an argument between them over who’s to blame allows the information to be revealed more dramatically.
Sometimes conflict and the ignorant character are used in tandem. For example, when Cobb suggests the Mr. Charles gambit, Arthur thinks it’s a bad idea. This leads Ariadne to ask him about it, giving Arthur a chance to explain to the newbie. Also, Ariadne’s concern about Cobb’s secrets causes her to push him for explanations of his backstory at several key moments. There would be no reason for these explanations without her fear.
One other reason we are happy to sit through some of the complex explanations in Inception is that we are involved in the bigger story. The movie gives us a strong through-line to hold onto. And one of the ways that’s kept alive is by using elements of the future. And that will be the topic of my next post!
(Note the element of the future used in that last sentence!)