Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Inception Dramatizes Character and the Internal Story

(SPOILERS: Inception)

First of all, let me apologize for the extended time between posts – got a little busy with my paying gigs!

Now, continuing my ongoing analysis of Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), I want to look at how character is dramatized and how the inner journey is revealed. This is a universal challenge for screenwriters since we can only write what can be seen and heard. Today I’m going to concentrate on the main character, Cobb. (And note, I’m working today from the shooting script, so my quotes are from that. I haven’t checked them all against the film, but my memory is they’re pretty close.)

Let’s start with the character introduction. Cobb is given an entrance in the first scene of the movie – he’s washed up, grungy and bloody, on a beach. In the script, he’s identified as BEARDED MAN. We’re not meant to know it’s Cobb, though in the movie, we recognize Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the differences between a script and a movie that’s worth thinking about… hard to disguise the identity of a star.

The real introduction of Cobb’s character comes in the following sequence where Cobb is invading Saito’s mind. The first thing we see is Cobb making a smooth pitch for his dream security service. In the script, he’s simply described as “35, handsome, tailored.” We see that he’s a fast talker, smart, a salesman. Then Mal comes in – we learn there’s history between them, and children. We see Cobb rappel down the side of the building to cut in through a window, we see him kill a guard, break into a safe – he’s agile and trained in spy-like arts.

The scene continues, as you’ll probably recall, with more twists and turns. Things don’t go well for Cobb and he has to improvise. And even though he’s the last to wake from the first dream, he immediately disarms Saito – our hero is the toughest guy in the room. Then, when Saito realizes it’s a dream within a dream, he tells Cobb he’s impressed. Even though Cobb failed, we know he’s good at his job – and the failure was really the architect’s, not his.

One failure was Cobb’s, though: Mal. After they get back to reality, Arthur asks Cobb what happened. Cobb tells him he had it all under control and Arthur responds, “I’d hate to see out of control.”

So what we’ve learned about Cobb is that he’s smart, a little cocky, can think on his feet, and thrives at the edge of chaos. We also know that he’s some kind of highly skilled dream spy. All of this is dramatized with a prologue that shows him in action, rather than having Cobb or anybody else tell us these things directly through dialog. This is important – it’s wise to open your movie with your character in action (whatever that means in your genre) so that you can reveal character by behavior. 

Also interesting to note the scene with his father-in-law where we learn how Cobb became a thief – that something happened that gave him no choice. We're keeping the character likable.

One thing I think about when creating my characters is giving them plans that the story interrupts. This helps them seem like real people living ongoing lives. Inception gives us a little of this: we open with Cobb failing at a job and going on the run from his employers. And he has his long term goal of getting back to the U.S. to see his kids. Both things end up being relevant to the main plot. That keeps the story tight, but also makes the world seem a little less “real” in my opinion. Still, we open with a character in the midst of an ongoing life.

Previously I’ve discussed Cobb’s character arc. His want (the one that’s driving the plot) is to plant an idea in Fischer’s mind. If he succeeds, he can get back to his kids, which is the stakes (perhaps we could also refer to this as a “deeper want”… hmm, might I have stumbled on a new character development idea?) His need, which he will have to overcome to achieve his want, is letting go of Mal. Dramatizing that evolution is a significant challenge. Let’s look at how Nolan does it.

One major tool is the character of Ariadne. Nolan doesn’t make Cobb’s backstory explicit up front. Instead, he has Cobb keep those things secret out of guilt. And then he makes Ariadne suspicious that Cobb’s secrets could jeopardize the mission or even her mental health. So Nolan sets up a subplot mystery of Ariadne trying to uncover Cobb’s secrets.

This allows him to reveal Cobb’s character piecemeal throughout the movie as Ariadne learns about him. And Ariadne’s fears give this mystery its own stakes. Backstory is exposition – but this particular exposition has enormous importance to the current story so we, like Ariadne, become anxious to know more. That’s much more interesting than Cobb spilling it out in some big emotional monologue, or Arthur just telling Ariadne what happened.

Although bits of Cobb’s backstory come out regularly throughout the movie, there are a few scenes that are particularly revealing or provide important turning points in Cobb’s internal journey. The first is when Ariadne sneaks into Cobb’s dream – the scene with the elevator. At one point Ariadne realizes what’s going on and says, “You can’t let her go,” thus articulating Cobb’s need or flaw. This is a great example of how Nolan uses Ariadne’s curiosity to uncover Cobb’s character. And it's always best to put this kind of direct revelation in the mouth of a supporting character.

Later, when they’re in the warehouse and Ariadne learns that Cobb was trapped in Limbo before, she demands Cobb explain what happened between him and Mal. After he does, Ariadne says “If we’re going to succeed in this, you’re going to have to forgive yourself, and you’re going to have to confront her. But you don’t have to do it alone.” More of the character arc revealed.

One of the key moments comes toward the end of Act Two. Cobb is in the tower in the third level of Fischer’s dreams shooting guards that stand in the way of Fischer reaching the safe room. And then Cobb sees Mal. He can’t pull the trigger. Ariadne reminds him that Mal isn’t real – and Cobb says, “How can you know that?” He can’t shoot Mal because he hasn’t let go of this dream version of her.

And because of that Mal kills Fischer – the Act Two Turning Point. This is an excellent example of how the internal story moves the external story and vice versa. The apparent failure of the mission is a direct result of Cobb’s inability to let go of dream-Mal. And the scene is set up to show that in a dramatic way.

The final turn comes later when Cobb realizes that Mal has taken Fischer to Limbo because she wants Cobb to come down there after her. He goes, and Mal tries to convince him to stay. She tells him he can choose what reality he wants to live in. She tries to show him the children, but he closes his eyes (another nice external dramatization of what’s going through his mind – he’s afraid of the temptation.)

Cobb finally admits his big secret – that he’s responsible for Mal’s suicide. And by confronting this guilt he’s finally able to accept that she isn’t real. He chooses to go back to the real children, telling her, “I miss you more than I can bear… but we had our time together. And now I have to let go…” And then Mal dies.

Choices are the best way to demonstrate character arc. Inception forces Cobb to choose between dream-Mal and the mission twice. The first time, in the tower, he chooses not to shoot her and suffers negative consequences. The second time, in Limbo, he chooses reality, which leads to his successful completion of the mission.

I mentioned that backstory is exposition, and how important Ariadne is to revealing that backstory. She’s instrumental in other exposition as well. Exposition is one of the main things I wanted to look at in Inception – so I think that will be the topic of my next post!

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