Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Fantastic movie.  Go see it.  It's worth seeing on the big screen, so don't wait for the DVD.

I love this movie.  In the spoiler section I will disect it at great length, and it may seem that I dislike the movie.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Wonderful.  But with a few nagging imperfections.

As an aspiring writer, I came away awed and encouraged.  This is the best writing I've seen come out of Hollywood, since The Dark Knight (also by Christopher Nolan.)  I missed many of his earlier works.  I'm going to have to watch those movies, now.

There are many discussions on the web about this movie already.  Max found this article, which is a good place to start (full of spoilers) (thanks for the link, Max.)

This movie is PG-13.  It is beautiful to watch.  It is technically safe for younger kids, if those kids have seen movie violence before.  Explosions, but little blood.  Few curse words.  No sex.  But it requires a depth of attention that younger kids won't be able to muster.  And there is at least one emotionally intense scene that would make kids younger than 13 very uncomorftable.  So don't take younger kids until you have seen it and decide if they can handle it.  I'm not letting Jet see it for several years.

This little comic is a neat intro to the movie.  No spoilers.  It will help you not feel completely lost for the first 20 minutes.  Maybe that is cheating, though.

I have many thoughts about the movie itself and the universe where this sort of thing is possible.  I'm hiding them below the 'more' link, because there are a ton of spoilers here.  Don't read below here if you have not seen the movie.

Spoiler Alert!

The basic sequence of the movie is hard to follow.  Walking out of the theater the first time, I had difficulty counting the number of dream sequences.  In order to discuss the movie in great depth, we need a good graphic representation of the various dreams.  I really wish I could draw, but I have no talent whatsoever in that area.  This graph is a good start, but there are a few errors on it:

  • It assumes that the airplane is in the real world, and it only deals with that last big dream sequence.  (I think that the airplane is in the real world, and not a dream itself.  But I have seen a few people argue that the airplane is within a dream.  The entrances and exits for the previous dreams all deserve to be on this timeline.)
  • The labels on the dreams are wrong.  I had them labeled like this after the first time I saw the movie.  But that is because these are the people who do the most action in each of the dreams.  But you have to decide who is dreaming based upon whose projections are present.  The projections do not attack the dreamer (with the exception of Mal, who consistently attacks Dom indirectly.)  So, the correct sequence of dreamers is:
  1. Fischer (the city)
  2. Fischer (the hotel)
  3. Fischer (the snow fortress)
  4. Limbo (Cobb and Mal's altered reality)
  • The graphic shows the lines for each of the dreamers carrying on around the path.  This makes it look like Yusuf was present in the hotel dream.  He was not.  His line should make a hard left turn, jump across limbo, and connect back at the point after the van kick (the last kick was actually a timer in the suitcase on the airplane--it stopped administering the drugs and everyone woke up.)
  • The graphic misses Fischer's death.  His red line just turns dotted for limbo/Cobb's dream.
  • The Limbo label in the middle should be removed.  The lines from Saito and Fischer's deaths should carry them to limbo (currently labeled 'Cobb's Dream'.)
  • The graphic needs to clearly indicate the sequence and relative lag times that dreamers entered limbo.

This graphic does suggest an interpretation of the movie that I do not agree with.  In the graphic, Cobb and Ariadne do not go to limbo.  When they plug up and dream in the snow fortress, they go into one of Cobb's dreams, where Mal has kidnapped Fischer.  Everything that happens after that point is all still some form of Cobb's dream-within-a-dream from within the snow fortress.  I don't like this interpretation of the movie because the movie shows Fischer coming back to the snow fortress while Cobb is still out.  Having Cobb dream Fischer doing that is unprecedented.  Every other dream has the dreamer present--no third-party dreams.

The dream reality has it's own set of rules, but the movie doesn't clarify those rules enough for a detailed strategy analysis.  Here are a few questions that I have about the rules:

  • Why can only one person be the architect?  Why couldn't two people build/manipulate the buildings?
  • How do you get tools into the dreams?  Eames seemed to pull a grenade launcher out of thin air.  Where did he get that?
  • One person is always designated the dreamer.  They pull in the majority of the projections.  What else are they pulling in?  Why can't two people both be dreamers at the same time?
  • Why is Eames able to disguise himself and no one else seems to be able to?  In the real world he is a document forger and actor.  Cobb is an actor, too, though.  Why can't he disguise himself?
  • If one dream fails, why not end it and then start another dream?

Script errors:
1. There are two significant inconsistencies concerning projections in limbo.

When Cobb and Mal were in Limbo together (all of Cobb's flashback stories), there were never any projections.  But when Fischer dies and goes to Limbo, Mal is apparently there with him immediately.  (I say this because if Mal did not show up until the moment Cobb arrived, then Fischer would have been in Limbo with Saito for several years of Limbo time before Mal arrived.  Mal could not have kidnapped Fischer unless she had free and immediate access to Limbo.  But she was a projection at that point, and we previously saw that projections do not appear in Limbo.)  When Cobb goes to find Saito at the very end, Saito has security projections in Limbo.

So why are there no projections sometime and projections other times?

And why does Mal get the special status of functioning in limbo prior to Cobb arriving?

I think that limbo needs a full complement of projections, but projections should be more accpeting of other dreamers.  I say that because of the next issue....

2. There are two ways to get to limbo, and they both end up in the same dreamspace.  You can go four levels deep (dream within a dream within a dream within a dream)--this is how Cobb and Mal get there the first time, and how Cobb and Ariadne get there from the snow fortress.  Or you can die in a dream while under the influence of a very strong sedative--this is how Saito and Fischer get there.  Having two entrances is unnecessary and confusing.  IThis story is confusing enough.  Just go with the second entrance--die in a dream while under the influence of a very strong sedative.

This is easy to fix when Ariadne and Cobb want to go search for Fischer and Saito.  They pull out guns and shoot themselves.  The re-write for Cobb and Mal is more complex.  But I think it is doable.

Cobb and Mal are using too-heavy sedatives and experimenting with dreams within dreams.  Mal has an accident and gets killed in a dream.  Because of the sedative she goes to limbo instead of waking up.  Cobb thinks she woke up, and he expects her to wake him up.  She doesn't.  He continues to dream until the dream-machine's timer runs out and wakes him up.  Mal doesn't wake up.  Cobb realizes what must have happened, so he shoots himself with the heavy sedative and jumps back into the dreams.  Then he kills himself in the dream and joins Mal in limbo.

Mal has been in limbo alone for a very long time.  She's basically gone crazy.  She has a Cobb projection there in limbo, and she has a hard time accepting the real Cobb when he arrives.  Cobb does years of therapy with her, because he has the time to do it here; but he wouldn't have time if he just killed them both immediately.  When he thinks she has a grip again he starts trying to convince her to kill herself in limbo to get back to the real world--at which point we are back to the existing story line.

3. During the dream sequence that starts on the airplane, the dreamers enter Limbo in this order:
  1. Saito
  2. Fischer, just a few seconds or minutes later.
  3. Ariadne and Cobb, several minutes later.
Cobb has been there before, and his memories somehow persist and infiltrate the others who now share this dream with him.  I can't see any reason why it is necessary for the story for Cobb's memories of limbo to persist like this.  But Arthur said that would be true.  So I'm going to let that strange quirk pass.

But time passes much faster in limbo than in level 3.  So with that head start, Saito should have been able to rebuild limbo into whatever he wanted before Fischer arrived.  Saito had enough experience in the dreams to build (he had built his own fortress when Cobb arrived later), and he knew that he would fall into limbo when he died in the fortress dream.  So even if he found Cobb's memories in limbo, he should have rebuilt the whole place before anyone else arrived.

Fischer also knew he was dreaming.  In limbo time, he was there for years before Ariadne and Cobb arrived.  He also should have been able to do something other than just get tied up by Mal and lie on the porch.  How did Mal get Fischer onto the porch?  It would not have taken much longer (in screentime) to do this whole sequence a different way.  Everyone knows they are dreaming.  The possibilities are endless.  Get really creative.

4. In the big dream sequence at the end, Fischer is the dreamer in all three dreams.  We know that because it is his projections chasing everyone else in all three settings--the streets of the city, the hotel, and the snowy fortress.  Then Fischer dies in the snowy fortress.  His consciousness leaves those dreams and goes to limbo.  But those dreams continue, without a dreamer present.  Maybe I'm the only person who cares about this, but I would like to see this imaginary land obey its own rules.

The fix for this is obvious: make other people the dreamers (the graphic I linked above makes the obvious nominations: Yusuf, Arthur, and Eames.)  This causes problems for the plot because now Fischer is a guest in the dream and the dreamer's projections will come after him.  And that means Fischer's projections won't immediately shoot up the place trying to protect him--which is a significant turning point in the plot.  That can be fixed with Fischer's extraction-protection training being so extensive that he brings a few of his own projections into the dream.  But you will have to deal with that on every level of the dream.  So you end up with all-out war between Fischer's security-team projections, the dreamer's projections, and Mal all fighting each other in every level.

5. Yusuf stayed behind in the city level because he needed to guard everyone's sleeping bodies and provide the kick for them to wake up.  Yusuf wasn't the dreamer.  You just have to leave someone awake in every level when you dream multiple levels deep.  They did this with the chemist in the Saito-extraction dream-within-a-dream, the greasy chemist was the dreamer for the first dream.  This is why Arthur stayed in the hotel dream.

This should be explained in the movie.  It would only take one sentence between Arthur and Ariadne during her training.  That would greatly help the audience understand the sequence of events in the big dream later.  There is no excuse for this ommission.

6. The corporation that originally hired Cobb and Arthur to break into Saito's mind was a major plot device in the first half of the movie.  Right up to the point that Eames jumps into Saito's car, that shadowy corporation is trying very hard to kill Cobb (and presumably Arthur.)  Then they just disappear.  They can find Cobb in Africa, but not in France?

Saito does say that he can take care of them when he makes his one phone call.  But they need to show up again at least one more time before then.  Maybe they should crash the workshop in France and chase everyone into hiding elsewhere.  Whatever it is needs to be handled quickly, because the movie is already long-ish.  But dropping a major plot device like that is very out of place in such a well-crafted story like this one.

7. The architect is supposed to build levels that are mazes.  The extraction team is supposed to be able to use those mazes to hide from the dreamer's projections.  They talk about this quite a bit during Ariadne's training.  Then they only use it once--the paradixical staircase in the hotel.  Why didn't they use it in the city?  Yusuf very nearly got himself and everyone else killed there.  Sure, it made for good drama.  But they should have had a hidey-hole big enough for the whole crew on that level--and the projections should not have been able to find it.

This reduces some of the tension because Yusuf is mostly sitting in the hidey-hole instead of driving around.  But he could still need to leave the hidey-hole in order to kick everyone.  So you get one brief intense battle instead of the van chase through the city.  But you could still jump the van off a bridge.

8. Saito's motivation is not as believable as it should be.  Fischer's global energy dominance is a ploy to make Saito seem heroic, because he is trying to protect the little guy.  I think this falls flat.  Just let it be straight-up competition.  Saito can say that Fischer's company has been actively raiding his company, stealing his employees, customers, and market share; and he fears he will lose soon.  That is a motivation that I believe would drive Saito to undergo this risk and expense.  I don't believe he would go through this to protect other people from the horrors of an energy monolopy.

9. Saito and Fisher are competitors.  Saito has studied Fisher extensively.  Fisher does not recognize Saito at all.  They worked together in tight confines in the snowy fortress.  Fisher should have made mention that Saito looks like his competitor.  Saito should then respond that because he is a projection from Fisher's mind this probably represents Fisher's suspicions of the situation.  Saito gets recognized and nearly undermines the whole operation.  He could remark that the real Saito would not take a bullet to protect Fisher--something Fisher would readily believe.  This could be a very interesting scene, and could really build Saito's character.

10. Cobb, Saito, and Eames visit Yusuf to interview him for the chemist position on their team.  Yusuf takes them to a basement where there are a large number of people in a shared dream.  The purpose of this visit is to demonstrate that he can build his own custom chemical compounds that create more stable dreams.  Cobb joins the dream and has what appears to be an LSD freak-out.

I understand the purpose of the LSD freak-out moment within the scope of Cobb's character development and the ebb and flow of the movie.  Cobb needs to be shown to be unstable.  The movie had a long conversation, and was about to have more conversations, and it needed a moment of tension right there.

Also, this scene ends with Cobb being interrupted in the bathroom and his totem test is left incomplete.  So there is a shadow of doubt planted about whether or not Cobb ever woke from this dream--I've seen some people try to argue that Cobb never did wake from this dream.  That serves the story as well.

But Cobb's freak-out would have to be considered a failure for Yusuf.  If Cobb freaks out under Yusuf's special custom chemical compounds then Cobb cannot trust those compounds for the inception mission.  This is a very large logical error committed by Cobb.  The story needs an explanation for why Cobb agrees to use Yusuf and his custom compounds.

I haven't figured out what that explanation could be.  The only thing I can think of is getting rid of the freak-out and making that dream very stable and peaceful.  Let Cobb do things to attempt to provoke the projections, and they shrug it off.  But that does alter the story arc in some negative ways--you don't get the moment of tension or that moment of establishing Cobb as unstable.  You could still interrupt the totem test, though.

Casting error:
There is just one error, in my opinion.

Arthur is an idiot to trust Cobb after Mal shoots him (Arthur).  Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not look like an idiot, or play Arthur as an idiot in any other sense.  Maybe they should have had Keaneu play that role.  Or Bruce Willis.  Or anyone we believe would not have the higher-order thinking capacity to realize the colossal danger of being tortured by Cobb's projections.

I don't have this as a script error because the story could not proceed without Arthur making this mistake.  The only alternative would be for Cobb to replace Arthur for the inception mission, but that would be very difficult to make work in the script.  It is not unbelievable for Arthur to make this mistake.  So fix this problem by casting a dumber looking actor.

It's not an error, exactly, but I think that the members of the extraction team should all be disguised while in the dream (see point 3, below.)  This would allow you to cast a whole different slate of actors for the dream sequences.  So maybe Tom Hanks could play Cobb in the real world and Leonardo play him in all of the dreams.  That would make the story more confusing the first time you saw it, but would greatly clarify things in retrospect.  How about:
Character: Real-world / Dream world
Cobb:  Leonardo DiCaprio / Tom Hanks
Arthur: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Samuel L. Jackson
Saito: Ken Watanabe (the current actor) / Jet Li
Nash (the greasy architect that Ariadne replaces): Lukas Haas (the current actor) / Jack Black
Ariadne: Ellen Page (the current actress) / Ziyi Zhang (Jen from Crouching Tiger)
Eames: Tom Hardy (the current actor) / Daniel Craig
Yusuf: Dileep Rao (the current actor) / Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder from Heroes)
Note that Cillian Murphy would play Fisher in both the real world and the dream world, because he isn't trained in disguise.  And Saito would be played by Ken Watanabe in the real world and in the first dream world--when Cobb and Arthur are trying to extract information from him.  But Arthur would have to train Saito to disguise himself before the inception mission, because Fisher would recognize and immediately be suspicous of Saito.

Leonardo would end up playing Cobb in Cobb's dreams, when Ariadne sneaks in.  And in his flashback dreams with Mal.  But Mal should instantly see through his Leonardo disguise in the extraction and inception dreams.  It might be funny if Mal didn't recognize Arthur's disguise, though.

I tried to think about what sort of person each of the characters would want to disguise themselves as.  Cobb would want a more trustworthy persona.  Eames and Yusuf would want prettier guys.  Arthur and Ariadne would want to be bad s.o.b.s, but not muscle-bound freaks--and they would be comfortable with changing races to get the desired effect.  Arthur might change disguises regularly, and thus be played by three or four different actors.  Saito would want to remain Oriental, but be younger and more athletic.  Nash would be academic about it and go against type by picking a disguise no one would ever guess was him or suspect of any subtrefuge.

Extraction business errors:
Everything prior to this has been discussing the movie itself.  The following points would bubble up to minor changes in the movie.  But these points relate to how the extraction teams operate their business.

1. The whole extractor business is based upon the idea of not letting the subject know he is dreaming.  Why?  If you want the subject to share information then put him in an obvious dream, and give him a cast of trusted characters to talk with.

Take the attempted extraction from Saito--the dream that the movie opens with.  If Cobb and Arthur had put Saito on a isolated mountaintop with Cobb disguised as an older version of Saito, then Cobb could have asked probing questions and Saito would have responded--recognizing the dream and assuming that it was safe to talk to himself.  Or if they had put him in an afterlife judgement scenario, and pretended to be God, Saito would have talked freely in an attempt to exonerate himself.  Or recreate Saito's board room, and disguise your team as children versions of Saito's board of directors.  Then force Saito to explain his decisions to the children before they will let him do what he wants.

Unreality also lets you reduce the number of projections present, which should make the dream more stable.  For instance, if Cobb, Arthur, and Saito were astronauts aboard the International Space Station then there would be no reasonable way for Saito's projections to show up.  (Small dreamspaces with big hidey-holes are the ideal.)

My point is that there are hundreds of different scenarios that you could use to creatively take someone's guard down.  Pretending they are not dreaming is a needlessly limiting strategy.

2. Bring along a medic.  Stock the hidey-holes with weapons and medical supplies.

Better-yet, every door is a paradox.  If you open it normally (as all of the projections and the unknowing dreamer would) then you get whatever should be on the other side of the door in the level.  But if you use the special key (that only the extraction team could use) then you go into a hall of doors.  Every door on the level has a magic portal door there.  Every door is labeled, so you can jump from any door to any other door through the magic hall of doors.  And that hallway should be stocked with medicine and weapons.  Think of the Batcave.

3. Don't use your real face or name in the dream.  And avoid letting the target see your real face at all costs.  This is doubly true for inception.  If they succeeded and Fischer bought the whole idea, then the whole idea would come unraveled if Fischer later found out that Dom really was an extractor.

4. In the real world, depend heavily on trained psychiatrists.  The army had to have trained up some psychiatrists to deal with the issues that would arise from their use of the dream world for combat training.  Everyone on the extractor team has to have weekly appointments with one of those docs.

And, finally, my take on the movie's ending.  I think the top is still spinning for three key reasons:
  1. The kids didn't change clothes or age.  Nothing else in that house changed.  Plants, knick-knacks, etc.
  2. Cobb didn't wait to see if the top would fall.
  3. The story is more interesting, and better positioned for a sequel, if the top is still spinning.  If the top falls then the game is over.
So, where does the sequel begin?  Everyone but Cobb, Saito, and Fischer are awake on the plane.  The plane is still in the air, but approaching Los Angeles.  They give Fischer another sedative, but don't connect him to next shared dream.  Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, and Yusuf connect up another dream and kill themselves to get to limbo as fast as they can.  Or maybe they leave Yusuf awake on the plane to manage the chemicals and wake them up.

But unless he wants to do a sequel, Christopher Nolan should never answer the big questions.  If he does a sequel then the marketing for that sequel will have to cover the fact that the whole second movie happens in a new dream on the plane.  And the sequel will have to deliver a satisfactory conslusion to the story.  I'm not saying that Cobb and Saito have to get out.  We just have to know whether or not they got out.

So, what do you think?

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