July 31, 2010

Spoilers ahead.

It’s a heist movie.  It’s also a good example of what you can do with formula, how flexible story formula are, and why you don’t always have to come up with brand-new stories — just interesting ways to tell familiar stories.

The heist movie structure:  First, a prologue of an early heist in which the main character and his techniques are introduced.  Often the heist fails, which provides the jumping off point for the movie’s main heist.  If the first heist succeeds, that will often bring on repercussions that kick off the main heist.  Second, exposition, in which the main job is introduced and the main character gathers his posse.  Third act, the heist, which usually goes wrong and we learn that the heist isn’t about what we thought, and the fun is seeing the main character weasel his way out of trouble.

Where Inception really caught my attention wasn’t the crunchy sci fi exposition bits (and they were awfully crunchy and expository in a very classic sci fi way), but in the way it messed with the heist structure.  We all know the heist is going to go wrong in the third act.  But I didn’t expect it to go wrong immediately, and very spectacularly, within the first five minutes.  The main characters spend the rest of the heist in a state of fatalistic inertia — they keep on with the plan because they have no choice, but with a sense that it’s all for nothing.

We then come to a point where the heist is working on three (or four, or five, depending on how you count it) levels, all moving on a different time scale, with three (or four, or five) completely different action sequences happening at once that time out in such a way that they reach their climaxes simultaneously.  Holy crap.  The structure here is astonishing and lovely to watch, whatever else you think about the film. (Like the fact that every character apparently has extraordinarily dull subconsciouses and no imagination at all.  Because they’re trying to fool dreamers into thinking they’re in reality, the dream states are very mundane.  That only breaks a couple of times.  See, in my dreams, I’m stuck in a giant spider web with John and John of They Might Be Giants.  Stuff like that.  But, really, this movie isn’t about dreams, it’s about the heist.)

So.  Totally worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of story structure.  Now for my big fat problem.


This film has no real women characters.  But, I can hear you argue, what about Ellen Page’s character?  The intelligent, not-sexually emphasized, super awesome character who even wears sensible shoes?  And the brilliant Marion Cotillard for crying out loud!  Well, let’s talk about that.

Page’s character is named Ariadne, which is the name of the princess who gave Theseus the magic twine that guided him out of the minotaur’s labyrinth.  Which is exactly what she does here for Cobb.  Ariadne was a great character in the first half of the film.  Then we got to the second half, the third act, the heist, and I kept asking myself — why is she here again?  The reasons Ariadne herself gives for her presence:  “I couldn’t stay away.”  And “Someone here has to know that you’re a narcissistic asshole.” (Well, she didn’t use those exact words, but you get the idea.)  And I’m like, What?  Does she even get a suitcase of money like the rest of the mercs on the team?  But no.  She is there to lead Cobb out of the maze.  She is Cobb’s conscience, and she has no motivation of her own.  No history, no background, no reason for being there.  At one point we see her making her own totem, the object that helps “extractors” tell dream from reality, but it never comes up again, because it doesn’t matter.  She’s not a character but a symbol.

And then there’s Mal, which was pronounced Moll throughout the film but in the credits we see is spelled the same as the Latin word for bad.  Because that’s what she is.  In the classic heist structure she’s the femme fatal, the old flame who always shows up in time to screw over the main character.  Except here she’s explicitly not a character at all but a projection of Cobb’s subconscious.  Another symbol.  A plot device.

I wouldn’t have noticed this, and it wouldn’t have bothered me as much if just one of the other characters on the heist had been a woman, and that’s just it — there was absolutely no reason why one of the others — the fixer, the forger, the pharmacist, the mark, the businessman — couldn’t have been a woman.  Instead, what we get is the Hollywood default.  The active players are all men, while the women are emotional doppelgangers for the hero.  In a movie where the filmmakers obviously spent some time thinking about formula and structure and how to play with them, it’s very disappointing to me that they couldn’t find a way to work on this.

I will admit that this is all Feminism 401 stuff rather than 101.  It’s really easy to slam movies like Jumper and Taken where the women characters are all hyper-sexualized victims.  Inception doesn’t do that.  Here, the women are portrayed splendidly, through no small part because of the great skill of Page and Cotillard.  But what are they doing here?  Are they fully fledged, active members of the plot?  Not so much, as it turns out.


There’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the entire film is Cobb’s dream.  My feminist analysis feeds into that argument, as does the rather creaky plot.  (“I have to go to Mumbai!”  “But the bad guys will find you!”  “I have to chance it!”  Me:  huh?  “Oh no, bad guys!”  Spooky Ken Watanabe:  “Lo, I arrive like a fairy godmother to rescue you!” — kinda looks like a dream, doesn’t it?)  It explains a lot.  But this is awfully unsatisfying because it then becomes way too easy to explain away every bit of bad plotting and bad characterization.  Of course Ariadne and Mal are symbols and ciphers because that’s how Cobb sees women — which makes him even more of a narcissistic jerk than he already is.  As I said, very unsatisfying.

Basically, the film passes the refrigerator test with flying colors (except for the feminist thing.  I was fuming about that out the door of the theater).  But if you start thinking about it too much, the elegant facade may well topple.

15 Responses to “Inception”

  1. Nonny Says:

    Brava, Carrie!

  2. Jakk Says:

    Good review. Sadly, it does make me NOT want to see the movie which i have been putting off.

  3. Joe Sherry Says:

    Wait…Moll is spelled Mal? I assumed it was short for Molly or Mollificent or something.

  4. Tomato Says:

    It’s nice to see a review that doesn’t worship this movie. I thought it was good, but not quite deserving of the hype. And I was disappointed that Ariadne was built up as this genius, but never actually got to DO anything.

    The ending reminded me a bit of Blade Runner, actually, but this is a heist movie while Blade Runner was a cop movie.

  5. Wes Says:

    Your analysis is spot on.

    The filmmakers probably should have added some scenes with Ellen Page actually doing the “architecture” she was brought on to do. Maybe they couldn’t think of a good way to show how that was done–or maybe they thought it was long enough already. I was also disappointed that she didn’t have a bigger part in the “third act”, although she did save the day a couple of times, with her suggestions/insistence.

    One thing I thought was a little out of sorts: The gravity/balance element of the sedative. It seems to me they should have woken up far earlier than they did (at the various levels): when the van was rolling around, or when it started to fall off the bridge. When they were testing the sedative, they woke up as the chair started to tip over. It was a little distracting to me that it didn’t seem to work the same way later on. Maybe I missed the part where they explained that the “kicks” in deeper levels require more umph.

    The movie did have a few issues and some of the scenes were pretty contrived (like Mumbai), but I still think I’d like to see it again at some point–I’m sure I missed a lot the first time around [especially while wondering why they weren’t waking up].

  6. Lou Says:

    You have to remember, Wes, that the heist where they went in 3 or 4 levels that they were drugged and did not just go to sleep like they did previously. Although the kicks could bring them up a level, they were still in a drug induced sleep.

  7. Lionus Says:

    Your Feminist Analysis went further than I could, but it did not touch on a point that I have always had to pick with Hollywood — that there are no truly evil feminine villains. Females who are recognized as being evil from the very beginning of the film/story and have no background or excuse of the Devil (or her father) made her into what she became. A truly and unforgivably evil villain.

    Only men get to carry that role.

  8. Emily Says:

    While I have not seen the movie, the female roles you describe sound like portals. I’m borrowing the portal concept from “Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy” in which the author evaluates how various characters (often female) function as “portals” for other characters (often male). The idea is that the female figure is the inspiration/vehicle of transformation or redemption for the male. This shows up over and over again in Western culture, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur being one such. Ariadne is the portal by which Theseus accomplishes his task.

    In the film, it sounds like these female characters, however sensibly portrayed, truly function only ancillary to the main character. The first giving him the tools to succeed, the second creating obstacles for him to overcome (which frequently feeds into the fulfillment of the main character without reciprocity to the satellite character).

    Just a thought and a book suggestion.

  9. David Bowles Says:

    I find American culture to be incredibly macho and just a wee bit mysoginistic. While this probably stems from the Western culture tendencies Emily mentioned, after watched some European films, I find effect to be amplified here in the states.

    Even when women are cast in the lead here in America, they still often reduced to sex objects ala every action movie Angelina Jolie has ever done. Compare this to the tertiary importance of sexuality in a movie like “Aliens”.

    Also, Lionus, excellent point about female antagonists. This is a compounded problem. Its hard to find a good antagonist period in Hollywood, much less a female one.

    Now make no mistake, I’m not gay or anything. I like to look at attractive women as much as the next guy, but I’m also easily bored and offended. The constant stream of uninteresting female characters coming out of Hollywood is definitely boring and offensive.

  10. Zachary G Says:

    I walked out of the theatre being kind of disappointed. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, and I was really looking forward to it. But for a guy who’s infamous for tight, complicated, meaningfully thought out pictures, Inception seemed to be tailor-made for the general movie-going audience, built from the ground up to be interpretive rather than definitive. But then I found this article:

    It proposes that the entire film is a metaphor for how films can affect individuals. At first I thought it was reaching, but by the end I was sold. I find the idea of Inception to be actually kind of beautiful when you realize that it’s just a representation of what happens to us when we watch a really good movie.

    In any case, that perspective really made me enjoy the movie a lot more the second time through.

    (also, thinking about it, Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a good history with female characters. I think the only movie where they weren’t either killed off, killed themselves, or just total bitches was Insomnia, and she wasn’t really a big part of the movie ’til the end)

  11. carriev Says:

    Emily, I think you’re exactly right. I actually wrote about that, without knowing about that book or the portals concept, regarding Heart of Darkness in grad school. At each turning point in the story, Marlow encounters a female figure: the knitter in the company office, the portrait of Kurtz’s beloved, Kurtz’s native love interest, etc…

    Zachary, I’ve read that interpretation in other places as well, and it does seem to stretch a little bit. The artist in love with himself, maybe…

  12. Bradford Says:

    I’m joining this discussion rather late because I’ve only just seen the film.

    Emily, your points seem well taken, but I’m not sure that they apply just to female characters. Don’t they apply to any supporting characters regardless of sex? Aren’t “creating obstacles” and providing “tools for success” the business of supporting characters? That your analysis works so well for Inception may be because the two most important supporting characters, by far, were Ariadne and Mal.

    Carrie, I completely buy your heist movie analysis. However, I’m less sure about the feminist analysis. Ariadne was the architect of the dream worlds they were inhabiting. She used that knowledge several times to keep the heist going when it had nearly failed. (Short cut through vents, death of the dreaming mark.) If she seemed short on background and motivation, couldn’t that be because she is only a supporting character? But I can’t completely deny your argument. After all, the choice of names Ariadne and Mal would seem to indicate that Mr. Nolan knew exactly what he was doing.

  13. you must have thick feminist glasses/filters….there was not a SHRED of feminism in this movie

    what the hell is wrong with you????

  14. carriev Says:

    Umm…I think that’s what I said… did you read the post, or are you a spambot?

  15. Bradford Says:

    Let me help you out. Instead of using the word feminism in “there was not a SHRED of feminism in this movie,” you should have used an antonym of feminism. Exactly which one is a bit tricky. I would suggest “phallocentrism” based on a quick internet search (although that word is apparently too new for my dusty old unabridged dictionary.) It seems to carry the sense that you want.

    Now, the overall tone of your post brings a different antonym of feminism to mind.

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