Where Inception Saves The Cat – and What Writers Can Learn From It

Yes, of course there are spoilers.

I finally watched Inception.  And yes, I thought it was very, very pretty.  It was a pretty straightforward adventure story with a big wrinkle thrown in.  It was a cool wrinkle, mind you (and a cool chart of the wrinkle is here), but each of the plot threads wasn’t horribly complicated by itself… by itself.

There’s two elements (aside from flashy effects) that make the movie worthwhile for writers to watch.

First, there’s a meta-narrative on the level of The Sixth Sense going on.  There are actually hints much, much earlier in the movie (especially with the kid’s voices and how they haven’t aged) that something simply is… off.  Could it be that Ariadne is really Phillipa (the only two Greek names) and Eames is really James coming to help their father?  Is it all a dream?  Et cetera.  That it leaves unanswered questions – all of which are equally plausible – is what helps it stick.  Yes, it’s like The Lady and the Tiger in that way – a relatively simple story that becomes complex through the reader projecting themselves into it.1

But that’s not the most important part.  I mean, it’s nice intellectually, but there’s reams of intellectually clever films that simply don’t get that kind of attention.  Why do we give a damn about anyone besides Ariadne in this film?

It’s because they redeem Fischer.  We have no reason to care about the other justifications for the mission.  “Monopoly blah blah good for world blah.”  Right.  Suuuure.  And when your biggest rival is splintered, you’ll totally ignore that power vacuum.  “I want to see my children.”  Yes, and you’re still a horrible person (and the logic doesn’t hold anyway – you were framed for a suicide?).  So why do we get emotionally involved in the mission‘s success at all?2

Fischer is portrayed essentially as an innocent.  He’s the mark – and additionally, he’s the mark when his dad just died.  We know from the get-go that things are jacked up between him and his dad.  And he did nothing (as far as we know) to deserve either his father’s scorn or being the target of an elaborate invasive con.

In the process of ratcheting the tension up to eleven and throwing some beautiful effects at us, we also learn exactly how wounded Fischer is.  He’s a kicked puppy.  And then they save him by creating the space for him to truly access his buried love for his father.   (It’s not fake – remember Eames says “I wanted to find out what was in there”.)

The special effects and “wow” factor carry us through the beginning of the film.  The tension picks up in the third act.  The meta-narrative lingers afterward.

But it’s the very human story of disconnection between a child and parent that gives this film an emotional core that makes it all worthwhile.

That is something we writers can learn from Inception.

1 Which again is self-referential. As is the narrative of children and parents. As is the fact that the team essentially dumps Fischer through therapy rather quickly. Which, arguably, Ariadne (and perhaps Eames) is doing to Dom. And so on. But again, it’s that emotional core which keeps it from being introverted wanking.
2 Note that bets are hedged here by putting the film’s other innocent – Ariadne – in as much danger as the rest of the relatively horrible people around her.

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