It’s by far the most talked-about movie of the year, because of its high concept and intelligent execution. The movie has an aura of complexity but when you examine the dramatic structure carefully, it is deceptively simple. See for yourself.
My first viewing of Inception was at the world’s largest IMAX screen in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The experience was sensational but not perfect, because the projection was marred by an error in the IMAX print’s aspect ratio, resulting in a picture of which the height was about 9% squeezed.
I loved the movie enough to see it again in the same week at a standard theater (where the projection was flawless). I watched it a third time and took detailed notes with a view to publishing this breakdown.
If my life hadn’t suddenly hit the accelerator over the past few weeks, I would have easily posted a breakdown in the first week of release. The only real problem I still have is getting the last act right. It moves so fast it is virtually impossible to get every beat down accurately. So many things are paid off, so quickly.
Have a look for yourself and see if I have left out any major moment. I’d be grateful if you could let me know in the comments. Thank you!
PROLOGUE (FLASH FORWARD)
00.00 Warner and Legendary logos.
00.30 Cobb wakes up on a beach, sees his kids, is taken away at gunpoint.
01.30 With old man (Saito), who says: “I knew a man, possessed of some radical notions.”
Sequence A: Cobb at work. Extraction, dream w/in a dream. (15mins)
02.30 (Dream Level 2) Saito having dinner, Cobb explains extraction, sells services.
04.00 Arthur: He knows. The building shakes. “What’s going on up there?”
04.30 (DL1) Saito and Cobb’s team are asleep.
05.30 (DL2) Wife Mal shows up. Cobb climbs out of room, re-enters building.
07.00 (DL2) Kills a guard, goes in to take envelope out of the safe. Stopped by Saito & Mal.
08.00 (DL2) Saito knows they’re dreaming, they have Arthur, shoot his leg. Dream collapses.
09.30 (DL2) Saito has an empty envelope, Cobb has the documents from the safe.
10.00 (DL1) Cobb won’t wake up. Team decide to give him ‘the kick’ in bathtub.
11.00 (DL2) Cobb drowns in building, water shooting in through windows.
11.30 (DL1) Saito attacks Cobb, holds him at gunpoint. An audition. You failed.
12.30 (WAKE) Team sleeping in train, timer set, music plays, waking up.
13.00 (DL1) Cobb throws Saito on rug. Fake: still dreaming! I’m impressed!
14.30 (WAKE) Debrief in the train. Out in Kyoto. Every man for himself.
15.00 (WAKE) Saito wakes up and smiles.
The first sequence sets up Cobb’s thieving life (Ordinary World), as well as his character (the best dream extractor) and his flaw (Mal).
Rather than tagging an opening action sequence before the start of Cobb’s story (as we see in e.g. The Matrix), Nolan works the action hook into this story in a fascinating, intelligent and at the same time elegant way. After only fifteen minutes into the movie, we have learned a lot, without at any point having the feeling that we’re ticking off a list of expository items.
Sequence B: (all WAKE) Offered a job by Saito: Inception. (6mins)
15.30 Cobb at home, spins a top on the table. It topples. Phone call from his kids.
17.30 Arthur knocks: our ride is on the roof. Are you OK? Time we disappear. Buenos Aires.
18.30 Saito has offer: architect’s safety in return for a job.
19.00 Inception explained. Cobb: Do I have a choice? Yes. Then I choose to leave.
20.00 How would you like to go home? Can’t fix that. Just like inception.
20.30 Job brief. Arthur: we should walk away. Guarantee! Saito: Leap of faith or old man.
21.00 Assemble your team Mr. Cobb and choose your people more wisely.
This is a short Act One and some may argue that the Act doesn’t really end until the team is assembled, i.e. around 44:30, just before they actually enter the dream. Entering the dream is certainly a way of the crossing of the threshold into the ‘Special World’. However, Cobb had already mentally crossed the threshold by accepting Saito’s proposal, so the assembling of the team is part of the mission. In this respect, traveling to Paris is a first threshold scene and the ‘Ariadne’ sequence is an ‘Ally’ sequence, which typically belongs in the 2nd Act, even in the Hero’s Journey.
Sequence C: Getting the architect – and losing her again.(13mins)
21.30 Cobb & Arthur on plane to Paris.
22.00 Meeting dad. Design yourself! -Mal won’t let me. Last job to get me home.
24.30 Testing Ariadne: draw maze that takes more than 2 minutes to solve.
25.30 The team briefed in workshop.
26.00 (DL1) Cobb & Ariadne: First lesson in shared dreaming: explosions.
28.00 Another 5 minutes gives you an hour in the dream.
29.00 (DL1) What happens if you start messing with physics? City folds.
31.00 Projections become aggressive – Ariadne does trick with mirror.
33.00 Mal appears. Ariadne: Wake me up! Mal attacks. She wakes up.
34.00 Cobb spins top. Ariadne: “Cobb has serious problems.” walks off.
34.30 I’m gonna go visit Eames. Mombasa! We need a forger.
Sequence D: Team complete. Ariadne learns. Gathering info. (15mins)
35.00 Briefing Eames in Mombasa.
36.00 Eames: work on the relationship with the father.
36.30 Eames recommends chemist. First getting rid of Cobb’s ‘tail’. Fight & Chase.
39.00 Saved by Saito, protecting his investment.
39.30 Arthur is showing Ariadne around. Infinite staircase. Hide from the projections.
40.30 Safer if Cobb doesn’t know the layout. Mal is dead. Just his projection.
41.30 Chemist: 3 levels is possible. Need powerful sedative. Six team members: Saito.
43.00 For the sleepers, the dream has become their reality.
44.30 Saito briefs Cobb: The world needs Robert Fisher to change his mind.
47.00 Eames gathers information on the Fishers and Browning.
48.00 Ariadne finds Cobb ‘experimenting’. Mal’s totem.
49.30 You can’t keep her out. It’s getting worse… They think I killed her.
Sequence E: Ariadne joins Cobb’s secret memory dream. (10mins)
50.00 Cobb briefs the team in the workshop. Translate business strategy into an emotion.
51.00 Three levels of deams requires an extremly powerful sedative.
51.30 Lowest level: 10 years. Kick to get out.
53.00 We need 10 hours: Sydney – LA. Saito: I bought the airline. We have our 10 hours.
54.00 Ariadne finds Cobb dreaming. Joins in: Mal & Cobb. These are my dreams.
56.00 In my dreams we’re still together. These are memories I have to change.
57.00 Mal already gone. James and Philippa. All too late.
58.00 The Hotel suite. Anniversary. Mal attacks: you said we’d grow old together.
59.30 Ariadne: do you really think that’s gonna contain her? Ariadne is going.
Sequence F (MID): Things tougher than planned. (10mins)
60.00 Maurice died. Saito promises Cobb: No trouble with immigration if successful.
62.00 Take Off. Cobb has passport. Toasting to Maurice. Sleeping. Team gets ready.
64.00 L1 – Rain. Hijack cab. Pick up Robert. Attacked – under fire.
67.00 L1 – Not normal projections: trained! Saito bleeds. Cobb to Arthur: Your job.
67.30 L1 – Saito bleeding. When we die, we end up in limbo. Stuck in Fisher’s mind.
69.00 L1 – There’s a way out: continue as fast as possible. No other choice.
Sequence G: Level 1 – Cobb’s secret revealed to Ariadne. (14mins)
70.00 L1 – The combination: tell us what it is. You’ve got an hour.
71.00 L1 – Browning ‘tortured’ for safe code. Maurice told me you’re the only one.
72.30 L1 – Down to the lower levels: the pain will be less intense.
74.00 L1 – Eames/Browning works on Robert. Maurice’s last word: disappointment.
75.00 L1 – Ar.: When were you in limbo? Deeper into Fisher… deeper into you.
75.30 L1 – C.: We lost sight of what was real. Limbo became her reality. for 50 years.
77.00 L1 – Obsessed: our world wasn’t real. To come back home, she had to kill herself.
77.30 FLASHBACK: Our anniversary. Mal jumps to her death.
79.30 L1 – I ran. I left my children behind.
81.00 L1 – Ar.: Your guild defines her. Not responsible, forgive yourself. Confront her.
81.30 L1 – Threatening Fisher: First 6 numbers that come to your mind, right now!!
82.30 L1 – We’re going for a ride. Into the van. Attacked by projections. Shootout.
83.00 L1 – Eames to Arthur: you mustn’t be afraid to dream of something bigger, darling.
84.30 L1 – Mr. Charles. Sweet Dreams. (into Level 2)
Sequence H: Level 2 – Mr. Charles, preparing ‘kick’ & Level 3 (12mins)
84.30 L2 – Robert Fisher in bar, stolen wallet. Mr Charles. Cobb offers security service.
85.30 L2 – Cobb: my people are on it as we speak. Fisher trusts him. Strange weather.
88.30 L2 – Arth. kisses Ar. (L1: Van slides / shift in gravity.) Fisher concerned, believes Cobb.
89.30 L2 – Fisher: Can you get me out of here? Cobb: Rightaway. Leaving bar under gunfire.
90.30 L2 – Fisher holds gun to his own head: kill myself to wake up. Cobb: No! Sedated. Limbo.
91.00 L2 – Ariadne & Arthur: This room should be directly below 528.
92.00 L2 – Remember: hotel rooms… what was the number. 5th floor.
92.30 L2 – Arthur sets explosives for synchronized kick: when the van hits the water.
93.30 L2 – Cobb to Fisher: they’re putting you under, a dream within a dream.
94.00 L2 – Fisher’s projection of Browning. Let’s follow him to see how he behaves.
94.30 L2 – Browning & Fisher: the will is his last insult. Build a better company than he ever did.
95.00 L2 – Cobb: he’s lying. Going into Fisher’s dream, pretending it’s Browning’s. (into L3)
Sequence I: Level 3 – Into the Snow Fortress, All seems lost. (18mins)
Sequence J: Level 4 – Cobb’s cave, resolves guilt over Mal (14mins)
114.0 L4: Ocean and dead city.
115.0 L2: Arthur places team in elevator.
115.3 L4: Ar.: You built all this? C.: We built for years. All reconstructed from memory.
118.8 L2: Arthur placing charges.
118.3 L4: C.: An idea is a virus. Mal: your world is not real. Choose me.
120.0 L4: Mal: Our children are here. C.: I want to see them up above, Mal.
120.3 L3: Saito bleeding / L1: Van falling.
121.3 L4: C.: The reason I knew Inception was possible. I did it to her first.
123.3 L4: C.: Idea grew like a cancer. Death was the only escape. FB: Mal’s suicide.
124.3 L3: Projections enter. / Saito dies.
125.0 L2: Exit music plays. Ar.: We need to get Fisher. C.: Go check he’s alive.
126.0 L3: Ar. checks if Fisher is alive. It’s time. Come now! You can’t stay.
126.3 L4: I can’t stay … she doesn’t exist. You’re just a shade. Sorry, not good enough.
127.0 L3: Mal attacks with knife. Ar. shoots. Need to get Saito back.
127.3 L2: The elevator moves.
This sequence is where Cobb comes clean with himself. It is the end of his Inner Journey, his redemption. Only after this can he achieve the Outer Goal, i.e. the successful inception, which happens in the next sequence.
The end of Act Two is a Crisis or Ordeal in the traditional sense as we see Saito killed (a character who has both Mentor and Herald qualities), as well as Mal (representing Cobb’s flaw or Inner Conflict). It is interesting that it is not Cobb, but Ariadne who shoots Mal. Would this be because otherwise the scene would have felt too much like a Climax? I wonder.
Sequence K: Mission accomplished. All levels kick back. (8mins)
128.0 L3: Fisher with his father. Maurice: I was disappointed that you tried.
129.0 L2: Elevator drops.
129.3 L3: Robert finds paper windmill in safe.
130.0 L3: Eames blows up building.
131.0 L4: Ar. jumps: find Saito. / L3: All destroyed. / L2: Elevator kick / L1: Water kick.
130.3 L4: Ar.: Don’t lose yourself. Find Saito and bring him back.
131.0 L4: FLASHBACK (Limbo) We did grow old. I have to let you go.
133.0 L1: Van sinking
134.0 L4: Saito: Have you come to kill me? C.: Come back with me.
Although the sequence of ‘kicks’ is a perfect example of a sequence crossing multiple thresholds back into the Ordinary World, In Hero’s Journey terms, Inception has a problem. Typically, this precedes the climax (or Resurrection) but obviously Cobb’s mission must be complete before he can return to the Ordinary World. This may explain why although intellectually satisfying, there is something oddly wrong with the way this climax feels intuitively.
Now looking at this structure, I realize that the climax is possibly the weakest part of the movie because Cobb is not active in it. It is Robert Fisher who plays out the climax and the only notable climax for Cobb is the resolution of the Inner Conflict at the end of Act Two.
Sequence L: Waking up. Aftermath. Will the totem topple? (3mins)
136.0 In plane: We’ll be landing in about 20mins. All waking up. Cobb is wondering.
136.3 Saito wakes up and makes a phone call.
137.0 Immigration: Welcome home, Mr. Cobb. Father waiting at the exit.
138.3 At home: father. Look who’s here! Kids.
138.3 Totem spinning. Doesn’t topple.
139.0 The End.