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Structure: Inception

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!

Now enjoy!

Karel.


spoilers galore


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.”


ACT ONE

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.

ACT TWO

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.


ACT IIb

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)

96.30 L1 – Van attacked again. Van rolling.
99.30 L2 – Fight in hotel. Rotating gravity.
100.0 L3 – Cobb briefs team. To Fisher: break into Browning’s mind on your own.
100.3 L1 – Van on bridge, chased by projections. Being shot at.
101.3 L3 – Exit music plays – too soon. Move fast. 10 secs = 3 mins = 60 mins
103.0 L1 – Gunfight on bridge
103.3 L3 – Air duct system that can cut through the maze
104.0 L1 – Van goes through railing, off the bridge. Falling.
105.0 L3 – Missed kick. Finish job before next kick – when van hits the water. 20mins.
106.3 L2 – Floating – no gravity.
107.0 L3 – Entering the duct system, projections know.
107.3 L2 – Weightless fight between Arthur and guard in rotating gravity.
108.3 L3 – Approaching the central tower
109.3 L2 – Arthur is collecting everyone, for the kick.
110.0 L3 – Entire army coming their way. Robert Fisher is in stronghold.
111.0 L3 – Mal comes in. Ar.: She is not real. Fisher is real! Mal shoots Fisher.
111.3 L2 – Arthur moving the team, preparing for the kick.
112.3 L3 – Failed. Fisher’s mind already trapped. We failed.
112.3 L3 – Ar.: There’s still another way. Follow fisher down there. Use defibrillator.

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.


ACT THREE

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.


About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 13

  1. I’d love to know what you think about the parts that I didn’t get so far…
    Why doesn’t Fischer wake up in the second dream level when he is shot by Mal in the 3rd.
    Where does he go? Limbo? Then why can Cobb and Ariadne follow him by falling asleep? But it really shouldn’t be Limbo. First Fischer dies, then Saito, then Cobb and Ariadne fall asleep. So if it was Limbo, Fischer should be much older than the others, even Saito in the beginning/end. If it was not Limbo, but Cobbs dream, how on earth did Fischers mind end up there even before Cobb fell asleep?
    I just can’t imagine that this is a plot hole or slight of hands…
    Then there is the question what is dreamed and what not… Not only Mal, but his Dad tells him to come back to reality. The old guy in Yusuf’s cellar says something like “Their dream became their reality, how could YOU think any different” to Cobb. It is beautifuly designed and works as a standard structure AND in several other ways. I asked myself why certain scenes and phrases were included, like the moment Cobb wants to spin his totem but is interupted and never gets to find out whether or not he is dreaming.
    I’m afraid i came to a point where only someone with more experience in screenwriting can come up with some answers for me… I’d love to read a detailed interpretation/analysis by you!

    Best regards,
    Yannik

  2. Wow. You’re a genius. You asked me what I would learn from ur articles and I replied that I would like to learn screenwriting as I’m a Media Sciences student. After seeing this article of yours, I’m more than convinced that I’m learning from a great source. Hats off to you for putting the story structure of Inception here. It is the most confusing movie I’ve ever seen though it is one of the very best movies ever made. I’m anxiously waiting for Act 2. Thank you very much for being a great helping hand.

  3. I wanna know what u think abt the ending. Bcuz I picked up a few things and I feel it is real life. It’s not important whether it is or isn’t but because we don’t actually see his top fall it’s left a little bit up to the mind of the viewer.

    I feel number one there r key details that can tell us he is still awake. As the movie starts we notice he is wearing his wedding ring. He’s in Limbo so he is dreaming. Thru the movie when he is n reality he does not wear it. @ the end of the movie there is no ring + he starts the last scnec from the beginning. He told us u can never start a dream from the beginning it’s always from somewhere else. Well. In the last sequence he clearly starts from the beginning on the plane where he wakes up.

    1. Cindi,
      I also believe he is awake because if you look at the top, it does waiver, and any other time you see the top when he is dreaming it perfectly still as it spins. Also, he see’s his children’s faces which he also states he’s never able to do in his dreams.

      1. Disagree. The point is that we don’t find out. It doesn’t matter to Cobb at this point whether he is dreaming or not, he just wants to be with his kids. So it shouldn’t matter to us whether the the top topples.

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  4. Damn you’re good!

    (Although… well, he could have just had Michael Caine fly his kids to Paris… just sayin’ :-P~ )

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  5. Hi Karel

    Thank you very much for that breakdown. Do you know a good reference book for screen writing? My last source was Lagos Egri’s the art of screen writing.

    I was sure the first act ends at min 54, Act 2 starts on the plane (747) and Act 3 when cobb follows saito into Limbo.

    Please correct me if I am wrong.
    Thanks

    santiago.

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    Hi Santiago,

    There is no one book I can recommend but if you’re starting out in screenwriting, I would recommend BLAKE SNYDER: SAVE THE CAT. After that perhaps McKEE: STORY.

    After a while you might also consider reading CHRIS VOGLER: THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and PAUL GULINO: THE SEQUENCE APPROACH.

    Some of these books are here: http://thestorydepartment.com/a-z/our-book-shop/

    As to your view on Inception, you may well be right. I have problems with that 3rd Act and you can probably build a case supporting your suggestion.

    Cheers,

    Karel

  7. Have you thought about the possibility that they would have all woken up when the plane landed?

    The plane landed was the real life kick. The ear sensing was unaffected by the sedative.

    I think they were going to wake up regardless of what happened in the levels or limbo kicks.

  8. I would say that Act 1 ends at the 34 minute point. Cobb’s trajectory, at least to the viewer, changes at that point. It’s not longer a ‘standard’ dream sequence with the attack by Mal. He’s met someone (Ariadne) that changes the way the dreams behave and is a ‘constructor’ beyond what he’s experienced.

    And I think Act three starts a lot earlier, like at the 104 minute mark. Once the van goes through the railing, the end is inevitable. There’s no way the van is going to levitate. Nothing new in the ‘real’ life can change. It is 100% endgame at that point.

    Great break down though. My son and I watched the movie three times now and I’m still not 100% sure it’s not a dream at the (beginning) end.

  9. Your analysis is brilliant.
    I think that the second act ends when Cobb faces the lowest point that his mission fails because of his flaw.
    And there are two climaxes in the third act, one is the moment that Cobb lets Mal go and resolve his flaw, another is the moment that Fisher lets his animosity toward his father go and resolve his flaw. That means has main plot as the adventure plot with the outer goal, inception and subplot as the love plot with the inner goal, resolving the personal trauma.

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