Friday, August 10, 2012

In Inception Less Actually Is More (But I Still Like Character Development)

Thanks to summer movie marathons and an abundance of free time, I’ve recently rewatched Inception, and I realized that it is a great movie. I mean, I already knew that. But it’s nice to be reminded.

I also noticed something else: Inception does not have very well developed characters. This should bother me. This should drive me nuts, even, since I’ve established my love for well developed characters over and over on this blog. But, I don’t mind.

Allow me to explain why.

If you look at Inception again, which I highly recommend because that is a seriously good movie, you’ll notice that not a single character in the movie is developed to even the level of your average Jason Statham movie. Not even Cobb. Instead, the characters are in shorthand. There’s the stick-in-the-mud, there’s the wild risk-taker, there’s the new kid, there’s the old hand. Everyone’s place in the story is defined more by their service to the plot than by defining characteristics.

Little too busy to explain.
Which is fine. Really. It’s not like the movie has room for more exposition. It spends that budget pretty early on explaining what the hell is going on, then proceeds to keep explaining things because that is a complex freaking story.

So why do these characters work? With so little time devoted to them, we should be uninvested. Their problems aren’t our problems, and without strong empathy, the whole thing should fall apart. But it doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure the reason is simple: motivation.

We know the motivation of every character, and those motivations are clear and relatable.

As it turns out, you might not need more than that.

Let’s walk through it. First, obviously, you have Cobb. Cobb wants to go home and he will do literally anything to get there. His motivation is both clear and simple. Who doesn’t want to go home? This is what causes every single one of his decisions. From why he takes the job in the first place, to his decision to hide Mal from everyone, to his choice not to tell anyone about the sedation. Cobb’s need to go home drives the plot. It even drives his flashbacks, where in Limbo he still wanted to go home. Simple, clear, relatable.

Next, you have Arthur. He’s a little harder to figure, but when it comes down to it, I think we can say that Arthur’s motivation is pretty similar to Cobb’s. He wants Cobb to go home. Now, this could seem like a cop out. Does Arthur really want the same thing as Cobb? Sort of yes, and sort of no.

Through the very little information we have about Arthur we can gather that he is loyal to Cobb, knew Mal, and is aware of Cobb’s situation. He also seems to be Cobb’s fulltime partner. From this, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that he at least likes Cobb. Arthur will follow Cobb anywhere. He wants the job to work because he wants Cobb to go home. The only question we’re left with is what he’s going to do after.

Next is Ariadne. She has a less defined motivation, but still one that’s eminently relatable: she wants to create. That’s why she take a job she knows isn’t legal, why she puts up with Cobb’s issues, and why she goes as far down with them as she can. She wants to create, so she focuses on fixing Fischer and forces Cobb to deal with Mal.

Eames has a similar motivation to Ariadne: he’s in it for the challenge. He knows about inception, hasn’t ever pulled it off, but thinks it’s possible and worthwhile to try. So Eames is in. Again, we really don’t know anything about him. We know he’s a thief, a forger, has bad spelling and worse taste in clothes, and that he knew Arthur and Cobb already. But that’s it. And, surprisingly, he became one of the most memorable characters from the movie.

These are just a few of the characters and motivations. You’ve also got Saito, who’s motivated by business and a desire to watch over his investment. Yusuf wants to see if it’s possible. Fischer wants his father to love him. Mal wants Cobb to join her. Simple, clear, relatable.

We do know other things about these characters, mind you, but nothing that sketches them out fully. We know that Arthur is young for a pointman, has impeccable taste in suits, dislikes Eames, and thought Mal was “lovely”. But we don’t know his last name. Of Cobb, we know that he loves his wife and children, that he got into dreamshare through his father-in-law, that his father-in-law despises extraction and therefore must have been on the legal side of it all, and that he has massive reality issues. But we don’t know if he’s dreaming or awake.

And it doesn’t matter. The beauty of using clear motivations and relationships is that it makes your audience fill in the blanks for you. We don’t need Nolan to tell us that Arthur, Cobb and Eames worked a job together and that Arthur thought Eames was terribly unprofessional and Eames thought Arthur was boring as hell. We also don’t need him to tell us that they respect each other and are sort of friends. Because we get that. We filled that in.

We don’t need to be told that Ariadne will probably continue with dreamwork, that Miles and Cobb and probably Arthur used to work with the CIA, or that Miles regrets ever introducing his daughter to Cobb. It’s all there.

So what am I saying, that you should abandon developed characters altogether? Obviously not. What I mean is that motivation is a huge part of understanding who a character is. If they have a clear goal, a clear reason to do all this, then we’re along for the ride, even if you never bother to tell us their last name.

Yes, developing your characters is great and totally something you should be doing, but it’s not always the most important thing. The most important thing is making sure that your characters are ones people want to see. That people get them, even if they don’t like them, and that your audience will follow them for two hours or one hundred episodes or whatever.

And having excellent actors probably doesn’t hurt either. 

I like to think that Saito and Cobb get together every once in a while to "be young men together."