Saturday, September 18, 2010

Inception of Confusion: A Detailed Analysis

Note: all the charts in this post are expandable by clicking on them. You'll thank me later.

This post may be a bit late to the party, but I was made aware that people are still experiencing Inception for the first time, so here goes...

I love Christopher Nolan movies. Inception has joined a fond place in my analytical mind right beside other Nolan classics like Memento, The Dark Knight, and The Prestige. The writing, cinematography, direction, tightly created philosophies...they're all spot on. I'm glad I convinced TLC to watch Inception with me - I was in cinematic heaven.

Here's a funny little video of how Inception SHOULD have ended. For those of you who haven't seen the film (...or Juno), the video won't make any sense. But for those of you who have seen Inception, well...the rest of this post may not make any sense either...

I spent at least an hour one day checking out Great stuff.

Many, many people have reported feeling very confused about what was going on in Inception. Personally, I don't see where the confusion is coming from...and I'll tell you why. In a well-made film with a cohesive plot and story, there are really only two ways to confuse the modern audience: non-linear storytelling, or alternate timelines.

Nonlinear Storytelling:
(TLC wants me to inform you that I've only seen the edited version of this film and, consequently, cannot recommend the unedited version for your viewing pleasure.)

I'm not talking about a simple flashback when I say nonlinear storytelling. Flashbacks are devices used to show the explanation or thought of a past event in the present. Nonlinear storytelling is a deliberate device to obfuscate the story for an audience or increase suspense and drama, not enlighten as the flashbacks in Inception do.

An early Christopher Nolan film, Memento is a beauty of nonlinear storytelling. The protagonist is a former detective with no short-term memory (which is a real condition) who is trying to get revenge for the murder of his wife. In order to put the audience through the same experience as the protagonist, an elaborate edit of the story is used:

The opening scene is the last event in the story. The second scene (which is black and white) is the first event in the story. Then the next scene (back to color) is the second to last event and the scene after that (B&W again) is the second event in the story! So the movie switches from telling the ending of the story in backward order and telling the beginning of the story in the correct order but in black and white. The movie eventually meets at the middle of the story (and transitions from B&W to color), and that's the closing scene. The plot versus story editing is so masterfully done and so CONFUSING that the following graph was produced to illustrate what's going on.

I had to spend a few minutes just trying to understand the graph!

If you've got a really keen eye, you probably already saw that the first scene (the upper left-most red line) is moving in a different direction than all the other lines. That's because the first scene is played out in reverse, so the first frame of the film is literally the final second of the story. Wow!

In comparison, Inception makes use of nonlinear storytelling, but to a MUCH lesser extent. The opening two minutes of the film is close to the last thing to happen chronologically. I'm not even sure why, it's a nice touch but unnecessary to the presentation of the plot.

But as confusing as Memento may be, it can't even hold a candle to this next film.

Alternate Timelines:

Primer was a small independent film that came out in 2004. It was shot on one of the smallest budgets I've ever heard of and is still the most confusing and one of the smartest films I've ever witnessed. Primer is about two buddies (Aaron and Abe) who accidentally discover time travel ("Oops!") and have to face the ethical dilemmas their machine (which they simply call "the box") creates in their own unique styles.

Just the method by which the time travel is depicted is extremely smart. So smart, the chart below was produced to explain it.

What? No DeLorean?

The dialogue in Primer assumes that Aaron and Abe know so much about physics that they have no need to explain it to each other, so heavy physics nomenclature is used and the audience is left out of the typical "dumbed-down Star Trek explanations" of what stuff does. For instance, you've just got to know that Palladium can be found in a catalytic converter...there's no explanation in the film as to why Aaron is cutting one out of his car.

So here's my point: a smidgen of the "confusion" from Inception may come from the use of alternate timelines. You see, there isn't just one 'reality' being played out - there are five (or six) during the climax of the film: Airplane (which is reality), Bridge, Hotel, Snow Zone, and Limbo (with the sixth timeline possibility of Cobb being placed in an artificial happy ending...though I perceived it as reality). But all events of the timelines are shown and they're all in chronological order, so it's really easy to follow.

Primer has NINE timelines. I can't designate them by different locations like in Inception as they all happen in the same geographic area. The timelines aren't presented in chronological order (...I think?), and only seven timelines are shown in the film! The initial timeline isn't even in the movie - it's just assumed!!! It's so completely confusing that (are you noticing a trend?) there's a graph of the various timelines below. Only the yellow sections of the graph are in the movie - all the blue is just implied. I spent at least an hour thinking through the graph...and I'm still a little fuzzy on how a minor third character, Granger, found out about 'the box'.

I was hopelessly lost through the final 20 minutes of the film. And I still loved it. If you have Netflix Instant, I highly recommend spending an evening trying to figure out Primer. You will never, ever again be confused by a wide-release film like Inception.

By the way, Primer is so confusing that it was even used as a punchline in the following comic (which is extremely well-done) from the uber-geeky xkcd.


  1. Haven't seen any of the above films yet. Not sure that I should...I had to look up "obfuscate".

    :) Patty

  2. Okay, so PLEASE explain to me how the movie Inception really ended, since you were one of the few that understood the movie. You can e-mail me privately if you don't want to spoil it for the others that may be reading!