Great stories move beyond spectacle. By crafting character, plot, and theme in such a way that those concepts bounce meaningfully off each other, they grant audiences a deeper insight into the world around them.
As covered in Sophisticated Story Goals, sometimes there is more to a story than simply beating the bad guy. In fact, in order for a story to be more than simply a tale of exciting exploits, it must find a way to give the audience something it can't find in the course of their daily lives. Inception is one such story.
Of Protagonists and Main Characters
Fear not, this isn't going to be yet another exploration of why the Protagonist is not always the Main Character. Clearly, Dom Cobb is both Protagonist and Main Character. But what must be understood before a meaningful analysis of this film can be made is the reason why this distinction can even be made.
The Protagonist is the central character within the Overall Story Throughline, or what many have come to call the "A" storyline. The Main Character is the central character within the Main Character Throughline, or what many refer to as the "personal storyline." Both throughlines represent a particular perspective the Author can take when writing their story. One is objective, the other is subjective.
Complete stories call for both throughlines as the dissonance between the two creates meaning. One throughline provides a first-person intimate look at resolving the story’s problem, the other provides a detached third-person objective view of the story’s problem. Offered an insight into both, we are given the opportunity to gather some greater meaning from the story's events.
On the one hand, Cobb is the Protagonist--the character pursuing the Story Goal that affects everyone in the story. On the other hand, Cobb is also the Main Character--a man reeling from the guilt he feels for the part he played in his wife's suicide.
So is the Story Goal simply Cobb getting back home to his children? Or could it be there is something more elaborate going on?
The Inequity Created by the Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident of a story creates an inequity within the lives of the characters in the story. In Inception, this moment occurs when Cobb accepts the job from Saito effectively creating the inequity, or Big Dramatic Question, that propels the conflict to follow. Is inception possible? Answering this question thus becomes the main thrust of the Overall Story throughline.
This is why the Story Goal of Inception cannot simply be Cobb returning home to his family. It is an essential part of his Main Character throughline, but in terms of Protagonist and Overall Story, the Goal he is pursuing has everything to do with planting that idea in Fischer's head.
Keeping the Plot Points Consistent
Furthermore, the Inciting Incident and Concluding Event (the plot point that brings a story to a close) must be of the same type. Deciding to take Saito up on his offer is a decision. Returning home to his kids is an action. Those are two completely different type of events.
Plot points can be one of two things--actions or decisions. In a well-told story one will be seen as the driver of the other. The order of events has meaning. Learning to be an expert jewelry thief so that you can become fabulously wealthy carries an entirely different meaning than getting stinking rich so you can afford to learn to be a jewelry thief. Thus, plot points must remain consistent as they contribute to the overall meaning of a story.
Thankfully, in Inception they are.
Cobb decides to take Saito up on his bargain and Fischer decides to break up his father's empire. The first creates the inequity. The second (and last) resolves it. Not only does it bring a successful close to Cobb's mission as Protagonist, but also it clearly answers the question of whether or not inception was even possible.
But there was even more meaning behind Fischer's revelation.
Wherein It Is Revealed Why This Movie Was So Big
What was it about this movie that kept people coming back for more? Meaning. Inception provided audiences with an example of how greater self-awareness can successfully resolve the problems we face in our own lives.
From a third person Objective point-of-view (that "A" storyline), we get to see how Fischer's own self-awareness of his place within his father's world successfully brings their mission to a close. Saito's own self-awareness of some "half-remembered dream" ties into this as well.
From a more intimate Subjective point-of-view (that "personal" storyline), we get to see how Cobb's self-realization that the projection of his wife could never match up to the real thing resolves the angst he began the story with. This emotional catharsis ultimately relieves him from the pain of guilt in the same way that Fischer's decision relieves everyone from the story's main inequity. It is why Cobb can walk away from the spinning top and embrace his kids regardless of whether or not they are real or not. His Leap of Faith toward greater self-awareness granted him the peace he had been searching for for so long.
This is how great stories work. They combine the Objective and the Subjective in such a way that we see more than we can day to day.
Stories That Mean Something
By giving us both points-of-view simultaneously, Christopher Nolan gives us an experience we can't achieve in our own lives--namely, the ability to both be inside and outside of ourselves at once. Try it. Right now. Try stepping outside of yourself and attempt to look at yourself objectively. You can't. You can look at others objectively and appreciate their actions and decisions from a distance, but when it comes to yourself, you can never truly be objective. And if you think about it, you can't subjectively exist within others. It's one or the other.
Stories do both. It's why they exist and why we keep coming back to them.
Meaningful stories are powerful. They're important. And they're the ones we cherish enough to buy on Blu-Ray so we can experience them again and again. Meaningful stories give us the meaning we crave for in our lives, yet can't synthesize on our own.
This is the power of great stories and the secret to the success of Inception.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
That being said, there is this sense that Inception is not running on all cylinders, particularly in the area of "heart." The original review of this film gathered 5 stars for structure. Upon further examination, it earns a healthy 3 stars. Why?
The Impact Character Throughline--the throughline that forces Cobb to undergo his transformation of character--seems less well defined than the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Ostensibly it is fulfilled by Ariadne, but there is a significant amount of handing-off going on between her and Cobb's wife, Mal. This is where the complaints about the film feeling "cold" or emotionally distant come into play. Without an effectively strong Impact Character, the Relationship Story Throughline--the relationship between the Main and Impact Character--suffers. This fourth throughline is where the heart of every story lies and where Inception possibly falls short.
There are inklings of it being fulfilled, especially in the beginning scene where they speak of forming mazes and Cobb's attempts to work with Ariadne to draft one. But this key component of story falls by the wayside as the Overall Story Throughline steps in. Travelling through dreams and defining the rules of such an endeavor takes an incredibly long time to explain, something naturally had to give way.
Still, the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines combine beautifully. The dissonance between the dual solutions of Self-Aware leading to both an Outcome of Success and a Judgment of Good rocket this film beyond any other film this Summer. Inception is one that will last.
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