Okay, that’s unfair. Inception didn’t win Best Original Screenplay because the Academy preferred The King’s Speech, and with good reason. It was a great film built upon the foundation of a powerful script. (Why Hans Zimmer didn’t win Best Original Score is beyond me though…)
The most common criticism I’ve heard regarding the execution of Inception was that it felt like too much of an information dump. Nearly everyone I spoke to who disliked the film cited this as a reason. Even among those who did like it, they found the numerous explanatory sequences to be draining and a hindrance to the action of the film.
Here’s my reaction: I honestly didn’t mind. I realized that there was a sea of exposition to wade through, but it didn’t bother me. Christopher Nolan created a complex alternate universe and then did his job as screenwriter. He made the rules of this new word accessible to his audience so that we could suspend disbelief. I see nothing wrong with this. It is the task of every writer who dabbles in speculative fiction, where the traditional logic is lost in favor of more fantastical approaches to looking at the world. So where did Inception go wrong?
Every writer struggles with the question of how best to convey background information that is pertinent to the present story. Screenwriters who must focus on what can be shown are often denied access to the interiority that prose writing typically allows. As such, the process of exposition can be especially tricky. The usual choices come in the form of a narrative voiceover or a conversation in which characters simply explain everything that a viewer needs to know. These are tried and true methods, but they are also very boring, and typically lead to the feelings of audience fatigue that plagued Inception viewers.
Talking with a friend, we discussed how the concept of exposition is based on the human tendency to make assumptions in order to fill in information gaps. The writer’s job is then to gauge how much a reader can ascertain using as few clues as possible. Good exposition provides only enough information so that the audience can make their own logical jumps. Bad expo is too much or too little.
As a writer currently pushing through my own sci-fi script, the question of how best to handle exposition is essential. As it stands now, I’m probably drifting dangerously toward the dreaded info dump and will need to scale back in future edits. To tease out this problem of exposition in the science fiction film, I decided to take a look at the screenplays for two popular alternate reality films and assess the ways in which the writers made their worlds come to life.
The script for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report has an explosive beginning. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, in the year 2054 murder can be predicted and killers arrested preemptively. Things go south when John Anderton, a Pre-Crime police officer, is accused of a crime he has yet to commit and must go on the run to prove his innocence.
The expositive approach of Minority Report is two-fold, using both demonstration and conversation in a way that strengthens the action of the script. The uninformed audience is represented in the character Danny Witwer, a federal agent who shows up at the worst possible time to bug Anderton about questions of how the PreCrime program works. This script embodies the fundamental writing rule of “show, don’t tell” in one of the most exciting sequences I’ve seen. Instead of writing a long dialogue in which the characters tell us what PreCrime is, we’re invited along for the ride while they show us.
There’s no time to talk to Danny because someone’s life is at stake. In the same way that Danny is pushed to the background and told to observe, the audience sits quietly while Anderton and his team pull out their tricks and tools to locate the site of the imminent murder, burst in with guns drawn and save the day. In these moments, the script sidesteps the need to explain how technology has changed our world by simply showing the characters interacting fluidly with new devices.
In a “Special Features” segment on the DVD, the production notes describe how the art team laid out in ten year increments the progression from our current technology to the state of the world in the year 2054. This leads me to what I call the “Iceberg Theory” of world building. It is essential for the creator to have worked out every minute detail, but it is less important for the receiver of the story to have access to such information. Instead, they must see only what we need them to see, while at the same time conveying that more exists beneath the surface. The same is true of character exposition, which I’m going to save for another day.
Bottom line: for the creator, exposition is subtle a game of give and take with the audience, where you must guide them to the right conclusions with as little information as possible.
In a sequence that takes 19 pages and 14 minutes onscreen, we’ve become fully integrated into the world. We’ve seen the new technology, the prevision screen, and the optical scanners. We recognize the pre-cogs and what PreCrime is. Just in case we missed something, a short propaganda video lays it out for us.
Following the exciting beginning, Minority Report takes the “trickle” approach to exposition, slowly inserting small pieces of information into conversation and spacing it throughout. Danny Witwer becomes a prominent character once more as the specifics of PreCrime are laid out to him in order to assist in his investigation. It’s a bit obvious, but it works, and we’ll allow it after seeing PreCrime in action.
Interestingly, the script for Minority Report shows much more exposition than what actually made it into the film, but is still handled skillfully. Extensive details of how PreCrime works are disguised as moral debates and confrontations instead of blatant info dumps in which a character decides to discuss basic information purely for our benefit.
There are other moments when direct conversation is the best approach, such as when Hineman explains exactly what a “minority report” is, but for the most part we are done quickly and painlessly by about the end of the first act.
In contrast, the Wachowskis’ 1999 film The Matrix takes a different approach in how it reveals background information (of which there is a lot!). When computer programmer/hacker Neo learns the truth about a mysterious “Matrix,” he finds himself drawn into the middle of a battle waged between the last remaining humans on Earth and their machine enemies. What is this Matrix? How does it work? Why? Just a couple of the questions that a viewer may have while watching the story unfold.
Overall, The Wachowskis take a different approach to exposition in contrast to both Inception and Minority Report. They start by taking the easy way out and choosing to go with the conversation method. However, its timing and appearance in the story makes it an interesting decision. It is not until we move beyond the first act and that Neo has committed himself to the Matrix that we learn anything about it. As such, we don’t feel the typical drag of an expository sequence in which we’re waiting for the film to begin. In a succinct sequence of about 6 pages, Morpheus lays out the Matrix’s history and current state. We’re given the facts. The rest we are expected to pick up on our own.
What also separates the structure of The Matrix from that of both Minority Report and Inception is that the viewer’s journey is parallel to Neo’s in that we are both ripped from our quotidian lives and thrust into a world where normal rules do not apply. Therefore, the viewer is usually more willing to sit back and listen to information that our protagonist has not yet learned either. There is a certain amount of information dumped in The Matrix but beyond a certain point the film expects us to go with the flow (like Neo) and focuses on the more fun things, like dodging bullets and smashing helicopters into buildings.
The Matrix skimps on quite a few details, but this does not necessarily end in feelings of dissatisfaction. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, requiring an audience to keep track of fewer details enhances the viewing experience, even if it comes at the cost of fully explaining how the world works. If a movie attempts to explain too much, and loses the audience, they will feel lost because they are constantly aware of how much information they are not processing. However, if the film explains little and remains consistent with its internal logic, the audience may not know much, but won’t feel lost. The outcome is a more enjoyable experience. Like I’ve said before, as viewers we would rather either fill in the gaps on our own, or discard as unimportant any questions left unanswered if they do not affect the basic plot line. (This is what took me too long to realize while watching Tron Legacy, but again, that’s a story for another day).
So back to Inception. After looking at these other two scripts it becomes apparent that Christopher Nolan made the mistake of taking the worst aspects of the two forms of exposition given above. First, he gives us a character who is already a master of his domain. From what we’re told, Dom Cobb is a leader in the field of dream sharing technology and yet he and the other experts love to explain to each other several basic bits of information.
Second, Inception opens with a demonstration as well, a la Minority Report, but we learn very little about how this world works. Instead, we become caught up in the larger story before the demonstration has the opportunity to provide us when any sense of order or before we can work anything out on our own. The rules of this new world must therefore come to us through dialogue. Nolan provides us with Ariadne, a newcomer to Cobb’s crew in the same vein as Danny Witwer, but it takes too long. She has too many questions that take too long to get answered.
(Keep in mind, this is all exposition just concerning the process of world building. I haven’t even touched on the subplots of Cobb and his wife, Cobb and his status as a potential dreamer, and the actual corporate sabotage inception plan that the team was hired for)
Inception suffered from being overdeveloped in the mind of its creator. There is a definite pressure when designing an alternate universe to relay every detail to the viewer. It’s a strange feeling of pride and accomplishment when you’ve managed to create a world that is distant and unique but with so much detail that it feels real. You want to share what you’ve made. In the words of Ariadne, it’s pure creation.
Ironically, Nolan doesn’t follow his own advice. During their information session, Cobb tells Ariadne that the mind fills in logical gaps while dreaming in order to create the illusion of reality. It is this same process of gap-filling that occurs in the mind of a viewer trying to enter into a fictitious realm. But unlike his characters, Nolan does not allow the mind to work for itself. Instead he overwhelms it with a torrent of detail and precision that breaks the illusion. Like the subjects, we only want to dream but because we can’t, the dream collapses.