Good Sequence Analysis – The Opening Of Inception Essay Example
Christopher Nolan’s films are often heralded for their sleek formalism and dreamlike narrative structure; to that end, it makes sense that his 2010 science-fiction heist thriller Inception adopts dream logic and architecture as a literal element of the plot. As per usual for an exacting filmmaker like Nolan, Inception’s opening sequence provides an incredible primer for the cinematic dream world he is preparing to paint for his audience, utilizing dreamlike editing, muted performances and immersive, domineering sound and mise-en-scene to establish the self-serious, yet highly exciting tone of his film about hacking dreams.
The oppressive, booming score by Hans Zimmer is introduced during the production logos, a two-step of progressively louder horn blasts that echoes Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” when slowed down (an audible foreshadowing of the slowed-down nature of time in the film’s dream world). The loud, percussive booming creates a feeling of encroachment or falling, as if something ominous is coming closer and closer until the horn blasts are seemingly surrounding us. Even before the first shot, Nolan establishes mood, atmosphere, musical tone and even plot/character foreshadowing (as the Piaf track is shown in the diegesis of the film to be the ‘wake-up call’ track that Cobb and his dream warriors must listen for to know when to anticipate the ‘kick’ that will rock them out of the dream world) (Corrigan & White 231).
Right as the music reaches its crescendo, Nolan smash cuts to a shot of waves crashing against rocks – this sound offers a jarring contrast to the tension that has been built up in the opening music cue, as the soothing waves provide a suitable counterpoint. The waves themselves are filmed in slow motion, to give them a certain weight and significance (while also subtly implying that this is happening in a dream, where time is slowed down). The water itself also acts as a visual symbol of the emotional turmoil that Cobb is in at the beginning of the film, as we see him wash ashore with a close-up of his face – the water effectively birthing him. Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is visibly starved, dehydrated and half-dead, with his clothes in tatters, the crashing waves offering yet another audible clue as to his state of mind while also likening him to the waves through his contact with them.
It is here that Nolan establishes his first specific set of dream imagery, with the close-up of Cobb’s face taking a match cut to a pair of children playing on the beach, making sand castles (the cut implying that we are in Cobb’s POV). The children are portrayed and shot in a very uncanny way, with their heads always turned away from Cobb (and, by extension, the audience), Nolan establishing that they are a mystery, something that is not quite right about the world of the film. Continually cutting back and forth between Cobb and the children, DiCaprio’s expression on his face implies a relationship and familiarity with them. (We, of course, learn in the film that these are Cobb’s children, whom he yearns to go back to, and that the world of the opening sequence is “limbo,” where he has gone to rescue Saito so everyone can wake up from the dream.) From these first shots, an entire emotional relationship has been established without a word said, which is also part of Nolan’s dedication to creating a dream-like element to the formalism of Inception.
The next significant shot change is a cut to a medium-shot of Cobb’s back, with a machine gun being pointed at his back. A match cut then leads to a medium low-angle shot of a soldier quizzically poking Cobb with the gun, the sun shining directly behind his head to offer a halo effect (with brief lens flares shooting out whenever he moves his head) (Corrigan & White 133). This offers yet another dreamlike image, that of the angelic soldier, along with some visual indicators that this is not quite reality. Offering a beach with a bedraggled DiCaprio, faceless playing children, and a foot soldier with a machine gun allows Nolan to implicitly inform the audience that we will be dealing with a heightened reality in the film. Nolan furthers the tension by cutting back to the shot of Cobb’s back, as the soldier lifts Cobb’s shirt to reveal a gun, immediately increasing the stakes of the scene.
As the soldier shouts off-screen in Japanese, Nolan cuts to a wide shot of the rocks further up the beach, where another soldier stands in the distance, in silhouette. As he runs up the mountain in response to the other soldier, Nolan pans up to reveal an ornate Japanese palace – again, another uncanny element to contribute to the dreamworld. An ominous sound cue quickly builds, but is immediately cut off by a match cut to the next scene. As the first new non-diegetic sound cue, this particular move further establishes the uncanniness of the usage of space and time in the world of the film, likening film editing to the kinds of time leaps that occur in dreams.
This match cut moves inside the palace, where a wide shot slowly dollies in to a large conference room lit by dozens of tiny candles, lending a darker, softer amber hue to contrast with the bright daylight of the opening scene. The opening shot of this scene borders this room in darkness, as three figures all look away from the camera (like the dream children) – two thugs standing on either side of the sitting, elderly Saito. The audience’s eyes are drawn to him through the staggered placement of his other men (and Nolan’s placement of him in the center of frame). The mise-en-scene of the scene is very fitting to the eclectic vision of Saito and the dream world he inhabits (Corrigan and White 64). The Asian decorations and ornate traditionalism of the building is yet another uncanny dream element, as it offers the kind of detail and embellishment that is not typically expected of these kinds of sci-fi films and high-tech thrillers. In this way, the room informs the audience of Saito’s character and his own desires, upbringing, and wants.
As the camera cuts closer to the back of Saito’s head, and the henchman sets Cobb’s gun and a mysterious black top on the sleek glass table, Nolan cuts to close-ups of these two objects, indicating their fundamental importance to the film (Cobb uses guns to survive the dangerous world of dreams, and the top acts as his ‘totem’ to remind him of whether or not he is in reality). The highly reflective surface of the dark black table not only enhances the low, natural light of the room but illustrates the reflective nature of Saito’s limbo and the way these props reflect Cobb’s character. By introducing the audience to these items visually before showing us the face of one of its major characters (Saito), Nolan places an emphasis on the rules and mechanics of the dream world. While the film will follow its characters and their struggles, the central concern of the film is in its own setting and how it is explored.
Shortly after Saito is shown from behind picking up the top, Nolan returns to that same establishing shot, smash cutting ahead in time to show Cobb being dragged on his knees (again, shown from behind) into the room. Following that, we return to the reflective black table in a close-up, panning up slowly to reveal Cobb eating slowly and gratefully from a bowl of stew, informing the audience he was starving and suffering. All of the slow pans, zooms and dollies are part and parcel of Nolan’s signature style for this movie, the camera always moving, even if just for a little bit. This has the effect of giving the film a feeling of momentum, and the perfectly fluid camera movements offer a heightened sense of reality (as contrasted with, for instance, the shaky handheld camera moves of a film more concerned with depicting real life). Cutting from Cobb’s face to an over-the shoulder shot of Cobb, with Saito out of focus in the background, cinematographer Wally Pfister rack-focuses on Saito as he asks, “Are you here to kill me?” – the subtext of the preceding shots and scenes as-is being stated aloud.
Corrigan and White, The Film Experience, An Introduction, 3rd ed. (2009).
Nolan, Christopher (dir.). Inception. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy. Warner
Bros. Pictures, 2010. Film.
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