This is Part Three of three posts about Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Yesterday’s post was about seeing the movie fresh and Monday’s post was my review of the film. There may be spoilers in this article, more so than in the previous two, if you haven’t seen Inception, you may consider postponing reading this post until after seeing it.

As I stated in my review one of my problems with Inception was the flatness of the characters. With the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb none of the characters has much depth or acts as much more than the role they fill in the heist film’s plot. While this is true of male and female characters alike in the film, the very few women in the film are even less fleshed out than the men.

Before diving too far into my thoughts on this, I’d like to acknowledge that there may be an in story reason for the thinness of the characters and that should that be the view you take there is a reasonable explanation for the lack of character depth. The film takes place in dreams and the mind of the main character in particular is where a lot of action takes place. It’s possible that these characters aren’t any more than agents of his subconscious a theory at least partially advanced by the film. Even if that is the case, though, the female characters are still not as well fleshed out as the male characters in the film.

I don’t want to approach the issue of poor female characterization from a political standpoint or a social standpoint. Those are perspectives that I think should both be used to evaluate this issue of the film but are not necessarily the approach I intend to take. This is mostly because I feel there are those better qualified to discuss these issues than I am. Also, I’m a screenwriter and as such I want to consider the issues from the perspective of writing and good writing versus bad writing.

That I want to consider this from a good writing versus bad writing perspective is not to say that Inception is poorly written. Inception is very well written. It’s an excellent movie. That doesn’t mean there aren’t areas it fails in.

The particular area Inception fails in is the depiction of female characters. A depiction consistent in at least two other Christopher Nolan films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In these three films the female characters serve more as devices of plot and exposition than as fully realized characters. In Nolan’s Batman films I’m referring to the only female character Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal. In Inception there are only two female characters Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, and Mal, played by Marion Cotillard.

None of these characters is given much by way of back story beyond their relation to the male lead. For Rachel Dawes it’s her relationships with Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent that define her character. For Ariadne and Mal it’s their relationship to DiCaprio’s Cobb that define their characters. This is true of other male characters in these films but the main difference is that many of those characters get action and goals of their own while these three characters don’t.

Rachel Dawes and Ariadne are functionally the same character. They both serve as a confidant and conscience for the male lead. This is fine and it allows for appropriate execution of exposition and realizing internal conflict externally but the problem is that they serve no other purpose. No other action is given to them. Rachel Dawes even loses this function by the time of The Dark Knight and becomes a plot point to drive the main characters action to the climax of the film.

Neither Ariadne nor Rachel Dawes seem to want anything beyond helping the main character in their respective films. Why, in Inception, does Ariadne choose to join the team in their heist? For the thrill of entering dreams and manipulating the dream world? Being a thrill seeker isn’t established. At most she’s established as being adept at spatial thinking and puzzles. Perhaps that’s her motivation for joining and yet this is glossed over, because her character isn’t there for that. She’s there to give us insight into Cobb as she learns more about him and to voice concerns about his mental well being. It’s an important role but it’s the entire purpose her character serves. She doesn’t want anything. What she’s getting from joining the heist isn’t well stated.

Mal in Inception is different and there is a temptation to say that since she is literally a part of the lead character’s mind in the film and since it is explicitly stated she doesn’t represent very well what the real Mal, Cobb’s dead wife, was like that it’s okay she’s a little flat. She needed to be more than a plot device. She needed to serve as more than backstory exposition.

This might not be so bad if these weren’t the only female characters in these particular films. They are, though, and as such, to a certain extent, they serve to represent all women in their film world. In these films women are supports for men and not whole people in and of themselves. They don’t have needs and wants beyond the male characters and this is just bad writing.

It’s bad writing, because all characters should want something. They should all be fleshed out to be at least a little more than their function of the plot. The needs and wants of characters is what should bring them into conflict with the other characters. Otherwise, when that conflict occurs it comes off as out of place or things seem to be happening for no reason. I like to think of each character living within their own movie. We’re all the heroes of our own story, what story is this character the hero of? It seems to me that thinking about characters as living their own movie can help to flesh them out better in the writing process.

For me this lack of characterization that particularly effects the female characters of Inception prevents the film from distinguishing itself as a great film. It’s an excellent film, yes, but it is seriously lacking when it comes to this characterization and that hurts it.

4 Replies to “Inception, Part Three: Nolan’s Women”

  1. Thank you! Finally, someone else sees reason. This has been bugging me about Christopher Nolan’s films ever since I saw Inception. At first I thought, “eh, it’s a fluke, maybe his other movies will be different.” The Batman movies, Memento, and all of his other films were the same. The Dark Knight in particular really bothered me, because not only did he go to the trouble of creating a character just to kill her off, he also replaced the younger Barbara Gordon with a little boy. Really, Nolan? You have to eliminate Barbara Gordon, one of the best female characters in the superhero world, who grows up not only to be just a great superhero, but TWO great superheroes. How many male characters can say that (and I’m excluding Robin becoming NIghtwing because Dick Grayson was…well, Dick Grayson).

    Getting back to Inception, Ariadne had the potential to be a really interesting character. For one thing, she was supposed to represent Ariadne from the story of the Minotaur, and that’s interesting enough in itself. However, she could also have had a really interesting backstory, being a super genius, yet we don’t really know anything about her other than the fact that she’s a genius. She isn’t a character; she’s a tool for Cobb to achieve his goals and re-discover himself.

    Really, Christopher, as a psychology major, I would love to get to the root of your daddy issues.

    1. Yes. Exactly. I have no doubt his upcoming The Dark Knight Rises will have the same problem. Catwoman/Selina Kyle will surely be glossed over and functional. That will be very disappointing. I enjoy that character and I quite like Anne Hathaway and I think her talents are going to be wasted.

      Oh, but on the matter of Barbara and the little boy: blame Frank Miller first. He introduced the boy (I think Jim Jr?) in Year One and referenced Barbara as a niece. Nolan using that as source material I can see why he wouldn’t have Barbara. Still, your point does stand that he’s skipping a much more mythos centric character in Barbara in favor of having a character who mostly disappeared after Miller’s Year One. He’s skipping a lot of mythos stuff and he’s made his own Batman and his own Batman universe and while I like his movies and they’re all functionally very well made and, but for the issues of his inability to have a decent female character, generally well written I will be glad to see the Nolan Batman series end. I want a more true to the source Batman movie.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. You definitely made me feel a little less crazy. Other people do tend to look at me like I’m smoking something when I bring this up.

    2. It’s not daddy issues. He’s just a guy making movies about guys. In Dunkirk, he excluded female characters altogether. He’s like Scorsese in that regard. Neither of them cares about portraying women as more than plot devices. I don’t like that (and as a POC, I don’t like how all of Nolan’s leads are white), yet it is his right. He’s the filmmaker. He’s the artist. Filmmakers are taught to make movies that are deeply personal to them. Nolan does that. He’s applauded for that by fans, critics, and his peers in the industry. He’s even got actors and actresses like Matt Damon and Anne Hathaway calling him a genius.

  2. Movies don’t work like tv shows. In a tv show, you can give all your main characters their own arcs and depth. In a movie, you can only do that with one or two characters. Especially an action movie like Inception where you have to keep the action going to stop the audience from getting bored. Blockbusters aren’t made to be character studies. They’re made to be popcorn entertainment that makes a lot of money at the box office. Nolan knows this. It’s why Inception got great reviews, was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and made over 800 million dollars. It’s easy to be an armchair screenwriter. What’s hard is being an actual successful filmmaker who keeps creating successful movies despite the restrictions from studio execs.

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