INCEPTION Explained: A Clear-Eyed Trailer for a Dreamy Film

Despite its boffo box office results and strong critical response (not to mention its multiple award nominations) the most frequently heard reactions to INCEPTION were complaints about the complexity (and probable incoherence) of its narrative of nested dreams or the abrogation of the very rules governing dream logic established in the first half of the film. Of course movies, like dreams, are not required to make sense. This doesn’t stop the play of inquiry or the excited expectation that contradictions will be resolved, confusion will lift and clarity descend if only we keep “working” at the tangle of plot lines.

The trailer, on the other hand, for those who care to re-watch it, is a model of direct, compressed storytelling, a clarion dispatch from the surreal precincts of the dream state. Whether the story logic works out exactly, the premise is accessible enough in this preview that is told primarily through dialogue. Although the trailer misleads by presenting Mr. Dicaprio as the problem solver rather than the problem maker or intimating that Ms. Cotillard is his destined love object rather than his nemesis, the audience labors under no illusion that the work of inception, its epistemology or its metaphysics will be anything other than difficult and dangerous.

Let’s take a closer look. This 2:24 second theatrical trailer uses story, stars, spectacle and genre to engage its desired audience. Nothing surprising here, given it’s A-list talent, 9 figure budget, visual splendor, mind-bending narrative and hybrid (sci-fi-psy) generic appeal. It also relies on an appeal to provenance: at the helm is Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight; Warner Bros, the major studio, is the distributor and Legendary is the producer.

Perhaps more importantly, the trailer elegantly answers the latent question of the recondite title: what is inception? The explanation is, coincidentally, a plot primer as well as a heck of an interesting sci-fi-psy concept that audiences will want too explore.

At :05, the medallions of WB, Legendary and Syncopy appear side-by-side on a black screen. A bass notes sounds as whitewater crashes over the camera to reveal DiCaprio washed up on the beach. But he’s not a castaway; his diegetic voice over (actually dialogue from the film) tells us who he is and what he does. “I specialize in a very special type of security: unconscious security.” His unseen interlocutor, draws out the unspoken, but obvious corollary: “you mean dreams?”

The cards for director Chris Nolan, “Director of the Dark Knight,” appear on screen at :25.
Back in the time and place of the film, Michael Caine (a recognizable, pedigreed star) in the role of affable professor introduces DiCaprio to a promising student (Ellen Page) in a grand academic setting. She (a possible female love interest) will be important to the mission, which she doesn’t yet understand: “You mean like a work placement?” she asks. Three clips of big-budget action-adventure stunts featuring wildly incongruous elements punctuate her query, setting up Dicaprio’s ironic understatement: “Not Exactly.”

In the next shot, DiCaprio explains to another character (the target, in fact) how inception works: “ We create the world of the dream: We bring a subject to populate it with his secrets.” The trailer cuts to DiCaprio and Page, as he shows her examples of the dream work. At the conclusion of these surreal scenes, she shows she understands the “score,” by asking the question that he prefers not to make explicit: “then you break in and steal it?”

DiCaprio blandly demurs, cueing three scenes of the inception team in action. DiCaprio’s summarizes: “It’s called Inception,” which refers both to the film and its trailer as well as the subject of the film and the story hook. This is a great line of dialogue, one operating both on the level of narration and promotion.

But the work of inception is fraught with risk, as a montage of volatility and danger within the “dream space” is underlined by the swelling music and a concise statement of the conflict and the challenge: “I think I found a way home and this last job is how I get there,” says DiCaprio. The remainder of the trailers gives the lie to his confidence.

Next, we see Leo’s Card, billed after the title and the director, reminding us that our investment in the “concept” of inception is accomplished through the complicated human protagonist portrayed by DiCaprio. Along with shots of Leo leading his team, we see Marion Cotillard with tears in her eyes, sympathetic, rather than dangerous, and as she is in the film, amidst other scenes of the action.

To my mind, this shot was included primarily because of a perceived need for a point of identification for female audiences and a story line for those interested in romance. (Contractual obligation to the actress, may also have played a role.) DiCaprio’s profound ambivalence toward her is not addressed in the trailer, for the very good reason that it’s too much story to cover in this format. The complexity/danger of inception itself is plenty for our 2 minute trailer without opening up that fascinating, but ancillary plotline. Cotillard thus occupies the role–untrue though it may be– of female love interest (rather than female side-kick, played by Page), whereas she is much more interesting than that in the film.

DiCaprio proceeds to tell Page that “dreams feel real while we’re dreaming,” as a succession of surreal images cross the screen. A copy card– whose letters tumble into legibility from a “machinic” graphic– declares, “Your mind…” as we cut to scenes of DiCaprio reaming a subordinate for operational failure; Marion in Tears; and Leo showing fear. It’s followed by another card reading, “Is the scene of the crime.” Put the two cards together to form a sentence that was also the print tagline. It’s a good line, whose internal rhyme underscores the “mind crime” that is inception.

Worrisome images and still more disturbing images bookend Joseph Gordon Levitt (a member of the inception team) warning that: “The Dream’s Collapsing.” DiCaprio asserts that he has it “under control,” which the rest of the trailer gainsays. Three blasts of a fog horn introduce a series of chaotic, surreal and catastrophic events as the dream architecture is compromised and the dream logic is contradicted. “I’d hate to see it out of control,” retorts Leavitt, expressing doubt. His ironic reaction, interestingly, is the exact opposite (an inversion, perhaps) of our desire as the audience. Watching the dream spin out of control and experiencing Leonardo’s dilemma vicariously is why we bought our tickets.

Finally, the title card tumbles into position, formed out of the same graphic letters used for the copy.

This trailer, has a charming, playful, topical and gently homo-erotic Button. We return to a scene in the middle of the movie, where Leavitt, within one of their dream scenarios defends against an attack from hostile forces. He fires a machine gun at a helicopter from a warehouse door. James Eades, the largest and more masculine member of the inception team, admonishes Levitt in seductive British accent: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” whereupon he hoists an anti-tank gun with which he downs the helicopter.

The line “dream a little bigger” could have been a tagline for the poster, and it also works as a “call to action” for the video packaging and the standee. It’s a little camp and a light touch to conclude a trailer whose sound and score and subject are both serious and cerebral.

With respect to the soundscape of the Inception Trailer, I wish to speak admiringly of its muffled percussive beats and its metronomic rhythm. The obvious analogue to the varieties of such rumbling, moog-synthesized notes — notes one feels in one’s bowels — is the sound of an alarm clock, disguised as noise from the dream, but whose repetition will all too soon break the sleeper from its embrace. It’s the sound of warning, of countdown, of impending launch, detonation, and doom, embedded in a eight beat staccato line, like the ticking of a second hand on a mechanical watch. In dreams, time expands and contracts wildly. In our waking life, time is inexorable and ineluctable. Even the dream engineers cannot escape that constraint.

Editing in the Inception trailer has a regular cadence as well, with scenes changing on the blast of the horn, fading in and out like breaths taken by one deep in slumber. Match cut scenes of bodies falling and buildings collapsing (as well as snow avalanching) convey the vertiginous quality of the unstable dream construction. Purportedly, to land in a dream is tantamount to death. But falling—whether buildings or bodies, down or sideways, is the signature spatial relation in the editing. As a state of unconsciousness fraught with the dread of hitting bottom, the sensation of falling is usually sufficient to wake the sleeper. In this trailer, it’s more than sufficient to alert the potential audience member to the coming attraction heading his or her way.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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