Christopher Nolan's hand-drawn Inception timeline

In Inception: The Shooting Script, Christopher Nolan's brother Jonathan interviews him about the remarkable film (it gets my vote as one of the best science fiction movies I've ever seen). The book includes the hand-drawn timeline for the film's action.

Christopher Nolan's interview with brother Jonathan in the 'Inception' shooting script (via Super Punch)


  1. The movie did a good job adapting that drawing to film because the time line looks almost exactly as I imagined it. It was nice to be able to pretty much understand the progression of events as they were happening. But only reason I was able to keep up with everything may just be because I’ve watched “Primer” so many times.

  2. One of the things I loved about Inception is that he just invented this weird dream machinery, and just made it natural. And people accepted it as fact. You don’t hear anyone saying ‘Dream machines? That’s just ridiculous!’.

    I don’t know how he did it, but Chris Nolan somehow got people to totally accept the dream machine as a plot device, and just go with it. If that hadn’t have worked, the movie would have been ridiculous.

    I’m not an expert on science fiction. I can tell it’s a science fiction movie, but the only thing that’s science fiction to me is the dream machine. The rest is about dreams and controlling someone else’s mind. Is that science fiction Cory?

    1. I think actually this fits into the larger category of Speculative Fiction, of which Science Fiction is a subset.

      It posits an idea, in this case the dream machines, and then tells a story which investigates the effects of such technology.

      As the speculative idea is a technological one, rather than say supernatural, then you could argue that its Science fiction but I think the point is moot its just a great film that imagines and tells a story in a speculative world.

      I think the brilliant think about it is that it doesn’t try too hard to explain the technology involved which is why it gets away with it. As with all the best monster movies the good story telling with the suggestion of a monster is infinitely better than any detailed rendering of the monster.

      Got my vote as a great movie that treated the audience as having some intelligence.

      1. You make some interesting points, although I would stress that dream machines are not so crucial to the film to begin with. Dream manipulation seems to be the central focus, albeit one realized by dream machines, the largely unacknowledged engine. Would this film have been that much less convincing if the dream manipulation was explained in another way? Not if the explanation was similarly limited in scope. In science fiction, this is called handwaving.

        I don’t think ‘Inception’ is a brilliant film, but it is excellent compared to most blockbusters. More than anything, it proves that even the most overrated actors can be watchable. Hitchcock said it best. Actors are cattle. In terms of how a movie such as this gets made, so are script doctors. The premise is great, the cinematography is superb, the performances are adequate. The fact that Christopher Nolan wrote, produced, and directed this film makes me appreciate him more. However, it would be just as entertaining with Christian Bale in the lead, and with lucid dreaming drugs in place of the military machines.

        Because it’s not a movie about its fairly one-dimensional characters, any more than it’s a film about futuristic technology. It challenges the audience’s expectations, but, at the end of the day, that’s not so difficult, and it’s similar to a lot of other thrillers. Big explosions, (comparably well-directed) chase scenes, (comparably minimal) CGI, and a (comparably endurable) love interest. The dream within a dream plot device is predictable enough, given the subject.

        And the execution is commendable, but it’s no ‘2001.’

        1. I liked Inception just fine; it’s the kind of movie that seems made expressly for my tastes. Had it been my own project, I would have done several things differently. Ellen Page as an “Architect”/Greek Chorus seemed less believable than the technology itself, and I haven’t felt particularly impressed by any DiCaprio performance I’ve seen other than his in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I’m slightly less inclined to believe in the utter interchangeability of actors, but I did appreciate it when Hitchcock clarified that he’d said “Actors should be treated like cattle,” which is inarguably true (heh heh).

          But for the most part I enjoyed the hell out of Inception. I was happy that the nested dream structure fit perfectly with my own mode of thinking I’ve occasionally played with since childhood, so I had no trouble at all following the story. Based on a lot of the commentary and reviews I read after the movie’s release, this chart might have made a useful addition to the movie’s onesheet.

          Still, there remains the troubling fact that the best part of the movie (the layered dream-tampering) was swiped wholesale from a Scrooge McDuck comic, as exposed in this very space.

          1. I was paraphrasing Hitchcock, but he only said that “actors should be treated like cattle” after a herd of cattle were paraded onto the set of ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’

            Hitchcock had previously used the phrase “actors are cattle” for years. He even admitted to having used it in the 1920s. There is some question as to whether or not this is true, but he was already known to have used it by 1938, a full three years before his famous “clarification.”

          2. We, too, can read the Wikipedia. I didn’t say he didn’t say it. He said he didn’t say it, though some reports said he did say he said it.

            I’m not one to give an overabundance of credit to actors in general. To my way of thinking, acting is a lot like singing, in that it’s something that most people can learn to do passably well. But there are, in fact, those who happen to do it exceptionally well. DiCaprio’s a highly-regarded actor, and I will say this: I’ve rarely seen him perform a role that he, at least, didn’t utterly believe himself in. But I still find him miscast in a bunch of things. That baby face of his will always work against him in my eyes, at least until he hits his fifties and finally outgrows it. I had a similar problem with Timothy Olyphant’s performance in Deadwood: even with the best mustache money could buy, I never bought him as a guy who could stare down Ian McShane. I didn’t have that much of a problem with DiCaprio’s performance in Inception, but he’s never the reason I show up to see a movie.

            There was much I found disappointing about Inception, but it’s still My Kind Of Movie. I kinda felt that way about Neil Marshall’s Doomsday… by no means a good movie, but one that was made just for me.

            But to return to the topic of actors, when you said:

            More than anything, it proves that even the most overrated actors can be watchable.

            …I wasn’t quite sure what your point was. Generally, when actors are rated highly (especially to the point of “overrated”) it’s precisely because of their watchability. Nobody ever accused Jack Nicholson of having the range of, say, Gary Oldman or Sir Alec Guinness. But people do love to watch him do his thing. Is he overrated? I dunno… does anyone consider him to be a particularly good actor, when he’s done nothing but essentially play himself for the last twenty-five years?

            On the other hand, you have actors like the aforementioned Oldman and Guinness. Those two guys in particular so inhabited their roles, that I, for one, never had any idea what they would possibly be like in person. I have a fairly good idea of what Tom Hanks is like in person. I have no idea what Gary Oldman would be like, and part of that is due to the fact that he’s so profoundly different in every role he plays. Johnny Depp tends in that direction, too, though it’s exacerbated by the fact that he plays so many outsized cartoonish characters anyway.

            With your dismissal of the importance of actors (and script doctors, for whatever that’s worth), would you consider yourself an auteurist?

  3. Anon #3,

    People accepted the dream machines only because of great cinematography, CGI, acting, and Hans Zimmer.

    And those are the four things that made it a brilliant movie. Outside those, it is an utterly hollow movie that manages enter brilliancy through obfuscation.

    The napkin represents how empty the movie’s storyline truly is. Dream rules? 1 hour = 5 minutes? Give me a break and go back to the neo-noir Batman movies, Nolan.

  4. Probably the best movie of 2010.
    By the way, Boing Boing Mods, look at the SPAM at comment #6 and the his previous, all the same SPAM, unbelievable he still can do it with the same user name. Please ban him.

  5. I think that Inception is one of the worst movies of all times (compared to the hype and popular excitement it caused). Although it has a very interesting premise, the execution is so shockingly hollow that I (a passionate film watcher) had the urge to leave the theater at least 10 times. This has happened to me with only one more movie – The 6th Day. I had the feeling that I’m watching some modern advertisement for… whatever. A lot of unconnected action shots carried by constant ‘action’ music that NEVER stops filled with the cheapest, instinctive human emotions.

    Believe me, I’ve watched (almost) everything that ever existed in SF movie genre and this movie can be placed somewhere besides Battlefield Earth.

    This being said, I believe that our big contemporary thinkers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, gave the best possible review of this failure of a film in their episode called ‘Insheeption’.

    And yes, after first 20 minutes we DO see an interesting idea that decisions of the worlds most powerful and wealthiest people (which affect us, the ‘little’ people) are not made consciously but from their subconsciousness and their traumas – BUT after this there’s absolutely not a thing in the movie except for cheap marketing shots.

  6. @anon:@jpgsawyer:
    I, too, had some problem at first with the various dream machines that, I surmise, were constructed – and used – in the dream levels. Fortunately, suspension of disbelief kicked in fast.

    S-of-D was a key element in this spec-fic movie :^) if you do not call it Science fiction. I am happy to see the schematics of the dream structure, not far from our own mental images as the story-ies unfolded with the time-lags.

    The movie was efficient, the story and main characters moving and a bit sad, the supporting cast various and interesting (and, a plus for me, the scenario did not call to kill them off as we so often see).

    My husband and I were glued to our chairs and kept guessing until the end. The best 2010 movie for me, too.

  7. I liked Paul Owen of the Guardian’s review (sorry have to counter near-universal praise (especially as I was left disappointed by the movie)):

    everyone likes Inception except me, and everyone gets annoyed with me because I don’t like it, because clearly it’s a film that aims high. But I think you’ve got to judge it by its own standards, and to me it certainly does not reach the bar it sets for itself. This is what I don’t like about it:

    1. The dreams were nothing like dreams. They were more like computer game levels. Dreams are surreal and shape-shifty. Like, if we were in a dream now, talking on a bus, we’d turn a corner and then it wouldn’t be a bus any more, it would be a boat, and then so and so would be with us, chatting as if they’d been involved in the conversation the whole time, and you would have disappeared. The only time it got near that was when Leo said about never remembering the beginning of the dream, so how did we get here today, and Juno said, “Erm… we were at the thing…” That was the best line in the film. Other than that, these dreams did not seem like actual dreams at all. The film could have been much more inventive and surreal. It had the whole human mind to play with! Instead it settled for snowsuits and car chases. Boring.

    2. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes dreams have… a sexual element. Yeah, I said it. This was the most chaste movie ever made, right down to that stupid kiss between Gordon-Levitt and Juno, the least sexual kiss I’ve ever seen in my life.

    3. I did not care about any of the characters, except for when Leo’s wife jumped off the balcony and Leo said, “Jesus Christ!” That was the only moment of genuine emotion or when something was at stake. Leo can be good and bad, and sometimes very miscast – in this I felt he didn’t have enough of a character to get his teeth into, so he was a bit bland.

    4. This whole supposedly philosophically profound edifice was built on a very, very banal plot device: stealing some corporate secrets. This mattered because at the end, after all that fuss, it felt like they had achieved something almost completely meaningless. Boring.

    5. In the final scene, the top kept spinning, except it did slow down a little bit and looked like it was going to fall, so you didn’t know if it was going to fall, but actually you did, because it couldn’t actually speed back up, could it? So that was mealy-mouthed and hokey.

    6. It was full of expository dialogue. This really goes back to not caring about any of the characters as you would real people.

    1. Brilliant comment. I too am left alone in thinking Inception was a very, very disappointing movie. And being a huge and serious film lover (especially of SF genre) it really hurts my sanity to even hear one praise of it claiming it’s the best in some or other way. It is very hollow, flashy, noisy, fast. Like a commercial that bombards you with imagery so that you can’t even react to it. You know those oil company or life insurance commercials? Dialogue and emotions were really cheap and basic.

      Oh yes… and I’m sure dreams often contain special forces yelling ‘Go go!’ and climbing snowy obstacles, a lot of weapons and stuff.

    2. Seems to me that the main reason Paul Owen doesn´t like the movie is that he simply doesn’t “get” the movie. One of the central conceits of the film is that the protagonists are trained professionals who deliberately keep their lucid dreaming as continuous and “realistic” as they can, in order to keep their heists relativly simple. Much of Owens complaints seem to suggest that he missed this plot point entirely.

      Also, the movie isn’t really even about the heist, it’s about Di Caprios character and his personal journey.

      It’s quite alright to not “get” a movie, not all culture is ment for everyone all the time. But it’s kinda ironic when a paid critic doesn’t even get that he doesn’t get it and assumes that he got it when he didn´t even get enough of it to properly get it wrong.

        1. Obviously not, but “getting” the idea is actually mandatory to get in a position to call it a “fail”.
          Because if you don’t get what they are trying to get at, then you cant tell wether or not they got to it.
          Got it?

  8. It gets my vote for one of the most over-rated movies I’ve ever seen.

    Also, did anyone else think the soundtrack was kinda relentless and over-done? “MOMENTUM!” it screamed at me. “FEEL HOW MUCH MOMENTUM THIS MOVIE HAS. YOU CAN EVEN HEAR THE MOMENTUM!” Boo.

    Yeah – didn’t give a goshdarn about Leo or his wife. They seemed reprehensible to me.

    1. Repeated, looping music is the oldest trick for creating a (in this case false) feeling of action/movement/dynamic in movies. In Inception this loop NEVER stops. So it’s a great example of how much actual dynamic this film really contains. It drove me mad and was the only thing that tried (without success) to hold all the shots together. If you haven’t seen it already, watch the South Park episode called Insheeption. There’s a guy in it who always jumps into the scene and imitates this irritating loop as soon as someone starts explaining that crazy dreams/subconscious mumbo-jumbo. Nearly choked myself from laughing during that episode.

  9. I thought the most boring element of the movie was the overabundance of guns in the action sequences. You’d think that an action sequence taking place within a dream could spill with possibilities but Nolan chose to have his characters wage four (or how many) standard fare gunfights with the typical endless supply of nameless, faceless bodyguards. Snore, I’d rather play a video game instead….

  10. I really disliked the first 45 minutes or so which was full of really bad exposition laying out tons of arbitrary nonsense.

    I really like the last 45 minutes or so as the multilevel story was collapsed.

    It is unusual. Most SF movies have great beginnings and terrible endings this one did the reverse.

  11. Talking about Christopher Nolan’s hand-drawn Inception timeline and not the Movie Itself: Man, this guy has sloppier handwriting than me. And that’s pretty bad. People who work on computers all day usually have awful handwriting, I am no exception. I feel like I need to magnify this more than the PDF lets me or have someone transcribe it. Right now it looks like some cross-section map of a quarry.

  12. Overrated. So much so, that people who loved it can insist it’s because the detractors didn’t “get” it. I got it. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking what a self-important, stylish waste of time this was.

    Since everyone who loved it insists it makes perfect sense, please, please tell me why the van flipping over wasn’t a “kick.” My inner-ear is telling me that that’s just sloppy writing.

  13. Also…you live in a world of pure imagination, where physical rules do not apply, where the very atoms in the air around you fizz into being at the speed of your thought.

    And all you and your wife could come up with is infinite rows of identical skyscrapers?

    What a boring couple of drones they must have been.

    And then the wife, having abandoned her children for 50 years to go and live in the most boring universe of all time, can’t keep herself together when she gets back. I’m supposed to care about these people?

    1. “And then the wife, having abandoned her children for 50 years to go and live in the most boring universe of all time, can’t keep herself together when she gets back. I’m supposed to care about these people?”

      She can’t keep it together because she thinks she’s still dreaming… that’s why she kills herself.

      I can understand not being able to sympathize, but “reprehensible” is such a strong word. I personally really enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t necessarily care a whole lot about the characters; they frustrated me at times too. Almost every appearance of Mal was pretty obnoxious.

  14. The biggest glaring error, which I’ve never seen mentioned, is that there is no difference between falling and weightlessness. Weightlessness is caused by falling. Drove me crazy!!

    I’m in the Inception Sucks camp. For all the reasons people above have spelled out, and more. Too many “just happened to”s, like, have all the required explosives.

    Great CGI, but poor writing, shallow characters, shallow plot, and too many “dream physics” inconsistancies for this die-hard, can’t get enough of it, the stranger the better, science fiction fan.

  15. Inception was a great film, I saw it twice in cinemas and will buy it aswell, which is incredibly rare for me. It was original, different, had good acting, and awesome scenes that sucked you in. Stop focusing on everything it (allegedly) didn’t have and look what it did have.

  16. I think we can divide these posts into “those who were high when they saw Inception, and those who weren’t high.”

  17. Sorry, Cory – I am going to have to add to the chorus of disapproval. Memento is one of my favourite films of all time, but Inception was overhyped, over-SFX’d and over here.

    The acting was average, the characterisation was by-numbers, the plot was weak and punctuated by lots of info-dumping, the ending was trite and obvious, and the ideas were actually hokey and lacked the surrealism and strange leaps and (dis)connections that characterise dreams. Above all, Inception totally failed to make me care about any of it.

    IMHO, it was everything people who don’t really like SF expect SF films to be. Except it didn’t have Keanu Reeves (who, in this case, might even have improved things…).

  18. I neither thought the movie was brilliant nor awful, but I find this “hand-drawn inception timeline” almost comical in its simplicity. I was puzzled by the people who found the story confusing or convoluted (like primer is or memento seems) because it’s completely linear. people go into a dream, do some stuff, go into another dream, do some stuff, exit the dream, do some stuff, exit the dream. etc. The whole thing about the kicks having to be synchronized seems incredibly complex, but it’s just a variation of the same “synchronize watches” stuff that happens in every heist movie — like the charge to blow the safe has to go off at the same moment as the staged diversion etc.

    Where the movie gets convoluted is intellectually/philosophically, when you try to figure out what’s “really” going on (i.e. all the blog posts about who’s incepting who and when). but the storyline itself? not really.

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