Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood’s event directors. Joining the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg, and relatively new-entrant Denis Villeneuve, Nolan creates films that come burdened with massive expectation that grows with each film he gifts us. What started with Memento, the Guy Pearce starring mind-bender told out of order, has escalated into films of enormous scale. He singlehandedly reinvented the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy, created an all-timer of a war film with the anxiety-inducing Dunkirk, and echoed the mastery of Kubrick with Interstellar, a journey through space and time of gargantuan proportions.
As we wait with bated breath for his next effort, the mysterious, potentially time-travel inflected Tenet which is due out next summer, it’s worth casting our minds back to the very start of this endless decade. In 2010, Christopher Nolan unleashed Inception into the world, an equally challenging, intelligent, and accessible blockbuster that is arguably his most defining work and a film that remains one of the best films of the last 10 years.
“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” – Dom Cobb
The very idea of Inception is easily relatable for an audience because everyone has exciting dreams; you wake up just as it starts to get exciting, and are convinced they would make brilliant films. Even the idea of the “kick,” the moment where you induce the feeling of falling to wake up the subject, is a sensation everyone has experienced, and including that into an easily recognisable aural motif with Je ne regrette rien is a stroke of genius. The way Nolan takes a simple idea and develops it into a multi-layered film that is at once an exciting action film, a study in relationships, and a mind-bending sci-fi is one of the many reasons why he’s such a highly revered director.
At its core, Inception is a high-concept action film. Conjuring up a film in which the majority of the action takes place within someone’s subconscious where literally anything is possible opens up an entire galaxy of opportunities. And yet, by keeping the action mostly grounded, Nolan creates an engaging story that is both out there and incredibly simple to follow. He doesn’t necessarily hand-hold his audience through proceedings, rather thoughtfully setting out all of the obstacles in the way so that when the eventual mind-heist takes place, we’re waiting for certain beats to happen, maximising audience participation.
As the film plays out, it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the craft of it all. It’s so meticulously planned that watching it pan out in front of you is like watching a John Williams symphony under the command of the maestro himself. With so many moving parts that snowball on top of each other right down to the epilogue, the intensity continues to ramp up as we’re waiting for the explosion on the 3rd Dream level, the lift drop on the 2nd dream level, and the van to finally hit the water on the 1st level. With the ever-present time-pressure of a simple reminder occasionally showing the van falling in impossibly slow-motion, the audience understands that this all must end one way or another, it’s up to Cobb and company to finish their mission while their subconscious’-subconscious is floating through hotel hallways.
“So, who’s subconscious are we going into, exactly?” – Ariadne
As I was writing that last paragraph, I realised how bonkers Inception becomes in its 3rd act. As we enter maximum Bond territory in the mountain snow-fortress dream level, the amount of plates Nolan has spinning is enough to make my head hurt. Audience engagement is essential when it comes to science-fiction; any idea that exists exclusively within the runtime of the film it’s being used in needs to be easily digestible but challenging enough to encourage the audience to join the dots themselves. The way Nolan works around this is with Ellen Page’s Ariadne, the only newcomer to the mind-heist game. As the heist is being constructed, much like the way a director, writer, cinematographer etc. would assemble a film, Cobb, Eames, and Arthur all develop their roles in proceedings while explaining to Ariadne what’s going on. Ariadne, meanwhile, is the dream’s architect, tasked with designing the various levels the team will be exploring.
By having Ariadne on the team surrounded by veterans of the game, she serves as the audience’s surrogate, asking the questions that no doubt cross your mind at the same time Ariadne asks them. The early sequence in which Cobb walks her through a dream and asks her the necessary questions needed for her to grasp the idea is equally informative as it is visually startling. Once Cobb folded the city in half right above her head, collectively, we knew we were watching something special.
Ariadne stumbles into scenes she shouldn’t by choice, at one point joining Cobb in a dream that introduces the closest thing Inception has to a villain. Marion Cotillard’s role as Cobb’s dead wife, Mal, is a slow burn of a mystery to be solved. She is seen in fleeting moments here and there, at one point stabbing Ariadne as she breaks some dream rules, and demonstrates herself as anever present danger whenever Cobb is involved. Ariadne serves as something of a minder for Cobb, amongst all of her other roles in the film; she keeps Cobb focused on the task at hand and tries to keep him away from the draw of staying with Mal. Ariadne discovers the truth behind Cobb and Mal’s relationship at the same time the audience does, and the reveal is a true Nolan shocker – equally surprising as it is difficult to wrap your head around. Having Cobb be the indirect cause of his wife’s suicide with an ill-thought version of inception is sensational, and the explanation scene is an exercise in how to deliver an emotional resolution to a mystery that has spanned the entire film. Using Ariadne as the main receptor of this information, as well as the person who then puts the final few pieces in place for the film’s epilogue, was a stroke of brilliance from Nolan, all of which delivered terrifically by Ellen Page.
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” – Eames
The career trajectory of Christopher Nolan is an upward curve in terms of delivering films on an increasingly epic scale. Every film is bigger than the last, but, as stellar as 2008’s The Dark Knight is, Inception is the film that showcased his numerous filmmaking abilities the best. There’s no doubt in my mind that Inception was the reference point for the thousands of links he has had to directing a James Bond film. Inception has everything you want in a film, with great characters, a spell-binding score, iconic moments, shocking reveals, but the increasing levels of grandeur that occur within the film is its most defining feature.
The aforementioned city-bend is a great moment, but it’s the moment the 2nd Dream Level – The Hotel – loses its gravity that elevates Inception to the next level. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur is tasked with both transporting his sleeping teammates to safety, trying to answer the question “how do you drop someone without gravity?”, all the while avoiding being woken up by the security defences present in target Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious. It’s astonishingly impressive; the rotating hallway fight scene is one of the film’s defining sequences, most notably because it was filmed practically.
Watching behind the scenes footage of the scene is mind-blowing in itself given how much went into it. Designing a fully rotating set for Levitt to have a fight scene in with no stunt double, that was able to be shot in a way that made sense to maintain the understanding that gravity wasn’t as it seemed, as well as the challenge of lighting the scene only able to use the hallway lights in the corridor itself is an achievement like no other. It’s this commitment to the craft of filmmaking that makes Nolan so loved, having his actors actually running around a rotating set gives Inception a far more grounded, realistic feel in amongst all of the mind-bending concepts on show.
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” – Cobb
The ending of Inception is surely one of the most widely discussed endings of the decade. As Cobb walks through the airport, meets his mentor (Nolan mainstay Michael Caine), and returns home for the first time in years to the sound of Hans Zimmer’s iconic Time, you think the story is over. Cobb and his team completed Inception, they got out of the dream in time despite a few hiccups along the way, and Cobb got his journey home. But Nolan has a final trick up his sleeve by making Cobb spin his totem one final time. Before we can see what happened, the film cuts to black, casting a shadow of doubt over whether Cobb made it back or not.
There are countless videos and articles out there discussing the ending, using clues in the film to try to accurately deduce whether Cobb was dreaming in the film’s final scene. A major clue is, supposedly, Cobb’s wedding ring; if he’s wearing the ring, he’s dreaming, if he’s not, he’s awake. Michael Caine has said he believes any scene he is in is reality. I’ve held the belief for the last 10 years that Cobb wasn’t dreaming in the final scene because the totem wobbles slightly – in the dream world, his totem spins perfectly without any wobbles at all. And still, after all this time, there is still the question of whether he’s dreaming or not. The answer?
It doesn’t matter. Cobb spends much of the film ready to die by the idea of his dreaming; an early scene sees him spin the totem with a gun drawn ready to wake himself up if he is in fact still asleep. He spins the totem time and time again in the film, always needing to know where he is. But in the final moments, he spins the totem, sees his children, and walks away. He abandons the idea because he is finally with his children, something both the real world and his subconscious prevented. Whether the totem continued to spin or didn’t, it matters not because Cobb has finally let go.
“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” – Cobb
Inception could be considered, for me personally, a game changer. I’ve always been a film fan, but Inception was what inspired me to go into film writing just before I started university. I wouldn’t be where I am today, writing for this terrific website, without Inception. It’s a film that showed me exactly what film was capable of and created a new standard of what I felt film could achieve. Like an idea, Inception took hold of my brain and hasn’t let go. I don’t think it ever will.