Inception’s the blockbuster where Christopher Nolan gets everything – or nearly everything – right. His Russian doll, dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure, by way of a heist movie (originally conceived as a horror), is meticulously structured, and so propulsive and confident in its storytelling that it’s slavishness to exposition somehow becomes an asset rather than a hindrance. As should be expected, it’s another of the director’s ongoing ruminations – and arguably a piece of high-end predictive programming – regarding the nature of reality and the manipulation of perception. In this case, the focus ultimately appears to be one of our capacity to deceive ourselves, or further, not even to care about our self-deception or manipulation. Or is that simply what Inception wants us to think?
Mal: Admit it. You don’t believe in reality any more.
I’ve been critical in the past and continue to be critical of Nolan’s abilities as an action director, but such issues are much less intrusive in Inception. Perhaps because its action is, by and large, layered, with tension created through the editing and implied interrelationship of separate sequences, the outcome of each relying on the other. This terrain, the non-linear, appears to be where Nolan functions best, hearkening back to his tricksy work with Memento.
He’s boosted enormously by the work of editor Lee Smith, of course (notably absent from his most recent, Tenet) and composer Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s work with Nolan has always been a highlight of his scoring career, and here functions in an entirely conducive way, binding and guiding sequences even where the visual coherence doesn’t quite pay off (notably the most standard action interlude of the movie, the snowy On Her Majesty’s Secret Service inspired assault on the mountain hospital). In particular, the idea and execution of the “kick”, with the three dream layers – a week; six months; ten years – interacting with each other, is a venerable achievement in every department. Even the blaring trombones are a slowed down augmentation of Non, je ne regret rien.
Inception was rightly lauded, and off the back of The Dark Knight, Nolan’s stock as an “auteur”, one recognised by the masses rather than the few, skyrocketed. Warner Bros was savvy enough to market Inception that way (having Leo on board helped, of course), and it was duly received as that increasing rarity: a non-sequel, non-superhero, non-franchise property that broke out, not only as a multiplex pleaser, but one inspiring “watercooler” discussion. Perhaps the last such on a true event level had been The Matrix.
I suspect I’m not alone in considering Inception as the director’s peak moment, after which he has encountered diminishing returns, first with his third Batman, then with original science fiction (Spielberg reject Interstellar), and then the peculiarly pedestrian Dunkirk. Inception is yet another of the director’s behemoths (just shy of two and a half hours), but in contrast to his other epics, there’s no fat here. It’s a tight construction, compellingly told from start to finish.
Inception was not without its deniers, though. There were criticisms of the cinematic subconscious state. David Denby regarded the director’s dreams as literal-minded, and AO Scott agreed they were “too literal, too logical, and too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness”. Which, if you’re going in demanding Cocteau or Buñuel, is obviously going to be a deal breaker. Really, though, that’s neither here nor there – these are the parameters of the movie Nolan wishes to set. If you’re after another kind of realisation of dreams, Inception is bound to miss the mark. There would be no way – that I can see – of fulfilling its stated mission (as the teaser said, “Your mind is the scene of the crime”), were Nolan going to embrace dreams’ capacity for incoherence and illogic. On its own terms, then, it’s dazzling (the recent Last Night in Soho is evidence enough of the result when the unmotivated dream state is allowed to take over – there, the hallucinations quickly become repetitive and hollow – since crucial stakes are needed).
The picture is not without its CGI augmentation – usually anathema to the notoriously practical director – most notably the Escher-esque recursion of cityscapes and decaying edifices. Generally, he wants his dream world to seem as tangible as the real one, however; that’s the point. If there were too much give away – except at key, giddy moments – it wouldn’t sustain the same internal tension.
There are, of course, points of slight contention. The idea of “inception” itself is effectively explained, and more importantly, effectively depicted, such that Cillian Murphy’s heir to a business empire must be convinced it is his idea to dissolve his father’s company. The actual reasons are classic MacGuffin territory, demanding little more than a couple of sentences of justification/reasoning on the part of Mr Saito (Ken Watanabe): “Soon they’ll control the energy supply of half the world. In effect, they become a new superpower” (yes, that’s the quaint idea of genuinely independent superpowers in genuine conflict at work; Nolan can always be relied upon in such areas). There’s also the background to this amazing new technology, which needs little more small print than the VR headsets in Strange Days (the “military developed shared dreaming” we are told, which given the likes of remote viewing, doesn’t seem entirely off the wall).
Nolan never really gets to grips with how it is the architect (in this case, Ellen Page’s Ariadne) landscapes these dreams. Sure, Cobb asks Ariadne – very Cretan – to design him a maze on paper, and there are references to what isn’t in it (“That wasn’t in the design”) and additions (Tom Hardy’s Eames’ request to add an airduct system that cuts through the maze), but nothing to hint at how, precisely “You create the world of the dream. You bring the subject into that dream, and then they fill it with their subconscious”.
Ariadne: Wait, whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?
Ariadne’s skillset may have been given short shrift because Nolan has no clear idea himself, or possibly because she has her work cut out for her elsewhere. She is essentially there to ask questions, receive exposition and facilitate Cobb’s emotional journey, and the manner in which Nolan fails to disguise this is perhaps the least elegant part of the movie. Unsurprisingly then, Page is no more than fine in the part (Elliot is now a poster child, or adult, for the trans-agenda, of course). Others assembled fare much better. Nolan may be engineering a heist movie, but it’s closer to his take on a Guy Ritchie than a Michael Mann one (the latter being The Dark Knight).
Leo is the leader, haunted by his past, quite literally in the form of Marion Cotillard as deceased wife Mal. Cotillard is quite the scoop (Kate Winslet turned it down), lending form and substance to the fridged, noir femme fatale (Nolan has mustered a degree of scrutiny over the fates of his female characters, something he retreated from after too many adherents joined the dots following Inception’s release). The result is probably the most emotionally resonant of his movies, the one where the character arc has a degree of texture, rather than simply coolly hitting the beats.
DiCaprio turns in his best Tom Cruise performance. Which may sound like a strange thing to say, but rewatch Inception, and you’ll see he’s treating it as “that” kind of lead role. It’s a star part much more than it is a character one, and for all that he may have offered Nolan copious notes on Cobb, he seems to know that. Certainly, he’s much more astute than his “comedy” turn trying to save the planet from eco-disaster, or Greta Thunberg’s wrath, in Adam McKay’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated “satirical” disaster flick.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Hardy essay their most productive Nolan collaborations, both their first. JGL’s transition to movies has fizzled a bit of late – as has his AppleTV+ series – but as Arthur, the producer (not an ideas man), he delivers Inception’s most physically arduous scenes with aplomb (the formerly ubiquitous James Franco was approached but couldn’t do it, so we dodged a bullet there). Arthur’s conflict with Eames, casually impudent in contrast to Arthur’s need for control, adds a much-needed lighter touch, and Hardy adds a ruffled, hearty warmth to this “Graham-Green type diplomat” fence; it’s one of his most likeable characters, a quality not so high on his agenda in picking roles.
Elsewhere, Ken Watanabe returns to the Nolan fold, much better catered for than he was in Batman Begins. Cillian Murphy has the thankless part of the straight dupe, but he adds something just by being there. Tom Berenger gets the Rutger Hauer role this time but also the opportunity for some nuance, traversing both Fischer’s godfather Browning and Eames playing Browning. There’s also Pete Postlethwaite, Lukas Haas and Michael Caine; I’d forgotten how little there is of the latter, barely more than in Tenet (although, he’s on much sturdier form here). It’s an exceedingly well-cast movie; I’d argue the best line up Nolan has assembled.
So, what of the ending? That’s where everyone quickly goes when discussing the picture. Nolan leaves on an overtly Philip K Dick-esque point, with more clearly stated ambiguity than Total Recall (the whiteout of the embolism) or the “happy ending” of Minority Report (too good to be true). The spinning-top iconography, of the totem that keeps track of dreams and reality, is left spinning, and the allusion, in the director’s terms, is one whereby Cobb, finally reunited with his children, chooses not to care whether this is a dream or not. Whether that’s what Nolan actually thinks – whether he actually knows – is a different matter. You can go to Caine’s confident take – “If I’m there, it’s real, because I’m never in the dream. I’m the guy who created the dream” – if you want something concrete, but that’s the taking-all-the-magic-away, Ridley Scott kind of reading.
If pressed, I’d go with there being more than enough to suggest this is another illusion Cobb has fallen prey to, that the real world we’ve been following has curiosities enough already: that seemingly impossible alleyway in Mombasa; the opening with Cobb’s son building a sandcastle at the foot of a house on a cliff, before cutting to Saito’s limbo-set house on a cliff; further still, the ending with Cobb returning home to be told “we’re building a house on a cliff” (if we aren’t supposed to read much into this, per Nolan, well that’s quite possibly obfuscation on his part). It’s as notable and important in this respect that, while it’s implied Cobb and Saito escape limbo through suicide, it isn’t shown, any more than the top’s spinning fate is.
Saito: If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, can’t you plant one there instead?
Where this may yield a more crucial element, however – a predictive programming element – is in the concept designed to embed itself in the viewer’s mind through focussing on the question, not dissimilarly to empathy for Blade Runner’s replicants in the face of inevitable usurpation by a glorious transhumanist future. In Inception, it isn’t in doubt that the nature of reality IS in doubt. In a sense, the picture’s inception premise is another sleight, as it’s ultimately less important that you had the idea than that you believe the idea; the latter, after all, establishes whether you treat the idea as valid or not.
Arthur: The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of an idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.
Inception plays with grand SF concepts such as causality and the perception of time, most arrestingly so with the distinctive spans separating each dream layer, such that Mal’s affliction of identifying too much with her state (“We built a world for ourselves. Something like fifty years”) and Saito’s, of an old man in limbo, rely on the subjective in a similar manner to Nolan’s previous works, as far back as Following and Memento. But it also relates to the notion of time’s effects on the body and mind (Interstellar). We see Mal’s frayed sense, yet contrastingly, we don’t sense that Cobb and Saito’s conscious dreaming for such a period is resolved by the waking mind as extra decades of experience (one might generously suggest this “reinters” itself, into the only indirectly temporal fabric of a dream state). These characters once held a concept of a tangible reality – it’s the picture’s starting point – but what if such bedrock itself is questionable?
Mal: The smallest idea, such as “Your world is not real”. Simple little though that changes everything.
Cobb admits he did the worst thing imaginable in rescuing Mal from limbo (‘You planted the idea in my mind?’) Cobb at least feels guilt for his actions; those who pull the strings in the “real” world, do so directing us from one engineered global crisis to another, after which the fourth industrial revolution will, as they deign it, seem like a blessed relief. Disconnect is everything to this scheme: the implanting of ideas on a conscious level have played out in their current paradigmatic form since at least the end of World War II and the convenient discovery of gnostic texts testifying to a belief in a false creation.
From thence comes the paranoias of Philip K Dick, the prognostications of learned “legitimate” science that we are most likely in a simulation and not the real world at all, and the Wachowskis meme-tastic The Matrix engineering an entire perspective shift of the conspirasphere, informing it even more than The X-Files did with Greys. That simplest of ideas, that our world is not real, has proved the most potent one and so changed everything. Is that the real text of Inception, setting out how it is, how we’ve been manipulated into doubting our reality, disassociating from it, ready to embrace a new, further disassociated one via the wonders of technology?
Cobb: What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? …. An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks. Right in there somewhere.
Indeed, for a movie that came out a decade before the plandemic, Inception’s opening monologue is remarkably cogent in setting out its principle means of execution. Cobb explicitly equates a virus to an idea (he doesn’t explicitly state a “highly contagious… virus” is no more than an idea, but one can easily join those dots, should one wish). It’s the idea of a virus that sticks, right in there somewhere, rather than the reality of one. Indeed, this point is so important to Nolan that he returns to it later.
Cobb: An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. And the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define, or destroy you.
Now that idea, of the virus, can destroy you. Not because of the virus itself, but because of one’s reaction to the idea of it. Is that what Nolan meant? Well, it’s in the nature of predictive programming that it doesn’t need to be consciously inserted; many of those involved will simply be passing along learned ideas by osmosis. But Nolan’s oeuvre is so obsessed with this interrogation of reality – and his brother’s too – that one has to wonder. Just like that, the all-pervading idea of the virus vanishes, replaced on the media stage by the all-pervading idea of World War III.
Cobb: No idea is simple when you need to plant it in somebody else’s mind.
Nolan hits so many conversation points with such regularity that it would be foolish to infer anything he does is innocuous or incidental. Are the movie’s chosen numbers – 528491 – simply coincidental? Is it a coincidence that they add up to 29/11? Is it a coincidence that Nolan is probably the only filmmaker today guaranteeing large audiences for original mega-budget movies (albeit, we’re shuffling to a different delivery model) and that his movies are almost exclusively about how we perceive our world? Is there any reason to think Oppenheimer won’t be exactly the same, dealing as it does in the most powerful “idea” of the last seven decades? Is Inception really testing us, daring us to wake up to being awake?
First published by Now in Full Color on 04/03/22.