Christopher Nolan revisited: Inception (2010)

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Christopher Nolan went from The Dark Knight to Inception – and hit very, very big. We’ve been taking a look back here.

Spoilers lie ahead for Inception.

What is the most resilient parasite? 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.

Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a man of ideas. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist Cobb states here, early in 2010’s Inception, ideas stick. Nolan’s pictures could all be described as ‘high concept’, but not in the traditional blockbuster sense. They are films built on a unique premise. None more so, perhaps, than Inception.

This film feels to me like a natural evolution of ideas Nolan wanted to explore in Insomnia and The Prestige, shot through with the visual spectacle developed on his Batman movies thus far. Inception might be about the world of dreams but it doesn’t present as a dream-like film, always. It feels more akin to a trick, appropriately given our core assortment of characters are high-tech con men engaged in corporate espionage. The only difference is that Nolan here explains the trick before it’s pulled off, allowing him to craft Inception into a bombastic hybrid of heist picture and nascent James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. It has the narrative structure of the former and elements of the style of the latter.

Intriguingly, Nolan initially envisaged the idea as a horror concept, and wrote it as a more conventional heist movie initially:

…and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms. They’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that – to me – that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes. What we found in working on ‘Batman’ is that it’s the emotionalism that best connects the audience with the material. The character issues, those are the things that pull the audience through it and amplify the experience no matter how strange things get.

The concept here is one Nolan had been noodling with since he was a teenager, that of multiple layers of dreaming which challenge perceptions of reality. The idea underpinning Inception, beyond all of the visual artifice and spectacle in play, is ultimately grief. Cobb’s journey is ultimately to let go of Mal, the wife who became trapped in the world of dreams and haunts the film as a vengeful spectre (played well by Marion Cotillard). It parallels with that of the ‘mark’, Fischer (an equally excellent Cillian Murphy), the son of a cold corporate magnate (Pete Postlethwaite, in one of his final signature roles), whose journey is to be free of the dead father who he believes never loved him.


As Nolan states above, this is how he manages to ground Inception and make his highest concept yet relatable to a mass audience. A lesser filmmaker would no doubt have tripped over the vast amount of exposition and allusion it takes for Nolan to explain the constructs of the dream reality, with various layers, mazes, architectural designs and ‘kicks’ between states. It’s telling the logo of his production company, Syncopy, is that of a maze. Nolan is a bit of a master, an Alfred Borden if you like, of presenting enormously complicated ideas in a relatively simple, straight-line manner. Inception draws you in – thanks in no small measure to the actors involved – and successfully maintains a propulsive narrative while simultaneously explaining the process of the dream world and steadily revealing Cobb’s backstory, and how the tragedy of Moll affects their sting.

For me, Inception marries Nolan’s styles together in brilliant, operatic fashion. His film resembles the Wachowski’s seminal The Matrix at points, quite consciously, in how it brings in close-quarter action alongside mind-bending physics, as Nolan admits:

The whole concept of avatars and living life as someone else, there’s a relationship to what we’re doing, but I think when I first started trying to make this film happen it was very much pulled from that era of movies where you had ‘The Matrix,’ you had ‘Dark City,’ you had ‘The Thirteenth Floor’ and, to a certain extent, you had ‘Memento’ too. They were based in the principles that the world around you might not be real.

The Matrix was deliberately inspired by Hong Kong cinema and kung-fu, which it fused with the famous ‘bullet time’ visual technique that stands as another step forward for cinematic VFX. Inception doesn’t quite have those kind of strides but scenes such as Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) scaling walls as corridors rotate around him – mirroring in that case the flipping van in a higher level of dreaming – are a natural evolution of The Matrix’s visual stylistics. Even Mal operates like the rogue Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions; a malignant ‘projection’ who operates around the rules of the illusion.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

A quick note here on Hans Zimmer’s brilliantly bombastic, equally operatic strings, which feel like a percussive turning point for Nolan’s career. Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight with James Newton Howard was, of course, highly memorable, but Inception – in debuting the much lampooned BWAAAAM effect – changes the aural scope of Nolan’s films for good.

Even when Zimmer has to step aside from Tenet to score Dune: Part One a decade later, he cedes similar ground to Ludwig Goransson, who continues Zimmer’s penchant for bass in that film. Here, Zimmer’s music is key to Inception pulling off the ambition of the story and is married to the visuals in a powerful way. From here on in, that’s the case with every Nolan film in a way it wasn’t quite before Inception.


You can feel Nolan groping for all kinds of narrative and structural reference points and allusions throughout Inception. The superbly staged ski chase – as the team head with Fischer to the deepest hidden recesses of his subconscious – deliberately evokes Nolan’s favourite James Bond film, 1969’s previously underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond touches exist across his work, particularly later in Tenet – very much a companion piece to Inception in many respects – but also in earlier Batman films.

Bruce Wayne getting a tech briefing from Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight is pure Bond, and the closest Christian Bale will likely get to playing 007. Those moments exist here, even outside of the ski homage. From the tailoring, plot, even down to Tom Hardy’s louche Ames, Inception is the closest Nolan comes to indulging his Ian Fleming fetish yet.

Beyond that, Inception marries together previous Nolan fascinations with new mythological reference points. His continued fascination with ‘falling’ is literalised perhaps the most significantly here. Not just in Mal plunging flights to her death to ‘escape’ the dream, or even Ariadne (Elliot Page) flinging herself down into the ‘limbo’ city, but the very nature of the dreamworld existing as a descent into the underworld. Ariadne’s name is no coincidence, for starters.

In Greek myth, she is the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helps Theseus escape the Minotaur in the labyrinth. As the designer of Cobb’s sting, the newcomer serving as our entry point to exposition and indeed often Cobb’s conscience, she is designed to aid Cobb’s Theseus in freeing himself of the maze inside his own head. To stretch the allusion further, Mal is his Minotaur. Nolan is not trying to hide these Greek links from anyone. Cobb’s understands descent is his only means of emerging. “Downwards is the only way forwards” as he states at one point.

Equally clear in parallel is the journey Fischer undertakes, which has its roots more in the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell, which admittedly itself draws from Greek as well as other ancient sources. In this case, Fischer’s inward journey is resolution with the Father, a powerful figure in mythological terms; his own malignant force he can only escape the dreaming by letting go of, freeing himself from the expectations of a man ravaged – like a virus, like an idea – by his own greatness. How Nolan manages to convey these ideas through action, through espionage, through spectacle and traditional heist film theatrics, is at its best breathtaking. Fischer again subscribes to Nolan’s obsession with powerful or gifted, broken men, seeking to rise from the pit into which they have fallen. He will continue to literalise this in his next movie.

In a nod to Memento, Nolan also enjoys playing with time to a greater extent than in any movie he has made since. Insomnia certainly engaged with perceptions of time, as Dormer struggles to separate the waking and dreamworld through light enforced sleeplessness, but Inception presents a dreamworld where moments in reality can stretch into days, weeks or even decades while in that liminal space. Cobb has undertaken such a journey. Saito (Ken Watanabe) also does. The journey destroyed Mal’s grasp on reality entirely.

Nolan is fascinated with time and space, the idea of time dilation, and indeed non-Euclidean geometry (take the paradox stairs here). These are concepts he will build on in his next original screenplay, 2014’s Interstellar, as he moves from the dream world into exploring space and time in a greater science-fiction construct than even Inception.

You could argue that Inception doesn’t treat its female characters very well. Ariadne as we’ve said is largely present to reinforce Cobb’s psychology and allow us to understand the world we’re in, and Mal ends up existing purely to allow Cobb his catharsis. She is a subconscious figment of a woman he lionised. “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.” Mal spends the film either full of rage or full of desperation to be with her man. Nolan’s only women are completely in service to more brilliant men. It isn’t really a lesson he’s learned since The Prestige.


In the end, however, Inception invites you to question the very nature of reality, which serves to frame it indeed in the scope partly of a classic conspiracy thriller. The final scene, as Cobb it appears reunites with the children he sacrificed after Mal’s death, as Nolan pushes in on the spinning top – his totem throughout the film which determines whether he remains in the dream – and cuts to black before we can learn if it stops, arguably remains his most ambiguous ending yet. I like to believe Cobb never escaped limbo and instead turned that dream into his own reality, for as long as his dreaming body would have allowed him to survive. Nolan, I think, wants us to believe both realities – one in which Cobb gets a happy ending and one he doesn’t – can simultaneously be true, as ultimately the point of his story is the resolution of Cobb’s grief. He is able to let Mal go and ‘escapes’, whether in the real or dream world doesn’t matter. He is free all the same.

This might be why Inception could be my favourite Christopher Nolan film. It is both incredibly grand yet remarkably personal, a technique you can see the director marrying together the more he develops, the more he hones his unique style and the propulsive thrust of his set pieces, and the more he manages to take ideas that shouldn’t work and incept them into our minds.

That’s the trick he pulls here. We leave Inception very much believing in the half-remembered dream.

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