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Inception: Nolan’s Engrossing and Enigmatic Epic Endures

Inception: Nolan’s Engrossing and Enigmatic Epic Endures (Review)

Zach Gilbert

Inception’s inspiring imagination and ingenious innovation are still as staggering and stimulating today as they were ten years ago.



Following the blowout box office success of 2008’s The Dark Knight (which grossed $535.2 million domestically and $1.1 billion worldwide) and the rampant raves it received (culminating in a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Heath Ledger), Christopher Nolan was finally rightfully recognized as the adept auteur he had always been, gaining commendation from crowds and critics across the globe. Though Nolan was no freshman filmmaker – having made several acclaimed indies from 1998-2002 (Following, Memento, Insomnia) and beginning his blockbuster blitz with 2005’s Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight turned him into a national name, with Sue Kroll, president of Warner Bros.’ worldwide marketing, even stating that “Christopher Nolan [was now] a brand.”

While the world waited with bated breath for Nolan’s conclusion to his brilliant Batman trilogy, he had another project in mind he wanted to pursue before going back to Gotham City. Nolan initially pitched the idea for the intricate and inventive Inception to Warner Bros. back in 2001, but he wished to acquire more awareness on how to best bring “larger-scale” films to life before officially tackling this twisty tale; with two big-budget Batman flicks under his belt, the time had come to make his delirious dreams a reality (both literally and figuratively) and begin constructing his most complex chronicle yet.

We have a little less than a month to wait until Nolan’s eleventh feature film, Tenet, hits theaters (scheduled for Wednesday, August 12th), but to coincide with both that picture’s first release date and Inception’s 10th anniversary, the seventh edition of “Flashback Films” is dedicated to revisiting Nolan’s ballsy 2010 blockbuster and investigating its influence on innovation in cinema over the past decade. Given that Tenet is seemingly quite similar to Inception in scale, scope, and story, there’s no better way to put your anticipation for Nolan’s latest effort at ease than by joining us to analyze one of his greatest achievements.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception (Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Originally envisioned as a horror-tinged heist film about “dream stealers,” Nolan soon realized that Inception’s plot lacked “personal” stakes and emotional investment; in a movie centered around memories and the mind, this was an obvious oversight. For the next nine to ten years, Nolan strained to smooth out his script, soon settling on a story that told of a “dream thief” named Cobb (to be played by the legendary Leonardo DiCaprio) who was called upon by a client to assemble a crew (composed of actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy) that could pull off the converse chore of instead planting an idea in an influential C.E.O.’s subconscious – this procedure would come to be known as “inception.”

Just as Inception’s narrative follows its protagonists’ twisty travels through “dreams within dreams within dreams,” Nolan additionally fine-tuned the film to jump from genre to genre to genre throughout its running time. When analyzed from afar, one can see that Inception has the suspenseful set-up of a heist film, the stupefying stunt work of an action adventure (most notably in that instantly iconic skirmish set in a “rotating hallway”), and the stirring subject matter of a science-fiction fable. After collecting compelling characteristics from each specific style of cinema, Nolan composed an entirely original creation that came to stand on its own as a cutting-edge concept. With such a mastery of the medium, Nolan managed to acquire the attention of his audience through the use of these familiar filmic frameworks right before pulling the rug out from beneath them with his more imaginative intentions to investigate our innermost identities.

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Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page in Inception (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Now, naturally, with the film’s aspirational ambitions, one would expect an extensive amount of exposition in Inception (especially given the tradition of “leaders” spelling out schemes to their “squads” at the start of heist movies, many of which Inception borrows heavily from), but Nolan doesn’t actually stop describing the rules of his “dreamworld” until he’s halfway through the film’s third act. Such a dicey decision runs the risk of alienating audiences who feel flustered by the epic’s elaborateness early on, but somehow, Nolan defied the odds and delivered a script with complex and captivating dialogue that never loses its coherence.

Nolan received an Academy Award nomination for his screenwriting, and rightfully so; to make these thought-provoking themes and perplexing plot turns sound so simple and yet so stimulating at the same time is a herculean task, and Nolan did so without breaking a sweat. To this day, Inception remains the “gold standard” of enlightening yet enthralling entertainment, and though many have tried, few blockbusters have come close to matching its bold brilliance.

Aside from Inception’s awe-inspiring action and constant cerebral contemplations about the human consciousness, the film is able to incorporate an impressively touching thematic throughline about Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard, of La Vie en Rose and Midnight in Paris), who continues to haunt his headspace and put his plans in jeopardy. Not only does Mal’s inclusion allow Nolan to fiddle with another film genre (this time it’s noir, since she fills in as the famed “femme fatale”), but she also strengthens the soul of the story. Cobb is always grappling with the guilt he still experiences over the role he believes he played in Mal’s suicide, and this internal struggle grounds Inception as a whole, providing the film with a sympathetic strife to relate to amidst all the startling spectacle. Cotillard’s provocative and persuasive performance only makes Mal all the more mesmerizing, as we find ourselves just as hypnotized by her as Cobb, and we are therefore able to fully engage with his emotions.

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Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Ten years later, Inception also still stands as a tremendous technical triumph, utilizing psychedelic special effects, sumptuous sound design, expeditious editing (courtesy of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight’s Lee Smith), and Hans Zimmer’s spine-tingling score to build a behemoth of a movie that begs to be seen on the big-screen. Nolan has always been a devout defender of the “theatrical experience” – and this worship is almost always reflected in his work – but Inception is perhaps his most immersive contribution to cinema to date, with each crew member capitalizing on the fullest capabilities of their craft. It’s one thing to envision an epic like Inception, but it’s another to actually portray the promise of the film’s plot to its fullest potential – and once again, Nolan overcomes the odds.

See Also

In the wake of Inception’s enormous earnings at the box office ($292.6 million domestically and $825.5 million worldwide – the third most successful feature in Nolan’s filmography behind The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight), more studios were inclined to bet on similar “big-budget blockbusters with brains” from A-list artists such as Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road). Without Inception paving the way for these pictures at the start of the decade, it’s hard to imagine producers feeling fearless enough to entrust these filmmakers with the funds required to fully realize their grandiose goals. Luckily, Nolan assured that audiences would indeed show up in swarms for these thought-provoking tentpoles.

Though Inception ends on an infamously inconclusive note (as we are left to wonder if Cobb rejoins the “real world” or remains stuck in his subconscious), one thing is for certain – Inception is a stone cold classic that will most definitely continue to live on in our dreams until the end of time. By forging new frontiers for film and reminding moviegoers of the magic of the medium with this confounding yet consuming creation, Nolan affirmed that The Dark Knight was no fluke, and he asserted himself as an auteur for the ages.


Inception: Trailer (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Inception is available to rent and own.


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