How 'Inception' Redefined Christopher Nolan

Inception (2010) - ELLEN PAGE as Ariadne and LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as Cobb - Photofest -H 2020
Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest
Ten years after its release, audiences are still debating Nolan's labyrinthine heist film, which proved the filmmaker's name alone was a selling point for moviegoers.

"What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea." In 2001, Christopher Nolan, hot off an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Memento (2000), presented Warner Bros. with an idea. Like an architect, he built upon the foundations of this idea and what was originally a horror movie centered on dream thieves grew and became closer to a heist film set in the landscape of constructed dreams. But the idea was too big for the novice director, the blueprint roughly sketched and lacking the necessary doors and windows. Nolan moved on, but fostered a long-running relationship with Warners that began with Insomnia (2002), which led to his successful reboot of the Batman franchise with Batman Begins (2005), and even more successful sequel The Dark Knight (2008), which were bridged by his first foray into ambitious sci-fi with the modestly successful The Prestige (2006) for Buena Vista. But during this time, as Nolan's star rose in Hollywood, that idea he'd pitched in 2001 was never demolished. As his technical skills and storytelling craft were refined over the first decade of the 21st century, Nolan continued to lay bricks upon the unfinished structure in his mind, until the time came for a new blueprint, a revised script for a film titled Inception.

It was The Dark Knight that made Christopher Nolan a household name, but it was Inception that proved his name alone was a selling point, and that audiences weren't just fans of Batman and the Joker, but Nolan himself. Inception was an invitation to the filmmaker and to audiences that said (to quote Tom Hardy's Eames), "You musn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling." An ambitious sci-fi project with an all-star cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine, Inception blended heady concepts with crowd-pleasing blockbuster elements. It's a cinematic union that Nolan has become known for in his efforts to create high-brow, yet audience friendly, spectacle. Inception went on to gross $828.3 million worldwide and today remains the third highest-grossing live-action film based on an original screenplay, only behind James Cameron's one-two punch of Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Inception also garnered Nolan his first best picture nomination and won four Oscars, including cinematography for Wally Pfister. The money and the accolades are certainly no minor achievements, but what's most impressive about Inception a decade on is how we audience members continue to discuss, theorize and uncover new details within the corners of Nolan's labyrinthine heist film that sees its character arcs writ large across a dreamscape.

In terms of pure spectacle, there's a quality of Inception that allows the film to inspire awe with each repeated viewing. There are set pieces in Inception, from the folding city, the rotating hallway fight, the mountain hospital battle and the ruined dream cityscape that remain just as powerful as they were the first time we experienced the film in theaters. For a film as popular as this one is, it's difficult, even 10 years later, to discuss those moments, backed by Hans Zimmer's now iconic score, in new terms. The technical mastery on display, modern movie-magic at its finest, has been highlighted time and again. It's not so much a question of how those set pieces were created, or where they fit into Nolan's multilayered structure of the film's dream levels that remains compelling, but how Nolan uses those moments to make complicated lore and technical jargon land as easily with audiences as a comic book panel. Nolan's big ideas concerning time, legacy, reality and faith are grounded through expansive set pieces that are clearly attached to a specific objective, and his exposition is given on the go with Ariadne (Page) serving as stand-in for the audience, asking the logical questions at the very moment we as audience members are wondering the same thing. These aspects give the film a narrative clarity that distinguishes it from other movies associated with the quality of dreams, such as Inception's oft compared-to predecessor, Paprika (2006). These memorable set pieces and easily digestible bursts of exposition provide the walls and corners of Nolan's structure, but it's the film's themes that provide a route through it.

Perhaps the best way to traverse the thematic details of Nolan's maze is to start at the exit point. After all, it's the ending of Inception that has spawned so much of the discussion and debate over the past 10 years. What should we make of Cobb's (DiCaprio) totem, the spinning top? Some swear that the top wobbles before the screen cuts to black, and some even say they can hear it fall. Some have even theorized that Cobb never even really left the dream den Yusef (Dileep Rao) took him to in Mombasa, given that he hastily grabs his top from the bathroom sink before it has a chance to complete its rotation. It's worth noting that in the shooting script, the film ends with, "Behind him, on the table, the spinning top is STILL SPINNING." Nolan has said the question of whether Cobb is dreaming or not at the end of the film is the thing he's asked about the most, and he has remained diligent that it's up to the audience to decide. What's clear is that if Nolan wanted to provide a concrete answer to that question, he would have. But the point of the spinning top, and whether it continues to spin indefinitely or whether it falls, is that, in terms of Cobb's arc, it doesn't matter. Because within those continuous rotations are the shadows of two ideas, regret and reality.

Early in Inception, after the botched Cobol job, there is an invocation of the theme the film concludes with. "So do you want to take a leap of faith, or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?" Saito (Watanabe) asks Cobb. Every central character in the film is required to take a leap of faith, to pull off the act of dream implanting at the center of the film's plot, but only Cobb and Robert Fischer (Murphy) are burdened with regret. Through the events of the film they emerge on the other side with a new sense of reality, and a burden lifted, and an opportunity to escape dying alone. What's interesting about the journeys of Cobb, the thief at the forefront of the operation, and Fischer, the unassuming mark, is that the global reality their actions give way to is not one based in the salvation of all mankind. Saito hires Cobb and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) to perform inception so that Robert Fischer will dissolve his father's energy company in the wake of the patriarch's death, allowing Saito's competing energy corporation to gain a monopoly over the market. We don't spend much time in the "not too distant future" where Nolan's film takes place, but any future where energy is controlled by a singular corporation, and denizens spend their lives dreaming, as we see in the dream den in Mombasa, is far from a utopia.

Nolan isn't interested in saving the world in Inception, a journey he'd go on to explore in Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and seemingly the upcoming Tenet. Rather, he's interested in saving the personal worlds, the small-scale reality and the perception of it, of two men, Cobb and Fischer, who in the genre language of the heist film should be enemies, but through the course of dream sharing, become allies. Fischer's love for his father, because of the incepted idea that Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) wanted his son to be his own man, is validated by the end of the film. Like Cobb's return to his children, James and Phillipa, it doesn't matter if it's actually true. It becomes reality because of the perception that it is true, and the perception of love, of belonging, supersedes any other measure of reality. Fischer's relationship with his father, and more importantly Cobb's reunion with his children, are the only realities worth saving and holding on to.

What's also interesting about the personal salvation at the heart of Inception, is that the film is one of the rare blockbusters without a villain. Sure, Mal (Marion Cotillard) makes for a compelling, and sometimes frightening, femme fatale character, but she's merely a manifestation of Cobb's subconscious, his failure to handle his grief. She is the perception of a threat, a lack of love in his life, which gives her credible reality as an adversary, but not as the loving partner Cobb so desperately wishes she was. As Cobb says to the projection of Mal during the film's climax, in one of the best line deliveries of DiCaprio's celebrated career, "I wish. I wish more than anything. But 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." This moment of catharsis could be taken as evidence that Cobb is not dreaming at the film's end, that he is able to perceive reality as it really is. But there exists the question of whether his young children, who he has seen so infrequently and have yet to develop all the complexities associated with adulthood, could even be perceived with the same critical eye that he looks upon the shadow of a woman he once spent a lifetime with. Again, we arrive at the point that Cobb's children, reality or dream, are good enough.

Reflecting on Inception, it's not surprising that Nolan began work on it shortly after finishing Memento, given the thematic similarities they share. The word memento stems from the phrase memento mori, a Latin expression that translates to "remember you will die." Thus a memento became a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death, and during medieval Europe the depiction of a skull became a common memento. Through the ages the term and idea evolved into a keepsake associated with a specific memory, hence the tattoos and photographs Lenny (Guy Pearce) collects in Memento. Looking at Memento in context with Inception, another word to describe a memento is a totem, though the latter term has a more sacred association but is no less spiritual. The totems in Inception — Cobb's spinning top, Arthur's loaded die, Ariadne's chess piece — are all mementos, reminders of a potentially forgotten truth, that the their dream world is not real, and however immortal they may feel within that dreamscape, as Cobb and Mal felt during the 50 years inside the city they created, their mortal selves are waiting in reality. At the end of Memento, Lenny ignores where his mementos have led him, the truth that he has already found and killed his wife's murderer and the man who took away his ability to produce new memories. He ignores reality, destroying the photos and evidence that led him to the truth, forgetting to live and forgetting to end, so that his journey can continue, and he can live out his cyclical existence. But Cobb ignores his totem at the end of Inception so that his journey might end, so the elevator in his mind that takes him up and down through his history of regrets can finally stop, and he can remember to live.

It's been a decade since Christopher Nolan completed his maze. But we're still going back through it, again and again, discovering new pathways complete with unseen allusions and symbology, and building on top of what he left for us by way of new perceptions. While sturdy, and high-reaching, the pathways through Nolan's grand idea are not cold, as Nolan's filmography has wrongly been criticized of being. If anything, Inception radiates warmth and light, the image of a father hugging his children in the sunlight carrying more narrative weight and thematic resonance than the cool gray of a spinning top. In his story of a father's journey to return home to his children, Christopher Nolan helped elevate the genre, blockbuster filmmaking, and audience expectations, while never losing sight of the fact that regret and reality are both made manageable by love.