“Though dreams can be deceiving/Like faces are to hearts/They serve as sweet relieving/When fantasy and reality lie too far apart”
- Fiona Apple, “Slow Like Honey”
When The Dark Knight opened in theaters in 2008 to near-universal acclaim from both critics and audiences, box-office success, numerous awards (including a posthumous Best Supporting Actor to the late Heath Ledger for his role as The Joker), it was the beginning of a beautiful and profitable friendship between Warner Bros. and writer/director Christopher Nolan. Yes, Nolan had directed the English-language remake of Insomnia, followed by Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight is what convinced Warner Bros. even more that Nolan was someone they wanted to be in business with.
This gave Nolan enough leverage to inform them that he wanted to direct an original story of his own creation, one that he had been working on for at least a decade until he was given the budget and resources to properly bring his story to life. That story was Inception, which he wrote and directed, and which opened in theaters on July 16, 2010.
Inception tells the story of Dominic “Dom” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a highly-skilled thief who is the best there is at extraction, which is using experimental military technology to infiltrate the subconscious of another person through a dream world that has been created by the thieves performing the extraction, gaining access to valuable information that is being kept secret, and stealing that information for yourself or for someone else (mostly for billion-dollar companies looking to gain an advantage over their competitors). When a recent extraction goes terribly wrong, resulting in one of his crew members being taken into captivity by the corporation he is working for, Cobb finds himself being offered a job he can’t refuse by Saito (Ken Watanabe), the person whose dreams and secrets he was targeting in the first place: Infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and instead of stealing information from him, “incept” him and plant an idea in his head that will convince him to not become CEO of the energy conglomerate that is one step closer to becoming a total monopoly of nearly all the world’s energy and to dismantle it once he inherits the company from his father, Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite, in one of his final roles before his death in 2011), who is on his deathbed. If he does this, Saito will have Cobb’s criminal record erased, so that he will be able to stop evading the authorities and return to the United States to be with his two children again, who are being raised by his in-laws.
To carry this out successfully, Cobb, his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Saito (who insists on coming along to make sure that everything goes smoothly) recruit a few others to assist them: Eames (Tom Hardy), an expert forger/identity thief who is able to alter his appearance and adopt the mannerisms of others in dreams in order to gain further access to information from the target; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who creates the sedatives that will make it possible for Cobb, his colleagues, and Fischer to fall into deep sleep and access the many different levels of dreams; and Ariadne (Ellen Page), a grad student at the École d’Architecture in Paris, France whose job as the “architect” is to create the worlds and surroundings on each dream level so that Fischer is able to dream more comfortably and grant access to Cobb and his crew in order for the inception to actually work.
Unfortunately for all of them, there are two problems that will get in the way of their mission: Cobb is recently widowed and his extractions are regularly haunted by the violent and manipulative presence of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), which literally threatens the safety of everyone involved by making it impossible for Cobb to focus on the task at hand, as well as focus on the discovery that Fischer has also been trained to defend his subconscious from extractors by any means necessary. And there is also Cobb’s willingness to lie and keep secrets from his own crew by not telling them about Mal’s increased presence, or about how truly dangerous this assignment is, and how they could all be in greater jeopardy than expected as they delve deeper into the dreamworld that they’re now fighting for their lives in.
When Nolan first envisioned the story for Inception and wrote an eighty-page script treatment for it, he intended for it to be a horror film. And as interesting as it would’ve been to see Nolan go in that direction, Inception still works incredibly as both a heist film and a James Bond-like espionage thriller, and for so many reasons. The unique and incredible action sequences, including the now-famous zero-gravity hallway fight, which looks like something that Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire would’ve had so much fun choreographing, while possibly hating that they wouldn’t get to do it themselves (since Nolan insisted on Joseph Gordon-Levitt being in the scene instead of a stuntperson). The smart and captivating writing that kept viewers absorbed in what they were seeing and constantly guessing what would happen next. The fun that comes with any heist film of seeing each crew member being recruited to come join in on the dangerous and profitable fun that’s about to be had. Seeing characters that the audience has grown to like being dropped into a life-or-death situation and watching them have to play speed chess in the dark as they attempt to figure out how to survive and come out on top. Seeing these same characters that the audience has grown to like doing all of this while looking really sharp-dressed, courtesy of the film’s costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland.
And then of course, there’s that sound.
You know the sound I’m talking about. This one.
Or this one, which is the very same sound, but accompanied with a button that will probably make you feel like you’re at a video arcade.
The sound wasn’t actually created by composer Hans Zimmer, whose actual score for the film is just as beautiful and memorable and pulse-pounding as should be expected by now, but by…
Well…if you ask composer/sound designer Mike Zarin, who helped work on the first trailer for Inception, he’ll say that the Inception sound was his creation, and that Zimmer was unfairly taking credit for his work. And if you ask composer Zack Hemsey, credit should go to him and his instrumental track, “Mind Heist,” which was originally composed for the third and final trailer for Inception, for how that sound was used in said track, and not for him creating it from scratch. And apparently, Zack really can’t say much more about it because of Warner Bros. making him sign a non-disclosure agreement (yes, really). Either way, the subject of who is really responsible for that one Earth-shaking musical note, which became quite the game-changer for how movie trailers were made afterwards, is a bit of a heated topic, but none of that changes how the Inception sound is now one of the most well-known things about the film itself.
If you choose to embrace the very popular theory that Inception is a movie about the process of making movies, it gets even better. Each role that Cobb and his crew play in planning and carrying out The Fischer Job is similar to the roles of a production crew planning and carrying out their work on the set of a film (Cobb as director, Arthur as producer, Ariadne as writer, Saito as the studio head bankrolling the production, Eames as the actor, Yusuf as production designer, Fischer as the audience) and hearing them discuss the motivations of how and why Fischer would walk away from his entire inheritance is like hearing the writing staff of a television series breaking down a story so they can figure out how best to turn it into a shooting script that will be used for production.
There are two glaring complaints that have been made about Inception since its release. The first is that the dreams envisioned in the film are not lavish or imaginative enough for a movie that is all about dreams and about using the imagination to craft what a person’s dreamworld could or would look like. One of the most memorable scenes in the film (and definitely the most memorable scene in the film’s trailers) is Ariadne altering Cobb’s dream by lifting several city blocks in Paris from their foundations like a tidal wave and folding them in half so that one side of the neighborhood is completely upside down and positioned over the other side.
It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and it led some viewers to be disappointed that Nolan didn’t use more visuals like that to make the dreams seem more extraordinary and less ordinary, despite the fact that Cobb makes it very clear to Ariadne (and to the audience) why such drastic alterations to someone else’s dream is not recommended and doesn’t usually result in anything good. Compare this to you being in someone else’s house. You can alter the surroundings in small ways that may not be noticed, but if you were to do something extreme like paint every wall blood-red or let the bathtub overflow so it can flood the house, eventually the homeowner will take notice and become aggressive towards the person(s) for invading their space and fucking around with it.
The second glaring complaint aimed at Inception is about the reliance on expository dialogue throughout much of the film, though the amount of exposition is really no worse than it is in another densely-plotted sci-fi film that also threw its audience for a loop, and that film was none other than The Matrix. In both films, the universes that the characters inhabit require many rules that must be known in order to guarantee their success and survival. And for us to actually care about the success and survival of the characters in these films, whether it’s Neo having to confront Agent Smith on his own and finally realize his potential as The One, or Arthur having to improvise a “kick” to awaken his colleagues and having to do so with no gravity in his surroundings, is to know and understand what’s at stake and why it actually matters so that you can follow the story and enjoy what’s happening onscreen.
Thanks to Yusuf taking advantage of the free champagne being offered on the flight and not using the bathroom beforehand, the Fischer Job doesn’t exactly get off to the easiest start. But he does come through, thanks to his defensive driving skills that are impressive enough to keep him and the rest of the crew alive, and probably even earn a thumbs-up from Max Rockatansky himself, as he evades gunfire from Fischer’s security team that results in him having to drive them all off of a bridge and activate the “kick” much sooner than expected.
As if it isn’t enough to deal with the death of his father, who said and did very little to show any love or compassion towards him while he was alive, Robert Fischer must now find himself bearing the responsibility of taking over the corporation that his father started and calling all the shots, but not before finding himself kidnapped by Cobb and being manipulated into thinking that his uncle (Tom Berenger) is also in captivity and is being tortured for money. Despite the fact that Cobb and Saito’s inception of him leads to Fischer walking away from his inheritance to do his own thing and stand on his own two feet, he is at least given the comforting thought of being told by his father that he really did love and care about him, even if he didn’t always express those feelings towards him. Yes, it is still a fiction created in order for the inception to fully work, but in the words of another Nolan protagonist, sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more, and deserve to have their faith rewarded. (I don’t know if there is any truth to this rumor about the working relationship between Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite, and whether this contributed to how heartbreaking their scenes were, so…feel free to take all of this with a grain of salt)
Originally a target for extraction by Cobb and Arthur (which was actually a set-up by him in order to see what Cobb and Arthur were truly capable of) and now working alongside them to take down his direct competitor, Saito’s involvement is frowned upon at first, as he’s seen as nothing but a tourist who will just get in the way. But he quickly shows that he’s just as willing to do the work and get his hands dirty, all while bleeding out from a gunshot wound thanks to Fischer’s armed security. And much like The Joker, Saito is a man of his word, as the very first thing he does upon waking up after being retrieved from Limbo (the dream dimension where a person can create whatever world they choose, but lose all awareness that the world they’re in is a dream and not reality) by Cobb is pick up the phone to clear Cobb’s name and honor his promise to help him get back home.
Charming, flirtatious, quick-thinking — all of these are qualities that serve Eames quite well when doing his work as a forger. Like everyone else on Cobb’s crew, he’s not at all happy when he realizes how likely it is that he could end up in Limbo if The Fischer Job goes badly and he ends up getting killed, but he’s still willing to keep going and make sure that things don’t reach that point. The amount of fan-fiction that has been written about Eames and Arthur since the film’s release has been quite immense, and their sarcastic, prickly interactions with one another, capped off by Arthur attempting to shoot a nearby sniper until Eames steps in with grenade launcher in hand and says to Arthur his classic line, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling” before taking out the sniper with one explosive shot, pretty much sealed the deal.
When Ariadne first learns about Mal, about how she keeps appearing in Cobb’s dreams and extensions and about the fact that she’s no longer alive, she asks Arthur what was she like. To which Arthur sadly responds, “She was lovely.” And yet, this description of Mal is not really one that will come to mind as we see her and see this shade of who she was, and who slowly makes Cobb realize that the real Mal that he once loved and adored is truly gone for good. Many of her interactions with Cobb involve her lashing out at him for not doing everything she feels is possible so that the two of them can be together, and also lashing out at other crew members to make his work even more difficult than it already is. It’s both terrifying and painful to watch at times, as we see how Mal is a constant reminder of what Cobb once did to her that led to his life being ruined by lies and her life ending in an act of desperation, of what he has to make peace with before he can go back home to his family and, in the words of Mal’s father, Miles (Michael Caine), come back to reality.
Upon her first meeting with Cobb, Ariadne instantly finds herself both fascinated and terrified after learning about extraction, enough that she can’t bring herself to walk away from Cobb’s job offer, no matter how dangerous and unpredictable it may be. As much as she’s concerned about Cobb’s well-being, she also knows that his overwhelming grief is putting her and the rest of the crew in danger, and she is more than willing to bust a cap in Mal’s ass to wake him up and sharpen his focus on what’s important and what needs to be done.
As Cobb’s closest friend and colleague, Arthur is incredibly good at what he does and takes his work very seriously (enough that Eames refers to him as a ‘stick in the mud’). Like Ariadne, he’s also concerned about Cobb, but his commitment to accomplishing The Fischer Job and making sure that they don’t all end up in Limbo takes precedence. And if that involves him having to battle one of Fischer’s armed guards in a hallway fight with no gravity between either of them or ending a foot chase by showing another member of Fischer’s security guard by showing him all about the importance of a paradox, then so be it.
In any other story, if someone were to lie and manipulate his friends and colleagues as much as Cobb does in order to get what he wants, he would be considered an absolute villain who deserves what’s coming to him. But Cobb is both likable and three-dimensional enough that we understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, and how overcome he is with both grief and regret that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to have his family together again. It’s as if Inception is a sci-fi version of Pet Sematary (only a lot less horrifying and much friendlier to the hamstrings) and Cobb is Louis Creed, except that Cobb hasn’t abandoned all reason in order to accomplish his goal and is still very much determined to make sure that everyone in his crew is alive and well enough to wake up and get back home once the job is complete. Even if it means having to say goodbye to Mal one more time and accept that no matter how much he misses her, no matter how often he dreams of her so that they can still be together, he has to let her go. Even if it means searching through all of Limbo to find Saito and wake him up so that their agreement is honored and so he isn’t left behind to be an old man filled with regret and waiting to die alone. And it was this performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and his scenes opposite Marion Cotillard (whose own work onscreen is equally impressive and nothing to scoff at) that helped Nolan prove once more that neither he nor his work is as cold and emotionless as they are regularly accused of being.
Inception wasn’t an underdog by any means, but there were some doubts in Hollywood before its release that an original story that was determined to be such a mind-bender in the summer movie season would make any real impact at the box-office, especially since it wasn’t an established property of any kind. And yet, it was able to win over both critics and audiences (including Ben Wyatt, who couldn’t care less about seeing the Eiffel Tower compared to being able to see the actual bridge where Ariadne first learned how to build dreams), and it showed once more that Nolan was capable of making a film that could bring the noise and bring the drama, and also give fans of his work plenty to think about and talk about long after the closing credits have stopped rolling.
I mean, the debates as to whether or not Cobb’s totem ever stopped spinning and if he was really dreaming after all, and whether or not Cobb was the real target of the inception in order to help him come to terms with his loss, those discussions are still ongoing and can get just as heated as when people are talking about whether or not Deckard is really a Replicant in Blade Runner, and whether or not Dottie dropped the ball on purpose in A League Of Their Own.
After Inception, Nolan went on to release The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of The Dark Knight trilogy, staring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Which was then followed in 2014 by Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, David Oyelowo, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, and Jessica Chastain.
In 2017, he wrote and released Dunkirk, starring Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Harry Styles.
July 17, 2020 was supposed to bring us the theatrical release of Tenet, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh, but because of the massive catastrof*ck that is COVID-19 making it very unsafe for movie theaters to be open this year, Warner Bros. has delayed its release indefinitely.
No one actually knows when Tenet will be released in theaters (it’s now rumored that Warner Bros. is considering the option of releasing Tenet later this year and doing so internationally first before releasing it in theaters here in the U.S.), but please know that if you honestly think that it’s going to happen next month or the month after that or any time before 2021, this right here is the only response I have for you. Which is also the same response I had towards everyone who believed that Nolan doesn’t ever allow people to sit in chairs on the sets of his movies (really, people?! Really?!), and that Nolan all by his lonesome is forcing a billion-dollar movie studio to carry out his bidding when it comes to any and all changes in release dates for Tenet in the near future. And if it turns out that I’m wrong about that, because Nolan and/or Warner Bros. insists on putting way too much pressure on one movie to help keep the movie theater industry alive, which is a weight that really isn’t fair for any movie to carry, then I will certainly deserve this response right here.
At its heart, Inception is not just a film about dreams and how painful or comforting they can be, depending on the dreamer(s) and what’s lurking beneath the surface to eventually rear its head when we’re asleep and at our most vulnerable. It’s also a story about how two people are forced to confront their guilt, their grief, and their loss, and finally finding a way to make peace with it all in order to keep moving forward. And it’s why Inception has already become a classic of the sci-fi/action genre, and why it still merits and inspires just as much discussion now as it did a decade ago it was first released.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.