Today, Christopher Nolan is widely recognized as one of the most influential and popular filmmakers of all time. A high-concept auteur whose singular vision and artistic ambition go hand in hand with commercial success. His brainy, original blockbuster epics stand out in a sea of never-ending Hollywood franchises; Christopher Nolan films are sold on his own personal brand of filmmaking, as opposed to relying on the popularity of an existing character or franchise.
While we wait for his latest film, Tenet, to come out and single-handedly save the entire film industry from COVID-19 – or, let’s be real, probably have its release pushed back until 2021 – let’s take a look back at the film that cemented Nolan’s reputation as a cerebral hit-maker: Inception.
Thanks to the success of Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight, which was a monster box office smash, Christopher Nolan was already considered a filmmaker with a talent for smart, complex blockbusters that did not have to dumb things down to be commercially successful.
That’s probably why Warner Bros. was confident enough to give the man $160 million to make an original science-fiction action film about a thief who infiltrates people’s mind through dreams. It was a big gamble that paid off… and then some. Sure, it made $830 million worldwide, but its impact and influence extend far beyond that. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made over a billion dollars at the box office the very next year, but it was basically forgotten as soon as it left cinemas. Inception, meanwhile, planted a flag in popular culture that cannot be overlooked.
Whether it’s the various memes and references, single-handedly launching the infamous ‘braam’ trailer trend of the 2010s, or its pretty clear influence on movies like Doctor Strange, Inception‘s popularity and staying power is undeniable. It’s hard to imagine that Christopher Nolan would have been given the level of resources and creative freedom to make movies like Interstellar and Tenet had Inception not been as hugely successful as it was.
So what was the key to that success? How did the movie with complex sci-fi ideas about dreams within dreams end up being so popular?
Let’s briefly go back another decade and talk about a different brainy sci-fi action blockbuster – The Matrix. For all its profound philosophical themes and heady sci-fi concepts, The Matrix, at its core, is a power fantasy that adheres pretty closely to the archetypal hero’s journey. Neo’s story follows a very familiar framework that not only makes the complex ideas and wordbuilding of The Matrix more accessible but also, and most importantly, ensures that you do not have to fully understand The Matrix to follow or enjoy it.
Inception does something similar. While most people probably haven’t seen a lot – or any – films about dreams within dreams, heist films are fairly popular and ubiquitous. Even if you’ve never seen a single heist film, you can probably recognise a fair amount of their tropes and archetypes: the career criminal who has to pull off one last, impossible job; the femme fatale; recruiting a crew of diverse, highly skilled experts; putting together a complicated, risky plan for the job; making stuff up on the fly when the plan inevitably goes to hell.
Inception nestles all of its complicated, mind-bending ideas about infiltrating people’s minds and dreams within this familiar heist framework. The crew in heist films can often be quite broad in their characterisation, defined more by their skills and function than anything else.
That works in Inception‘s favour, as the story can focus on the emotional journey of a single character – Leonardo DiCaprio’s master thief Cobb – while the rest of the cast mostly drive the plot forward or deliver exposition. A lot of exposition.
Whenever something – anything – happens in Inception, it’s almost always accompanied by exposition that explains it at length. The movie painstakingly and meticulously walks you through everything, introducing new concepts at a steady pace. The different dream layers are also clearly defined so that cross-cutting between them doesn’t get confusing.
Still, it can be a lot to take in. If you think of Inception as a brain marathon, then the Limbo sequences are the sprint to the finish that broke many a brain 10 years ago, and still do today. So perhaps not everyone fully understood what was going on Inception. Yet the movie still captured people’s attention in a big way, and the best indicator of that is the ending.
That final, maddening shot and all the intense discussion and analysis that it sparked is proof. Proof that audiences not only understood enough about Inception to grasp the ending’s implications but were also emotionally invested in Cobb and cared about his ultimate fate.
Another thing which grounds this high-concept movie is Christopher Nolan’s insistence on using practical effects as much as possible. The spectacle and the scale of the film generally don’t overwhelm the story, but rather compliment it. The iconic spinning corridor fight is marvellous and presents an action scenario that is wholly unique to both Inception and Christopher Nolan’s style.
10 years later, Inception still stands as one of the defining masterpieces of Nolan’s career – and the film that fully established him as a household name.