A dream made into a reality – What made Inception such a success, 10 years later?
Christopher Nolan may have made his huge Hollywood mark with The Dark Knight Trilogy, but Inception is a film that cemented the brilliance of his creativity. It’s a bonkers story – agents invading dreams to steal ideas for corporate hires – riffing off of intellectual action properties like The Matrix, but with a Bond-esque edge. But how did such a complex film, with literal layers upon layers of plotting and storytelling, become such a favourite among popular film audiences?
For a film themed so heavily around how valuable ideas are to a thief, it’s remarkable how such an idea came to light in the first place. But having studied dreams and the methods by which we process information within them, Nolan became well-equipped to tackle his first solo screenplay since Memento.
The word ‘idea’ feels a little broad for everything that it incorporates. The way the story unfolds. The way action is filmed and presented. The way that the characters interact with the world to give us a glimpse into their backstory. But that’s exactly why we love it: it’s not a gimmick, but a transformative feature of the film, influencing how we see everything, feel about everything. Is it a dream, is it reality? It’s an idea that The Matrix played with, but Inception sticks with entirely.
As I say, any film can offer a great idea. A film like Gerard Butler’s Gamer put the idea of agency in videogames to the sword, only for it to literally cut out any interest for a by-the-numbers run-and-gun action flick. What makes Inception a modern classic? The way it turns that idea into gold through its direction, staging, action choreography and cinematography.
Nolan has clear creative reign on this thing. 90 per cent of what you see is real, bar the odd effect such as the world flip sequence that demands some digital assistance: it’s peak Nolan if it’s practical. Consider the now iconic corridor fight scene. Any film fan will know that there’s no camera trickery there: Nolan had a giant rotating platform built to film this two-minute fight as authentically as possible.
It’s that extra effort that turns the idea into the heart of a complete product. The action is practical, real, which plays directly into the narrative: is what we’re seeing real, or a figment of imagination? With the corridor scene for example, the camera staying level rather than rotating, so it feels like the rotation is only being experienced by the characters, as well as the fact that it’s actually Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting with the stuntmen: it all comes together for the sake of the story, built from that idea of dreams versus reality.
How can we buy into that idea without leads that convince us? Luckily, Nolan hired some charismatic stars to deliver his exposition-heavy dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re reading from a Wikipedia entry.
Let’s start with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s refreshing to see the character actor take on a big-budget role, but apply that same attention to detail that he’s famous for. His character, Cobb, is not a knight in shining armour: he’s a criminal, stealing from one rich businessman for another. But Nolan writes in a sensible goal: Cobb wants to get back to his kids, who he’s been separated from since an incident involving his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). With a few flashback scenes and a general sense of urgency, Leo is able to communicate the importance of this to Cobb, a key factor in Inception’s lasting appeal: we care about what happens because we want Cobb to see his family once more.
Then there’s the supporting cast. Tom Hardy shows a more comedic side of his tough guy persona, delivering lines like “You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling” with a smooth, sarcastic edge that make him instantly likeable. Ellen Page does a solid job giving newcomer Ariadne a plucky determination that make her more than just a sideline character asking for an explanation to what the hell is going on.
But everyone does their part, giving the story some real personality. It could have been easy for the script to turn into an explain-a-thon, with Cobb and co. talking like they’re reading from a textbook. But Leo, Hardy, Page and the rest inject some real heart into the film.
Inception is a modern classic, there’s no denying it. Because while the characters go from dream layer to dream layer, piecing the puzzle of their target’s mind together, so too does Nolan, knitting every aspect of the filmmaking process together. Not only is it original, but it acts on that originality by turning those ideas into a worthwhile story.
It’s just a great movie, a perfect recipe, Nolan’s most complete film. And 10 years later, we still love to dive into its dreamscape. So grab your spinning top and get your head spinning by revisiting Inception this weekend.
So why do you still watch Inception? For the insanely creative action? To piece together pieces of the story that you missed last time? Drop some feedback and let me know!
If you liked this, why not check out some of my other articles? Here's a review of the Charlize Theron/Netflix action film The Old Guard. Or click here for a 'Top Five' list of Tom Cruise stunts, in honour of his recent birthday.
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