Full disclosure from the off: I’m a big Christopher Nolan fan. I think he’s one of the few people working in Hollywood today who can deliver big-budget, populist entertainment while indulging his own thematic preoccupations and carving out a style of his own. From the moment I first saw the Inception trailer above, with its moody The-Matrix-meets-Heat aesthetic, I knew I’d be eagerly looking forward to seeing this film. And thankfully, it did not disappoint.
What I admire about Nolan is that within the space of a decade, he’s gone from an indie film shot guerrilla-style on black-and-white film for £2000, to a $150 million action film based on a world-famous superhero franchise and filled to the brim with A-list actors. Yet there’s a very clear through-line from Following to The Dark Knight, and into Inception, and the same elements abound through all Nolan’s films: plot twists, psychological gamesmanship, meditations on duality and doppelgangers, obsession, and characters whose guilt has grown to define them.
Essentially, Inception is a heist film. Nolan has always been adept at lashing his own agendas to genre-fiction plots, and this is no exception. You have the team of thieves being drawn back in for “one last job”; you have the leader, the tough guy, the cocky guy, the wise adviser, the new recruit. The characters are, to a certain extent, schematic, but never feel lifeless. While Leonardo DiCaprio anchors the film with an extremely capable performance, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt provide a very funny back-and-forth rapport, and Ellen Page adds unexpected depth and emotion to her largely expository role. They’re playing pre-defined roles within the narrative just as they are within the team, well-oiled components operating at peak performance to fulfil the demands of the plot and tell us a compelling story.
And what a story. It’s a futuristic conceit, but explored without any of the detached sterility that’s often a risk for science fiction. The idea of people entering a person’s dreams in order to steal their secrets (which are usually “locked away” in a representation of their subconscious – a safe, basement, or fortified military installation) is simple and ingenious at the same time. But as Nolan takes us down the rabbit hole, on an elaborate long con which keeps as much from the audience as it does from the team’s “mark”, we become aware that something much larger is at play.
The film’s big hook is the concept of an “inception”: instead of stealing an idea, the team must plant one deep in the subconscious of their target. Does this remind you of anything? After leaving the cinema my head was buzzing with interpretations of the film, and ideas for what the shared-dream technology would mean for the wider world. The film had conducted its own “inception” on me – and on many of my fellow audience members, I’d wager.
Inception, to my mind, can be read as a metaphor for the creative impulse – for something that seems a little dangerous and exciting while you’re doing it, where the most important work takes place in a strange dream-world that looks like our own, but can be manipulated to your own ends. This rather neat interpretation (WARNING: contains spoilers) dovetails with my own views on the twist at the end, and offers a decent explanation of the film on a narrative and thematic level.
There’s a telling line of dialogue in the film; at one point, DiCaprio’s Cobb says “An idea can grow to define us, or destroy us”. His relationship with his wife (played brilliantly by Marillon Cotillard) is the emotional lynchpin of the film, and the source of the guilt that has come to rule his life and seep through into the dreams in which he operates. Cobb’s journey to reject that guilt, move on from the regrets of the past, and save himself and his team is typical Hero’s Journey stuff, but rather than overtly spelling it out, Nolan implicitly asks us to see the idea of competing narratives battling it out inside Cobb’s head.
The stories we tell ourselves end up defining us. Nolan knows this, and has used it in his films before, from the tattoos covering Leonard Shelby’s body in Memento to Bruce Wayne’s oath to avenge his parents’ death by becoming a figure of the night. Inception is many things, but it’s a brilliantly entertaining bit of genre film-making, a fine story about telling stories, and a meditation on the nature of reality, and what that should mean to us.