Viewing: Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

Inception is definitely the cure for the Hollywood summer movie blues of remakes, sequels, reboots, and remakes of reboot sequels. Bucking against the studio exec’s idea of a movie goer with a limited IQ, Christopher Nolan crafts a film that satisfies all the rubrics of an action blockbuster (beautiful stars, exotic locales, chase scenes, explosions, guns and bigger guns!) while daring to push the audience to think its way around the multi-layered labyrinth created by the characters and filmmaker.

Some immediate comparisons come to my mind while I was watching Inception and the most immediate one was that this is the true sequel to the Wachowski Brothers groundbreaking The Matrix, a movie so right on the cusp of the social networking age that it became prophetic and obsolete in almost the same breath in its commentary on how our interactions between the actual and virtual world can become so blurred that the definition of “the real world” has become a continuously complicated point of debate. Unfortunately, the Wachowski Brothers couldn’t push the envelope any further and instead of adding to their initial mythos, they fell back and let The Martix become allegory for older philosophies.

With Inception, Nolan grabs the baton and doesn’t stop at creating a dual version of reality but blazes forward and forges layers and layers of reality that fold into themselves. Staying true to the title, Inception is the creative process brought to cinematic life where the primary actors create subworlds with characters crafted with such vivid details that the subcharacters create their own agency and write themselves into the story that is both limited and freed by the vision of the original creator. Trippy, yes. Mystic, sort of. Fodder for adventurous storytelling, definitely.

It’s easier to talk about the process behind Inception than the actual plot of Inception because I hate giving away spoilers but as Roger Ebert notes, here is a movie immune to spoilers: “If you knew how it ended, that would tell you nothing unless you knew how it got there.” In fact, I remember checking my watch after 80 minutes into the movie, after all the expectations from the trailer where met, and thinking I have no idea what this movie is going to do next, much less how its going to end. Another 40 minutes in, after another reality was opened up, I was thinking again, How did we get here? What’s next? How does it end?

Again, Inception, the idea behind the idea—an idea so simple it becomes completely porous, an idea so personal it becomes universal, an idea so universal it becomes personal. Concepts all very familiar to poets and writers who have concepts and characters living in our work who start writing their own stories which are really the writers’ story.

My initial fear with the trailer for Inception was that it would be The Dark Knight 2 with Leonardo DiCaprio replacing Christian Bale. I couldn’t be more wrong as I mistook Nolan’s signature style of ominous musical tones (Well done, Hans Zimmer), an IMAX film-noir palette (imposing and sinister without being murky or muted), precise jump cuts (more like poetry line breaks than MTV radical bounce) and choice of actors who are more than just names for the marquee.

DiCaprio plays lead protagonist Cobb with a true sense of brooding and urgency that make the movie all about Cobb, but balanced with vulnerability and catharsis that allows both DiCaprio, the actor, and Cobb, the character, to honestly reach out to his supporting cast to help him get through the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur plays the perfect point man, assertive in his own right but putting the team’s agenda in the forefront while also pulling off one of the best and innovative fight scenes ever. Ellen Page also comes to the film as her own actress, bringing youthful optimism and unabashed ambition into a role that doesn’t fall back to just making her the “girl” in the action movie. (Again, The Matrix, remember Trinity’s bad-ass intro where she kicks all kinds of ass and then by the end of the series she shrinks to just being Neo’s girlfriend?) All the rest of the catch is top-notch with all of their roles clearly defined and laid out like chess pieces on a 3D chess board, each one with form and function and none more important than the other.

For me, the real litmus test is the writing and at one point Gordon-Levitt’s character lays down the game plan for what will happen in the next twenty minutes of the movie and I was like—Damn, that’s the best piece of exposition I’ve heard in a movie in a while. Nolan’s role as screenwriter is paramount, he knows exactly when to peel back the curtain for the audience, when to shift perspective, move time space, and break narrative without ever letting go of Inception’s primary goal. I’ve read that he’s been working on this script even before he put together Memento and it shows. He creates moments of emotional shock, necessary comedic levity, physical jarring, and actual empathy through a mix of action blockbuster language and philosophical exploration asides without either imposing on each other. George Lucas and James Cameron would be wise to take notes at this point and remember that sci-fi is not about heavy-handed CGI and empty manifestos; true sci-fi requires clear vision and innovative film-making to push the audience’s imagination to the next level.

Inception achieves a rare balance of being all we want in our summer blockbusters while being wholly original in its own right with an ending that honors the credo of true cinema—it leaves the audience to invent its own finale.

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  1. Good write-up! And I thought it wasn’t possible to write about it without giving it all away.

    Very good point re: Lucas and Cameron. At an even more elementary level, Lucas and Cameron have proven to me that they are mediocre, trite, pretentious (pseudo-intellectual?) if not crappy writers altogether whose stuff badly needs workshopping. Nolan’s writing is smart and it is sharp, such that, as you say, those moments needing exposition are well-handled. Even when the third or fourth character says, “Dream within a dream,” it works.

    I appreciated that the women characters were not simply “the girl” that is the plot device, and that our men of color (Look! Two Asians! Drop everything, my AZN brothers!) are also not static throwaway characters.

    Finally, it was nice to see Tom Hardy (!) who played Heathcliff in the best production of Wuthering Heights I’ve ever watched (and of course, he was also Praetor Shinzon in ST: Nemesis) as a one-man wrecking machine.

  2. Thanks for the great writeup! I’ve been calling it a spectacular movie, but the special effects really are just the icing on this, uh, many-layered cake, no pun intended. The plot’s actually kind of ludicrous when one stops to think about it — there must be some internal logic within the film that goes wrong somehow — but it’s so tightly constructed that you “go with it” anyway.

    I did love how we’re plunged into Inception’s universe with little exposition or explanation for the first 15 minutes of the film (we’re dealing with at least two timeframes in it from the very start). And not much of it will make much sense until we get to the end…

  3. @barb Maybe because we’re writers, we get that the jist of INCEPTION is equal parts process and application. In fact, it may have more to do with process than anything else, I’m thinking about how much of the movie itself is set-up, how the characters are so focused on getting the details around their plan in place and avoid the action-movie trope of “I’m making it up as I go along.”

    Which brings us back to Lucas and Cameron. Lucas was doing just fine until he got it in his head that he filmed the original STAR WARS as the first part of the trilogy. Lucas was doing much better when he collaborated with other folks instead of being the be-all-and-end-all steward of the STAR WARS vision.

    As for Cameron, I liked AVATAR; it was problematic in its fetishization of native culture but as a blockbuster movie experience it rocked the house. But you’d wish Cameron would reach out to a script doctor and clean up stinted dialogue like “We’ll fight terror… with terror” so that his visually stunning movie would also be just as lyrically fantastic.

    Yeah, I dug Tom Hardy a lot especially for his laid backness. When his character didn’t have anything to say, he would hang back in the cut but when it was time to kick ass, boo-ya-ka! Hardy has some amazing screen presence and Nolan knew exactly how to utilize him.

  4. @Sunny Vergara That goes back to the line in the movie where Cobb asks Adri if she has even asked how you get into a dream. I’m feeling like in that scene, Nolan is speaking through Cobb and asking the movie audience a similar question—You guys ever wonder how you get immersed inside this world of film?

    INCEPTION, metaphor for itself? Kinda cool, in a post-modernist kinda way. Of course, it would help if I actually has a base definition for post-modernism. ;-)

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