Inception turns 10: Critics look back at Christopher Nolan's dreamy thriller
It was a terrible summer for big movies. 2010 was the year of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The A-Team, the worst Sex and the City and the worst Iron Man. Star vehicles failed with such frequency that movie stardom itself looked defunct. Audiences weren’t interested in the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz caper Knight and Day, and Robin Hood reunited Russell Crowe with Gladiator director Ridley Scott to dreadfully diminishing returns. The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia failed to launch new franchises (and set a weird trend for blockbuster whitewashing).
There were bright spots: the season’s best action movie was the third Twilight, and family audiences basked in Despicable Me, The Karate Kid, and Toy Story 3. But a twisty, mature thriller with a vast backdrop and a radical plot structure? Only in dreams…until July 16. Ten years later, Entertainment Weekly Critic at Large Leah Greenblatt returns to Inception with critic Darren Franich.
Darren: Inception was a sensation, crystallizing writer-director Christopher Nolan’s status as Hollywood’s brainy showman. A decade after his compulsively rewatchable Memento, two years after the phenomenon of The Dark Knight, here was an original concept with a giant budget and a shiny cast of all-stars and up-and-comers. The film still gets held up as a glorious rarity: a non-franchise property full of inscrutable mysteries and bummer vibes.
Still, I was a bit nervous about this rewatch, Leah. Ten years ago I was a Nolan zealot, and then a lot of his 2010s output just didn’t work on me. (Though I did enjoy 2/3 of Dunkirk.) (Hope to see you soon, Tenet!) The first hour of Inception really is a problem, pretty much a filmed instruction manual for dream science. The feeling of the movie as, like, a problem to solve used to invigorate me. Now it just makes me tired.
What holds up better is Nolan’s old-fashioned fixation on authenticity. The green-screen skeptic builds an evocative fantasy out of real locations — Tokyo! Paris! Tangier! — which heightens the sense of isolation troubling dream thief Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio). The whole world really is his prison.
What are your memories of Inception’s release, Leah? And what was it like rewatching it?
Leah: Oh man, "Inscrutable mysteries and bummer vibes;" I truly hope that’s what they call his Criterion collection. As someone who somehow manages to work at least one mention of Memento per week into casual conversations (trust me my friends love me) I have to admit that Inception is a film that I’ve sort of let lie for the last 10 years.
So rewatching was partly a nice nostalgic throwback — ooh right, Michael Caine is in this for a minute! And Pete Postlethwaite? So young, Ellen Page! — and partly a sort of slow-motion, supremely Inception-y exercise in memory; just having it all come back to me in real-time how the gears of the plot were fitted together as they clicked onscreen.
I did miss some of that initial shock and awe, of course, just the wow factor of coming to it entirely brand new. But that also gave me room to appreciate all kinds of other things that had maybe been caught up in the rush of that first time: the cleanness of the costume design, the way certain shots are framed, the arc of Lukas Haas’s career.
Darren, what about you? If the whole problem-solving aspect left you tired this time, did some other part of the movie step up for you?
Darren: This can only sound kind of silly, but I don’t think I appreciated just how rigorously clean the movie is. The whole ensemble’s dressed in business-gala attire. The incoherence of human unconsciousness gets precisely quantified on dreamclocks. This is not a heist crew with interpersonal problems, unless you count Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as dueling prisses. (Guys, just bone already, yeesh!) The mood sets early, when Dom catches bullet casings as they fly out of his pistol. Leave no mess behind.
The obsessiveness can feel asphyxiating, like all the characters are blueprints. Gordon-Levitt’s dialogue is almost exclusively expository, and Page seems to be transcribing every studio note requesting clarification. But I like how all that rigid professionalism wave-crashes against Dom’s interior wreckage. He’s tormented by his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), and doesn’t even know if reality is real — an eerie prediction at the start of the post-truth decade.
So I think Inception springs to life when the heist starts and immediately goes wrong. You’ve been watching these meticulous collaborators carefully architect serene trapworlds for their prey…and then a train runs into them.
Leah, are there sequences that really stick out to you?
Leah: I do hear you on the character thing; most personalities in the movie can probably be described in two words or less (Leonardo: Haunted! Ellen: Eager! Marion: Angry! Also, very pretty!) And it’s not the easiest thing to get invested in what are essentially human haikus.
But I would argue too that that remoteness actually works here — partly because Nolan puts it so up front that this is a movie about ideas, not people. And partly because it just so suits his dreamworld, and mine too: That blank, woozy strangeness where the people and places inside your little brain-movie are recognizably themselves but also somehow… adjacent.
You asked about favorite sequences, and I’m still a sucker for the whole sideways-city-collapsing-into-itself stuff, the bodies stacked like anti-gravity driftwood in the elevator — and just the sheer Bond-movie oddity of the ski chalet (whose real location was also used in The Revenant, so apparently it's Leo's personal Overlook now).
And yes I know it might be corny, but I do enjoy the nod to Cotillard’s Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf with the whole slow-mo “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as dream-layer kickoff. Nolan is not exactly known as a jokester, so I’ll take my winks where I can.
It sounds to me like you enjoyed the back half of the movie more than the first bits; is that fair to say? Give me your final thoughts, Darren.
Darren: The hallway fight scene is truly, terrifically, totally awesome. You watch it for the twentieth time and still think “How’d they do that???” — a unique reaction in our CGI age. And I love the final stroll through Limbo, the metropolis of broken dreams.
I know hardcore Inceptioneers groove onto all the head-trippy enigmas of who’s really incepting who. What sticks with me most is the sorrowful, quirky view of marriage. Dom remembers Limbo as a paradise, this forever landscape without any other people, where he and Mal could tinker together forever. It’s an artist’s dream come true — all the time, no distractions! — and a lovers’ getaway for anyone who wants a few decades without the kids to worry about.
Inception was produced by Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and career-long collaborator. Their own kid, Magnus, appears as Dom’s son. So this abstract, timeless, explain-y adventure is also the most personal film of the director’s career, with private mysteries he’s exploring on a huge scale.
We only ever see Mal from Dom’s perspective — but he knows all the problems inherent in his male gaze. “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection,” he tells the vengeful shade of his dead wife — a shade that his consciousness has rendered vengeful. I still cry at that moment. It’s so achingly human, a raw confession buried deep in four layers of manufactured dream.
Somehow I haven’t talked about Cillian Murphy, Leah, which is probably a testament to how stuffed the movie really is. Where are you leaving off with Inception ten years later?
Leah: Oh I love your take on Dom and Mal! Who knew Nolan was making his own metaphysical Marriage Story all along.
I wonder how much of that was even deliberate? Which isn’t to say that the movie does anything casually or without purpose. To me, Inception is such a beautifully made film but also — and I hope this doesn’t come off as an insult, though I realize it does kind of sound like one — such an effortful one. As a director, Nolan puts so much work into his world-building that it makes the CG noise of most comic-book blockbuster stuff seem like just a bunch of randomized screensavers.
Yes, he’s the same guy who did Dark Knight and Dunkirk, but the throughline for me is this artist who almost considers it lazy to merely entertain you; it’s like he’s trying to do interval training on moviegoers’ collective psyche, dragging our mushy little brains to a sort of existential summer camp.
And that’s the key to his work I think, or at least a key: Whether or not he fully succeeds, it’s hard to think of another contemporary filmmaker who sets out to essentially invent his own superheroes (or more often antiheroes) and mythologies every time. Maybe Guillermo del Toro? Just someone who consistently invents and presents these fantastical concepts as pure thriller but also cautionary tale — because humans are flawed, and we f--- things up.
Don’t even get me started on how Cillian fits into all that; I could give you paragraphs on the suspenders alone. Thank you for coming along with me on this ride though, Darren! I’d love to stay and talk about it all day. But a warbling Frenchwoman keeps singing to me, so slowly; I should go.