Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

Upon release, Christopher Nolan’s Inception was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece that would reinvent filmmaking as we knew it. It earned $800 million worldwide, scored a Best Picture nom, and IMDb voters think it’s better than Goodfellas. And while it has all the ingredients for a great film—a high concept, a stellar cast, top-notch effects, clockwork editing—for me, the movie never rises above being a slightly better than average heist flick. Ultimately, it’s a cold, overblown ordeal devoid of heart and soul, with a filmmaker far too obsessed with crafting internal logic to invest his characters with actual personalities. And that, unfortunately, sums up the majority of Nolan’s filmography.

When I first saw Batman Begins, my assumption was that the over-serious, joyless nature of that film was just a reaction to the gaudy insanity of the Burton/Schumacher films. But as it turns out, that’s the way Nolan wants all of his movies to be.

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Judging by everything from Memento to The Prestige to his Batman movies to this, Nolan’s desire is not to make films, but rather big, serious, complicated puzzles. And going by the box office returns, complicated puzzles have struck a chord with many. But I’d like to believe there are still surviving pockets of filmgoers who appreciate movies that work on both an intellectual and emotional level, and Inception is about as emotionally engaging as a two-hour game of chess. Actually, it’s more like watching an two-hour game of Jenga—the whole time you’re queasy, waiting for the giant, teetering construction to come crashing down under the top-heavy weight of its own exposition and world-building.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a member of an underground network of black-hat operatives with access to dream-sharing technology. Using a special dirty bomb-like device that fits in a briefcase, Cobb and his cronies can instantly fall asleep and walk around in each others’ dreams. These dreams look and feel just as real as reality, with the primary exception being that when you die in a dream, you wake up.

Despite limitless applications, Cobb uses this technology primarily for corporate espionage, assembling teams of mercenaries with job titles like “forger” and “architect” and “chemist” to enter the dreams of high-powered executives and steal business secrets. But an exec named Saito (Ken Watanabe) comes to Cobb with a different sort of assignment: Instead of stealing concepts, he wants them to enter the dreams of his competitor (Cillian Murphy) and plant a concept, a process known as “inception”.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

Cobb agrees and gathers his crew, which includes previous accomplices Eames (Tom Hardy), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), along with first-timer Ariadne (Ellen Page). As the “architect”, Ariadne’s job is to design the maze-like dream levels, and it seems the chief requirement for being a dream architect is having a deeply symbolic name. “Ariadne” is not only an unsubtle reference to the Greek goddess of labyrinths, but also one of the most awkward first names ever spoken on film.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

To properly plant the idea, the Cobb Mob must not only enter a dream; they have to enter a dream within a dream within a dream. That have to go three levels deep into their shared subconscious, with each dream “level” causing them to perceive time moving at different rates.

But it seems their target has been previously trained to “militarize” his dreams, meaning armed guards are waiting for them on every level. And so the dreams become more like the different levels of a first-person shooter: a street level, a hotel level, and a monotonous snowy mountain level straight out of James Bond Goldeneye for N64.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

And there’s yet another complication: Years ago, Cobb dabbled in shared dreaming with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). When they returned to the waking world, she refused to believe it was real, killing herself so that she could “wake up”. Cobb took the rap for murder and has been hiding out ever since in countries with no extradition to the United States, longing to see his two children again. Meanwhile, his subconscious projection of Mal is running around in his dreams, becoming a thorn in the sides of the rest of the team.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

If they complete this mission, Saito can make a single phone call and clear Cobb’s name and he can see his kids again. This is a curious concept. It’s akin to a CEO like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos making a single call to clear the name of a fugitive like, say, Roman Polanski, who could then board a flight to the U.S. and walk through customs without anyone raising an eyebrow. (It’s not a perfect analogy; Polanski was never accused of murdering anyone.)

That’s about as much of the story as I’m going to recap here, because a) everyone has seen this movie already, and b) I could go on and on describing this overstuffed plot and never hope to cover it all. This is a complicated film, to be sure, but not as smart as it thinks it is. The film’s complexity has often been used as a large stick to wield against its critics—If you don’t appreciate the sublime perfection of Inception, well, you’re just too stupid to understand it.

The truth is, this is not a difficult film to grasp. It spends the first half of its running time explaining the “rules” of the dream world (via endless expository conversations between newbie Ariadne and the rest of the team), and the second half slavishly following those rules. It tells you what it’s going to show you, then it shows you what it just told you. Understanding this movie doesn’t require intelligence, but rather rote memorization.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

This is ultimately why the movie never quite comes alive. Having spent so much time explaining and re-explaining itself, and plotting things out to a mathematical certainty, there’s really no time left for anything else. Other than Cobb, no one gets much in the way of character development, making it hard to care what happens to any of them.

Also making it difficult to care are the low, low stakes. We’re ultimately watching an elaborate scheme to convince Murphy’s character to spin off his company into smaller companies. Nolan spent $100 million to make Divestiture: The Movie. There’s a moment in the film where the team thinks they’ve failed in their mission, and the reaction is mainly, “darn it.” Sure, Cobb really, really wants to see his kids, but they’re still young, and there’s no indication that this is his last hope for ever seeing them again. (Cobb’s father-in-law Michael Caine bringing the kids to France for a visit may be unlikely, but not impossible.)

And so, the movie tries to artificially raise the stakes through the concept of “limbo”. No one can die in a dream, but if someone dies in this souped-up multilevel dream, their mind will instead end up in limbo, AKA “unconstructed dream space”, which sounds pretty intimidating. Except, it turns out that it’s not all that hard to get yourself out of limbo, either: It seems to mostly involve the same trick of killing yourself. And while Saito experiences the equivalent of decades in limbo, it doesn’t appear to have any lasting negative psychological effects on him, since he doesn’t skip a beat grabbing his phone to make that all-important phone call.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

And even with all the time spent making this movie’s concepts airtight, the story still doesn’t add up. I can easily suspend my disbelief and accept the existence of a Whatever Device that can instantly sedate people and create a shared dream experience. But within the dream, there’s a duplicate of this device, and the characters must connect themselves to the dream version of the device in order to be sedated again and enter a deeper level of the dream.

How does this work, exactly? A device in a dream can only work through the power of subconscious suggestion. It works because the dreaming mind believes that it works. But we’re dealing with a group of individuals who are aware that they’re in a dream. How could a machine in a dream possibly work the same way as a machine in real life?

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

At one point, the mission is thrown into serious jeopardy when Saito is shot. He’s slowly bleeding to death. How is this even possible? If I’m shot in a dream (despite never having been shot in real life), my mind might convince itself that I’m bleeding out, and I might slowly “die” in the dream. But again, Saito is fully aware that he’s in a dream. Can’t he simply tell himself that he’s not bleeding, or that he wasn’t even shot in the first place?

And if he can’t convince himself he’s not dying, then… why does it take so long for him to die? Why doesn’t he die instantly? What’s causing him to linger for as long as he does?

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

The only explanation for all of this is that, in the universe of Inception, people and objects somehow have a physical presence inside of a dream. The dream body has dream organs and dream blood pumping through its dream veins. The dream gun has dream bullets that can pierce those dream organs. And when you dream, your unconscious mind can contain an entire city populated with living, breathing people, even in the parts of the city you never actually see in your dream. It’s complete hogwash, but it’s the only way the movie works.

And the intriguing notion that you can consciously change your surroundings, even in someone else’s dream, is mentioned and quickly forgotten. At one point, Eames utters the now-famous, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” and pulls a grenade launcher out of Hammerspace. But nothing like this happens again. Why not dream up a tactical nuke and completely obliterate the bad guys? Why not dream up super-advanced technology that doesn’t even exist? Like, say, a portable skin-graft machine to instantly heal Saito’s wound?

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

This is hand-waved away with the explanation that you can’t change too many things in someone else’s dream, otherwise the person’s subconscious will attack you. But the target’s subconscious is already shooting at them. How much worse could it get?

You might be saying to yourself that this is all Fridge Logic. As in, plot holes that don’t occur to you until long after the movie’s over. No film, especially a high-concept one like this, is ever going to have bulletproof logic. But even while watching this film for the first time, I could feel that things weren’t adding up, even if I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was missing. What I was experiencing was the result of a filmmaker trying too hard to do too much, and losing sight of what a movie’s supposed to do: tell a compelling story.

It’s obvious Nolan saw The Matrix and decided he really wanted to make a movie just like it. But to avoid being accused of ripping off that movie, he replaced the virtual reality simulation with shared dreaming, thus removing the key element that made The Matrix internally consistent.

The “dreaming” in this movie certainly seems more like a VR simulation than dreaming, at least as most of us experience it. Other than a few minor bits of strangeness, like the sudden appearance of a train barreling down a city street, the dream levels are completely ordinary and unremarkable. And after all the exposition and rule-building and Paris folding in on itself, it’s a huge letdown to get routine shootouts with anonymous goons that could just as easily have happened in any other heist film. Was it really that hard to come up with more creative and visually compelling dream worlds, especially with the massive budget Inception had?

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

And then there’s the ending with Cobb’s spinning top, which I doubt needs any explanation, since it was the subject of incessant discussion after the movie’s release. But I can’t think of a more predictable way to end this thing. I was actually waiting the entire film for some type of “what you thought was the real world is actually a dream” plot twist, and was disappointed that it didn’t happen until the very final shot.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

I will give the film credit, in that it has one sequence that’s actually engrossing. There’s a flashback sequence where we learn about Dom and Mal’s time in limbo together, which felt like 70 years to them, but in reality happened in one afternoon. It’s the only part of the movie with any heart, and one of the most emotional segments in any Nolan film. This is the movie he should have made: a married couple experiment with shared dreaming, end up experiencing the equivalent of a lifetime together, and then have to deal with the psychological consequences of returning to the real world. But I doubt a metaphysical sci-fi romance would have appealed much to Batman fans.

Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan

I would be remiss in not mentioning the score, especially since it’s still being imitated in other movies and trailers to this very day. It’s not hard to see why: they could have played Hans Zimmer’s music underneath DiCaprio eating a bowl of Cheerios, and it would still come off as tense and exciting. But one has to wonder if Inception would have worked at all without Zimmer’s score.

Unfortunately, Nolan’s worst tendencies are only being encouraged by the huge amounts of money his movies make. As a film buff, one is sort of obligated to see his movies, primarily because they’re Big and Important these days. But to me, they’re not enjoyable. I actually had some hope, despite all I’ve said above, that his latest Interstellar would actually work on some human, emotional level, but the early reviews, while mostly positive, suggest it’s more of the same.

Yes, an overambitious movie like this one is still far preferable to all the generic comic book movies getting cranked out these days. And yes, there’s no question Inception is technically impressive. Getting all the dream levels to sync up perfectly is surely a modern marvel of editing. So give Nolan a medal, already. To me, films should be more than academic exercises, and Inception is a movie primarily about its own arbitrary rules, and not much else.

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  • me

    The hype was seriously too strong with this one. I think the main reason the movie kind of disappointed me is because it was hyped up to be a complex, mind-bending mystery. Memento was much better at this. Not neccessarily because it’s complex, but there are details mentioned through the film which you have to keep track of to piece together “what really happened.” Because of the hype, I also expected this to be something like Prestige, with big reveals etc., but Inception’s ending with the spinning top just feels like a cheap knock-off of the Soprano’s ending, but without a point or any emotion. I even think a better ending would be one where Nolan explicitly showed us that DiCaprio *is* still in a dream, rather than the clicheed “it’s all a mystery” ending.

  • Muthsarah

    “But it seems their target has been previously trained to “militarize” his dreams, meaning armed guards are waiting for them on every level.”


    I’ve never liked the dream-within-a-dream, multiple-layers-of-reality, is-this-real-or-is-this-just-what-THEY-want-you-to-believe types of stories, possibly because they never convince me that I’m actually seeing my concept of reality being bent. Instead, I just get a series of “realities” (as in ours) with a few holes poked through them to let the plot through when needed, so none of them have to be terribly coherent, or even original.

    If you want a movie where a bunch of people are pulling off an elaborate corporate heist, fighting off highly-armed security guards, then just make a high-powered heist film that conforms with the basics of reality, and leave the high-concept stuff for the true visionaries who are willing to twist the very idea of visuals or a genre tale instead of just adding a few wrinkles. Where the “security guards” aren’t just security guards, but something unique and wholly intrinsic to its universe.

    Why is the corporate office only a stand-in for a person’s subconscious mind? It doesn’t make the story any more interesting than if it was an actual office building; it certainly doesn’t make it remotely coherent, it just makes less and less sense the more you think about it. What exactly are you bringing to the genre by adding so many arbitrary twists and trying to convince the audience that the very, very familiar elements they’re watching are really just stand-ins for far more interesting things that apparently you couldn’t be bothered to come up with an original representation for?

    • Chris Palmer

      The point was that they weren’t expecting it. It was the point where things started to go south.

  • Alexa

    To be honest I don’t like Nolan’s take on Batman, pretty much at all, but I do like it when Nolan goes out and does his own original films. They can be pretty interesting like with Memento and yes Inception. But I will agree Nolan can come across as a pretty big snob, to which he feels like his films are the only “true films” which I can’t help but call bullshit on. I say this because I just read an article where he refused to put an ending stinger scene like what Marvel does, not because he didn’t want the movie to come across as copy catting, but because “no true film does that”…I mean fucking really? His attitude comes across as so disdainful I almost feel like he’s more a cyborg than a real person… T_T

    Still I will credit to many of his films, but I will also call out how his attitude sucks when it comes to how films should be made. Basically he needs to get his head straightened, since it is sitting quite steadily in his ass…

    • writebrain

      … except he didn’t say that, it was just debunked.

  • MichaelANovelli

    I avoided this movie when it came out because I can’t STAND Ellen Page (seriously, worst actress who ever lived, you guys…), but no matter how impressive what I’ve seen of it is, I just can’t get into it. I really don’t want to be *that* guy who’s always going on about how American movies are just remakes of foreign films, but Inception really is just Paprika.

    Hell, not just Paprika, Inception is basically Lum The Forever!

    • Did you ever see Hard Candy?

      • MichaelANovelli

        Nope. Never will, either…

    • Alexa

      Okay I have to ask, why do you hate her so much? Give me some reasons why she is the worst actress ever. I am genuinely curious. Its not like I am a huge fan, but I have seen her in enough stuff where she was pretty great, like Super and Whip It. I think its less that she’s a bad actress, but more she just doesn’t work for you…Which I can understand, I’m like that with Channing Tatum, but I wouldn’t call him a terrible actor more an actor that just doesn’t do much for me…

      But I do agree Inception is basically Paprika but without all the really imaginative and cool imagery and fun characters…

      • Muthsarah

        This is just what Mendo does.

        • MichaelANovelli

          Have opinions?

          • Muthsarah

            Take/make deliberately unpopular opinions and just RUN with them, to hyperbole and beyond! Like that Ellen Page is the WORST actress who has ever lived, bar none, and as you are a connoisseur of bad movies, you have quite literally seen them all. Meanwhile, Denise Richards, January Jones, and Paris Hilton (K, I’m admittedly out-of-date, as I long ago reached my saturation point with bad movies) are not only criminally under-rated actress, but are far more deserving of praise for their thespianic talents than that obvious hack/Nazi sleeper-agent Meryl Streep.

          • MichaelANovelli

            With the exception of Ellen Page, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned any of those people. That text review of Mamma Mia we posted a few years back said some not-nice things about Streep, but I had nothing to do with that.

            As with all other things, there is a spectrum to bad movies, and by far the most frustrating are the ones that don’t seem like they’d be bad going in, but once you’re there, you realize that not only is it bad, but it doesn’t actually seem to know it’s bad. But then you feel bad for letting yourself get invested and you try to tell yourself that it’s actually good, because otherwise that makes you a sucker.

            Actors can fall into this category as well. I still don’t know how the hell people ever convinced themselves that Michael Cera was the future of comedy, but, then again, people honestly thought The Donnas were “the next Ramones”…

            But, yes, to state my opinion with no uncertainties, I have seen actresses in adult films, cast solely for their looks who, despite having been born in America, can barely speak English, yet are better actresses than Ellen Page. I don’t begrudge her her success, but if the bar is that low, where’s Glori-Anne Gilbert’s Oscar nomination?

      • MichaelANovelli

        I have never witnessed Ellen Page convincingly convey a human emotion, and I find her persona and the way she comports herself completely repugnant. Also, I don’t much care for any of the movies she’s been in…

        • Alexa

          Okay, how do you know that she doesn’t convey emotion if you said so yourself you don’t watch many movies with her in it. Seems like you just watched Juno, which to be honest the quality was more due to the writing than the acting, and just decided to hate her. And seriously dude, repugnant? Sometimes I feel like you just hate things for the most arbitrary reasons. If you don’t care for her acting fine, I’ve been there, but again its a bit harsh to just flat out hate a person that in general seems like a pretty nice and sweet person just because their personality type doesn’t suit you all that much. It’s fine to not care for an actor, but to just flat out hate a person, that you’ve never met, is kind of dumb and immature. So I guess agree to disagree *shrugs*

  • $36060516

    I agree with your analysis, Winston. There is one quibble I’d make, however. You wrote: “I’d like to believe there are still surviving pockets of filmgoers who appreciate movies that work on both an intellectual and emotional level, and Inception is about as emotionally engaging as a two-hour game of chess.” I would add that personally I didn’t find it intellectually engaging either. It wasn’t saying anything that provoked exciting thoughts in my mind, at least. I would have actually had to feel like the movie was saying something about dreams that made me feel like an aspect of real life had been clarified, or an interesting theory had been proposed. But it didn’t really seem like the movie was seriously proposing that human dreams are like what was presented in the movie. So, I wasn’t intellectually grabbed because it was just an abstract game of the sort you described that doesn’t really mean anything.