In the years after 2008’s The Dark Knight rocked the world, Christopher Nolan was in an enviable position. At the helm of a blockbuster superhero movie, Nolan’s bespoke hyper-realism influenced popular imagination. He implanted new ideas in the zeitgeist.
When a superhero movie like The Dark Knight is the first of its kind to make a billion dollars, a director can do almost whatever they want. The keys to the Warner Bros. lot become theirs. It was only then that Nolan felt prepared to make his dream project into a reality — one that is, funny enough, rooted in dreams.
Inception, the most influential sci-fi movie of Nolan’s career (and one of the most influential films of anyone’s career, full-stop), is about to leave Netflix. Here’s why you need to watch it before it leaves the streamer on March 31.
You must know the story of Inception by now already. In the eleven years since its release, its title has become short-hand slang for “layers-upon-layers.” In any case, the primer: A professional thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose expertise is extracting secrets from people’s dreams takes one last job, which is to lead a team and plant an idea in the mind of his client’s corporate rival.
Like the art of dream thievery itself, there are layers to Inception. On paper, it’s a hybrid science-fiction heist film. In execution, it’s an elaborate metaphor for filmmaking; a group of specialists (filmmakers) gets together to seed a deceptively simple idea onto a subject (the audience).
In practice, it was paradoxically a beginning and an end to sci-fi filmmaking. (Of all things, its legendary bwaaaaaaaaaah sound became a trope in movie trailers for a time.) As Hollywood moved away from star-driven and director-driven attractions in favor of franchises, Inception was stubbornly old school. It had stars. It was the work of an auteur. And it never had nor needed a sequel or a TV spin-off.
Yet it also foretold a future that included the likes of Snowpiercer (2013), Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014), Arrival (2016), and Annihilation (2018), movies of directors and stars that encompass a franchise’s worth of dimensions in a single installment. Whatever came before was prologue; Inception was the future.
But Inception still stands alone. It is a labyrinthine story that is impossibly hard to navigate even on paper. Watch it on the screen, however, and it flows so fluidly thanks to its sublime craftsmanship. (To this day, I’ve seen Inception multiple times but have never finished reading its script once.) In a meta way, Inception succeeds at what its characters spend the running time dodging bullets to do: Plant a difficult idea, simply.
For Nolan, cracking Inception was no easy feat. Indeed, the filmmaker’s eureka moment came a decade after his original treatment for Inception, when he realized what he had initially envisioned as a horror movie worked better as a heist film.
“That genre embraces exposition and so it’s good for teaching a new set of rules to an audience,” Nolan told Deadline in a 2011 interview. “The problem is, heist movies tend to be a bit superficial, glamorous, and fun. They don’t tend to be emotionally engaging. What I realized after banging my head into a wall for ten years trying to finish it is that when you’re dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes. You have to deal with issues of memory and desire.”
One must wonder what, or even who, infiltrated Nolan’s subconscious to help him realize the heart of the film: DiCaprio’s Cobb, yearning to reunite with his family. Perhaps it was the director’s dalliance with the Dark Knight. After all, Batman is a character rooted in the loss of family and a ceaseless search for a new one, perfecting his own abilities as a means to that end. Nolan himself says he needed to continue fine-tuning his craft before taking on something as unwieldy as Inception. (Not to mention instill confidence in a studio to give him the finances to make it.)
“In retrospect, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film until I had done the Batman films,” Nolan told New York Times in 2010, “because it’s on such a massive scale, compared to anything else I’ve done. I had tried to write it smaller, on the assumption I might not be able to secure the budget I needed.”
Nearly eleven years since its release, Inception continues to inspire theories about its ending. (Inception really did foretell the imminent future of movies, didn’t it?) Nolan himself says it’s up to the viewer to decide what happens in the final moments. For those who seek answers in the film’s script, you will find little insight there. (The direction reads: “Behind him, on the table, the spinning top is STILL SPINNING. And we—” FADE OUT. CREDITS. END.)
But dwelling on the ending — what the movie should mean — misses the point. By the final scene, Inception has given you all you need to know. It’s implanted its ideas thoroughly. What “actually” happens in the ending next doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is this: what do you believe?
Inception leaves Netflix on March 31.