It wasn’t the first time Christopher Nolan tried to mess with our minds. It’s with his penchant for twists-and-turns and layers upon mind-boggling, metaphysical layers that the British-American auteur made his cinematic mark. Take 2001’s Memento, which places us in the shoes of Guy Pearce’s short-term amnesiac, constructed of two sequences - one chronological, one in reverse - converging at the end for a climactic reveal: another Nolan signature, as it would come to pass.
This 2010 film brought together Nolan’s most star-studded ensemble to date, packed to the rafters with the decade’s most incandescent talent: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine. A number were Nolan regulars, of course: Murphy, Caine, and kino-favorite Ken Watanabe had appeared in 2006’s Batman Begins, and most-all would take roles in the director’s later synapse-bending psychothrillers.
A director at the apex of his abilities with such a cast (not forgetting, of course, another frequent collaborator, sonic genius Hans Zimmer), it was the perfect cocktail. The result? A meteoric hit with an $828 million worldwide gross, effusive critical acclaim and a swathe of award wins and nominations.
You’ll have clocked it by now, but there’s only one film, naturally, I could be talking about: Inception.
The word you might default to is “big,” but it’s a testament to Nolan’s deft directorial craft that Inception is more than Zimmer’s booming brass score, and indeed, Wally Pfister’s spectacle of expansive, see-it-on-a-big-screen wide shots. It has a beating, human heart, as tends to be the case of Nolan’s filmography, the coalescence of the big and the small, the callous and the tender. In 2006’s The Prestige, it’s Robert Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) humanist obsession with fame and success, to the extent that he’ll sacrifice his life - many times over, that is - to achieve something greater than mortality: legacy.
A similar softness undergirds Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio, the film’s leading man, is Dom Cobb, an “extractor” who uses a highly secretive military technology to invade the subconsciousness of his targets - read: their dreams - and extract valuable information for corporate clients. So yes, on the one hand, he’s a glorified thief. What anchors his characterization is a profound sense of tragedy, speaking to a terrible moment in his past.
Which, in typical Nolan fashion, reveals itself to us like unfolding origami. After a shared dream goes wrong, his wife Mal (a typically devastating Marion Cotillard) was driven to suicide. Thus Cobb is the portrait of a man in the throes of long-term grief. The movie reveals that law enforcement thinks Cobb murdered his wife, which forced him to flee the US and no longer see his children. On the promise that his name will be cleared, he takes up the film’s big central heist.
Every heist, of course, needs a team. So we come to this disparate bunch of ne'er do wells: Hardy’s Eames, a silver-tongued bicep; Page’s Ariadne, a walking bad mood; Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, Cobb’s friend and longstanding partner; and Dileep Rao’s Yusuf, a resourceful pharmacologist. With the squad assembled, it’s time for a descent into mindfuckville - which is to say, through manifold layers of dreams, where we find the real meat n’ potatoes.
Inception boasts glorious set-pieces. There’s the rainy car chase, wherein our heroes are chased through a target’s mind by armed-and-dangerous manifestations of his subconscious, giving Bourne and Bond a run for their money. There’s the climax, in which they race against time to fulfill the final heist.
But the piece de resistance is, of course, the iconic hallway scene. With the walls literally twisting and distorting around him, Arthur battles off an array of subconscious baddies, brimming with walloping physicality. What’s more? It was actually shot on a soundstage; the hallway rigged to rotate like a pig on a spit. (Calm down, Chris.)
More than ten years on, the love for Inception deservedly stands. In 2019, British film magazine Total Film anointed it the best film of the 2010s, calling it “conclusive proof that blockbusters can respect their audience’s intelligence while also thrilling with spectacular set-pieces.” (Hey! That’s basically what I said!) Forbes included it on their list of the best films of the 21st Century.
Look, the likelihood is you’ve already seen it - which, by the way, doesn’t preclude a rewatch - but, on the off-chance, it’s a blind spot? Run, don’t walk before it leaves Netflix at the end of the week.
Inception is streaming on Netflix until October 31, 2021.