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Whose Dream Is It, Anyway?: ‘Inception’ at 10

A decade ago, Christopher Nolan took his post-Batman carte blanche and made an intellectual blockbuster—and we’re still arguing about what it all means

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Inception.'

Melissa Moseley/©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

In a perfect world, we’d be at the movies right now.

And there would be one summer blockbuster in particular we’d be flocking to this weekend — a potentially cerebral, possibly confusing, probably cracked puzzle of a thriller. Film Twitter would have been twitching at the starting gate days ago, trigger fingers poised above the Send button one minute before the studio-mandated embargo time allows everyone to flood the opinion zone. (How does this gambit benefit readers, you ask. Answer: They’re not doing it for the readers, silly rabbit!) It would have been debated, pored over, hot-potato-ed and memed to the high heavens by now. We’d be officially crowning John David Washington as our next leading man du jour, and waxing over Robert Pattinson’s continual career evolution as this generation’s gorgeous character-actor weirdo. The central question — what, exactly, is a Tenet? — would have been answered by this juncture, or, given the fact that it’s a Christopher Nolan project, maybe not. Hillary Clinton would have rightfully been President for almost four years, the pandemic that’s currently crippling the United States would have been quashed back in late January and we wouldn’t be arguing with morons over the common courtesy of wearing masks. Like we said, a perfect world.

We do not live in that world, however, or if we do, many of us still need to be awakened from the nightmare that keeps us from experiencing it. In fact, we eagerly await “the kick” that will jolt us back to reality, and listen for the music cue (we’d prefer Edith Piaf, but a Hans Zimmer bwooooooonnnng will work in a pinch, thank you) that brings us out of the dream. Or out of that dream and into the second level of dreaming, or maybe a third waterlogged REM cycle, or…yes, we know, it gets complicated. But this is the 2020 we’ve been handed. Tenet, Nolan’s cryptic 11th feature film, had been scheduled to open on July 17th come hell or high water; it was later moved to a “safer” July 27th, then a “way more safer” August 12th, and even that push feels like an exercise in extreme optimism. By the time you finish reading this piece, the release date may have been delayed several more times. Given Nolan’s insistence that folks see it in a theater, the real mystery behind Tenet is presently: When will people actually be able to see Tenet at all?

Instead, out of desperation and a quasi-fealty to the Anniversary Industrial Complex, we find ourselves turning to a different Nolan film. The one that arguably put the writer-director in a position to demand a huge budget, the right to let movie stars get lost in labyrinthine plots, and a guarantee that the theatrical experience would be a priority. The one with the bending city, the spinning top, the first-rate mindfuckery. The one that, 10 years ago this week, kicked off a decade in which reality did seem to be in the mind of the beholder. It is Inception, and it holds a particular place of significance in both the writer-director’s catalog and the memory banks of those who follow the ins and outs of studio filmmaking. An A-list brainteaser that owes more to Freud than it does to William Friedkin, it’s not a Sundance film or a remake, neither a Batman nor a Jackman (Hugh) movie. It’s a Christopher Nolan movie, and the first project in which categorizing something with that term alone was enough to sell it.

The plot is… [long exhalation]. There’s a dapper gentleman named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who specializes in getting inside people’s heads. As in, literally rooting around their subconscious, looking for well-hidden mental loot. “What is the most resilient parasite?” he asks a client, or maybe a potential mark, named Saito (Ken Watanabe). “An idea.” You want to find out what your market competitor’s gameplan is for Q4? You hire Cobb and his equally well-dressed associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to enter their CEO’s dreams and extract the information for the right price, which we assume is just extravagant enough to cover their tailor’s bill.

Only their most recent gig didn’t quite work out so well, and failure is rarely rewarded in the world of high-stakes corporate espionage. Which means they have to make up for their screw-up with One Last Job. Saito has a business rival. The man, Maurice Fischer, is dying. His son, Robert (Cillian Murphy), is set to take over the family business. What if, however, he could be persuaded to break up the company? Those resilient parasites? They can also be planted, or “incepted,” into a person’s head, posing as their own self-generated thought. So Cobb assembles a team, all of whom have Christian names but who get cool handles like The Architect, The Forger and The Chemist. Thanks to a Sydney to L.A. flight, they are able to sedate Robert, sneak into his skull and set about “convincing” him to dissolve the family business. As with any One Last Jobs, there are complications: armed henchmen, red herrings, runaway trains, Cobb’s own guilty conscience that’s unnervingly manifesting itself as his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard)…at which point you start to wonder, really, whose dream is it, anyway?

There’s a good chance that, 10 years on, most viewers don’t remember the exact details of Inception‘s storyline, despite the fact the characters have a habit of explaining plot points and their unique profession’s wonkery to each other on the regular. What they probably remember are a handful of sensations, sounds, images, and moments: DiCaprio standing in the middle of a Japanese pagoda, as water rushes in from both sides. A Parisian street exploding like a pack of firecrackers. Ellen Page, playing a student who’s been recruited to build dreamscapes, making a city literally fold in on itself until it resembles M.C. Esher’s urban-planning nocturnal emission. A rain-soaked car chase involving a destructive freight train. A snowbound Bond-lite set piece. Tom Hardy’s accent, which crosses a foreign correspondent’s world-weary lilt with a posh, colonial British purr, the kind that makes you feel he’s seconds away from asking what the devil is going on with those Zulus. Dileep Rao’s chemist standing in the rain, (sub)consciously echoing the Joker’s introduction in The Dark Knight. The rotating hotel smackdown. The now-omnipresent “Zimmer honk.” The top on the table, turning and turning in the widening gyre and a cut to black.

Many of these are such beautifully blatant movie-movie elements, etched into the collective pop-cultural memory, that it’s easy to forget the ambitions of the ideas being embedded into a $160 million summer movie. Or, if you’re feeling sinister, that those standouts are buffered by a lot of pretentiously philosophical hot air and art-house bongwater. Maybe the movie is a blank slate for people to project their own deep readings and theories of life and death on to. (For a great example of the former, see the invaluable, dog-with-a-bone film critic Bilge Ebiri’s take.) Maybe the director has simply incepted viewers into believing the movie is a lot more profound then it is.

But whether you think this film is a peak or a barren valley, Nolan’s accomplishment demands acknowledgement. Given post-Batman carte blanche, he proved that “intellectual blockbuster” was not a contradiction in terms. And to re-view the movie after a decade that felt increasingly dumbed-down in terms of big-tent multiplex fare and this-intellectual-property-is-condemned misfires, you can easily find yourself hungrily gorging on the food for thought here. It’s a work that brands Nolan as a sleight-of-head artist, yet the film is built as much for endless rewatchings as it is late-night dorm-room conversations. He’s given folks something crafted to be pored over as much as argued over, which is more than you can say about 98 percent of Marvel movies. It’s a sleek, clean-surfaced gauntlet of sorts, thrown down to the lowest common denominators of the kiss-kiss-bang-bang crowd.

Whether Tenet lives up to the promise that Inception put forth regarding Nolan’s standing as moviemaker for the masses and the M.I.T. crowd remains to be seen. (If not, we’ll always have his masterpiece Dunkirk.) But the fact that we’re excited about this latest work, and the suggestion that we may once again be entering unknown territory, can be traced back to Leo DiCaprio’s scowl and that spinning top. The fact that this film got made on a studio’s dime at all now feels like a dream.