Movies of the decade: how Inception reinvented the summer blockbuster

The readers have spoken – Christopher Nolan's Inception is the film of the decade. We look back at a format-bending summer blockbuster

This feature contains spoilers for Inception.

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

In the last few months of 2019, we’ve been thinking about the last decade in movies, and when we asked you, the readers, to vote on your movies of the decade, your number one (by a considerable distance, we might add) was Christopher Nolan’s Inception. That’s fair enough, because if this was your favourite movie of 2010, it’s hard to argue that there’s been anything quite like it since.

Essentially, it’s a big-budget sci-fi actioner that brought in a lot of money around the world, but that’s the only way in which you would describe it as a conventional summer blockbuster. It’s also rare among smash-hit Hollywood tentpoles for not having any sequels, spin-offs, or follow-ups in development, and it’s arguably the best film by one of our very best directors.

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Nolan’s film takes place in a world where the military has developed dream-sharing technology, which extractors like Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) exploit to carry out corporate espionage on a subconscious level. After a job gone wrong, Cobb is recruited by business mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) to break up a business rival’s monopoly by performing the tricky act of “inception” – not just stealing an idea but planting one and convincing the mark that it’s their own.

Receiving critical acclaim and enormous financial success (for an original film or otherwise) at the time, Inception holds up almost a decade later as one of the smartest films of the 2010s. That’s not to say it’s uniquely complex or cerebral, but that it’s far, far cleverer than the average tentpole, and the sheer amount that’s packed into it is part of what makes its almost-150-minute running time feel unusually deft.

Most of all, it’s smart enough to trust the audience to follow along, making it a film that rewards a rewatch every once in a while, but can also be perfectly understood the first time around. True to form, it’s even more rewarding to go deeper… (insert Hans Zimmer-composed brass noise here!)

The idea

Originally conceived around the time Nolan was working on Insomnia, Inception started as a horror film. Partly inspired by a spate of contemporary films in which reality was not what it seemed, (such as The Matrix and Dark City) Nolan sat down in 2001 and wrote an ambitious 80-page treatment about dream thieves.

After initially pitching it to Warner Bros, he decided to concentrate on honing his filmmaking craft to where he could make the film on the more epic scale he felt the material required. In the months after The Dark Knight was completed, he developed the idea into a spec script for a sci-fi heist thriller.

Warner has long been known as a director’s studio and although it’s broadly speculated that Nolan’s deal for a Dark Knight sequel was tied to the studio making Inception, you can scarcely imagine anywhere else in Hollywood greenlighting it anyway. That said, it can’t have hurt that the director had proven himself on the Batman films and already had a star attached by the time WB bought the script in February 2009.

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Nolan had reportedly tried to work with DiCaprio on several of his previous films, but finally won him over with his concept of an action film set in a dream world. Even a decade later, Leo has rarely appeared in blockbusters on this scale (to date, it’s still only this and Titanic), and the director and star collaborated on developing the script right up until production began.

DiCaprio takes the lead in what would grow into a star-studded ensemble cast, including Watanabe, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger, and of course, Nolan’s lucky charm, Michael Caine. Behind the scenes, further returning Nolan collaborators included composer Hans Zimmer, editor Lee Smith, and cinematographer Wally Pfister.

It’s a measure of the creative control reserved by the filmmakers here, that Inception stands as an outlier in the summer blockbuster landscape in 2010. Released in the year that WB was piling millions into post-production Real-D conversions on many of their live-action films (most notably their Clash Of The Titans remake, which had a 12-week turnaround), it’s only ever been released in 2D.

Even nine years later, history has proven that Nolan was right not to sign off on a hastily converted 3D release, because for a film with this much exposition, it’s immersive and visually striking enough without the plastic specs.

The dream

As a complement of science fiction and action, the film is just as stunning as it was when it first came out. Right at the point where the James Bond movies seemed to have relinquished the mantle of putting ground-breaking, never-before-seen stunts into each new entry, Nolan picked it up and ran with it, even when finding new ways of paying homage to previous 007 stunts.

For instance, it’s difficult to avoid noticing the third act’s homage to the underrated 1969 outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and its climactic assault on Blofeld’s snow-covered fortress. The third act in Eames’ dream mirrors that sequence, directly lifting a scene where George Lazenby’s Bond is chased downhill by armed bastards and then adding to it by having Hardy (as close to playing 007 as he might ever get here) chase the antagonists back uphill to the frozen compound as well.

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Still more impressively, Nolan and his crew put a lot of effort into achieving these stunts practically. Despite the huge amount of action on display, there are only 500 computer-generated effects shots in the entire film. For context, Batman Begins had 620 of these shots, and the average for a tentpole action movie at the time was around 2,000. This approach chimes with Nolan’s desire to make the dreams themselves feel as real as possible.

It’s easy to misread the grounded aspect of the film as overly formal or unimaginative, but the heist concept only works where the target doesn’t know they’re in a dream. The film sets up tension in other ways, by introducing mental counter-extraction measures like the bystanders who attack interlopers when they realise something is wrong.

You could definitely make a more surreal film than Inception out of this premise, but in this version, it’s all the more effective to use practical effects to essay the low-key weirdness of our subconscious. Even if Nolan has to cope with his detractors loudly wondering if he goes to sleep wearing a suit as well, the film he made is not one that’s short of practical innovations.

Here, the various car chases, shootouts and zero-gravity fistfights are spectacular, but they’re in service of a well-oiled machine designed to heave its massive emotional weight across the finish line, rather than just dispense reams of exposition. Like the M.C. Escher paintings that are referenced in the film’s action (and in its marketing), it’s about using clean lines to create something that looks impossible.

Breaking the rules

In truth, the film’s portrayal of dreaming is much closer to the experience of watching movies than it is about making them. Nolan’s films are often popular examples for people who are still banging on about auteur theory in an utterly incompatible format like Hollywood studio blockbusters, but that doesn’t ring true here.

As the writer and director, Nolan was integral to the film’s development, but if you are reading it as a tract about filmmaking, we’d argue that like most of his films (yes, even the Batman ones), it prizes collaboration over individualism. The shared dream is what makes this extraordinary, not the singular vision.

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And so, both in front of the camera and behind it, it’s a crew that is integral to Inception. If you do see it more as a film about filmmaking, it’s all too simple to align the supporting characters with traditional jobs, whether it’s Page’s Ariadne as a composite of screenwriter and art director, Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur as a hands-on producer, or a never-more-luvvy-ish Hardy as the chameleonic leading man, Eames.

But if Cobb as the director is a Nolan surrogate, he’s an intensely unreliable and self-contradictory one. As others have remarked, he has more in common with a widower in a Gothic romance than a slick Danny Ocean type. Plus, as the main voice of the film’s near-constant rule-making, he’s the most prone to breaking them.

All of the rules Cobb states are of the Ghostbusters “don’t cross the streams” variety, establishing various uncrossable lines in the first hour to raise the stakes when he and his crew inevitably trip over them later on. In terms of plotting, this serves to make everything after that first hour a relentless escalation, from the moment the con begins to the final cathartic release.

When people say that the film takes multiple viewings to fully understand, it’s because it’s one of those films that’s all the more satisfying to revisit when you know where it’s going. Representing Cobb as an architect who is racked by guilt but puts himself and the rest of his crew in danger by not addressing that, the film draws out some new part of his backstory with every level the characters descend, right until they become stranded in the abstract limbo again.

The benefit of repeat viewings is having the full context of Mal’s role as a metaphysical femme fatale and how Cobb exorcises his secrets throughout the job. She also stress-tests the film’s conceit by trying to convince him that his life as a globetrotting fugitive is too ridiculous to be real, adding another layer of uncertainty. Whatever ambiguity there is in the famous final shot, the emotional arc of the film bends towards Cobb accepting his reality rather than languishing in dreams and nightmares.

Coming from a filmmaker who broke through with a movie that takes place in reverse, Inception is all the more impressive as Nolan’s most audacious experiment with non-linear storytelling to date. With all the time-hopping and rule-making, the results may seem impenetrable, but only if you’re not paying attention.

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It’s a shame that a $160 million film that expects the audience’s undivided attention feels so uncommon in this day and age, but Inception easily commands and manipulates its viewers. As the decade has gone on and streaming services have produced entire TV series that occasionally feel designed to be played in the background, we could argue that this film is the last tentpole of its kind to date.

Film of the decade?

Finally, we have to ask if any other original property made as big an impression in the last 10 years. In the decade when sequels and franchises well and truly overtook pop culture, Inception still made a big impression on our cultural consciousness. Even if you wanted to reduce the film down to its most basic impact on movies, there was a long spell there where every movie trailer had that Hans Zimmer honk.

In terms of its creative impact, it looks even more singular. Although Mad Max: Fury Road have surpassed its dauntless practical action work and Mission: Impossible – Fallout did a pretty good job of replicating its walk-and-talk (and-run-and-shoot-and-climb-and-punch-and-freefall) style of rapid-fire exposition, nothing else has matched the overall effect of watching Inception since it was released.

Grossing more than $820 million at the global box office and winning four Oscars (for Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing), the film definitely outperformed every other live-action blockbuster of 2010. With a brisk and unpretentious approach to making a thinking man’s popcorn movie, Nolan made and broke the mould right at the start of the decade.

Little is known about the director’s next film, Tenet, which is due to hit cinemas next July and looks to be the most like Inception any film has been in the last 10 years. It’s certainly auspicious as another highly anticipated, original big-budget sci-fi movie from Nolan, that’s also coming out in the very first summer of a new decade. Whether or not we’ll be talking about that film come 2029 remains to be seen, but Inception is a dream that feels built to last.

You can read all of our Movies Of The Decade articles here.

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