Christopher Nolan has long demonstrated a keenness towards cracking the code of cinema. Each of his movies employs exciting narrative constructs for maximum audience immersion and engagement. For instance, this may occur through the use of non-linear storytelling, or via wider, more complex themes that touch the realm of science fiction.
However, what makes Nolan’s work so unique to experience is the fact that his outwardly convoluted ideas seamlessly blend with more elementary, emotion-based narrative throughlines. Nolan’s films are a delicate balance of simplicity and artful imagination, often morphing precise cinematic technique into something far more heartfelt and memorable.
Take Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi epic Inception as a prime example of this. On one hand, the film boasts an undeniable technical prowess, reveling in its portrayal of the limitless visual grandeur of lucid dreams. Yet on the other, the movie’s massive dreamscapes are populated with empathetic characters who are on a very personal, cathartic quest of self-discovery.
This particular marriage of emotion and craft wasn’t always on Nolan’s mind. The filmmaker initially wrote a treatment that lacked a vital sense of depth, which contributed to the shelving of the project for a number of years. Inception was originally conceived as a glossy heist film, which, per Nolan’s own words, “traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms.”
Luckily, the director eventually found lasting relatable acuity in his early script. Notably, he largely credits Inception’s toplining actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, for such an epiphany. DiCaprio evidently insisted on honing in on Inception‘s character-driven moments. Pure emotional motive became part and parcel of the film as a whole. As Nolan explained to Collider:
“[After DiCaprio boarded the film] I finally found that emotional connection with the material that I depend on as a filmmaker, because what I’ve realized about myself over the years is if I don’t engage with something on that level, I’ll never sustain my interest in it for the two years it takes to make it.”
Inception wastes no time in establishing its protagonist’s personal drive, even if these pieces take time to fall into place. The movie opens on DiCaprio foggily waking up on the shoreline of a nondescript beach. Waves crash loudly – overwhelmingly – around him. Almost immediately, he is preoccupied with the sight of two children building sandcastles nearby. Their backs are turned to him. Despite the character’s visible exhaustion, he fervently clings to this image.
DiCaprio is soon revealed to be playing Dom Cobb, a man who is greatly skilled in the art of corporate espionage. Utilizing experimental military-grade technology, he is able to tap into his subjects’ subconscious via a shared dream world. After which, Cobb “extracts” sensitive information from certain targets at the behest of specific clients.
This is a very detail-oriented con job. Particular rules of time guide the constraints of extraction; five minutes of dream time equates to an hour in the real world. In a typical dream-sharing experience, death is generally enough of a “kick” to wake one up and bring them back to reality.
Importantly, agents specializing in architecture are responsible for constructing believable settings for each target; one that subliminal projections can inhabit without raising any red flags. Rich, complex mazes make for ideal locations, as they aptly disguise the boundaries of any given dream world.
Finally, the success of any extraction job largely requires a great deal of personal detachment and objectivity on the part of extractors’ themselves. Constructing a dream world from distinct places rooted in memory is frowned upon for this reason. Extractors must be cognizant of what’s real and what isn’t, too. They keep track of this fact through the use of personalized totems.
Alongside all that exposition, Inception eventually divulges that it is still virtually impossible to truly separate the deeply intuitive nature of dreams from the physical minutiae required to formulate and control them. This is especially so in the eponymous case of inception — the act of planting an organic concept into a target’s mind.
That is exactly what Japanese tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and his associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), for. Specifically, Saito wishes to inject an idea – one that is “like a virus; resilient; [and] highly contagious” – into the heart of a rival business to precipitate its collapse.
Arthur immediately proclaims that this is an unattainable request. As he states, “true inspiration’s impossible to fake.” However, Cobb appears more pliable than his partner and is finally convinced to complete the job once Saito hits an emotional nerve. The latter encourages Cobb to “take a leap of faith” anyway. After all, due to Saito’s presumed governmental and political connections, participating in the heist in question is the only way for Cobb to reunite with his estranged family.
As this series of events have played out so far, the audience is made aware of Cobb’s many personal setbacks which collectively hamper his effectiveness as an espionage agent. He is a wanted criminal barred from returning to the United States due to murder charges. This eats away at Cobb, who longs to return home to his young son and daughter. As a result, his children appear as projections of his own subconscious, often distracting him from the subject at hand whenever he’s perusing through a dreamscape.
They aren’t the only ones, though. Cobb’s deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) has her own hold over his mind. She is the reason he is on the run, as authorities believe that he killed her. Cobb’s close connection to Mal’s death, in turn, causes her to materialize as a particularly disturbing and invasive projection; vindictive and violent enough to directly foil his plans time and time again. And the more he refuses to confront his unresolved feelings surrounding her demise, the more vicious she becomes.
Herein lies the concurrently therapeutic and creepy possibilities of Inception‘s shared dream space. The film makes it abundantly clear that reveries are most believably born by attaching themselves to feeling, whether they be good or bad.
Saito’s proposed con is to incept his business competitor, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and convince him to tear down the empire he is soon to inherit from his ailing magnate father. The job requires careful construction and calibration of the dream space to create emotional anchors that did not previously exist in Fischer’s subconscious.
This is largely achieved by turning Saito’s broad pitch into a powerful “emotional concept.” According to Eames (Tom Hardy) — another member of Cobb’s team — inception isn’t just about infiltrating the deepest levels of a target’s mind. Rather, “the simplest version of the idea” must be allowed to naturally germinate there as well. Only then will it grow to define a subject’s motivations and have a big enough influence on their organic decision-making.
Cobb then adds that, if possible, inceptors ought to approach their subjects from an optimistic standpoint when planting any impression:
“…positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We all yearn for reconciliation. For catharsis.”
For a couple of reasons, the quote above is a perfect distillation of Inception’s overall thesis statement. Firstly, it succinctly determines how Cobb’s crew can succeed with Fischer, flipping the script of the strained relationship between him and his father and linking the dissolution of his inheritance with an independent, positive drive.
In spite of this, there’s a foreboding layer to Cobb’s observation, as well, circling back to the emotional limbo that continuously plagues the character from the get-go. As Inception‘s persistently haunted protagonist, we’re encouraged to ask: why exactly is he chasing absolution?
This question is slowly answered throughout the course of the film by the highly perceptive architect Ariadne (Ellen Page). Although a fresh-faced member of Cobb’s crew, she picks up on his furtive behavior practically immediately. Furthermore, having personally encountered Mal during shared dreaming exercises in the lead-up to their big heist, Ariadne is wary of the possible danger she poses to the upcoming job. On more than one occasion, she confronts Cobb about such secrets, demanding that he be honest with the rest of the group to protect their safety.
Cobb’s truth encompasses the bombshell revelation of Inception. His mounting guilt over the circumstance surrounding his wife’s death ultimately highlights the dangerous nature of dream manipulation. Fischer’s case demonstrates that the potential to heal flawed relationships exists in dream-sharing. Sadly, Cobb has also used it in more manipulative ways.
His actions were borne out of good intentions, yet they undoubtedly reaped a terrible outcome. Together with Mal, who was once a fellow dream-sharer, Cobb spent many years constructing a literal dream life. But after overindulging in the unbridled creative promises of the dreamscape for so long, Mal began to severely lose track of reality. When she refused to leave the state of dreaming and return to raise their family, Cobb chose to incept her with a nagging idea — namely, “your world is not real.”
His treachery inadvertently causes Mal to question all semblance of existence long after she had finally returned to the real world. Cobb’s unwitting decision to plant that insidious concept into Mal’s subconscious only leads her to believe that she must do everything she can to “wake up,” resulting in her suicide. Fascinatingly, while this fact paints Cobb in a considerably unsavory light, his admission certainly triggers the process of catharsis. Without the need to repress a shameful past any longer, the character now has a chance to defeat from the “shade of [his] real wife,” letting Mal go and kickstarting the beginning of a restorative process.
Hence, Inception manages to draw audiences to an unusually satisfying conclusion. The film’s main heist – complete with high-octane chase scenes, mind-bending fight sequences, and utterly thrillingly tense narrative beats – ensures that its ensemble barely has time to catch a breath. Nonetheless, the devil is in the details further still. The only true navigator guiding these characters through their near-impossible job is the power of emotion. The dreams of Inception allow characters to dig deep and explore themselves. Although this doesn’t necessarily free them of their responsibilities, the potential for reprieve is undeniably powerful.