Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from film critic Bilge Ebiri, who will begin his screening of Inception on July 31 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch his live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.
Imagine if a director made a movie about a group of people who infiltrate other people’s dreams and steal their secrets, and who, in order to do so, have to go two levels of dreams deep — which means that within each dream they have to go to sleep and dream again — but then somebody hires them not to steal but to actually implant a secret this time, so now they have to go three dream levels down, and each dream has to be dreamt by a different member of the team, who has to stay behind in his dream and fight off any gun-wielding dream-security goons (there are gun-wielding dream-security goons), and also each level they go down, time slows exponentially, so that a few minutes on one level winds up being the equivalent of hours on the next level, and if they go down too far they’ll be lost in the dream forever, but then everything is nearly ruined because the guy who is the leader of the group turns out to have traumatic memories that intrude on their dreams, so whenever things get hairy in the dream his dead wife shows up and starts killing people, or maybe a freight train suddenly bursts down a busy city avenue (long story), so not only do they now have to implant this one idea in this one guy’s head, they also have to deal with their leader’s dead wife (not to mention more gun-wielding dream-security goons), and the leader-guy finally has to confront his demons so he can finally get back home to his children (he has children, who are in another country he can’t return to), and the only way they can get out of the dream is to fall while listening to Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (no, really), and then at the end, the leader-guy finally makes it back to his children but you have no idea if he actually made it back or if he’s still dreaming, lost in his own broken mind for eternity.
Now imagine that insane-sounding movie was the runaway box-office hit of 2010. And that it was the rare Hollywood blockbuster that was not a sequel or a tentpole or an adaptation of any kind. You can hate Inception all you want. You can think it’s stupid, or that it doesn’t make sense, or that it’s too confusing, or not confusing enough. You can, like my friend David Edelstein wanted to do at the time, slap the living crap out of those of us who were enamored of the film (not to hurt us, mind you, but to wake us up). But you have to hand it to Christopher Nolan: He sure pulled a lot of us into the crazy world of his existential heist movie. And some of us are still there. Inception recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and it’s now coming back out in theaters — what few theaters there are open in our mad new world — partly as a placeholder for Nolan’s latest, Tenet, which keeps moving release dates. Anniversaries and pandemics aside, the rerelease makes some sense. Inception is the film that has defined Nolan’s career. Sure, The Dark Knight was bigger, Interstellar more ambitious, Memento purer, Dunkirk better (fight me). And yes, The Prestige is great, too. But for many of us, Inception is the movie we think of when we think of Nolan. To put it another way: The highest hope anyone has for Tenet is that it will be another Inception.
And Inception still holds up, the rare movie that manages to be two steps ahead of its audience without ever really losing them. Partly, it’s Nolan’s peculiar approach to storytelling: He’s always revealing something — a new element, a new surprise, a new twist. This is the sort of thing one might expect early on in a film, when we’re still getting our bearings and the premise and characters are being established. But in Inception, it happens at the beginning, in the middle, in the part right before the middle, in the part right after the middle, in the part right before the part before the middle. The whole thing is so filled with reveals that I once did a post on the only two times it was okay to take a (brief) bathroom break during the movie. For example, it’s not until the middle, when our characters have already entered the first level of the dream-heist in which they will try to implant an idea into the mind of billionaire heir Fischer (Cillian Murphy) that we even learn about Limbo, the “unconstructed dream space” that lies four dream-levels deep, where an individual can lose themselves for all time, and where they will drop to if they get killed in a dream while heavily sedated. That’s also when we learn that our hero Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has been to Limbo, with his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), back when she was still alive. (It’s not until later in the film that we learn what happened to them in Limbo, and after they got back.)
It’s not unheard of, of course, for mysteries and thrillers to disperse such key information gradually, and carefully (that’s one of the pleasures of such genres), but Nolan supercharges this approach, because in Inception each new revelation not only uncovers something about the past, it changes the very nature of the world the characters are currently in. Luckily, this never really feels like work — it’s an enjoyable kind of delirium for the audience. Having to write a lot about Inception at the time of the film’s release, I kept returning to the theater and filling my notebooks up. But I looked forward to each viewing. The theaters were always packed, so I’d go see the movie at weird hours of the night — midnight, 2 a.m. (Never forget: This non-franchise movie was so popular that they had round-the-clock screenings of it throughout the night.) The notebooks filled up.
Of course, all these reveals, all that exposition, has led to accusations that the movie has too much talking. (Though I rarely find anyone who thinks so the first time. For many, that first viewing requires all this exposition.) Nolan himself has taken this criticism to his heart, it seems, as evidenced by the vast, gloriously wordless stretches of Dunkirk. But look, heist movies tend to have a lot of chatter, at least at first, as they set up the ruses and burglaries and elegant cons which we can then enjoy as they unfold (and, usually, unravel). Inception does just that — but then it never stops, because the heist itself is constantly being upended by the fact that the guy at the center of it all is himself a basket case.
Which brings me to my own theory about Inception, which I expounded upon here on Vulture back when the film first opened. I think the real inception in the film is being done to Cobb himself. He’s a man tormented by regret, by the memory of his wife’s suicide. The two of them had gone deep into the dream world and landed in Limbo, where they could build their own reality and live together for years. In order to convince her to leave and return to the real world, he implanted (“incepted”) into her mind the idea that their life was a dream, an idea which had the additional benefit of being true. They returned to reality, but she couldn’t shake this idea, because it was so deep inside of her; she became convinced the real world was also a dream, and she killed herself in an attempt to get out. Cobb’s regret over all this is eating him away at him, because he had promised his wife that they would grow old together; in his dreams, her malevolent apparition keeps reminding him of this fact.
So here’s the real inception: Cobb is being given the idea that he and his wife did grow old together. Down in Limbo, where they spent dream-decades together, they did in fact age, as we learn in a couple of quick flashes near the end. Cobb needs to understand, or remember, that he kept his promise to his wife, so that he can get out from under her psychic shadow: “We had our time,” he gently tells her — or his dream vision of her — in their final scene together, right before letting her go.
This idea has been implanted in Cobb’s head over the course of Inception via the idea of him aging. “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” Some variation of this line is uttered between him and Saito (Ken Watanabe) several times during the picture. Each time, the thought moves further along, from one man to the other: The first time, it’s Saito who says it; the final time, it’s Cobb who completes the sentence. Look at DiCaprio’s face during these exchanges: Something clearly troubles him when he hears these words. Cobb is learning something, or maybe getting the idea that will unlock something he once knew but had forgotten. Saito, the billionaire who hires Cobb and who insists on coming along on their dream quest, is supposedly going to allow our hero to return to the U.S. (where he is still supposedly wanted for the death of his wife) with one phone call. But maybe the real release Saito provides Cobb is a spiritual, emotional one — to free this man of the trauma and regret that has paralyzed him.
One does not need a theory like that to appreciate or understand Inception. Some people call it a puzzle film, but I disagree. It does not require unlocking any narrative clues to make sense of it all, and its twists and turns feel as fresh to me the fifth or sixth or seventh time as they did the first time. In some ways, that is Nolan’s greatest accomplishment. Inception may be a crazy, byzantine narrative maze about emotionally stunted dream thieves, but it works as magnificent pop entertainment to this day.
Inception is available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play and Fandango. You can also see the movie in a select number of open theaters.