Inception — Christopher Nolan Film Season # 1
“All of my films are connected,” says Christopher Nolan, the director and screenwriter of Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk, our selections for this Fall’s Humanities House film season.
Nolan is one of very few directors in modern cinema capable of executing a smart blockbuster. His films are both mass entertainment and sophisticated philosophical and literary texts. He can wrangle a big budget and a complex idea. He builds worlds and jumps genres without — his exceptional re-imagining of Batman aside— needing an established franchise to orient the audience or calm the fears of the studio heads.
Nolan has said that he built Inception around two core ideas:
1) “The world around you may not be real” — this is an insidious thought, hard to shake. It is, as Nolan shows us with the character Mal, the beginnings of madness.
2) “As soon as you are talking about dreams, the potential for the human mind is infinite.” It is surely significant that Nolan begin dreaming of Inception at the same time that the Warshawski sibling’s were re-defining the modern blockbuster with 1999’s The Matrix. We also see in this movie, as in other of his works, his reverence for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.
Nolan asks universal questions in Inception: what is the relationship between dreams and waking life? What happens when we start questioning reality? What happens if you die in a dream? How do the conscious and subconscious minds interact? We all dream, he notes, although it is perhaps the last truly private experience the modern world affords us. What if that privacy were lost?
Inception invites multiple readings, right down to the last shot of the movie. Nolan may intend for us to see his story as a straight heist — a good fun adventure story. Or he may wish us to ask deeper questions about the nature of reality. Or he may have provided an open text, amenable to different readings, one that requires us as the audience to bring our own meaning to it.
Read literally, Inception is a heist movie. It has all the familiar elements: a sinister figure compelling our heroes to steal something dangerous, “one last job” after which they can retire. There are the standard tropes: assembling the team, sketching out a risky plan. But read more deeply, it becomes a movie about movies, about how film is a transporting technology and the cinema experience is a shared dream. The heist team assembled by Leonardo di Caprio’s Cobb is analogous to a filmmaking team. Planting an idea, making the thinker believe the idea is their own, could be seen as akin to pitching a movie to a studio head.
Inception was one of Nolan’s first scripts, developed in conjunction with his brother Jonathan, who wrote it up as a short-story. Studios were wary at first, concerned that the plot would be too confusing and require an astronomical budget. Nolan, too, doubted he had the skills to handle such a sprawling enterprise early in his career.
He kept returning to the the script over ten years, revising it after every new movie he made, adding in what he’d learned. His early movies — Following and Memento, can be read as early drafts of Inception, focused on the nature of memory, perception, taking risks with non-linear storytelling, daring the audience to keep up.
It was only after Nolan successfully re-imagined the Batman franchise, with the somber and intelligent Batman Begins and the huge success The Dark Knight that Nolan, and the studio, felt confident that he could tackle Inception.
He envisioned Inception first as a horror film, then as a work of science fiction, then a spy thriller, before finally setting on the heist genre, feeling that this offered his best chance of creating a story with a clear beginning, middle and end — important given the challenging nature of the premise. Elements of horror remain, particularly centered upon the ‘Mal’ character. Nolan’s interest in the James Bond franchise is evident too as he whisks the action around the world, encountering a variety of shady characters in diverse locales. Finally, there is a small but important hangover from the science fiction angle, the innocuous looking “shared dreaming” device, a piece of military tech that is the movie’s one element of fantasy. Everything else that is implausible, beyond this little magic box, happens in a dream world.
As we will see with Interstellar, where Nolan embraces his sci-fi interests, and Dunkirk, where he merges his interest in non-linearity with his most straightforward movie premise, Nolan’s films require concentration. He does not answer all the questions for the audience, does not talk down to us in the way that other directors given similar budgets — for example, Michael Bay and Zach Snyder - so often do. Nolan’s movies are open, requiring interpretation and inviting speculation. In the words of the British film critic Mark Kermode: “Inception is proof that people are not stupid, that cinema is not trash, and that it is possible for blockbusters and art to be the same thing.”