Like a mischievous Arthurian horn-blower was hiding behind the screen, the infamous Braahhhmm from Inception’s marketing campaign flooded every trailer reel in the years that followed the film’s release. Hans Zimmer is credited for (and accepts credit for) the innovation, though it’s described as a “touchy subject” who initially conceived of the powerful sound effect in a 2015 Hollywood Reporter piece where two less-known composers are quoted as believing they brought the sound to the table when Inception’s trailers were being scored (there were also Brahhmmms aplenty in the District 9 trailer a year earlier).
The Brahhmm came to signify a pomposity of intent in Hollywood marketing, a redefined vision of ‘epic-ness’ based around high stakes, expensive visuals and a slow release of suspense as a film got closer to release. The Brahhmm replaced the “In a word…” voiceover as the ultimate cliche of blockbuster trailers, as blockbusters themselves — in the weird in between phase between Dark Knight dominance and Marvel dominance — adopted puzzle box aesthetic to the reaplce the very on-the-nose fantasy opera of the mid-2000s.
Oddly enough, some of the films that appear most heavily influenced by Inception’s success arrived so soon after that they were surely midway completed before the film came out, but such was the phenomenon of The Dark Knight that applying Nolan’s vibe to every new action movie was a no-brainer… even if you’re name wasn’t Christopher Nolan. “It’s Bourne meets Inception!” yelled the Total Film Magazine cover promoting The Adjustment Bureau, a 2011 Matt Damon-starring Philip K Dick adaptation that absolutely nobody, not one person, can name the director of. The film is a lot lighter on its feet than Inception, its visual conceit of magical portal doors lending it a silliness Nolan managed to avoid, but the red lettering and towering cityscapes of its poster campaign inform us exactly what audience it was hoping to drag in. Around that same time, Duncan Jones’s Source Code saw Jake Gyllenhaal enter a time loop on a fast-moving train, but follows a more standard Tony Scott-style action structure than a Nolan film typically would. Later in 2011, Andrew Niccol’s In Time took a genuinely fantastic premise (what if time was literally money and functioned like a high-stakes currency programmed into every human body) and did very little with it. A pretty watchable Justin Timberlake vehicle that tries to co-function as a Bonnie & Clyde homage for no real reason, it’s generally remembered as a “what could have been” project.
The ad campaigns for films like Battleship and Prometheus, heading deeper into the decade, continued to emphasise the grandness of specific visual effects shots with a tonal emphasis clearly resembling that of Inception. Total Recall and Looper made even less of an effort to disguise this, the former applying the Nolan aesthetic to a Schwarzenegger remake, the latter bringing Joseph Gordon-Levitt into another compelling sci-fi concept and plastering a generic teal/black cityscape on the poster. An array of genre blockbusters that followed would demonstrate elements of Inception’s distinct branding: from Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z to Arrival and The Dark Tower. It has become a familiar language of cinematic sales and things have almost become to swing back around again, with irony and metatextual winking becoming dominant in how blockbusters are marketed.
The single worst criminal in the “let’s just do Inception contest” is, of course, something of a Nolan sub-project: the awful Wally Pfister movie Transcendence which tries to apply the Inception logic to Artificial Intelligence by sticking Johnny Depp inside a computer. It’s truly appalling, and Nolan is surely embarrassed to be credited as producer. Luckily, Interstellar arrived not long after so it was forgotten pretty fast.
In a world of wannabe Deadpools and Thor Ragnaroks, I’d be happy to see another surge of Inception knock-offs. Hopefully Nolan’s new film Tenet will inspire some, assuming there isn’t a surge of another kind… our old friend Coronavirus!