Inception (2010) movie review
Released in July, 2010, Inception is a sci-fi heist film from writer/director Christopher Nolan. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a thief who uses complex technology to steal secrets from subjects while they are sleeping. After a job gone wrong however, he and his team are given one final offer to plant an idea in the mind of the owner of a large company. The film premiered to overwhelmingly positive praise, with strong critic reviews and even stronger audience ratings, which currently have the film sitting as #13 of all time on IMDb. Inception was also nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four: visual effects, cinematography, and both sound categories.
With Nolan’s latest mind-bender on the horizon, we went to see Inception in theaters during its tenth anniversary re-release, and though I am certain everything that could be said about this masterpiece has already been said, Inception is currently standing as my third favorite film of all time, right above The Dark Knight (2008). Plus my last review was probably too negative, so let’s give one that, seeing that Inception only has a 74/100 on Metascore, is probably too positive! And before we begin, know two things: This is probably going to be a long review, but I probably won’t be doing anything too funny in this one. Thought about a review within a review or whatnot, but hey I’ll try something different for Tenet (2020) next week!
Now there is plenty of film-savvy stuff you can pull out when dissecting films, and most of them boil down to writing and work their way up. That’s not wrong, but since Inception is such a complex film that diving in might cause self-harm, I am going to start with a bit more specificity. Inception is a perfect culmination of three core elements: the protagonist, the plot, and the picture. For me, the dozens and dozens of gears turning in flawless synchronizations at four different speeds all fall under those three distinct features that you need to make a film like this both engaging and entertaining. You can absolutely have one without the other, but they don’t typically become films with an actual chance at winning Best Picture…
Now let’s talk about Cobb. And just in case this wasn’t clear, SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn’t watched Inception. But if you haven’t, why not? Worst case it’s a great time! Now when we first meet Cobb- well he washes up on the shore of a beach at the end/beginning of the film and we get a strange take on the ‘how did we get here?’ opening. But after that, when we first meet Cobb on the job gone wrong, we learn that he is more than likely responsible for at least some of that failure. Throughout the film the fear that his partner Arthur expresses to him continues to personify itself in the form of Mal, Cobb’s dead wife.
Writing a strong protagonist for a screenplay, you have to start with a flaw, something they need to overcome. This can be anything as simple as focusing more on your job than your family and BAM! You’re Santa Clause. Or something more complex, like being fearful of power, then letting that power strengthen you to the point where you are tempted by said power before you have to toss the source of it in a volcano. Cobb cannot let go of the past, or more specifically his wife. She appears in his subconscious with her own surprisingly deep goals in an attempt to capitalize on Cobb’s fear. This is key, as it crafts Mal into the film’s antagonist, as she strives for Cobb to kill himself so the two of them can be together. This would obviously be the opposite of character growth. But there’s one problem: Cobb’s lie.
Whether you call this the character’s mask or not (there are just too many takes on character arcs here), the reason Cobb can’t simply move on is because he wants to be with Mal. Simple enough right? Well if you think about it, he knows Mal isn’t real, so why then does it become too hard for Cobb to accept his own reality? Because Cobb needs Mal to exist so he can tell himself that he is not responsible for her death. During the first dream state in the heist, we learn that Cobb and Mal were once stuck in Limbo, unconstructed dream space. To escape, they had to kill themselves. However after they woke up, Mal still believed she was in a dream and that she had to kill herself to escape the dream. She does, and she is nice enough to frame Cobb for it so that his only options are kill himself, go to jail, or run. Cobb runs.
Closer to the climax of the film, we learn the horrible truth that Cobb planted the idea in Mal’s head that their world was not real, which caused her to kill herself after they escaped Limbo. For Cobb, Mal’s projection keeps him from reality. However there is another key element to character building: (a few actually, but we’re sticking to one more) motivation. Cobb wants more than anything to return home to his two children, and Saito, the business man who hired them to perform Inception, offers this possibility to Cobb as payment for the job. But in proper film fashion, there’s a snag. Well, a few snags, but one major snag in particular: Mal is keeping them from finishing the job. Now Cobb must overcome his flaw and grow as a character if he wants his goal to come true. This is where plot kicks in.
The complex world of Inception is built around the unique concept of dreaming; and seeing such a unique idea used to structure a film like this requires plenty of explanation. They take the smart route and introduce Ariadne, their new dream architect, to the world so they can explain to her (and the audience) how things work. Honestly if there was a flaw in this film, it is that, occasionally, some of this exposition is a bit on the nose. Even some of the character development is spelled out for the audience, but that’s not necessarily bad when you are dealing with complex layers around one man’s story arc. That is to say that Inception has lots of exposition, and there are a couple times where is could be concealed more cleverly.
That said I think the worldbuilding in Inception is wonderful. I won’t go nearly as deep here as I did for setting up Cobb’s character, but I do just love the way these two elements work together! So let me fire off a few quick ways Nolan brilliantly incorporates plot elements through Leo’s character. For one, they need to bring on Ariadne since Cobb is afraid that building the dream-worlds himself means Mal will know them too. This is one of many examples of clever foreshadowing, as the raising stakes mean Cobb has to know a shortcut through the maze Ariadne created, which leads to Mal shooting the mark, Fischer. Another factor that plays into the building tension is time, which of course you need in order to make things happen in a certain time frame. However the way Nolan uses time as a constraint is just brilliant in this film.
When they are planning the job, we are told that they will have plenty of time. We as the audience know this will go wrong, but we don’t know how yet. Once we arrive in the first layer, Yusuf’s dream, we learn that Fischer had his mind trained to defend against extraction, or dream heists. In the first confrontation, Saito is shot. If Saito dies in the dream, he will go to Limbo. Cobb knows that if Saito dies in the dream, he will have to confront Mal in Limbo, and if Saito dies in real life, he will go to jail. We now have stakes and a time constraint quickly introduced for not only the plot, but the protagonist as well. But the ticking clock goes even further…
Learning about Fischer’s security makes it difficult for the team to complete the mission and escape in the time they need. Not the amount of time, but literally the moment they need to. Yusuf ends up starting the kick too early, so Arthur has to improvise. And when Fischer is shot, Cobb and Ariadne have to go to Limbo after him, leaving Eames and a dying Saito to finish the third level. This is a masterful way to not only keep things tense and exhilarating for the audience, but it keeps the building layers relevant throughout the heist! And while I am at it another significant contributor towards the consistent ‘edge of your seat’ experience that I just had ten years after seeing this film twice in theaters is Hans freaking Zimmer, who proves his innovation towards complex scores might just be second to none.
Something odd I find about this movie was how I had a hard time keeping track of it at first. Was it because there is just so much going on? I mean maybe its because we’ve had Nolan just get more and more complicated since, but I don’t think Inception is hard to follow, nor do I think it doesn’t make any sense. Sure the concept probably can’t happen, but it’s sci-fi, lightsabers don’t make sense either. Something else I found odd watching this in theaters again was how famous these actors have become since this film! Leonardo DiCaprio already had some incredible work, but four of his seven Oscar nominations came after Inception, including his win for lead actor and two more Golden Globe nods. I’m not saying he wasn’t an A-lister thanks to films like The Departed (2006), but this absolutely helped boost his career towards any genre he wanted. You know who wasn’t an A-lister? Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s IMDb ‘Known For’ section is Inception and three post-inception films, including a Golden Globe nomination. Ellen Page was already well known and had an Oscar nod, but you know who wasn’t very well known at all? Tom Hardy, who became a bonified A-lister just two years later thanks yet again to Mr. Nolan.
Okay thanks to Mr. Nolan and casting director John Papsidera… But my point was that the cast works hard and earns the acclaim they received for this film. Leo was so invested that he might be the reason his character arc is so involved in the film! Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play off each other to beautiful hilarity, and Cillian Murphy’s performance is so convincingly layered that his arc might just be as emotionally moving as Cobb’s were he given more focus. (Not that he needs to have more focus, as he’s the one who has to be forced to grow thanks to an idea put in his head.) Also massive shoutout to Marion Cotillard for stealing the show for me. I think Mal is one of the most interesting antagonists in recent cinema, and her performance makes this character as compelling as she is.
I want to give another shoutout to Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime Paprika for planting the idea of a film set in a dream into Christopher Nolan’s mind. Don’t know how true that statement is, but hey when you have a working formula, why change it? Seriously though, I could go on and on about Inception, but I have other things to do, and if you are this far into reading this, you’ve spent enough time listening to me fanboy over this piece of art. Suffice to say that everything about this film is top of its class. The visuals are incredible, the cinematography is really innovative, the practical effects and stunts lead to some of my favorite action sequences of all time- I mean, they spin a freaking hallway and have a fight in it! Tell me that’s not some movie magic right there! Man I have so much more I could talk about! The way Nolan incorporates the heist genre, the set-up and payoffs in the story structure, the open-ended finale and the focus on themes! Look I know not everyone adores this film, but I don’t think I’m too out-of-line to say that if no movie is perfect, Inception is pretty darn close. 10/10.
So yeah, Inception? Have you seen it? How many times? Do you love it as much as me, or are you more on Dan Harmon’s side or logic? And hey, what is your all-time favorite Christopher Nolan film? Be sure to leave a like or a comment below and let me know! And thanks for checking out this review! If you liked it, we have a bunch just like it on our new website, which we just launched last month! If you didn’t notice, I (Ryan) have been working on writing reviews while Rachel has been working on the site, so be sure to head over there and check it out in the comments! And hey if you like this review but you want to know what we think of that one movie in your head like this, let us know in the comments and we’ll review it!
-review by Ryan Prince