Christopher Nolan’s Inception was hard to avoid following its release in 2010. People lined up in their droves to see it, while critics continuously sang its praises. “An intoxicating adventure of the mind” and “a devilishly complicated, fiendishly enjoyable sci-fi voyage across a dreamscape that is thoroughly compelling” were just some examples of the critical gushing, among the many others who declared it a “masterpiece.”
It was the darling of arts shows, internet comments sections and late-night comedians, and went on to be the fourth-highest grossing film of 2010. It captured the world’s attention in a way only a few films do.
Here’s the thing, though: given the initial impact it had, what happened to Inception?
When was the last time you heard it brought up in conversation? When was the last time someone made reference to it? Can you quote a line from the film? Or name any two characters (without looking it up)? It’s strange that, given its initial impact, how quickly everyone forgot seeing Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his crew try to influence a business heir by entering his subconscious and planting an idea in a dream. Sound familiar?
Yes, a near-decade passing would interfere with the popularity of any film, but a lot of films made since Inception have a continued, lasting presence in the public consiciousness. Inception doesn’t seem to be as big a part of the cultural landscape as it once was, unlike Nolan’s prior film.
Big things were planned to follow up the film that never came to fruition, and while we continue to see attempts to cash in on hits like The Hunger Games, The Avengers and even Rush, Inception‘s imitators began with The Adjustment Bureau and ended with Trance. All this going to show that it’s effect didn’t really last.
There are any number of reasons for Inception‘s waning popularity: that the film was not from an established franchise like many films are these days, the changing nature and significance of the theatrical release, and how quickly the mass media and hype machine moves from one trend to the next. However, there might be another, more deep-seated reason than any of these.
As a thesis, Inception is first rate. It’s laudable for presenting complicated and unusual ideas in a way that made them accessible and understandable to mainstream audiences. It’s undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest, why it was so well received – that it was a Hollywood film that didn’t talk down to you. If anything, it practically talked up to you. As a piece of cinema, however, there is a lot that Inception is lacking.
Beyond the psychological aspect, the plot is standard for a heist movie, and while the film makes a big deal about its exploration of dream worlds, when we do go inside characters’ subconscious there isn’t anything particularly unique about them. We see standard cityscapes and industrial settings, and rather than using its time in dream worlds to personify thought, like the makers of Inside Out did, instead they are used as settings for action scenes. Aside from one set piece in a rotating hallway, nothing that happens in Inception‘s dream worlds can really be said to be innovative or creative. If any director other than Nolan were at the helm the dream setting could be open to accusations of being an excuse for the elaborate action.
On another front, dialogue is almost exclusively concerned with either further explaining the film’s central idea or advancing the plot, leaving no room for character development. Most of Inception’s characters are one-dimensional, serving only a single purpose in the story: Ellen Page is an outsider, Ken Watanabe is the boss, hey look it’s Michael Caine.
In fairness, there are characters with secondary traits – for one, in addition to being able to change his appearance, Tom Hardy can crack jokes. We do get something of a backstory with Cobb trying to reunite with his estranged children, but with no further detail given beyond that, it ends up just being another plot device. Moments like this one are particularly illustrative of Inception‘s character problems: it can be hard to know where their actions came from or how to feel about them afterward.
Speaking of Cobb, scenes with his wife (Marion Cotillard) show no warmth or chemistry between the two, and rather than using their scenes together to rectify that, the film instead has them fall back on its talking points. This scene, for example, is a huge plot point but is rid of any drama or emotion by Cotillard’s rehashing of the film’s ideas on the nature of reality (and DiCaprio’s screeching):
All this isn’t to say that Inception is a bad film, far from it, but it’s so focused on it’s clever meditation on dreams, it skimps on a lot of other important elements, or as New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein put it: “Nolan is too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.”
Four years later, Nolan made Interstellar, which proved conclusively he can make a high-concept film with complicated themes without getting too bogged down in it’s own internal accuracy. It was convincing not just in its science, but as a human story, which is what Inception is lacking. It’s just too clever for its own good.
Inception’s fading longevity, though, is a good thing. It speaks to our better nature as filmgoers that we were quick to stop holding it up. While studios keep thinking a film can become an unbridled success behind gimmicks, star power and hype, we know deep down that’s not the case. It’s believable, interesting, well-developed characters and stories that are genuinely engaging and thought-provoking that will make a film live on in our collective consciousness long after it’s no longer showing in cinemas.
That is the idea we need to plant in the minds of Hollywood – that is our own Inception.