In the summer of 2010, London-born filmmaker Christopher Nolan changed the face of Hollywood tentpoles with his science-fiction heist thriller Inception. A decade later, the film seems to be even more of an outlier than it was at the time.
Since Steven Spielberg inadvertently gave birth to the summer blockbuster with his pivotal 1975 classic Jaws, the trend has evolved even further with various other landmarks such as Star Wars, Tron, Toy Story, Jurassic Park, Titanic and Avatar changing the face of mainstream cinema. Inception remains an equally important milestone for Hollywood but, unlike the aforementioned, didn’t go on to influence the industry in the way that many might have hoped.
Nolan originally conceived of the idea back in 2001, at which point he produced an 80-page treatment of his concept. But he decided first to develop his craft, opting not to make the film until he felt he had the necessary experience and resources to do it the way he wanted. It wasn’t until after the release of The Dark Knight in 2008 that the idea formally developed into a screenplay.
Inception was an anomaly. Hollywood has long been dominated by perfectly planned, lavishly marketed and heavily focus-grouped drivel, designed to appeal to the largest possible audience and generate a high income. But with Nolan’s film, Warner Bros. had supported a $160 million picture for which its director had been given carte blanche. The studio had given the film a budget equivalent to that of almost any franchise release, and that just doesn’t happen anymore.
With his freedom, Nolan told a mind-bending story about a team of thieves who break into people’s dreams and steal their thoughts. Playing with our very idea of reality as we know it, the film was a vivid and intense study both of the human psyche and the hardships of grief, that also managed to be a riveting, exciting and original action thriller.
Far from a classic good vs. evil story with a straightforward third act, Inception was a film with a brain; a unique, non-linear story that played out like a puzzle for the audience to work out, asking plenty of questions while providing very few answers, and delivering an ending that still encourages debate even now.
All too often, Hollywood films appear designed for audiences to be able to follow along while simultaneously scrolling their phone or talking to their friends, but this was a film that simply demanded their full attention. It didn’t even market itself like other blockbusters, most of which tend to be promoted up to a year in advance, often before filming has even finished; on the contrary, Nolan refused to reveal any details until the very last minute, encouraging people to hand over their money and try something different. Most surprisingly of all, Warner Bros. let him.
As anyone who follows cinema will know, the hottest trend in 2010 was 3D. Thanks solely to the record-breaking success of James Cameron’s Avatar, the majority of Hollywood films soon began production with this format, and those that had already been shot were immediately converted in the editing room. Even Warner Bros. had experimented with this, with infamous fantasy remake Clash of the Titans released to universal criticism, but when Nolan told them that his film was already immersive enough and didn’t need to be converted, they accepted it. As it stands, Inception has only ever been released in 2D.
Nolan has also consistently rejected Hollywood’s modern over-reliance on CGI, opting to use practical stunts wherever possible and only turn to special effects when absolutely necessary. In his view, this could only make the dreams feel more real; a vital aspect of a film designed to make its audience question what is or isn’t really happening.
All of this is a quick way of demonstrating one important fact: Inception was a big risk for Warner Bros.; a completely original story, low on special effects, high on intelligence and produced with very little market testing.
In spite of all this, Inception was a massive success. Grossing almost $830 million at the global box office, the film was also a critical darling, nominated for eight Academy Awards and taking home half of them. It had succeeded in a market dominated by branded entertainment and, almost a decade later, is revered as one of the greatest blockbusters of all time, making a bigger cultural impression on audiences than a Clash of the Titans remake could ever hope for. Not many movies have the kind of impact on pop culture that Inception did; it’s one of the very best films to come from one of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers.
Better yet, it still holds up beautifully; the perfect example of an intelligent narrative that makes sense on an initial watch, but still benefits from repeat viewings simply for the many things you’ll pick up on that you missed the first time. And thanks to Nolan’s trust in practical effects, its visual appeal hasn’t aged a day (the hallway sequence remains one of the strongest set-pieces of this century).
Whether Inception is the very ‘best’ blockbuster of the decade is up for discussion, but it is unquestionably the most unique, both for its universal success and for the fact that it ever got made to begin with.
It’s also one of the few films of its kind not to be spoiled by corporate greed. Even the mighty Jaws failed to avoid such treatment; three poor sequels have since been churned out, including a dreadful 3D release. Inception simply cannot be franchised, and it hasn’t produced a single sequel, spin-off, reboot or remake. It exists in its own little box.
Much like Jaws, Inception was a film that showcased the talents of the filmmaker behind it, thereby making him a household name and, by default, his own brand. Its success put Nolan in the privileged position of being able to make just about anything he liked in the future, no matter the risk (he has since produced the far more complex Interstellar, which still became a commercial success despite mostly mixed reviews, and will be releasing Tenet this year). It was the film that elevated his status to that of Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino; a director who can sell just about anything, simply because he made it. It was an urgent, much-needed reminded that filmmakers make films, not studios.
Immediately following its success, the hope had been that it would encourage studios to have a little more faith in directors; to take the chances that they’d been avoiding for so long. But this never happened.
The film industry has changed more in the past ten years than in perhaps any other decade in the history of cinema. Sadly, pivotal though Inception may have been, its influence doesn’t come close to that of the incredible success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the terrifying ongoing domination of Disney or the growing significance of the Chinese market when it comes to blockbuster entertainment. When one adds streaming to the equation, and the growing tendency for more though-provoking cinema to move to the small screen, the impact of Inception has simply been outweighed. It never made a difference.
The sad reality is that films based on recognisable brands are still the safest bets for movie studios. It probably wouldn’t have even been greenlit by Warner Bros. had Nolan not already made the studio a billion dollars with The Dark Knight.
But it’s the films that balance brains with entertainment that mainstream cinema needs more of. They shouldn’t be as rare as they are.
Inception isn’t the smartest movie ever made, nor is anyone claiming it to be, but it’s significantly more intelligent than almost any other blockbuster that Hollywood studios are willing to produce, and that matters.
It’s incredibly uncommon for an action tentpole to treat its audience like they have more than one brain cell; to trust them to keep up with the plot and piece the puzzle together themselves. While major studios appear to have nothing but contempt for the audience, films like Inception treat them with a little more respect. Nonetheless, you’d find it hard to argue that there had been anything like it since.
As it stands, nothing has come close to matching the experience of watching Inception. It was a one-of-a-kind cinematic moment, and one that matters more now than ever. Cinephiles had hoped it would encourage studios to take chances and move away from the familiar. Instead, the decade that followed brought Hollywood further from originality than ever before, and Inception now seems to be lightning in a bottle; the last of its kind for a long while yet.
At present, the future of cinema looks noticeably bleak, but there may yet be another bright light. Nolan’s new film, spy thriller Tenet, is due to be released this summer (maybe), and it seems to ring all the same bells that Inception did at the turn of the previous decade. Could it be just what the industry needs? Or will it prove, once again, that such films are still few and far between? No pressure.
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