Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Banner poster for "Inception"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Inception is 10 years old. I’ve seen innumerable sci-fi films since, but it’s hard to think of an original sci-fi property in the past decade that has so thoroughly remained in the popular consciousness. Even Christopher Nolan‘s 2013 big-budget space adventure Interstellar, which I found to be the more narratively ambitious of the two films, has largely faded from memory apart from people cruelly scoffing at Matthew McConaughey‘s well-earned and well-acted tears. As this is a 10YA review, I will be grappling with how well the film’s big ideas have aged, but it seems worth acknowledging that it never really left the building, and is perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced original sci-fi property since The Matrix. There are broadly two concepts at work here. I’ll spend most of my time on the first, “Extraction,” in which thieves hook themselves up to a subject’s brain using wired briefcase devices that look like a quiz-bowl scoring rig by way of The Fifth Element, in order to enter their dreams and steal their secrets. As cool as the dreamcases look, they might as well be laptop computers for all of their sterility. The Matrix or even eXistenZ make jacking into the brain feel a bit more…personal, invasive, and organic. But let’s step outside the method for a moment, because while brain-machine interfaces have made small, incremental advances in the past decade, entering another person’s dreams remains the stuff of spy-fi (Season 4 of Alias once did two episodes in a row with this trope). While discussing the rules of a multi-layered dream world, team leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes very close to giving a shout-out to the 10% brain myth, which struck me as the film giving me permission to handwave plausibility and accept that the only reason we’re talking about “exponentially accelerated brain function” at all is so that Nolan’s sandbox can include time and gravity manipulation. Which is fine! That stuff is awesome! I wasn’t a curmudgeon on this point in 2010, and I haven’t become one in the intervening years. And Nolan’s ambition when it came to making conceptual use of this sandbox was completely matched by his execution. Whether the visual spectacle of Ariadne (Ellen Page) relishing her first experience as a dream-god and folding a computer-generated Paris cityscape up and over itself, or constructing a massive gimbled set so that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can have a gravity-shifting hallway fight – these brilliantly conceived and executed scenes remain as iconic as Hans Zimmer’s trailer *BRMMMMMMMMP* (as well as myriad other tracks).

So I’m on board with the what. Now let’s talk about the how and why. In true Inception fashion, there are several different layers, some of which have become pretty dated in the ensuing decade. While dream heists are still the stuff of fantasy, the real world has come up with plenty of equally ridiculous methods of stealing information. Websites that track your every move, click, search, and shopping choice. There’s single sign-on, tracking cookies, zombie cookies, third-party domains, adware, transparent pixels, hardware benchmarking, canvas fingerprinting, facial recognition, eye tracking, voiceprint recognition, and probably some other stuff I don’t know about yet. Smartphone apps hoovering up every piece of information you’re willing to give them, including Bluetooth and WiFi connection information which it can use to pinpoint your location and identity, often with greater accuracy and speed than simply handing them GPS data, which many of them either ask for unnecessarily or harvest in the background or sneakily steal anyway. And that’s just the mostly legal stuff. There’s also plenty of non-trivial opt-in surveillance from children’s toys to baby monitors to doorbell cams that invite people to share their data with the cloud, often insecurely. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, header-spoofing, and SQL injecting. There’s Spectre, Meltdown, Foreshadow, and MouseJack, and other, less cool-sounding hardware vulnerabilities. But there’s also plenty of other cool sci-fi sounding shit here today, including reconstructing LCD monitor emissions from acoustic leakage (essentially a new technique for Van Eck Phreaking), reconstructing keystrokes from an audio recording, and my new favorite, Lamphone, wherein an attacker eavesdrops on a conversation using a laptop, an electro-optical sensor, and a telescope trained on a hanging lightbulb, whose emission variance can be used to reconstruct any audio that exists in its vicinity, including music with enough fidelity to be recognized by Shazam. Many of these are proofs of concept presented by security researchers, but their very nature as covert methods of data theft makes their usage difficult to detect. And while I think Nolan made a wise choice by making the secret-stealing tech in Inception seem so very fantastical, my career in information technology has left me asking an unexpected question about dream-stealing this time around: why would anyone bother? Kidnapping and dreamjacking a billionaire may well yield valuable secrets, but they’re not the sort that would be irretrievable through easier means.

Still from "Inception"

The other thing that has happened in the past decade is that secrets have become less valuable and protected than ever before. We live in a world in which entire media ecosystems exist to provide incontrovertible proof of the wrongdoing of the people in charge, and also to ensure that they never face any consequences for it. Remember the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers? The revelation of secret offshore tax havens used by rich people around the world to evade taxes and responsibility for the systems they’ve helped to create and exploit, which journalists from around the world worked tirelessly for over a year to extract and reveal every last scandal from? Has anything really changed as a result of this? Okay, sure, they brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland. But nearly all of the business practices revealed in this “damning” trove are still legal and broadly used. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns even released a (not very good) movie to try to explain this to us (in the same year that Burns adapted another several thousand pages of dry text to try to explain that the US tortured people for most of the 2000s), and still: nothing. Millennials have managed to maintain a baseline level of simmering rage (and unapologetic profanity) as we remember that we only hold 3% of the household wealth in the United States. But that’s no secret. And the specific malfeasance of the specific set of jamokes in charge is no secret either. Meanwhile, our leaders openly flaunt their dogshit-terrible InfoSec, and all of our secrets are stolen semi-annually from public and private entities alike.

This led to my most surprising reaction to Inception, a film that I still had an absolute hoot while watching. And that reaction was…taken on its own terms, why should this plot, whether about stealing secrets or manipulating billionaires into doing a slightly different arbitrary thing while maintaining all of their outsized and unaccountable political and economic power, really matter to me? If this were taking place in the real world, would it affect my life in any measurable way, or would one company’s “total energy dominance” just be one more tacitly government-sanctioned monopoly, slowly picking my pockets along with the rest of them? The film attempts to add personal stakes by furnishing Dom with an elaborate and tragic backstory with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who – despite being a capable femme fatale, comes pre-fridged before the film even begins, and only appears as projection of her widower’s subconscious who torments him as he feebly tries to return to their never-aging kids, who may or may not still exist. How much more literally can you render Nolan’s persistent screenwriting problems with female characters than that? On the side of the angels is dream-architect Ariadne, a solid character made doubly so by Page’s would-be naïve, but ultimately commanding performance. She functions not just as an audience surrogate that the team can explain things to, but as someone who immediately sees the appeal of this life, and starts jonesing for a fix of being a lucid dream god the minute she first (initially) walks away from it. And even as a newcomer, she’s clearly a more capable architect than either Dom or Mal ever were, from the look of their “world”, which has a real copypasta look to it, with the same three or four identical buildings repeated ad infinitum. When Ariadne returns, she immediately starts ignoring Dom’s rules, bearing into his mind and using his own techniques against him, justifying herself to him in the voice of a jilted lover. This has everything to do with me. You’ve asked me to share dreams with you. She has just met Dom, but she knows his subconscious inside and out, and recognizes the threat that dwells within it. Unfortunately, Ariadne’s story basically concludes before they enter the dream. While she tosses out a few wild new dream rules after the two-hour mark, it’s basically Dom and the Dream Team’s story at that point, with Projection Mal occasionally throwing a monkey wrench (or a train) into the works. But apart from some brief strong character work from Ariadne, and Dom’s personal stakes, the rest of the team are simply guns for hire, as well as a writers’ room for the film to make it absolutely clear that all of this was essentially a metaphor for filmmaking and storytelling. And honestly, all of that is fine, and I’m certain that if you’re reading a retrospective on Inception, you’ve probably read plenty on that subject already. An anti-monopolistic plot fueled by a billionaire with daddy issues is as fine a MacGuffin as any. Even Saito (Ken Watanabe) was acting selfishly and never pretended otherwise, and that he and Dom ended up being failed dream-gods, trapped in limbo for decades before then relinquishing their power for equally arbitrary and personal reasons never inspired much sympathy in me then or now. As an elaborate blockbuster spectacle, Inception fires on all cylinders, showcasing some of the most compelling and original filmmaking ever put to the big screen. But for all of the detail, there was never very much substance here. It was all just…a very good dream.

Still from "Inception"

Astute readers may notice I’ve wandered afield from the plot of this film, and barely touched upon the titular concept of “Inception”, a violation that amounts to brainwashing bordering on replacement of an unknowing individual. Planting inspiration into someone’s mind in order to change every aspect of who they are and what they’ll do is an act that the film’s dialogue casually treats like murder, or at the very least involuntary manslaughter. But Inception doesn’t dwell long on the morality of this procedure, and I don’t see any reason why I should do so either. I suppose I could add a sentence on the twenty boring and inconsequential minutes of Tom Hardy (or perhaps his stunt double) reenacting Die Hard 2 with some anonymous goons on snowmobiles, or spend a paragraph quibbling over totem mechanics. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on unaccountable police brutality and systemic racism in America, and I can write whatever I want. Even more astute readers may have noticed…that the dream is collapsing. Whether it’s the release date of the next Nolan film, the always-preposterous notion that anyone was sincere when they said “all lives matter”, or the idea that America is exceptional in any measurable way besides military spending and political and economic dysfunction bordering on cultish mass suicide, it’s hard to engage in this sort of diversion…okay so the totems they really do make no sense at all as a means of discerning reality from dreams because they rely on surety about the totem’s inimitable physical characteristics that would vanish the first time the user goes to sleep in a room with someone else for the second time, with the unavoidable knowledge that they might’ve rifled through your pockets while you were asleep the first time, except for Dom’s spinning top, which is completely different from all the other totems and relies on its ability to exhibit behavior that is physically impossible, which, ya know, good totem if you can get it…without keeping some of my mind occupied on the depravities of the real world. Revisiting a blockbuster from the past is a fine diversion. I wouldn’t do it unless I still enjoyed it. But it also reminds me of what we’re in the process of losing, which may include the very idea of a blockbuster. And I’m definitely starting to wonder how we’ll distract ourselves after the theaters are gone, and the only bold new worlds remaining are made for half-watching.

FilmWonk rating: Feels a bit of an afterthought at this point, but 7.5/10.

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